A group of students from MIT is trying to ease the burden on emergency responders by providing a high-flying solution to downed communication lines. The team has designed and tested an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can fly for more than five days straight, offering a new solution for bolstering telecommunications systems during disaster situations.
The concept of using drones to assist in emergency response is becoming more common — UAVs may soon be part of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s arsenal for collecting information in conditions not safe for humans, and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is set to start using drones in situations involving hostage, arson, and suspected bombs.
But in emergency situations, especially natural disasters and fires, the very communications networks that are so important to coordinating response are often damaged or overloaded. MIT’s long-flying drone is poised to change that.
The UAV, which resembles a glider, weighs less than 150 pounds and has a 24-foot wingspan — much smaller and lighter than other similar options currently available. The gasoline-powered craft can carry up to 20 pounds of telecommunications equipment at an altitude of 15,000 feet and in winds up to the 94th percentile, according to the students’ calculations.
The drone has passed initial tests after being modified to fit the FAA’s regulations for small drones, which required the payload and amount of gasoline to be reduced to meet the FAA’s overall weight limit of 55 pounds. Future tests are needed to determine if the UAV can actually fly for more than five days straight.
“There are a few aspects to flying for five straight days,” Warren Hoburg, Boeing assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, said in a statement. “But we’re pretty confident that we have the right fuel burn rate and right engine that we could fly it for five days.”
The drone was designed as part of the Beaver Works capstone project at MIT in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force. The original goal of the project was to create a long-duration UAV powered by solar, but the team ultimately found that solar power was not conducive to emergency response, a field that demands reliable tools, regardless of the availability of sunlight.
A prototype constructed last fall featured a gasoline engine instead, along with a frame made of lightweight materials like carbon fiber and Kevlar. It is designed to be easily dismantled and reassembled for easy transport.
The design makes the drone suitable for many long-term missions, said R. John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
“These vehicles could be used not only for disaster relief but also other missions, such as environmental monitoring. You might want to keep watch on wildfires or the outflow of a river,” Hansman said in a statement. “I think it’s pretty clear that someone within a few years will manufacture a vehicle that will be a knockoff of this.”