A multi-disciplinary academic and industry team is developing semi-autonomous robotic helicopters for search and rescue operations.

The UAVs will search for people in isolated regions, monitor large-area disasters such as floods or forest fires, sample gas emissions over industrial disaster sites and act as a communication platform when the regular infrastructure is down.

The project is led by Prof Steve Hales of University College London, which together with Oxford University Computing Laboratory will contribute computing, sensor design and helicopter platform expertise. Prof Gerard Parr of Ulster University's telecommunications department and Prof Sally McClean from the mathematics department will work on communication, control and data management.

'We had the novel idea of combining the various intelligent sensors, the airframe and the engineering with flight-path modelling and telecommunications to form this multidisciplinary project for intelligent UAVs,' said Parr. 'We chose a rotor-based platform for stability during search and rescue operations.'

The project aims to send 10 to 12 interacting robot helicopters, working in groups of three or four, to cover a large area in the shortest possible time, without crashing into each other. If, for example, a rambler was missing in the Lake District, the UAVs would use an algorithm to quickly scan the largest possible area using infrared and other sensors. If one UAV detected its target — such as a heat source or mobile phone signal — it could break off from its formation flight to investigate and relay its findings back to an operator.

The UAVs could fly at up to 30mph and stay in the air for up to half an hour, depending on their payload. A key challenge will be energy management, to keep them operational as long as possible.

They could also be manually controlled from a mobile command base such as a jeep or manned aircraft. They would be fitted with appropriate sensors for their mission, which could include heat sensitive cameras, gas particulate filters, wireless communication equipment and GPS technology.

The teams were awarded a £2m grant under the government's WINES III (Wireless Intelligent Networked Systems) research programme for the project, which runs until 2012.

They will be supported by industrial partners including Thales, BAE Systems, Communications Research Centre, BT Research Laboratories, Boeing and the Home Office Science Development Branch.

Berenice Baker