Drones put on duty for hurricane search and rescue ops


A Louisiana State University engineering professor has been working with drones to help the U.S. Coast Guard in New Orleans in search and rescue operations after hurricanes.

Professor Navid Jafari received a $180,000 National Science Foundation grant for the work in 2020, working alongside other researchers from LSU and Texas A&M. 

Because the Coast Guard quickly responds to people in distress after a hurricane, it is often difficult for boats to navigate where there is flooding and blockages. “Or the area is completely devastated and unrecognizable,” he said in a statement. “Using a drone could save time and lives.”

A drone gives a bird’s eye view of the pathway to a person in distress, but in April Jafari realized that refinements are needed while on a training run. “A drone is small and hard to see the farther away it gets” from a boat, he said. “How can we make it more visible to boat operators so they can follow it?  We need to find a way for the drone to directly communicate with the boat so there’s no miscommunication. “

The solution could be putting simple color signals like a traffic light on the drone that the boat operator would see: red would mean stop, yellow proceed with caution and green go ahead.  Jafari also wants to collect data from the drone’s camera sensors to determine water levels and where people are located. He is interested in making a platform that integrates the drone with computers and data on the location of buildings.

“If you have a thermal infrared camera, you can locate bodies,” he said. At first light after a storm, a drone could offer infrastructure insights to rescue boat operators.

He is hopeful the federal government will invest money in technologies to collect data and process it faster.

Jafari has also deployed sensors in advance of a storm to detect water levels.  Part of that ability helps understand how wetlands act as natural flood protection.

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