UTA Professor Gets $800K To Develop Drone Computing Platform for First Responders

Electrical Engineering Professor Yan Wan has received $800,000 in National Science Foundation funding to develop an open-networked airborne computing platform for drones used by first responders. Networking a system of "robots in the air" can help find disaster victims, guide rescuers, and more. Her work could also be used for drone delivery and other commercial applications, UTA says.

When first responders deploy in a crisis, drones are increasingly part of their toolkit—offering an eagle’s-eye-view of the scene, searching for victims, tracking rescuers on the ground, and more. But as more drones take to the skies, a platform is needed to help them communicate independently, so first responders can better coordinate their efforts.

That’s exactly the goal of an open-networked airborne computing platform being constructed by Yan Wan, a UT Arlington distinguished university professor in electrical engineering.

UTA said it is also developing a “universal plug-in hardware unit” that can fit into any unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to allow for Wan’s computing platform to be used.

“UAVs have become more and more integrated in our everyday lives,” Wan said in a statement. “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.”

Funded by National Science Foundation

Wan’s research is being funded by an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. That’s just part of a $1.8 million NSF grant awarded to UTA, the University of North Texas, San Diego State University, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez for research on the solution.

So what is networked airborne computing? UTA describes it as “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.”

Video is a key ingredient of the solution.

“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.”

Helping ‘robots in the air’ talk to each other in disaster situations

Wan said her team has been working on this type of research for the last decade. In 2017, she received an NSF grant of nearly $1 million to start a networked airborne computing platform for UAVs.

Work on the project will be conducted at the main UT Arlington campus and at the UT Arlington Research Institute, the university said.

“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.”

Commercial applications for drone delivery and more

Wan and her team are focusing on emergency use of UAVs during natural or manmade disasters, but their research could have commercial applications, too, UTA noted.

“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 is addressing the marketplace and a current key solution needed for UAVs.

“Ensuring that transportation through the immediate airspace for emergency entities using UAVs is safe is essential to helping people,” Huffaker said in a statement. “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. She leads the university’s Dynamical Networks and Control Lab, which develops solutions for the modeling, evaluation, and control tasks in large-scale, dynamic networks and cyber-physical systems. Her work has applications to air traffic management, airborne networking, systems biology and complex information systems.

Wan received an NSF CAREER award in 2015 and has received more than $10 million in research funding to date.

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