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Last Update: 2009-10-21   Source: Star Projects
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Mega threats, micro solutions

Every summer forest fires are a deadly threat in Mediterranean countries. A European research project is creating a new tool for such situations - a flying robot that can quickly ascend to a height of 100 to 150 meters and survey the location from above. In this case, while flying over the forest fire, the system can be used to warn and direct emergency services.

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The flying robot, which is called a "microdrone", can use its sophisticated cameras to see the heart of the fire, where humans cannot always see. It could let the firefighters know of areas that are too hazardous. The microdrone could be of particular significance during the night, when helicopters and planes are not allowed to fly over the forest fires. Potentially a useful management tool, the microdrone could provide firefighters with information, allowing them to make better decisions in this very dangerous environment.

The microdrone itself weighs less than one and a half kilograms and can carry about 200 grams of extra material. Using its four horizontal rotors, two of which turn left and two turn right, it can fly steadily in the air for up to an hour. It can be controlled remotely while simultaneously using GPS to position itself.

The aim of the European research project that developed the microdrone is to have a reliable flying tool to assist in the management of crisis situations. Asides from helping firefighters, the developers imagine that it could also help during other natural disasters (e.g. floods) or help manage urban riots.

But there are still some technical difficulties, involving issues with the GPS system. For example, if the microdrone comes too close to an obstacle, it cannot position itself correctly and runs the risk of damaging itself.

Another challenge is increasing the autonomy of the flying robot, allowing the operators to focus more on collecting information rather than flying the machine. To this purpose Chunrong Yuan, a computer scientist at the University of Tübingen, is working on a so-called "environment sensing tool". This involves algorithmic calculations that let the microdrone identify whether an obstacle below is moving or not. Identifying moving objects is complicated by the fact that the drone's cameras are also moving. Also at the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), in Paris, researchers aim to make the microdrone more self-sufficient. They have programmed the flying robot to memorise the route it takes while being operated. Now it can automatically return to its point of departure by taking the same route backwards, relieving the operator of the task of returning the microdrone safely.

Scientists have also created software to simulate various flying scenarios (e.g. windy weather or difficult terrain). The simulation lets the scientists see whether the microdrone would be able to deliver information from the zones of interest.

The firefighters eagerly await the arrival of this extra help that should allow them to better prepare themselves in the face of their difficult and dangerous task.

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Jan Hens
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