Colorado offers a beautiful, vast terrain that continues to attract active nature-lovers year round. From skiing to biking, there is plenty to see and do for everyone. However, even with common sense and park rules, people can find themselves in unfamiliar territory. This is particularly the case for hikers who are new to park trails or venture away too far from the path.
Every day there’s a risk in getting lost in Colorado’s mountainous landscape. When this happens, panic can occur from misplaced hikers or their loved ones searching for them. As a solution, emergency personnel can be dispatched to find the missing hikers, but where to begin looking for them can be a problem. Safety in the wilderness must also be considered for first responders.
Fortunately, drones have become a valuable asset for search and rescue teams. They’re capable of flying long distances and can reach areas that may be dangerous or inaccessible to people. Recently, CU Boulder researchers have developed a system that advances the capabilities of drones to find lost hikers and survey wildlife. They’re the first team to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly multiple drones with one pilot.
“The purpose of the technology is to locate moving radio beacons and follow them,” Associate Professor Eric Frew of the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences said.
These radio beacons could be attached to hikers so they can be found in case they get lost. They may also serve well in finding endangered wildlife. CU Researchers are already working with other partners in this drone system initiative, including Colorado Parks & Wildlife and Boulder County Parks and Open Space.
Frew said the FAA approval for this initiative is important for CU Boulder to continue its contributions in the drone industry. The team received a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to allow one pilot to fly up to 30 drones at once.
“This new approval and new capability allows CU Boulder to continue its leading role in the development of autonomous unmanned aircraft systems,” he said. “Future drones will be able to fly autonomously with minimal human oversight by cooperating with other aircraft to perform a wide variety of missions safely and efficiently.”
Frew mentioned the COA will show other capabilities of this new drone system as well. “The new COA allows for a ‘zone defense’ where the visual observers monitor the edge of the flight environment without having to monitor individual aircraft. This is an example of what we call ‘beyond-visual-line-of-sight,’ an important capability for the drone industry,” he said.
CU Boulder is also working with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology located in Daejeon, South Korea. The Korean team has been responsible for creating the algorithms of the drones. The CU Boulder researchers then use the algorithms for flying and surveying.
“Our teams have been working together over the past two and a half years to develop the algorithms and software to make this system work,” Steve Borenstein, a lead engineer and pilot for the CU Boulder team said.
Graduate students of CU Boulder have also participated in developing software like their partners in South Korea. The technology they’ve created allows drones to find individuals or wildlife based on their radio beacons.
Going forward, CU Boulder will be able to fly multiple drones at once in the U.S. National Airspace System. Their participation in the Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing (IRISS) program also provides a platform for researchers to create revolutionary aircraft technology. Such innovations that work with aerospace systems are the future of collecting data on earth and in space.