Researchers from the University of North Texas (UNT) have demonstrated an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of supplying Wi-Fi to disaster-struck areas with a range of up to 5 km (3.1 miles). The team says these figures represent a marked improvement on existing solutions and could lead to new forms of wireless communication.

"This technology would be very useful in disaster scenarios when the cell towers are down and there's no communication infrastructure," says Yan Wan, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at UNT and leader of the research project.

Where typical Wi-Fi antennas have a range of around 100 m (328 ft), Wan and her team were able to extend this by developing a directional antenna. The antenna rotates to automatically align with a target, serving to better maintain a strong communications link and prevent signal disruption, but there is still some way to go before it's real-world implementation.

"In order to enable the information dissemination between the rescue teams and control centers, we need to have a structure available to make this happen," Wan says. "And this is what we're trying to provide."

The damage to the communications infrastructure that often accompanies the destruction of buildings in storm-ravaged areas makes it difficult for response teams to communicate efficiently, and to keep disaster victims informed. In the past, we have seen drones equipped with hardware to provide networks in disaster zones, though the technology developed by the UNT team is said to hold such promise that it could give rise to an entirely new breed of wireless communication.

"We cannot rely on all our communications running through the ground or satellite," explains Wan. "So if we can have this technology develop for drone-to-drone or flight-to-flight communication, we can have better sensing, better coordination and better safety."

Wan has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to focus on developing this new generation of aviation systems.

Source: National Science Foundation