Innovative applications pave way for golden age of drones

Anwar Haque and his team at WING Lab are using drones and the latest in Bell 5G
Anwar Haque and his team at WING Lab are using drones and the latest in Bell 5G wireless technology to advance our smart digital society. Photo by Steve Anderson

A team of Western researchers are leveraging the capabilities of autonomous aerial vehicles, most commonly drones, to deliver innovative, safe and secure methods of data collection for an extensive list of commercial and non-commercial operations.

As drone technology rapidly develops and advances, the global level of interest and viability has soared exponentially. Beyond traditional military, surveillance and hobbyist applications, drones have become an industry staple for business, government and society. And the demand continues to rise.

"It’s no longer a question of whether drones are the future," said Anwar Haque , Faculty of Science industry-expert-in-residence and computer sciences professor, who leads a team at Western Information and Networking Group (WING) research lab investigating drone applications. "Drones are the present and they are here to stay as part of our smart digital society."

Specifically, the scientists at WING Lab are currently using drones and the latest in Bell 5G wireless technology to tackle a number of real-world problems, including hazardous space exploration, remote infrastructure inspection, cargo shipping and long-distance delivery, and home security.

Self-directed exploration

Utilizing commercially available micro-drones, Haque and MSc student Kirk Ploeg have developed a prototype with the ability to explore environments that are otherwise inaccessible to humans. These environments can be unreachable by humans (caves, pipes), potentially hazardous (unstable mine, toxic gases present), or without reliable wireless connectivity (underground, thick rock or concrete walls).

Due to an influx of information and rolling updates, navigation decisions must be computed onboard drones without aid from a base station. Preprogrammed, the small-bodied drones use sensors and on-board artificial intelligence to understand and interpret surroundings, map locations, and operate in small, inaccessible spaces.

"Our prototype has the capability to navigate through a previously unknown environment collision-free and return home to the user. This provides users the foundation for safe means of data collection," said Haque.

These micro-drones can also be used for infrastructure inspection, especially when it is difficult or near impossible to safely inspect probable damage manually. For this application, Haque and MSc student Marlin Manka have designed a drone that tracks along faces of an infrastructure’s exterior walls while a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor is used for obstacle avoidance and image analysis for detecting any damage.

"Drone reliability is actually superior in terms of the accuracy of the data gathered during automated inspection," said Haque. "There are also reduced costs when you consider staffing hours compared to manual inspection."

Long-distance delivery

While large online retailers are not quite ready for prime-time drone delivery, using autonomous aerial vehicles for long-range delivery is the answer for emergency medical needs and ’last mile’ shipping to remote locations.

However, Haque said this is not currently possible using a single drone - at least within a reasonable amount of time with stopovers due to battery and charging constraints.

Haque and MSc student Muhammad Zakar have advanced a network of drones and a recharging/uploading system to overcome these limitations, allowing for efficient handoffs of cargo and data between them.

The high concept features a three-part drone delivery system. Prior to pick up, the network of drones communicates to coordinate the specific sequence and timing of the delivery and to confirm their availability. This method ensures drones are available at the appropriate time for their segment of the delivery.

Smart home security

In Canada, approximately 97 per cent of security alarms are falsely creating a significant impact on police resources and many cities are now faced with the challenge of how to respond.

Haque and Manka have developed a drone tracking system to improve home security. Using a simulated space, the mini-drone scans the interior of the house when unoccupied by targeting key areas of interest. The autonomous aerial vehicles are also pre-programmed with relevant information and potential disturbances, like household pets and other moveable objects, like robotic vacuum cleaners.

"While the drone-based anytime-anywhere service industry is growing exponentially and getting hugely popular in both residential and business markets; the safety, security, and privacy aspects of these drone services should not be overlooked and must be carefully investigated for a sustainable drone future," said Haque.