Groundbreaking drone technology being developed at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) is making use of an increasingly interconnected world to potentially help save the lives of disaster victims. A project led by UAEU’s College of Information Technology has created a working prototype of a drone intended to support search-and-rescue missions in the wake of calamitous events such as earthquakes, and locate survivors and those in need of aid through zeroing in on their mobile phone signal.
Detection by drone can allow help to reach people faster than other emergency-response measures, with their potential value being thrown into sharp focus by recent disasters in countries such as Nepal and Italy. As Dr Abderrahmane Lakas, Associate Professor at the college’s Department of Computer and Network Engineering, explains, the basis for the technology is the prevalence of mobile devices in the modern world.
“So many people carry mobile phones now, which means that if you want to locate someone, their phone can act as a tracker,” he said.
“Our phones periodically send out beacons to try to locate an available network and connect to it through the wireless antennae they are equipped with. Our idea was that we could exploit this through triangulation for disaster recovery, with a drone essentially doing the work of GPS satellites and finding people’s coordinates by moving from one place to another, locating a signal and estimating the distance to the victim.”
“The drone will hover around, listening for these beacons and trying to detect the signal. When it does so, the triangulation technique can get an accurate fix on the location of the phone – and if you find the phone, the idea is that you will also find the victims of the disaster.”
The working prototype of the drone was showcased in February at IDEX 2017, an international conference dedicated to defense technology, and at the UAE Drones For Good competition. “It simply needs a powerful antenna and a companion device to do the scanning. Different antennae’s will be needed for different technologies – 3G, 4G, WiFi, Bluetooth,” said Dr Lakas.
“The more powerful the antenna, the better the chances are of a signal being detected, and the more data you can collect to triangulate and locate people. The technology is like a scanning device, and it also has the benefit of being relatively inexpensive.”
The pivotal benefit of the drone technology, however, is speed, due to the period immediately after a natural disaster presenting the best chance of casualties surviving – the so-called ‘golden hour’. “The first hour of the rescue operation is critical, so it is necessary to expedite search-and-rescue efforts during that time and find more people,” said Dr Lakas.
“The technology we have developed is intended to complement first-response teams who have their own long-established procedures and measures. We believe drones have a valuable part to play in supporting them.”
The technology also has wider potential use, acting as an airborne monitoring mechanism which can help to ensure safety and public order. “Not only can it detect victims following disasters, it can also be used for crowd management, such as around sports stadiums and other big events,” Dr Lakas explained.
“This is important when there is a need to assess population density and direction – where people are coming from and going. The drone can hover over them and feed back information which can be of use in, for example, anticipating and addressing congestion.”
As the UAEU team continue to develop the project, Dr Lakas believes it can add a new, immediate, and vital dimension to disaster recovery. “There are naturally constraints – phones may be damaged or turned off, and a signal may be weak,” he said.
“But every tool helps when we are talking about rescuing people, and we want to ensure the teams who conduct search-and-rescue operations have every possible tool at their disposal.”