Student-made helicopter helped relief efforts after Sichuan quake

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2008, 12:00am

Relief workers racing to reach survivors of the Sichuan earthquake in May had hi-tech help from an unexpected source - two computer-controlled unmanned helicopters that were developed by students at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The eyes in the sky were mounted with high-resolution cameras that beamed live video to relief teams, enabling them to assess levels of damage and manpower needed to clear landslides before sending workers into cut-off areas.

'Using unmanned miniature helicopters is much cheaper and safer than using real helicopters,' said HKUST postgraduate student Wang Tao, 27, who helped develop the helicopters. 'They can be sent into areas that would be too dangerous for manned helicopters without the risk of casualties.'

The research team - which founded a Shenzhen-based company to market their inventions - offered its services to mainland authorities free of charge and helped relief efforts around 12 towns in the north of the province.

Mr Wang, who talked yesterday about the project team's experience and demonstrated a prototype of the aircraft used, said they had been able to ease the demands on the PLA's limited helicopter fleet. The robotic helicopters are based on remote-controlled model aircraft, but have been fitted with a gyroscopic stabilising system that allows the craft to hover.

An onboard computer linked to a GPS receiver can fly the aircraft along a pre-set course - even if it loses radio contact with its base station.

'We have been researching the unmanned flight mechanism for the past three years,' he said. 'Our control console can be fitted to various types of model aircraft.'

Mr Wang said that although the technology was not entirely new, his team had developed ways to produce the equipment more cheaply.

'This sort of technology has previously been very expensive and largely limited to military uses,' he said. 'We have taken something that used to cost several hundred thousand dollars and reduced it to just a few thousand dollars.'

Mr Wang is studying for a master of philosophy at the university's department of electrical and computer engineering.

He said their company, Shenzhen Dajiang Creative Technology, had also hired out the helicopters for use in aerial filming and to help fire crews tackle big blazes. 'We can send a helicopter to film the burning building, and the fire services use that footage to determine their strategy.'