ND Researchers Developing Sensor That Drops From Drone To Locate Disaster Victims Through Rubble

FARGO, N.D. — The future of search and rescue operations may lie with a small sensor dropped from a drone that emits radar capable of detecting movement under collapsed structures.

That’s the hope of researchers at North Dakota State University, who are building prototypes of the sensor in partnership with Cyclops Technologies, a drone company specializing in emergency response operations.

Through the collaboration, staff and students with NDSU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Program have built two prototypes of the device with the goal to complete two more versions before September.

In practice, multiple sensors would be dropped from the air by a drone around a disaster area and begin emitting radar waves within 30 seconds of landing that would be streamed to operator’s computers or tablets.

Benjamin Braaten

“They’ll network,” explained Benjamin Braaten, an associate professor leading the team of student researchers. “They’ll talk to each other and say there’s movement in this region so take more of these payloads put them in this region, and you’ll get a better idea of something that might be moving.”

Braaten spoke about the group’s project earlier this month at UAS Industry Day held in Bismarck.

He brought along the most recent version of the sensor, which is a circular disk less than a foot in diameter. The interior is protected by a layer of 3-D printed plastic that aims to protect during its fall to the ground from the drone.

The device is battery-powered with a minimum endurance of about four hours and has to remain stationary in order to work correctly. The group has tested it in a small room with various materials that the radar would need to penetrate to locate trapped people.  

Braaten said there is potential for the sensor to be used in other disasters such as mudslides and avalanches, but victims in those situations have very little time to be discovered before they would perish.

Searches in areas such as forests could be problematic for the sensor’s radar as wind could cause the surrounding vegetation to move.

“We had it outside a little bit and you could see when the wind blew,” Braaten said.

The sensor project has been underway for about a year, with another six months left to go. It is funded by the Research ND program, which awards grants to companies that conduct research in partnership with North Dakota universities.

NDSU and Cyclops received nearly $292,000 in grant funding to create the sensor. While NDSU continues work on refining the device, Braaten said Cyclops staff are determining the best routes for manufacturing and marketing the product and consulting on its capabilities.

This story is part of Droning On’s weeklong coverage highlighting presentations made at North Dakota UAS Industry Day held March 23 in Bismarck.