Flying robots to provide Wi-Fi in disaster zones

Flying quadcopters to deliver Wi-Fi and mobile phone relief for people trapped in disaster zones

David Fearon
3 Mar 2009

A group of academics is attempting to use flying "quadcopter" robots as a means of deploying self-assembling ad-hoc wireless networks.

The group, led by Professor Andreas Mitschele of the Ilmenau University of Technology, claims that they could be used in the event of disasters, when standard infrastructure is destroyed.

The robots create a network of radios that provide both mobile-phone and standard wireless network access that allow people in distress to call for help. And it's all achieved using off-the-shelf parts.

The system uses cheap "quadcopters" - autonomous flying helicopter-style robots equipped with satellite navigation - bearing radio equipment based on VIA Pico-ITX computers.

The robots can spread themselves around an area and establish a radio network far more quickly than anyone on the ground.

There are limitations though. "The big problem is the batteries," explained Professor Mitschele-Thiel, as one of the quadcopters buzzed over our heads in the FutureParc hall at CeBIT.

"The quadcopter comes in a kit costing only 300 euros, but the batteries are very expensive [around 1,000 euros] and last only about 20 minutes."

However, that 20 minutes is for flight time, giving the robots enough duration to position themselves and land on "high ground or a building somewhere", and provide network coverage for several hours.

The project is currently looking for PhD students to continue research on the radio techniques involved.

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