For my PhD, I’m studying how global problems such as wildfires and aid delivery in remote areas can benefit from innovative technologies such as UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarms.
Every year, vast areas of forests are destroyed due to wildfires. Wildfires occur more frequently as climate change induces extreme weather conditions. As a result, wildfires are often larger and more intense. Over the past 5 years, countries around the globe witnessed unprecedented effects of wildfires. Greece has seen the deadliest wildfire incident in its modern history, Australia witnessed 18,636,079 hectares being burnt and British Columbia faced wildfire incidents that burnt 1,351,314 hectares.
Rather than jump straight in to the design of swarm algorithms for UAVs in these scenarios, I spent a year speaking with firefighters around the world to ask about their current operations and how UAVs could help. This technique is called mutual shaping where end users cooperate with developers to co-create a system. It’s been interesting to see the challenges they face, their openness to drones and their ideas on the operation of a swarm. Firefighters face numerous challenges in their operations, their work is dangerous and they need to ensure the safety of citizens and themselves. Unfortunately, they often don’t have enough information about the environment they are deploying in. The good news is that UAVs are already used by firefighters to retrieve information during their operations, usually during very short human-piloted flights with small off-the-shelf drones. Having larger drones, with longer autonomy and higher payload, could provide high-value information to firefighters or actively identify and extinguish newly developed fire fronts.
I think one of the reasons we don’t have these swarms in these applications is that 1) we didn’t have the hardware capabilities (N robots with high-payload at a reasonable cost) , 2) we don’t have the algorithms that allow for effective swarm deployments at the scale of a country (necessary to monitor for forest fires), and 3) we can’t easily change our swarm strategies on the go based on what is happening in reality. That’s where digital twins come in. A digital twin is the real-time virtual representation of the world we can use to iterate solutions. The twin can be simplistic in 2D or a more realistic 3D representation, with data from the real-world continuously updating the model.
To develop this framework for digital twins we’re starting a new project with Windracers ltd, Distributed Avionics ltd, and the University of Bristol co-funded by Innovate UK. Windracers ltd. has developed a novel UAV: the ULTRA platform, that can transport 100kg of payload over a 1000km range. Distributed Avionics specialises in high-reliability flight control solutions, and Hauert Lab, which engineers swarm systems across scales – from huge number of tiny nanoparticles for cancer treatment to robots for logistics.
In the future, we aim to use the same concepts to enable aid delivery using UAV swarms. The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises states that more than 135 million people across 53 countries require urgent food, nutrition, and livelihoods assistance. Aerial delivery of such aid could help access remote communities and avoid in-person transmission of highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
By the end of this project, we are hoping to demonstrate the deployment of 5 real UAVs that will be able to interact with a simple digital twin. We also want to test live deployment of the control swarm system on the UAVs.
Are you a firefighter, someone involved in aid delivery, do you have other ideas for us. We’d love to hear from you.