Capstone Team Aims High for Self-Healing Swarm

Saving Time and Most Importantly, Saving Lives

When a team of firefighters is fighting a wildfire, how can they communicate more effectively among one another and command base to best save resources, tackle their challenge, and potentially save lives? If a first responder is wounded without their medic nearby, how can resources be marshaled to help them as quickly as possible? If all cell service is lost during a natural disaster, like Hurricane Florence, how can first responders communicate with one another to get assets and personnel where they need to be?

These are just a few of the questions a project team is hoping to research and eventually co-design the technology to resolve. A team of five airmen at USAFA is working with AF CyberWorx to fill a predefined location with a swarm of drones that can self-heal and provide cellular coverage to those in need during times of crisis. The Self-Healing Drone Swarm will provide cellular network capabilities which would include sending and receiving data, text, and video. The drone team will self-correct in the face of vehicle loss due to a malfunction, collision, charging need, or signal interface.

What is the Problem?

The team’s insight gained in this project will provide a solution to many different problems. A Self-Healing Drone Swarm has the potential to aid firemen, first responders, and the public in ways that could save lives more rapidly than they can now. Imagine a life-threatening event in the field where a medic could video chat with another soldier and give him the information needed to save an injured warrior, thanks to the Self-Healing Drone Swarm providing coverage over the area.

This type of drone work hasn’t been approached in this manner before. Currently, there is no related practical application for AI and drones due to the limited battery life of drone technology. The project team is currently in the problem research phase of this project

Research Found

Recently, the team interviewed a firefighter and drone specialist with AT&T, their industry partner for this project. While speaking with the firefighter, they learned about general operations, use of radios, the problem of zero cell coverage, and FirstNet (a network available to first responders for disaster relief). A typical firefighting scenario includes a portable radio with the main dispatch channel and an ops channel around 800 MHz, while the fire chief listens to multiple channels at once. Problems usually occur within urban areas and involve the radio; so, they make due with cell communications. But, cellular is most often used as a backup because it is less convenient. Radios are designed to last longer and be more durable than cell phones.

While working with the AT&T drone specialist, the team learned more about the physical side of uploads and downloads and what might work best for DoD use. The conversation also helped the team realize the ins and outs of the user experience for their target demographic.  

The Future Solution

There is still much more research to be performed. The team plans to perform a usability test on wireframes in the near future. They will also conduct field research at a drone lab in Los Angeles, AeroVironment Headquarters. While there, they hope to see the technical side of specific drone operations, as there are many items that they still need to address.

The team will perform additional research to test their software. Their current software creates drone swarms that have differently defined radiuses to create service in a needed coverage area. The algorithm then places waypoints which the drones move to automatically in real time. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) observes the model and displays each drone as a hexagon with the number on it. It also shows the battery condition with red, yellow, and green color codes.

At the end of the project, the team hopes to launch a swarm of drones with a demonstration of 2-3 drones that can self-correct. The goal for their final solution of a Self-Healing Drone Swarm is to provide additional, meaningful capabilities that aren’t already available to first responders. The Self-Healing Drone Swarm team wants to save lives and time. The capstone project is a great representation of making an innovative Air Force stride towards future operational capabilities through AF CyberWorx.

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