UC Develops New Breed of Drones

With metallic bodies and whirring propellers, drones being developed at the University of Cincinnati look like they're straight out of a science fiction movie.

But the devices are in no way fictional. Research being conducted with drones at the university is introducing new ways of gathering information, with the goals of preventing disasters and saving lives.

Kelly Cohen, UC associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, is working with a team of Ph.D. and master’s students in making advancements in drone technology. Researchers are exploring different scenarios with drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to help them make decisions in real time, Cohen says—decisions that could make a difference in critical situations.

Cohen offered the example of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 after colliding with an iceberg. Imagine the same scenario, but with access to drones. Cameras built into UAVs could have identified the size and location of the iceberg, Cohn said, potentially preventing the disaster.

Drones take off

Five UAVs have been built at the university to date. The drones can locate missing persons, discover debris and scan wildfires. All of these tasks can be accomplished on autopilot, requiring researchers to step in only as supervisors.

UAVs can be controlled with computers, mobile phones and other devices, says Bryan Brown, a student of Cohen’s. “Drones are like the dawn of flight in a way,” Cohen says. “We no longer have to think of flying a person. [Drone research] is oozing with creativity and creative ideas.”

Researchers added to their family of drones on April 18, soaring their newly created Octorotor above campus on its successful maiden voyage.

Featuring eight arms and propellers, the battery-powered Octorotor can be configured into several positions—Cohen likened it to that of a Lego figure. This ability will enable the drone to carry a variety of objects. The device took approximately two months to build, UC graduate student Wei Wei says.

The drone can carry a maximum of 10 pounds. Researchers hope to increase its capability to 200 pounds, Cohen says, allowing drones to carry large items to and from ships.

Cohen noted the impact drones would have on situations similar to that of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Wide-scale searches for debris could be conducted on autopilot.

As drones continue to be developed, fears about the technology become increasingly prevalent—fears that are important to address, Cohen says. “You’ve got to be accountable for every minute. You can use drones for saving lives. You can use them for helping society. Or you can abuse them.”

Cohen says the ethical use of the technology is the responsibility of each user, and tracking technology built into the drones will help reveal any immoral agendas. “If you abuse it, we can track you down,” he says. “We know geographically where the UAV is. We know where it is and for how long it is.”

Research continues

A new opportunity offered through the university will allow Cohen and his students to continue pursuing technological advancements.

Funds from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovations program will support a co-op assignment with the West Virginia Division of Forestry. The co-op program is scheduled to begin in the fall.

Graduate students have worked with the forestry in the past as part of the Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft, a project from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “Last year, in November, they actually did a test burn in the forest,” Wei says. “We flew the drone over and did some live video just as a demo to show how this can work for them.”

The built-in camera on a drone can filter through smoke, providing users with a clear image of what it records.

The co-op is an additional opportunity for students to make advancements in drone research and unlock new possibilities. “That transition would be a unique experience for students,” Cohen says. “They get money and they also use technology to help society.”
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