Discovery Files

Drones for disaster relief

Texas researchers demonstrate unmanned aerial vehicles capable of providing wireless communications to storm-ravaged areas

The following is part 4 of the Smart America series showcasing National Science Foundation (NSF) researchers designing improved cyber-physical systems. In parts 1, 2 and 3, learn about cyber-dogs, tele-robotics and smart shape technology research.

At the Smart America Expo in June, Yan Wan from the University of North Texas exhibited unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) she developed that are capable of providing wireless communications to storm-ravaged areas where telephone access is out.

Typical wireless communications have a range limit of only a hundred meters, or about the length of a football field. However, using technology Wan and her colleagues developed, she was able to extend the Wi-Fi reach of drones to 5 kilometers, or a little more than 3 miles. The secret is designing directional antennas that can rotate and adjust automatically to assure a strong connection.

"This technology would be very useful in disaster scenarios when the cell towers are down and there's no communication infrastructure," Wan said. "However, in order to enable the information dissemination between the rescue teams and control centers, we need to have a structure available to make this happen. And this is what we're trying to provide."

In a grant from NSF, Wan is applying similar technology to next-generation aviation systems. One day, Wan's research will enable drone-to-drone and flight-to-flight communications, improving air traffic safety, coordination and efficiency.

The Smart America Expo brought together leaders from academia, industry and government to demonstrate the ways that smarter cyber-physical systems (CPS)--sometimes called the "Internet of Things"--can lead to improvements in health care, transportation, energy and emergency response, and other critical areas.