University at Buffalo professor leads cutting-edge research into oil-spill mapping

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Souma Chowdhury

The future is definitely here when drones can mimic behaviors of living swarms of insects and birds to map an oil spill in record time. And Indian-American professor of the University at Buffalo is leading the research to make that happen very soon.

“Nature may not proactively use mathematics, nor does it have foresight. It behaves in ways driven by feedback, implicit drive for adaptation, and a certain degree of apparent randomness,” says Souma Chowdhury, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “But we can look at what kind of mathematical principles define that behavior. Once we have that, we can use it to solve very complex problems,” he said.

According to UB, Chowdhury is pioneering a way to program a team of drones to quickly map an oil spill. His computational efforts, in a paper which he co-authored with UB students Zachary Ball and Philip Odonkor, were presented in January at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Science and Technology Forum. The study, called “A Swarm-Intelligence Approach to Oil Spill Mapping using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” optimized and simulated a five-drone swarm that can map a nearly one-kilometer wide spill in nine minutes.

 

 

Partly using the dynamics of a flock of birds, Chowdhury devised a method for off-the-shelf drones to quickly record whether they are over water, oil or the edge of the spill. In addition, the drones assume that the space around the oil they have spotted is also oil, although that is recorded as less than certain. This simple information is shared with the other drones in the swarm, as opposed to sharing actual images or video, which would require too much bandwidth.

“Communication is the foundation of any swarm,” he said. “The thematic focus of my lab is developing computational design approaches that take inspiration from nature,” Chowdhury said.

As the drones move from point to point over the spill, they avoid going over space that other drones have already covered. Thus, with five drones making observations every five seconds, the size of the spill can be determined quickly. Also, each drone can operate with a $35 Raspberry Pi computer.

“There is no need for human interaction during its entire mission,” Chowdhury said. “That’s the big deal.”

It’s also a big deal that Chowdhury’s approach keeps costs to a minimum, using simple, affordable drones, making it accessible to more people. “This task can be accomplished by off-the-shelf drones that cost under $1,000. All they need is to have a simple drone-mountable camera system and use our software,” he said.

Swarming drones could be used elsewhere, such as mapping forest fires or other natural disasters. It’s possible they could be used to help locate people trapped after an earthquake by changing the type of cameras used, the press release from UB said.

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