The sky's the limit for UC drone researchers

Feb 5, 2014

 The Cincinnati Fire Department is looking into the possibility of using drones in the future. The city is partnering with the University of Cincinnati to test, what promises to be, a turn-key system.

The whirr and the sight of this small quadroter freezes University of Cincinnati students in their tracks as they stare at it in subzero temperatures.

Graduate Student Bryan Brown says, “Oh yes, every time we do this we have about 10 people stop and they’ll come up and take videos, especially when it’s warmer.”

We’ve heard a lot about unmanned aerial vehicles, also called unmanned aerial systems or drones. In December the Federal Aviation Administration picked six sites to study them and until at least 2015 has rigid restrictions in place to fly them.  Right now they can’t go any higher than 400 feet, can’t fly over populated areas or near airports and can’t be used to make money. Police and fire are set to be among the first users.

Cincinnati District Fire Chief Tom LaKamp is thinking about the possibilities.“When you really start sitting down and thinking about it there’s a whole lot of uses for this tool-even with hazardous materials. We do plume modeling based on the chemicals involved. We could actively outfit this drone and fly it into the plume and see if our plane model actively mirrors what we’re reading.”

LaKamp also sees uses for search and rescue, Riverfest crowd control and getting a better view of a large fire.

University of Cincinnati researchers are already working with the West Virginia Division of Forestry to test an intelligent system that makes the drone do the things firefighters want, according to aerospace engineering professor Kelly Cohen.

“We can predict how the fire will grow in time. That allows the incident commander to allocate his people in such a way to make sure that no matter what happens they’ll be away from harm.”Cohen points to last summer’s death of 19 firefighters in Arizona and says with UC’s software aboard a drone, they may have been preventable.

The software is said to:

  • remove smoke from drone video
  • predict how the fire will progress

Graduate student Wei Wei is building it. He says the program is designed to be turn-key. Firefighters could just open up a laptop and get the UAV in the air and then with the camera on boar, see the whole picture, and know what to do next.

In November UC signed a contract with NASA . Professor Cohen says it involves integration of UAVs into the national airspace. Cohen has sent some students to NASA Ames in California to work on these intelligent algorithms.  A test of some of the mathematical models is scheduled with the Cincinnati Fire Department this spring.