UAEU drone technology team widen focus to providing crowd-control support from the air

The scope of a pioneering drone technology project at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) could be extended to support crowd control and increase safety at major events. 

A team within UAEU’s College of Information Technology has already created a prototype of a drone that is designed to provide additional support to search-and-rescue missions following natural disasters such as earthquakes, using survivors’ mobile phone signals to pinpoint their location and enable help to reach them as quickly as possible.

Now other potential uses of the technology are also being considered, with the UAEU team – led by Dr Abderrahmane Lakas, Associate Professor at the College’s Department of Computer and Network Engineering – widening their focus to look at how it could support authorities and emergency services in controlling and safeguarding large crowds around sporting events, festivals, and busy facilities such as Metro stations.

“The use of drones for crowd control was principally motivated by the large gatherings expected during the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai, and the need to keep crowd movement under control,” explained Dr Lakas.

“The large number of planned events and activities in the UAE are expected to attract a great number of visitors, thereby causing many safety and logistics issues. In planning the movement and flow of these crowds, we anticipate that drones can be of great help.”

The airborne crowd-control system would work through drones being deployed over a large gathering of people, and using radio-scanning techniques to estimate numbers, determine their location, and monitor their movement. By uploaded all this information to cloud storage networks, event organizers and authorities will be able to better position and manage their resources, and ensure the flow of people remains smooth and safe.

“The drone’s onboard scanning device uses a technique based on the detection of radio signals emitted by the mobile phones held by members of the crowd below,” said Dr Lakas. “The information carried in these signals allows us to determine the size of the crowd within the area covered by the drone, and also to track movement.

“The collected data is then used by the organizers to generate a heat-map, indicating the various population densities within a given area.”

The crowd-control application for drones is currently being developed to prototype level at UAEU, with Dr Lakas saying that the aim is for these techniques to be perfected in time to potentially be used around Expo 2020 Dubai, while also supporting crowd management at major events and gatherings such as New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The team’s prototype for its disaster-recovery drone was exhibited earlier this year at IDEX 2017, an international defense technology conference, and the UAE Drones For Good competition. It has been designed to support first-response teams, especially during the ‘golden hour’ – the period immediately after a disaster or emergency when there is the best chance of casualties surviving. 

The drone performs the same function as a GPS satellite, locating people’s mobile phone signals by flying from one place to another, getting a fix on their position, estimating the distance to the victim and relaying information to rescuers.

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Aug 8, 2018