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February 5, 2020
Researcher creates drone system to give early warning on natural disasters and act as wifi hotspot

A researcher at Queen’s University Belfast has invented a low cost telecommunication system using drones which provides early warning on natural disasters and acts as a wifi ‘hotspot’ when phone signal is disrupted during extreme weather such as earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes.

Last year there were 850 “natural catastrophes” across the world – a jump from 740 in 2017 and 500 a decade earlier - according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Dr Trung Duong, a Reader in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a researcher at the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology at Queen’s University, has first-hand experience of battling extreme weather conditions.

He explains: “Currently warning systems for natural disasters are very expensive, not always effective and are often easily damaged.

“In Vietnam, monitoring stations are placed alongside the river which cover a small area. 25 of these stations would take around six months to build and cost nearly £0.5m. They only last four years but if extreme weather strikes, they are almost always damaged as they are so close to the water.”

He says: “An added complication is that when a natural disaster hits, people in the affected communities find it very difficult to communicate with emergency services and their families as phone signal and wifi is often disrupted due to the weather and also because so many people are using the system at one time.”

Dr Duong has developed low cost telecommunication system using drones that can fly over a large surface areas, taking real-time measurements and providing information about weather conditions. It is known as a “Catastrophe-Tolerant Telecommunications Network” (CTTN) and is critical to emergency missions such as rescue teams and emergency medical services.

Amateur drones can last for around 30 minutes when flying over a large area but Dr Duong’s system will last three to five times longer than this and is not as expensive as a professional drone.

It can also provide seamless connectivity in a crisis situation if networks are destroyed or compromised. In order to prolong the battery life of the drones, Dr Duong developed a mechanism for allocating resources across the system in real-time, which maximised the system’s energy efficiency.

The research was supported by the Newtown Fund under the Newton Institutional Link programme with Nong Lam University and Newton Prize with Duy Tan University, and recently received a best paper award at IEEE Globecom 2019 in Hawaii, the most prestigious conference in the field of telecommunications.

“The battery life of a drone often does not last long and those that can last up to 30 minutes are very expensive. Our challenge was to create an inexpensive wireless system employed drones that could be flown over a large surface area for a longer period of time but also with extra capacity in providing early warnings and wireless connectivity in the aftermath of disaster.

“The research could make a real difference to people living in areas exposed to extreme weather and it will certainly make the work of emergency services much easier. It should also help to save money, the CTTN is much more durable than the current river stations and is 100 times cheaper.”

The system has already been adopted by disaster management authorities in Vietnam through the Disaster Management Authority.

Dr Le Quang Tuan, Deputy Director of Science Technology and International Cooperation for the Vietnam Disaster Management Authority, commented: “International partnerships and research collaborations are vital in solving global problems and we are delighted to be working with Queen’s University Belfast.

“Dr Duong’s research will have a very positive impact for the people of Vietnam when they face difficult and extreme weather. As well as monitoring extreme weather conditions, Dr Duong’s system will allow us to communicate with emergency services and each other when we are faced with an emergency situation.

“Working together we can achieve so much more and this will help us to create a safer society for all of our citizens.”

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