Rice University students develop drone platform for sensing applications

Rice drones
Rice University engineering students developed the hardware and software necessary to coordinate sensor-carrying drones. (Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

A group of students at Houston’s Rice University developed the hardware and software necessary to coordinate sensor-carrying drones that can evaluate things like local atmospheric conditions and the strength of Wi-Fi signals.

Calling itself Skynet, the team spent a school year writing more than 10,000 lines of code, testing one drone and then multiple drones. According to Rice University, the six electrical and computer engineering students are most proud of their application programming interfaces (APIs), which will let users customize the drones to meet their own sensing requirements.

"The system is designed to be application-agnostic in the sense that you can use our APIs and libraries to build any kind of autonomous solution that you want," said team member Kevin Lin in a press release. "Based on what we've seen at the Olympics and other presentational shows, you could totally use our software to build something like that."

Each drone is equipped with a Wi-Fi dongle that allows them to form a mesh network that enables communication across long distances without requiring a central access point. They're also equipped with LIDAR (light detection and ranging) instruments to avoid obstacles and track altitude. Each drone uses Raspberry Pi as its central processor, and most can lift between 1 and 2 kilograms.

The team tested several applications, including its primary goal of sensing signal strength from a stationary Wi-Fi hot spot in the middle of a Rice athletic field. "That was useful because it showcased two drones coordinating and sharing their data," Lin said. "They just looped through the field and took measurements at all the points we programmed. We fed that into an algorithm that localized the hotspot."

The students also mounted a spinning LIDAR on one of the drones. Raising and lowering the drone allowed them to capture slices of the immediate environment and build a 3D map. During tests in the university's engineering quad, a LIDAR-equipped drone detected and mapped walls, arches and trees.

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U.S. operators have been using drones to check conditions on towers after natural disasters and in high-traffic venues to measure signal strength. After Hurricane Harvey last year, AT&T deployed a fleet of 25 drones to areas in Southeast Texas to determine the hurricane’s impact on its network. Verizon also used drones to inspect its towers after the storm rather than sending climbers.

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That hurricane came shortly after the Rice students started working on their drone project, and there were thoughts of attaching gas sensors to the drones, according to team member Emilio Del Vecchio. “When some of the refineries started leaking gas, there were human health hazards,” he said. “So our idea was people could possibly use these drones to measure the magnitude of a leak and determine where people shouldn't be allowed to go.”