A researcher from the University of Texas at Arlington is developing an open-networked airborne computing platform. This platform aims to empower unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in assisting first responders to enhance coordination during emergencies or disaster responses.

UT Arlington is concurrently designing a versatile hardware unit that can be easily integrated into any UAV, facilitating the adoption of this computing platform.

The research is being funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a $1.8 million grant shared among UTA, University of North Texas, San Diego State University, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. Of this sum, Yan Wan, a Distinguished University Professor in UT Arlington’s Electrical Engineering Department, has received over $800,000 of that total.

“UAVs have become more and more integrated in our everyday lives,” Wan said. “They can do a lot of intelligent tasks. Now we must make them communicate with each other while they’re in the air and independent of a central computer management control.”

Airborne networked computing is an innovative concept wherein aerial vehicles create a network with direct flight-to-flight communication links, enabling real-time computing in the sky.

“Our project should be able to transmit real-time videos to see what is happening during or immediately after a natural or manmade disaster,” Wan said. “Emergency crews can then be dispatched directly to where help is needed. They won’t have to go to a site, then search, then help people in need.”

Wan and her team have dedicated the past ten years to this research endeavor. In 2017, she secured a substantial NSF grant of close to $1 million to initiate the development of a networked airborne computing platform for UAVs. The project’s activities will take place at both the main UT Arlington campus and the UT Arlington Research Institute.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is having a system of robots in the air. They have to talk to each other to do that,” Wan said. “We’ve done field work with the Denton and Austin fire departments and have been quite successful in those trial operations.”

While Wan said the team is focusing on emergency use of UAVs during natural or manmade disasters, the research also has commercial applications.

“With so many companies in the business of delivering goods now, it could have an application there as well,” Wan said. “Think about coordinating many UAVs that are performing those deliveries. A universal control system that can plug into any UAV would go a long way toward coordination and ease of those deliveries.”

Diana Huffaker, UTA’s Associate Vice President for Research, mentioned that the research aligns with current UAV requirements and market demands.

“Ensuring that transportation through the immediate airspace for emergency entities using UAVs is safe is essential to helping people,” Huffaker said. “Giving those emergency personnel the needed information for what they will face keeps them and the people they’re helping safe, and it streamlines emergency plans for rescue.”

Wan became a part of UT Arlington in 2016 and serves as the head of the Dynamical Networks and Control Lab. This lab focuses on devising solutions for modeling, assessing, and controlling tasks within extensive dynamic networks and cyber-physical systems. These solutions have applications in areas such as air traffic management, airborne networking, systems biology, and complex information systems. Her accolades include receiving an NSF CAREER award in 2015 and amassing over $10 million in research funding.

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