Drone research at UNT improves communication after disasters, earned faculty invite to White House and U.S. summit

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 - 14:36

DENTON, Texas (UNT) – Days after returning from a White House presentation of their use of drones to create Internet hotspots and restore communication after a disaster, two University of North Texas faculty members are headed to the US Ignite Application Summit for a live demonstration of the project June 24 – 27 in Silicon Valley, California.

Shengli Fu, electrical engineering associate professor and interim department chair, and Yan Wan, electrical engineering assistant professor, were part of a 15-person team that developed a Smart Emergency Response System that could someday be used to save lives in areas too dangerous or inaccessible to humans.

By providing Wi-Fi access and cell phone coverage in areas where connections may have been destroyed, victims could reach out to emergency workers or first responders could communicate with control centers. Using a pair of drones that communicate with one another, one drone is flown out to disaster areas while another stays in line with the first to provide internet access within three kilometers.

"After a catastrophe, anything that slows an emergency worker down can be disastrous," says Fu. "Our goal is to reestablish those connections as quickly as possible so the workers on the ground can be more efficient in focusing their rescue efforts."

Fu and Wan recently returned from Washington D.C., where they also demonstrated their work at the SmartAmerica Expo as part of the SmartAmerica Challenge. The project fostered collaboration between public and private organizations to show how interconnected cyber-physical systems' testbeds can spur innovation, create jobs, develop business opportunities and improve public services. Combining the so-called "Internet of things" and system control, cyber-physical systems connect ordinary objects to a network so it can be controlled and can interact with the physical world.

Teaming with researchers nationwide, the SERS group used drones, robots, humanoids, autonomous vehicles, live video streams and search and rescue dogs equipped with sensors to make their disaster response system.

Along with UNT, the partnership included BluHaptics, Boeing, MathWorks, MIT Media Lab, National Instruments, North Carolina State University, University of Washington and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Their team was one of six teams invited for a full White House presentation. More than 100 organizations and 24 groups participated in the challenge.

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