Unmanned aerial vehicle tech aims to help first responders

Airborne computing platform would improve drone communication

Monday, Aug 21, 2023 • Herb Booth : Contact

A University of Texas at Arlington researcher is constructing an open-networked airborne computing platform to enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help first responders better coordinate their efforts during emergency or disaster responses.

Yan Wan
Yan Wan

UT Arlington also is developing a universal plug-in hardware unit that can fit into any UAV to allow for this computing platform to be used.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding the research through a $1.8 million grant to UTA, University of North Texas, San Diego State University and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. Yan Wan, a UT Arlington Distinguished University Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department, received more than $800,000 of that total.

“UAVs have become more and more integrated in our everyday lives,” Wan said. “They can do a lot of intelligent tasks. Now we must make them communicate with each other while they’re in the air and independent of a central computer management control.”

Networked airborne computing is a new computing concept that relies on an airborne network formed by aerial vehicles with direct flight-to-flight communication links to achieve real-time computing in the air.

“Our project should be able to transmit real-time videos to see what is happening during or immediately after a natural or manmade disaster,” Wan said. “Emergency crews can then be dispatched directly to where help is needed. They won’t have to go to a site, then search, then help people in need.”

Wan said her team has been working on this type of research for the last decade. She received a 2017 NSF grant of nearly $1 million to start a networked airborne computing platform for UAVs. Work on the project will be at the main UT Arlington campus and the UT Arlington Research Institute.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is having a system of robots in the air. They have to talk to each other to do that,” Wan said. “We’ve done field work with the Denton and Austin fire departments and have been quite successful in those trial operations.”

While Wan said the team is focusing on emergency use of UAVs during natural or manmade disasters, the research also has commercial applications.

“With so many companies in the business of delivering goods now, it could have an application there as well,” Wan said. “Think about coordinating many UAVs that are performing those deliveries. A universal control system that can plug into any UAV would go a long way toward coordination and ease of those deliveries.”

Diana Huffaker, UTA associate vice president for research, said the research reflects the marketplace and what is needed now with UAVs.

“Ensuring that transportation through the immediate airspace for emergency entities using UAVs is safe is essential to helping people,” Huffaker said. “Giving those emergency personnel the needed information for what they will face keeps them and the people they’re helping safe, and it streamlines emergency plans for rescue.”

Wan joined UT Arlington in 2016 and leads the Dynamical Networks and Control Lab, which develops solutions for the modeling, evaluation and control tasks in large-scale, dynamic networks and cyber-physical systems, with applications to air traffic management, airborne networking, systems biology and complex information systems. She received an NSF CAREER award in 2015 and has received more than $10 million in research funding.