We all know how robots are great at going to places where you can’t (or shouldn’t) send a human. We also know how robots are great at doing repetitive tasks. These characteristics have the potential to make robots ideal for setting up wireless sensor networks in hazardous environments—that is, they could deploy a whole bunch of self-contained sensor nodes that create a network that can monitor a very large area for a very long time.
When it comes to using drones to set up sensor networks, you’ve generally got two options: A drone that just drops sensors on the ground (easy but inaccurate and limited locations), or using a drone with some sort of manipulator on it to stick sensors in specific places (complicated and risky). A third option, under development by researchers at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab, provides the accuracy of direct contact with the safety and ease of use of passive dropping by instead using the drone as a launching platform for laser-aimed, sensor-equipped darts.
These darts (which the researchers refer to as aerodynamically stabilized, spine-equipped sensor pods) can embed themselves in relatively soft targets from up to 4 meters away with an accuracy of about 10 centimeters after being fired from a spring-loaded launcher. They’re not quite as accurate as a drone with a manipulator, but it’s pretty good, and the drone can maintain a safe distance from the surface that it’s trying to add a sensor to. Obviously, the spine is only going to work on things like wood, but the researchers point out that there are plenty of attachment mechanisms that could be used, including magnets, adhesives, chemical bonding, or microspines.
Indoor tests using magnets showed the system to be quite reliable, but at close range (within a meter of the target) the darts sometimes bounced off rather than sticking. From between 1 and 4 meters away, the darts stuck between 90 and 100 percent of the time. Initial outdoor tests were also successful, although the system was under manual control. The researchers say that “regular and safe operations should be carried out autonomously,” which, yeah, you’d just have to deal with all of the extra sensing and hardware required to autonomously fly beneath the canopy of a forest. That’s happening next, as the researchers plan to add “vision state estimation and positioning, as well as a depth sensor” to avoid some trees and fire sensors into others.
And if all of that goes well, they’ll consider trying to get each drone to carry multiple darts. Look out, trees: You’re about to be pierced for science.
“Unmanned Aerial Sensor Placement for Cluttered Environments,” by André Farinha, Raphael Zufferey, Peter Zheng, Sophie F. Armanini, and Mirko Kovac from Imperial College London, was published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.
This article appears in the December 2020 print issue as “Drone Shoots Trees for Science.”
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.