Rice University researchers are developing a fleet of autonomous drones that are designed to work together to detect, track, and 3D image airborne VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) pollutants. Biological and anthropogenic VOCs such as some isoprenes (organic plant matter), perchloroethylene (a dry cleaning solvent), methylene chloride (spray paint aerosol), and gasoline (among a host of others) can lead to some nasty health issues in both the short and long terms. Knowing where these compounds are concentrated in the air would be invaluable.
The drones are known as ASTRO (Autonomous, Sensing, and Tetherless Networked Drones), and were built to use high-resolution mobile laser-stereoscopy to detect volatile gases, localize where they’re coming from, and track them in real-time. The drones can maintain contact with one another using several options, including SDR (Software Defined Radio), WiFi or WiFi dongles.
Onboard sensors look for gases identified by their unique spectrum signatures, which are processed by an onboard Zynq 7030 SoC, and the data is then relayed in real-time to a base station. The networked drones can be scaled to a few drones or many depending on the task, and the researchers have already created a mobile app that alerts communities when VOC gases are detected.
The researchers have been developing the drone system for some time now, but just recently have been rewarded with a $1.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation, which will allow the research team to further advance their wireless communication and sensor technologies.
As for what lies ahead for the ASTRO platform, the researchers state they could be used for other applications besides sensing gas, such as equipping them with different sensors and cameras for search and rescue operations.