Drones offer quick way to survey disaster zones

A fleet of rapid-response drones could someday be used to assess damage immediately following a massive earthquake like the one that struck Mexico this month.

A University of Illinois graduate student headed to Mexico City today has developed a computer algorithm that can “see” and interpret structural problems in buildings and convey that information to emergency response teams.

The technology will also allow engineers to determine which buildings are safe to enter and which need to be inspected further.

Civil engineering graduate student Vedhus Hoskere, assisted by UI senior Michael Neal, will be taking drone video images of buildings in Mexico City to test the algorithm’s ability to assess damage from the recent quake.

“His goal is rapid response during or after a disaster, to do a quick survey and assess where personnel and materials should be sent to most effectively respond,” said his adviser, civil engineering Professor B.F. Spencer.

Hoskere will use the drones to do aerial reconnaissance, taking video images and using computer vision and machine-learning techniques to identify damaged structures, Spencer said.

Hoskere has already trained the drone’s computer to recognize images of structural defects in buildings, such as corrosion, cracks or chips in concrete. The computer algorithm processes the images as digitized bits, just as humans process light and colors and shapes to recognize images.

“In computer vision, we train the computer to recognize that this is a bridge and there’s no damage, and here’s a concrete building and there are cracks all along the structure,” said Spencer, who co-founded a startup company that developed wireless sensors to monitor strains on bridges and other structures.

Through machine learning, or artificial intelligence, the computer is then able to recognize new images that it hasn’t seen before, from a real-life disaster.


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