Cincy Science: UC experiments with drones to fight fires and deliver your packages from the sky

CINCINNATI - When online retail giant Amazon proposed last year to deliver packages by drone, many found the claim to be outrageous. But the era of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is hovering just on the horizon.

At the University of Cincinnati, students may see drones buzzing about campus as a team of researchers continue testing in search of certification of drones designed for commercial use.

Associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics Kelly Cohen discussed UAVs as part of everyday life and helping make their ideas fly.

Q&A with Professor Cohen:

1. What types of commercial drones are currently in development at UC?

There are two different applications, one carries packages, it’s called the HorseFly and one for firefighting. It’s taking real time information about the scene and fusing that information with weather conditions, topology, and wind uncertainty models in order to come up with a prediction on where the fire is going to advance. That would help firefighters make a better decision when it comes to allocating the resources. WATCH: The firefighting drone in action

2. Are they approved for use?

We’ve done a couple of demos, but the FAA hasn’t come up with a process for certification of such applications. Whether it’s the firefighter or the HorseFly, which would be for package delivery, the user interactions with them are important.

For the firefighter, we’ve got to understand the environment in which they’re operating, what type of information they’re looking for and how this information will be fused with what they already know to make good decisions in real time. We need to achieve a situation where they trust the information because this is a new medium for them.In the past they would just trust their own eyesight, what they see based on their judgment and experience. So this is a big change for them. What we’re doing is trying to understand how we can incorporate this new technology in their operations."

3. How accurate is the HorseFly in terms of package delivery?

We could be able to take off and land from one square meter. So we need a very small footprint to take off and land and we can do that accurately even in relatively strong wind conditions. We’ve shown we can take off from the top of truck and we could probably land on top of a truck as well.

4. How long can the HorseFly stay in flight?

Right now about 20 minutes or so, but we have plans to increase that in the coming months, but without much of a hassle we can get up to about an hour.

5. In which markets would the Horsefly deliver packages?

If you have a neighborhood where you’ve got many homes around there, the truck would go in, but if you have the far out farm or remote place, then the package would be delivered by the drone, because to fly a two-pound package by drone costs about four cents a mile where the cost of the truck is 50 cents a mile. Because in order to deliver a two pound package by truck you a have to carry a couple of tons to the farm to deliver that package where with the drone it could be more effective. The idea is you have the drone and trucks work in conjunction.

And some neighborhoods could decide, they don’t want any of these flying around – and that’s fine. But for a remote area like an industrial building that has a roof, we’d have a UAV pad and a homing device somewhere secluded and we could see from camera that there’s nobody around, and give the okay to land. Or in the future have a pad for packages on the roof of some houses and a trap door that would deliver the packages into the house.

6. How soon do you think we’ll see UAVs in commercial use?

Two weeks back, the first drone operation to commercially fly over land was approved in Alaska. So already in the United States we have an FAA-approved UAV operation, so it’s very new and this is the first time in history. In regards to the lower 48, we would follow suit in the next few years. It will start with the gradual approval with certain industries and I think that firefighters and first responders will be given priority.

7. Have you built in redundant systems to keep them safe?

Redundancy comes in from a couple of components, one of them is having several motors and we can independently control each one of them. So in case there is a malfunction in one of the motors and the rotor stops working, we can still continue flying and we’ve proven that in flight. The idea is to have redundant sensors, motors, systems and engines. In a car you just have one engine, but if that one engine fails and you stop driving. In an aircraft flying in the sky, if you have an engine cut off that could lead to a problem.

We’re thinking of introducing a parachute. We’re thinking of adding on several layers of redundancy to the system and having a control system monitoring the health of all the components at all time. So by monitoring the health, and then being able to take action in case a malfunction happens, we would be ending up with a product that is far more reliable and safe. But if we have a malfunction I want to be able to detect that – think if the drone has a problem, it detects it and goes to an area to land and then it calls up to communication for the drone AAA to come pick it up.

8. How do you overcome people’s fear of new technology?

From the educational point of view, I teach my students that technology is not built only for sake of technology, but it has to have a positive impact on society We could add this whole new dimension, but you need to be careful. Like when you buy a knife in Walmart, you can use it to cut carrots or you can use it to hurt somebody – you’re accountable for what you do with the knife, same here. We need to make sure we are utilizing the technology in the best possible manner without having to abuse it. We try to teach our students in engineering to focus on the positive – how you can positively impact the world.

Other potential uses for drones:

  • Immediate transportation of emergency supplies
  • Aid disaster management
  • Assist in agriculture
  • Improve views of sporting events
  • Help with real estate
  • Monitor safety in bridges
  • Aid in search and rescue operations

(PHOTOS: Courtesy of University of Cincinnati, K. Cohen)

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