The emergence of 5G networks is a clear indicator that the wildest technological fantasies of the future are, in fact, at our doorstep. The next level up in network connectivity means that devices connected to 5G will be able to send and receive enormous amounts of information faster and more reliably than ever before. Our hyperconnected future, with smart cities, smart agriculture, robotically assisted surgeries, and drones carrying out crucial tasks, will need a network that can move data in a handful of milliseconds at the most. Transitioning to the new network will come with its own share of challenges, but the opportunities opened by it will spawn multiple billion-dollar industries which present Canada with the chance to take the lead. Regardless of the evolving industries taking hold here, there is a high likelihood that one or more aspects will be influenced by the use of autonomous drones. Whether they be for delivering packages, conducting structural inspections on telecommunications towers, conducting search and rescue operations in remote regions, or informing farmers of a disease outbreak in a field of crops, drones will play an essential role in our increasingly connected world.
Autonomy in drones opens a veritable cornucopia in applications, however underlying this multitude of uses lies a common issue, namely, how to create a system for drones to coordinate themselves. Currently, civil and commercial drones can fly for about 30 minutes before needing to be recharged. In a delivery system that would require a parcel to be sent from a warehouse in Windsor to the recipient in Toronto, a system of linked drones would be required to pass the parcel in an ultra-modern daisy chain.
This type of coordination becomes much more complex as the number of departing and arriving drones increases exponentially. To orchestrate such a system, drones must be able to communicate with one another en route. When the stakes are high, like drones conducting a search and rescue operation, the ability to communicate with each other in real time can be a literal matter of life and death.
Anwar Haque and his research group in the Department of Computer Science at Western University are developing an end-to-end drone delivery solution. They have developed algorithms to extend the range in which drones can be used to deliver parcels and to optimize the routes for deliveries. They have developed an inter-drone communication protocol to ensure that drones can coordinate with one another. “With our work, multiple drones will be able to autonomously coordinate amongst themselves to orchestrate complex tasks efficiently,” says Haque. This model utilizes a novel flight path planning algorithm jointly developed with Roberto Solis-Oba, also of the Department of Computer Science, to reduce the amount of heavy memory storage required to compute a feasible path on board. Autonomous and energy efficient drones, enabled by the Haque group’s algorithms will form an essential framework on which 5G-enabled functionality can be built.
Delegating certain tasks to drones will allow for higher productivity; PwC projects that Amazon could save 2000-8000% of its last-mile delivery costs by utilizing drones to deliver parcels*. Inspections of telecommunications towers currently require a person to painstakingly scale several hundred feet; one drone can execute the same task in a fraction of the time and with no safety risk.
Estimates of drone productivity boosts in the telecommunications industry exceed $6 billion. Likewise, drone solutions in agriculture save the industry over $30 billion by improving fertilizer use efficiency and soil analysis. Drones are even being developed to provide automatic cardiac defibrillation, projected to improve heart attack survival rates by up to 80% as paramedic travel time to patients is reduced considerably.
The Haque group’s solution to drone coordination will play a key role in bringing their anticipated benefits to the lives of Canadians.
*PwC projects that “Sending a 2-kg package within a 10 km radius in the US by ground transport costs Amazon $2 to $8, compared with just 10 cents using a drone.”