Experts in design, development and usage of drone systems for a wide array of scientific applications
The LJMU Drone Research Group uses off-the-shelf and custom in-house-built drones for a wide array of applications that range from mapping of archaeological sites to counting orangutans. The group consists of staff who specialise on various aspects of drone design and usage which allows us to design and develop custom-made drones for specific applications using a wide number of sensors.
We have used drones for conservation projects in many countries (e.g. Indonesia, Tanzania, Malaysia, UK). Our conservation projects focus, but are not restricted to, three conservation aspects: counting animals, mapping land cover and changes therein, and anti-poaching. We have expertise in data acquisition and data analyses.
Drone technology is very much in its infancy and there often isn’t an off-the-shelf solution for cutting-edge research applications. Within the group we have expertise in the design and development of novel drone systems ranging from fixed-wing platforms to single-rotor helicopters and multirotors weighing up to 25kg. With access to a number of testing sites, within the Liverpool region, across the UK and internationally, we are able to develop systems with integrated sensor payloads to undertake a wide array of scientific projects in real-world environments.
A portion of the work being undertaken in the group focuses specifically on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for policing and forensic science. Specialising in indoor exploration and mapping of crime scenes including structurally unsafe and hazardous material environments. This project therefore additionally includes the development of a small UAV and unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) specifically designed to operate within active indoor crime scenes. Despite these specific application-based developments, the scope of this project applies to all indoor and GPS denied environments. Although this project is focused towards indoors, the group’s interests include all forensic and policing-based applications.
Search and rescue
When viewing Search and Rescue (SAR) operations nothing works in isolation, this is especially true for data gathering systems. In order to successfully implement a UAV for a SAR team, it is important to consider the impact of its workload, accuracy and resources. Often in disaster relief and incident response situations requiring an UAV, the working environment is unknown. This could be due to the terrain shifting, building collapse or the available maps simply being out of date. While it is useful to map a whole area, time is the main limiting factor. We are working on using on-board sensors to generate variable density mapping resolution, in effect creating high resolution, high density paths around areas of interest, while retaining the context of the surrounding environment without the increased time taken to map the entire space. This system may be applied to a whole host of situations, for example, survivor location after an earthquake.
Regulation and standards
Regulations pertaining to drone use vary significantly around the world and are changing rapidly to keep pace with technological development. Our team has expertise in operating drones worldwide, with an in-depth knowledge of the different regulations. LJMU holds a Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO) from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) enabling our qualified pilots to operate within congested areas and undertake industry sponsored research. We are actively involved in the development of national and international standards for drone operation, BSI ACE/1/-/2 and ISO/TC 20/SC 16 respectively, to support their wider adoption in scientific research. This development involves overcoming challenges associated with both autonomous flight and operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) of a pilot.
The group is also working on photogrammetric 3D modelling with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), part of the work currently being undertaken includes novel image processing techniques to aid archaeological stratigraphy. The technique involves highlighting subtle colour tone changes to give more exact layers and incorporating the resulting images into a 3D model of the layers. This technique has also been tested on standard images to highlight areas of colours not easily visible in the original image, meaning it could be used for crime scene investigation and surveying as it provides a large difference to subtle changes in colour tone.
Mapping and localisation
One of our areas of research primarily focuses on the ability to locate and position unmanned agents within their operating environments. To achieve this, sophisticated recursive state estimation algorithms are designed which consistently provide updates on the current positional and orientation factors concerning a specific unmanned platform. Having the capability to track such characteristics of unmanned platforms enables the group to deploy three-dimensional mapping systems such as LiDAR units to generate highly detailed and precise point cloud representations of subject areas.
These 3D mapping surveys can be utilised to target applications such as terrain mapping, inspection, autonomous navigation and urban, suburban and highway mapping. Our R&D group handles the design and developmental stages of an unmanned system both on a hardware and software level to ensure that our custom designed systems operate according to our specifications, therefore enabling us to generate data which can be processed effectively.
Through collaborative work between astrophysicists and ecologists we are applying novel techniques to track and monitor animals using thermal infrared technology. We are currently developing a fully automated drone system for detection and classification of different species, this will allow development of more efficient conservation strategies.
DigiArt, which received a grant of €2.3 million through Horizon 2020, is aimed at providing a new, cost efficient solution to the capture, processing and display of cultural artefacts, changing the ways in which the public can interact with cultural objects and spaces.
This multidisciplinary partnership, led by Liverpool John Moores University allows archaeologists and anthropologists to collaborate with engineers and computer experts in order to address challenges and innovate. Together, they are developing new, cost-effective solutions that will combine images and information into immersive, interactive 3D displays.
Further work focuses on connecting individual artefacts online to create an ‘internet of historical things’. Such a virtual collection will enable experts and other enthusiasts to access high-quality material online, allowing them to study pieces that might otherwise have been difficult to access.
The ambition is to present artefacts, linked to their context, in an immersive display with virtual and/or with augmented reality.
Simulation and training
- World-class flight simulator facility for training staff and students
- Highly experienced pilots able to provide theoretical and practical training
Working within local and international field sites
Local field sites include a private field near Calderstones Park.