Researchers at Barcelona’s Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) have adapted an off-the-shelf micro-drone to detect toxic gases and fly beyond the line of sight of emergency teams.
Called SNAV (Smelling Nano Aerial Vehicle), the micro-drone weighs just 35grams and has a payload of nanometric MOX gas sensors capable of registering carbon monoxide, methane and other organic volatile compounds including ethanol, acetone and benzene.
The project was led by researchers Santiago Marco and Javier Burgués from the Faculty of Physics at IBEC.
In a paper published in Sensors, Marco suggests the system could be useful in “rescue operations in collapsed buildings, due to earthquakes and explosions. SNAV can detect toxic gases and even the compounds unconscious victims inhale…[it could also be used] in a search for drugs or explosives in places which are hard to enter.”
The use of nano drones could expand the possibilities for emergency crews, who could use the technology to navigate through indoor spaces and easily overcome obstacles such as stairs and debris.
Navigating a micro-drone
However, conventional navigation methods aren’t feasible with a drone this small. The sensors used in simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) systems would drastically reduce its already limited flight times, if not restrict it from getting off the ground completely.
A Global Positioning System (GPS) is effective outdoors, but on a tiny drone low inertia and strong winds make anything but flying indoors impractical.
The team’s solution was to combine accelerometers and gyroscopes with a series of radiofrequency transceivers called ultra-wide-band anchors, located in predetermined positions and connected to a transceiver in the same drone.
The CrazyFlie 2.0 drone communicates its 3D position and sensor data to the ground station over a 2.4 GHz ISM band.
In the future, the research team wants to explore the potential of bio-inspired navigation algorithms, which could see the micro-drone mimic the behaviour of insects with its movement and home in on compounds of interest it detects in real-time.