Galway couple’s technology repurposes UAVs to save lives

2 Sep 20141 Share

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A Galway couple’s start-up has developed technology that will transform aerial drones from weapons of war into life-saving devices that can pinpoint victims by identifying their mobile signals in disaster areas.

Galway-based Disaster Tech Lab, headed by Evert and Kate Bopp, has seen the potential for creating an airborne wireless sensor platform.

Disaster Tech Lab has forged a partnership with US company Sentinel Air to create a device that can be mounted on a small plane or drone that could be flown over the disaster zone to detect and geolocate signals emitted by mobile phones such as Wi-Fi or cellular signals.

In this way people trapped in rubble or flooded houses can be pinpointed and the data sent directly to fire brigades and ambulance service, increasing the chances of lives being saved.

Non-profit Disaster Tech Lab was founded in 2012 following the Haiti earthquake. Since then the organisation has worked in the US and the Philippines following natural disasters there. In 2013 its founders received a certificate of recognition issued by FEMEA during a ceremony at the White House.

Disaster Tech Lab and Sentinel Air plan to work together developing and testing airborne wireless sensor platforms that will be tested in disaster-hit areas of the US.

“By teaming with Disaster Tech Lab we can not only offer our HD aerial video and radio relay abilities but now by taking Disaster Tech Labs’ equipment airborne we can increase its range and then distribute that knowledge directly to first responders,” Sentinel Air co-owner Dean Attridge explained.

“The increased situational awareness offered by combination will increase efficiency and safety for first responders and in times of disaster will save lives.”

Life-saving drones

Responding to questions from Siliconrepublic.com, Bopp said that while the idea is not entirely new, all previous efforts required terrestrial signals.

None are for airborne platforms. Using an airborne platform allows us to survey a wider area in much shorter time.”

Bopp explained the concept works by taking measurements from different locations (flying in a grid pattern) triangulating the signals and applying a proprietary algorithm to the signal strength which allows them to pinpoint the locations.

UAVs are in the media for a variety of reasons. On the one hand they are controversial weapons of war, on the other in the form of quadcopters they represent a new technology that can be used to entertain, inform and even deliver goods.

This has raised lots of questions about privacy and also safety with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) soon expected to regulate drone technology.

Bopp expects to work within FAA rules and regulations.

“We chose to partner with an established aviation company using standard type UAV’s/drones, similar to civilian versions of the Predator,as well as single seater aircraft as these are all recognized by the FAA and are provided for in regulations.

“The increasingly popular quadcopters are not and the subsequent regulatory issues have resulted in the use of quadcopters being banned more and more in disaster zones.”

While a military version of what Disaster Tech Lab and Sentinel aim to accomplish is already in existence Bopp said that technology is off-limite, prompting the two companies to develop their own technology.

“The military version already exists. However it’s classified & restricted and not available for the use that we intend this for. We’re developing an software OS for this that will run on a number of off-the-shelf type hardware platforms making it widely available.”

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com