Swarms of tiny drones could revolutionize how first responders see disasters thanks to work from senior cadets at the Air Force Academy.
The miniature aircraft designed by cadets in the school's aeronautical engineering could map wildfires, radiation leaks or chemical attacks quickly, feeding information to troops or civil authorities. And, because they're tiny and disposable, the drones could do the work for cheap and without risking human lives.
"We came up with a canister that holds 50 of them," explained senior cadet Dylan Juedeman as he showed off the small, black planes that would be dispersed over a disaster area like confetti.
The academy idea was spurred by a contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that challenged cadets and midshipmen to develop new ideas that could help troops on the battlefield.
The academy's basic idea was using swarms of drones to help protect troops from chemical attacks. Cadets quickly learned that a simple idea can be tough to execute.
"We kept finding new things we needed to address," said senior cadet Alex Carlson, who will train to fly for the Navy when he graduates Thursday.
To overcome problems, the cadets kept things simple. The small drones are unpowered gliders - picture a high-tech version of a paper airplane. Those gliders are packed in a cannister that's carried aloft by another simple drone.
Getting the gliders out of the cannister was troublesome. Carlson said ideas that were tried and abandoned included blowing the gliders out with compressed air or throwing them with a device similar to a baseball pitching machine.
Instead, the cadets found something far more reliable to launch their tiny planes - gravity.
In flight tests over the academy, the students were able to launch their tiny drones and disperse them over a wide area.
The next step is adding sensors to the 1-ounce drones to send information back to a receiver. More cadets will continue that part of the research next year.
The successful flight test brought smiles to Juedeman and Carlson. The research project - like projects assigned to all academy seniors - was a graduation requirement.
The cadets earned a good grade from their academy professors and in the DARPA contest, where the little drones won the top prize.
Juedeman, who is headed to Air Force pilot training, said the drone idea is far from science fiction.
"Within the next 15 years, their should be a fieldable version of this," he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240