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Rice University researchers, in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine and technology nonprofit Technology For All (TFA), are developing a fleet of autonomous aerial drones that coordinate with each other to detect, track, and model the environment to let neighborhoods know of airborne perils that can be especially hazardous following extreme weather events.
Postdoctoral researcher Riccardo Petrolo adjusts a gas-sensing drone in a Rice University laboratory. Rice researchers, with National Science Foundation backing, are developing a system that will autonomously sense atmospheric conditions and warn neighborhoods when pollutants are present. Courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University.
The ASTRO (Autonomous, Sensing, and Tetherless Networked Drones) project, headed by Rice engineer Edward Knightly and his collaborators, is being enabled by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to gather real-time, high-resolution data about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the atmosphere by way of leaks, explosions, or other accidents. Early prototypes of the networked drones were demonstrated by Rice students who developed software protocols as their capstone design project. The new grant will allow the project team to not only continue to develop next-generation wireless and sensing technologies, but to eventually deploy them in vulnerable locations.
When properly rigged, multiple ASTRO drones will assemble a 3D record of aerial pollution using advanced modeling techniques developed by Rice environmental engineering professor Rob Griffin. The researchers hope to deploy ASTRO for testing in a neighborhood near the Houston Ship Channel, home to industrial processing plants and chemical refineries. Cliff Dacso, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Baylor, will guide the team’s analysis to focus on VOC signatures that are most detrimental to human health.
That community, on Houston’s east side, is already being served by Rice engineers who worked with TFA to deploy a sophisticated Wi-Fi network in 2011. Together with Will Reed, TFA president and project team member, the researchers would like to capitalize on that connection so drones can serve information about air quality to neighborhood residents in real time. The team has already developed a prototype ASTRO mobile app to alert community residents to hazardous VOC concentrations.
“Now, if there’s a chemical leak, people may not learn about it for a couple of days, but our system can inform them immediately through their mobile phones,” said Riccardo Petrolo, a postdoctoral researcher in Knightly’s lab. “We are also concerned about the dangers first responders might face during extreme events like Hurricane Harvey. We want them to know where the edge of a plume is located so they know where it’s safe to breathe and where to set evacuation boundaries.”READ MORE