Research at Florida Poly is probing how to program a group of drones to respond to a single command post. For example, five drones under the direction of one pilot could fly a rigid grid pattern or fly in concentric rings around a target area. The end goal is to mount them with sensitive cameras that carry night vision capabilities or pick up infrared signatures, as well as a variety of sensors for local environment awareness.
The implications are huge.
“There are just so many applications that, quite frankly, it’s hard to settle on just one,” says Ron Whiting, of Riverdale, Md., who is developing the drone program as his graduate project.
The concept behind the research is called a “mesh network.” Picture it like a spider web relaying information back and forth within it, with a ground station radiating out commands to the drones. When complete, the drones will communicate with each other, passing on instructions to the next drone that’s just a little farther away. This exponential method of communication holds almost limitless potential.
Current applications under consideration include search and rescue missions, with eyes in the sky providing a perspective unavailable to people on the ground. A network of drones will also provide valuable context and information after a natural disaster. In the short term, Ron has teamed up with local farmers to fly the drones over their orchards and crops. Photos taken by the drones provide a picture of which areas are not performing well and need additional watering or pesticides.
“I try not to get too excited when I start thinking of applications, but it’s hard not to,” says Ron, who is earning a Master of Science in Engineering.
A big part behind Ron’s success is his advisor, Dr. Dean Bushey, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel with years of experience with unmanned aircraft and autonomous vehicles. Gaining access to experienced minds like Dr. Bushey’s and the chance to work on a project with real-world impact have both validated his decision to earn a degree from Florida Poly.
“Everybody is on your side and that’s a great part about this school,” he says.