A West Virginia University mathematics researcher has developed an algorithm to mobilize unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in team missions.

The new technology allows a team of UAVs to fly autonomously to complete complex coordinated missions.

“Someone on the ground sets an area to be scanned by the UAVs. Within the area, the person selects different priority points for information-gathering. The algorithm then sets what coordinates are surveyed by which UAVs, and determines a plan for them so that it also covers as much of the area as possible without depleting the battery life,” said Marjorie Darrah, whose project is funded by the Army Research Laboratory.

“The technology is not bypassing the ground station, not taking over the flight plan. It is just giving the ground station help to complete a complex mission with three planes at once.”

The new genetic algorithm is designed for the Raven, a UAV used by United States military and Special Operations Command as well as military operations in Austria, Estonia, Italy, Denmark, Spain and the Czech Republic.

More than 19,000 Ravens are in service, making them one of the most widely adopted UAV systems in the world. However, they can only be purchased in packages of three. Because they are generally flown individually, this research is an opportunity to use the technology more efficiently.

“(Ravens) are never really used in the capacity of what’s at their disposal,” Darrah said. “What we’ve developed can encourage the military to use a piece of add-on software that works along with the ground station.”

Military operations typically use UAVs for wide area searches and surveillance, enemy air defense and conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, such as securing a military base or a specific area.

Civilian operations can also utilize UAVs in teams with the genetic algorithm. The team-approach is useful for monitoring biological threats to agriculture, detecting fires, conducting transportation surveillance and managing natural disasters.

Marcela Mera Trujillo, a mathematics graduate student in Darrah’s lab, is working to use a similar genetic algorithm approach to employ various mapping techniques in another civilian application. She is creating highly detailed, high resolution 3-D maps using multirotors that fly over structures and capture images from many different angles.

“This is an idea (Trujillo) is working on with 4-D Tech Solutions, a small business in Morgantown,” Darrah said. “It is a good model for the University to work with government labs and small business. Through a summer internship, Trujillo has helped develop a provisional patent for the 3-D mapping algorithm.”

Darrah’s research team was featured on the cover of the fall 2016 edition of DSIAC Journal, the Defense Systems Information Analysis Center’s quarterly magazine that introduces new technology to all branches of the military within the Department of Defense.

“15 years ago, this (technology) was an idea. Now it’s a reality,” Darrah said. “Now that we are seeing how the Raven is being used in many countries around the world—it’s versatile, hand-launched, robust—we can encourage people to use the technology in new ways.”