In a collaborative effort, researchers in Texas are developing a fleet of autonomous drones capable of coordinating with each other to detect, track and model environmental hazards after extreme weather events and accidents.

Rice University engineers are working with researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine and Technology For All (TFA)—a Houston nonprofit organization—on a fleet of drones carrying sensors to gather real-time, high-resolution data on chemicals released into the atmosphere from leaks, explosions and natural disasters.

Rice electrical and computer engineer Edward Knightly and his collaborators have won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $1.5 million to enable ASTRO, an aerial system to gather data on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), alerting neighborhoods to potential danger.

“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.”

Early prototypes of the networked drones were demonstrated by Rice students who developed software protocols as their capstone design project at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen earlier this year. That project won the award for best gaming, creative, robotics or innovative technology award at the annual George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase.

The new grant will allow the project team to not only continue to develop next-generation wireless and sensing technologies, but also to eventually deploy them in vulnerable locations.

Multiple ASTRO drones will assemble a three-dimensional 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.

A community on Houston’s east side is 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 plan to capitalize on this connection, enabling the drones to deliver real-time air quality information to neighborhood residents.

The drones will have onboard sensors and transmitters that coordinate among themselves to find and track the plumes. Petrolo said Rice engineering colleagues led by laser pioneer and emeritus professor Frank Tittel are working to shrink the size of the sensors.

Petrolo said ASTRO’s capabilities will stretch beyond gas sensing. “The platform is fully agnostic,” he said. “There’s no reason it can’t support cameras and other wireless sensors to, for instance, find someone in an emergency response situation.”

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