Rice Students Develop Sensor-Carrying Drones, APIs
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 | Comments

Six Rice electrical and computer engineering students developed hardware and software to coordinate sensor-carrying drones that can evaluate local atmospheric conditions, measure electronic signals such as Wi-Fi and map areas in three dimensions.

The team spent weeks building and testing drones customized to carry sensors and then writing the massive amount of code to run them. New application programming interfaces (APIs) will let users customize the drones to meet their own sensing requirements.

"The system is designed to be application-agnostic in the sense that you can use our APIs and libraries to build any kind of autonomous solution that you want," said team member Kevin Lin. "Based on what we've seen at the Olympics and other presentational shows, you could totally use our software to build something like that."

The team spent the entire school year writing more than 10,000 lines of code and testing one drone and then multiple drones. Each drone is equipped with a Wi-Fi dongle that allows it to form a mesh network that enables communications across long distances without requiring a central access point. They're also equipped to avoid obstacles and track altitude through onboard light detection and ranging instruments. Each drone uses a Raspberry Pi as its central processor, and most can lift between 1 and 2 kilograms.

All those capabilities helped the team test several applications, including its primary goal of sensing signal strength from a stationary Wi-Fi hot spot in the middle of a Rice athletic field. "That was useful because it showcased two drones coordinating and sharing their data," Lin said. "They just looped through the field and took measurements at all the points we programmed. We fed that into an algorithm that localized the hot spot."

"Hurricane Harvey came shortly after we started working on this project, so there were thoughts of attaching gas sensors to our drones," student Emilio Del Vecchio said. "When some of the refineries started leaking gas, there were human health hazards. So, our idea was people could possibly use these drones to measure the magnitude of a leak and determine where people shouldn't be allowed to go.”

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