The collapse of the Cologne city archive building triggered a race against time for the rescue workers. After such disasters, detailed information is needed in order to select the appropriate course of action. For example, it is necessary to know if and where people are trapped and if adjacent buildings are in danger of collapse. An unmanned mini helicopter can handle this dangerous reconnaissance work for the emergency services.
The “quadrocopter” has a diameter of one meter and, thanks to its maneuverability, can negotiate collapsed buildings. At present the flying disaster helper operates solo, but it could soon be joined by reinforcements: Fraunhofer research scientists are working on their deployment in swarms. Currently this would only be possible with considerable manpower effort – the helicopters cannot communicate with each other and each one would have to be individually controlled.
To ensure that, in future, one person can control all the helicopters deployed, the scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Information and Data Processing IITB in Karlsruhe have developed a software which functions as a director of operations. “Our program enables the quadrocopters to coordinate their activities themselves,” explains Dr. Axel Bürkle, project manager at the IITB. “One of them can fly up close to victims to investigate their injuries while another reconnoiters the fastest route for getting them out.”
The program consists of individual modules, the software agents, which can be programmed with a repertoire of tasks. One software agent is assigned to each quadrocopter. The miniature flying machines are equipped with various sensors such as cameras, infrared cameras, laser measurement equipment and sniffer devices for identifying hazardous substances. They can also radio images, videos and other data to the ground station, where the software agents assess the information and, via an interface, send instructions for action to the quadrocopters.
The special factor is that the software agents are able to network with each other independently and exchange information. This means that they can harmonize their commands to the quadrocopters. What's more, software agents are able to learn. They memorize what happened in particular situations and respond more quickly the next time. The development engineers are currently examining the use of the system in simulations of various scenarios. They have further applications in mind, such as monitoring of premises. The first quadrocopter swarms could be ready for service in about a year.
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