NC State students from three different departments joined together in a year-long competition to create drones capable of assisting firefighters. 

The drones will be able to use infrared sensors to find people in a burning building, locate the origin of the fire and detect impending dangers to firefighters. 

”The first and most important thing is that this will one day actually help real f iref ighters save the life of a person stranded in a burning building or save the life of a firefighter,” said Mihail Sichitiu, a professor in electrical and computer engineering. 

Unlike the majority of research projects at NC State, the firefighting drone will be mainly built by NC State students spl it into nine teams of three or four, totaling about 30 students. 

“What we are doing is developing a drone that can go inside a building on fire as quickly as possible, identify potential people that can still be in the building while at the same time being very safe,” Larry Silverberg said. Silverberg is a professor from the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and also one of the four NC State faculty members leading the effort. 

In addition to using special infrared sensors designed to detect people and pets, the drone will also have sensors designed to detect dangerous areas of a structure that firefighters normally wouldn’t be able to know right away. 

“When a building is on fire, the firefighter doesn’t know where the fire started,” Silverberg said. “If a f iref ighter is on the first f loor and the fire is in the basement and the f loor collapses, the firefighter can be killed.” 

The drone will have special sensors designed to check how hot the f loor and ceilings are in order to prevent firefighters from getting injured or killed. 

The project will emphasize four components in the fall semester. The sensor package, the airframe, the operator control and feedback package and control module 

One of the main objectives is to make all the four components relatively inexpensive. 

“Firef ighters are among the poorer funded organizations, so if we make a drone to help firefighters, it has to be simple and inexpensive,” Silverberg said. 

Student teams will compete against each other to build the best components during the fall semester. Once the four components are completed, the drone will be assembled in spring and will be tested in an actual burning building. 

Four faculty members, Rudra Dutta, a professor of computer science, Sichitiu and Edgar Lobaton, professors of electrical and computer engineering, and Silverberg are working on the project and also providing guidance to students participating in the project. 

“The four professors all have a lot of experience in algorithms,” Silverberg said. “The reason this hasn’t been done before is because we have to make mathematical algorithms to make it possible. Three of the four components really involve algorithms. All of us are algorithm people and we also love drones. We think they are a lot of fun.” 

The f iref ighting drone project will allow multiple departments to work on it. 

“This is a project that brings together three departments: Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Computer Science,” Sichitiu said. “Inter-departmental collaboration is not as common as it should probably be and this is one excellent example of such collaboration.” 

If the results of the project are successful, there are plans to have companies manufacture the drones and sell them to firefighters. 

“We have companies that are invited that will participate more in the spring and we want this to be picked up by companies who could hire some of the students and get this out as soon as possible so it’s available to firefighters,” Silverberg said. “We have folks who are involved in the Wake County firefighters and we have companies that could become the suppliers.” 

In addition to helping f iref ighters, the project will also help students who are working on it by creating opportunities for them in the future. 

“Another thing is for students to apply the knowledge they learned,” Sichitiu said. “Students told me they are attracted to this because they can apply the theory to the challenge. The drone industry is a billion dollar industry and this is a great way to prepare them for it by having them have hands-on experience and preparing them to be productive.”