A Drone That Finds Survivors Through Their Phones

Posted on July 28, 2014 By

14.07.14 - Summer series – student research (1): During his semester project in Computer Science, Jonathan Cheseaux developed a system for locating a person via his or her mobile phone with a drone. This device could be used to find victims in natural disasters. Click to enlarge.

14.07.14 – Summer series – student research (1): During his semester project in Computer Science, Jonathan Cheseaux developed a system for locating a person via his or her mobile phone with a drone. This device could be used to find victims in natural disasters. Click to enlarge.

Inspired and Informed by Patrick Meier and the Humanitarian UAV Network, as much as our own personal disaster experience, DisasterMap.net sets out to provide real-time coverage of ongoing disasters as well as stakeholders’ immediate response and data/analysis on their recovery. The very first second I saw a TV news crew using a drone over a tornado flattened small Midwestern town I knew UAVs were here to stay, and I could see almost limitless applications for saving lives in those critical first hours after disaster has struck. Not only the smaller models of UAV used here, but also imagine floating a Global Hawk over the area that can stay aloft for hours above devastated regions.  Imagine tethering small blimps40-50 ft in the air with halogen lights, cameras and other sensors, or larger, more stable, remote-controlled dirigibles that could stay aloft for days.

As partner Dr. Ezra Boyd posted How to Turn Your Old Smart Phone into a Potentially Life Saving Device Part 1 & 2, we research any way to use available technology during the initial shock of disaster and beyond. I didn’t have one when the levees failed in New Orleans 8-29-05. Indeed, though most of the coastal cell network had been taken out, the functions of even basic cell phones could have been enabled as a locator, at least until the battery ran out. Drones are here to stay. Disaster waits for no one, and hence neither should we. ~Bruce Biles

Cécilia CarronÉcole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne A drone makes large circles in the sky. With two powerful antennas, it sniffs the data packets emitted by mobile phones. On the ground, an interface developed specifically for this project makes it possible to track the flight of a small robotic aircraft in real time from a computer. Colored dots visible on the screen map indicate the spotted phones. The vehicle tightens its flight around the selected device to indicate its position. “In the best tests we have performed, the place indicated was within 10 meters,” says Jonathan Cheseaux, who worked on this project with Karol Kruzelecki and Stefano Rosati under the supervision of Prof. Bixio Rimoldi, head of the Mobile Communications Laboratory (LCM).

Following an earthquake or another natural disaster, it is often difficult to know the position of victims under the rubble. At a time when most people, even in poor countries, have a mobile phone, the team of Mobile Communications Laboratory had the idea of using them to know the position of victims and thereby facilitate a search. When WiFi mode is activated, the devices emit data packets at regular intervals so that it’s possible to know various parameters, including the power received by the antenna connection. This can vary depending on the surrounding terrain, the weather or interference. It is also weaker as the layer of rubble over a person is thicker—another important factor. Read more.

Special thanks to Jennifer Hicks at Forbes for initial report.

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