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Drones for good: A UAV swarm that can ‘sniff’ toxic gasses in disaster zones




A research team at Rice University in Houston, Texas, are developing a swarm of drones that will use AI to detect toxic gasses.

Lucky for you, the drones won’t be swinging by your place following your meal of pork and beans. They will reserve their abilities for gasses that pose a risk to the public and will identify a perimeter behind which the public can safely remain.

The reports that the research team were recently bolstered by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant and plan to use their drone swarm to, for example, detect gas leaks or other dangerous sources of pollution, particularly following a natural disaster.

This type of technology would be particularly useful following hurricane season when many gas pipes are ruptured. A problem with poisonous fumes or substances is that you often can’t see them or even smell them until it’s too late. In 2017, when Texas was hit by Hurricane Harvey, some first responders were venturing out to warn people in the area about steering clear of a nearby gas leak. The rescuers  themselves were then unfortunately stricken when they inadvertently walked into the proximity of the gas leak from a chemical plant near Houston.

If the drone swarm were deployed in such a scenario, they could precisely identify exactly how large the affected zone which humans should avoid is. Even if chemical leaks are initially contained, factors such as wind or river currents can quickly move the toxins far and wide, making it essential for rescue personnel to identify where the risk zones are.

Natural disasters such as last year’s Hurricane Harvey can cause tremendous damage and rupture gas pipes

How does this drone swarm work?

Each of the four drones that make up the swarm would be fitted with sensor that weighs 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg) or less. The sensors are essentially lasers capable of detecting the presence and concentration of gasses. The team from Rice University are using four drones that communicate with each other autonomously, without human control and use obstacle avoidance software to navigate their way around fallen trees, powerlines etc. The drones use their laser sensors to identify the spectral signature of a particular gas, surrounding the area where the concentration of gas is the strongest and then identify and map the boundaries of where the gas has reached.

For the moment testing on this project will continue but the team have also created a mobile app that could use their drone sensors to give real-time air quality warnings to residents’ phones. This is one of many examples of drones working for the public good. For other related stories, check out how drones are helping combat plastic pollution in the oceans or how mobile data distributing drones are assisting hurricane ravaged areas.

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