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Getting closer than ever to real-life disasters


In the battle against forest fires COMETS’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) monitoring and evaluation capabilities may offer beleaguered emergency crews the lifeline they need to control the fire.

The COMETS project improved the capabilities of two helicopters and an airship to enable them to cooperate. These UAVs can be used in aerial missions including natural disasters remediation, traffic and environmental monitoring, surveillance, security and law enforcement, and terrain mapping. While the helicopter has more freedom to manoeuvre close to the situation, such as a forest fire, the airship can be used to give a more global view. Working together they provide different information on the same situation making it easier to evaluate and monitor.

The UAVs can either be programmed before they leave for a mission or information can be transmitted to them from a control centre. "The aerial vehicles in COMETS are also heterogeneous in terms of on-board processing capabilities, ranging from fully autonomous aerial systems to conventional radio controlled systems with minimal on-board capabilities required to record and transmit information," says Anibal Ollero, Scientific and Technical Coordinator of the IST programme-funded project.

The IST programme-funded project aimed to produce UAV teams that would be unique to those already existing on the market. "Instead of using a single expensive UAV, we address the application of several low cost aerial vehicles. Furthermore we exploit the complementarities of the different aerial vehicles," says Ollero. He adds that to his knowledge this is the first project implementing the coordination of heterogeneous autonomous aerial vehicles in Europe.

Although the vehicles can get closer than ever to the action, to get an overall picture of the situation, using more than one UAV at a time called other factors into play such as vision and coordination. COMETS dealt with these issues by developing tools for perception and planning merged operations between UAVs.

In order for the fleet of UAV to provide important information they first need to ’perceive’ the situation. In the monitoring activities rather than trying to get complex models of exact objects, the perception system of the UAVs picture robust features, which "means that it is possible to obtain features from the images even in the case of changing conditions, for example illumination changes and camera vibration," elaborates Ollero. For fire monitoring infrared vision has been added to overcome the problem of smoke. Another task of the COMETS perception system is terrain mapping with the UAVs.

Planning operations with multiple UAVs avoids collisions and also repeating work. The planning takes place using 3D cells to map the position of each UAV in time and space throughout the planned trajectory. Once each route has been planned, the mission can start.

The first general experiments for the project took place in May 2003 in Lousa, Portugal, one year after project began. Individual UAVs were tested, and coordination and fire detection experiments were carried out. "The results were very satisfactory because they provided a lot of information to guide the research and development in the second year of the project," comments Ollero.

The partners are currently undertaking local experiments with their single UAVs in Germany, France, Spain and Sweden. The next general experiments will take place in Portugal in May 2004.

The final demonstration is planned for May 2005 in Portugal. "We envisage different possibilities ranging from the general COMETS architecture to single components. The technology could be applied to existing UAVs or in the future to new aerial vehicles being developed," says Ollero.

Anibal Ollero
Scientific and Technical Coordinator of COMETS
Department of Systems Engineering and Automatic Control
Engineering School
University of Seville
E-41092 Seville
Tel: +34-95-4487349
Fax: +34-95-4487340

Luis Gonzalo Gutierrez.
Administrative and Financial Coordinator of COMETS
E-28760 Madrid
Tel: +34-91-8072286
Fax: +34-91-8072199

Source: Based on information from COMETS

Tara Morris | IST Results
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