Student drone teams wow government and industry at simulated-disaster competition hosted by ASU’s Research Enterprise
The drone threads its way through the disaster area, beneath ceilings and power lines, through narrow corridors, sewer pipes and hallways. Bodies and survivors lie under rubble. When it’s not feeling its way through tight confines, there’s wind to contend with.
Pilot Ryan Davis flies the drone quickly and smoothly. There are no halting or jerky movements.
At each potential location of a survivor, Davis lands and switches on the infrared camera to look for a survivor’s heat signature. The drone doesn’t spend more than 20 seconds at each spot. Then he heads into the sewer pipes.
“Oh boy, look at that,” says an onlooker. “That’s great.”
The disaster area was a gym on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. Davis is a senior majoring in aerospace engineering. The onlooker was an industry representative, and the event was the finale of the Innovation Challenge, a competition between student teams to design and showcase a drone system to help rescuers find survivors in a disaster environment.
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now
The competition was hosted by ASU’s Research Enterprise, a nonprofit arm of the university that connects applied research and development with the Department of Defense, federal agencies and the intelligence community. Industry representatives came from the U.S. Navy, Boeing, Raytheon, the Arizona Department of Emergency Management, and the National Counterterrorism Center, among other others.
Last fall 18 teams were awarded $3,000 each to design their systems. Two design reviews from academic, industry and government reps narrowed the list to eight.
The drone systems had to hit some marks. Real-time video was required. The system had to be a small, lightweight air vehicle so it didn’t overburden teams already humping a lot of gear. It had to be rugged enough to operate in harsh conditions. First responders won’t have time for extended training, so the system needed to be simple to learn, operate and maintain. They had to fly for at least 15 minutes at a time. There were other challenges, but ASU-educated engineers put their minds to them.
Christian Fortunato, a systems engineer at ASU Research Enterprise, was the competition’s maestro.
“This is to help create innovative solutions to problems we face today,” Fortunato said. “Ultimately we hope it’s fun.”
Industry reps were visibly impressed, commenting on the students’ poise in delivering technical discussions as well as how they solved problems.
Fortunato converted the gym into a mock scenario with three buildings, a forest, power lines, sewer pipes hiding a large rat, and bodies under piles of rubble. Flames flickered in one building, and an industrial fan provided a strong wind. Some of the mannequins were warm (heating pads, if you’re curious). Some were at room temperature. The warm bodies were the survivors.
Each team had two and a half hours to present their system and then do the search-and-rescue mission.