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Scientists Develop Hazardous Gas-detecting Drones, Receives Grant from the NSF

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【Summary】Recently, the scientists were awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop their invention through testing in live locations.

Michael Cheng    Sep 20, 2018 10:14 AM PT
Scientists Develop Hazardous Gas-detecting Drones, Receives Grant from the NSF
author: Michael Cheng   

Hazardous gas and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are extremely harmful to humans. Because of this, scientists have been fixated on improving measures for detection, especially in populated cities and industrial sites.

With plans to automate such efforts, researchers from Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Non-profit Technology for All (TFA) have developed cutting-edge drones that are capable of sensing hazardous gas. Recently, the scientists were awarded with a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop their invention through testing in live locations.

ASTRO Project

Equipped with cutting-edge sensors, mobile lasers and communication devices, the technology is designed to reduce exposure to VOCs by accurately detecting the origin of deadly gases. At the site, the quadcopters are referred to as ASTRO, which stands for Autonomous, Sensing and Tether-less Networked Drones. The units are capable of scouting areas on their own, without assistance from a (human) ground controller.

The ASTRO project makes use of several drones during operation. Data from the aerial fleet is utilized to create a 3D map of the area under inspection. The map is very similar to Google Street View's overview of tracked methane leaks in the US, which enables scientists to view ‘hotspots' of hazardous gas and locations where traces of VOCs are starting to accumulate.

The generated map can also help individuals better understand VOC signatures and how such elements spread in communities. Interestingly, the team also developed a mobile app (prototype) for real-time notifications. Upon detecting dangerously high VOC levels, scientists could push alerts to local residents, advising them to avoid areas where hazardous gas is present.

"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," explained Riccardo Petrolo, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Rice University.

"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."

Applications in Cities

Scientists participating in the ASTRO project are planning to deploy the gas-sensing drones in high-risk locations. One of the proposed areas is in a community near the Houston Ship Channel, wherein locals are prone to exposure. The location hosts several industrial structures, such as processing plants and chemical refineries.

In 2011, the researchers previously installed a robust Wi-Fi network in the area. Now the group wants to leverage the network to support their drones.

"There's no reason it can't support cameras and other wireless sensors to, for instance, find someone in an emergency response situation," said Pertrolo.

From a safety perspective, the quadcopters could make gas detection safer by replacing human inspectors. In some cases, hazardous gas in communities arise when there are damaged infrastructure and pipelines. It would be less risky (and less costly) to send a handful of drones out to assess the location, as pools of flammable gas can lead to explosions.

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