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Making Drone Traffic More Safe, Efficient, and Economical

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, are populating our skies with applications spanning the spectrum from hobbies, to organ transport, to air taxis. The multitude and heterogeneity of these devices pose numerous critical challenges, including a host of safety concerns. With those challenges in mind, the National Science Foundation has awarded Principal Investigator Michael Zink, from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his colleagues a two-year, $750,000 grant to develop new architectures and tools for the safe, efficient, and economic operation of drones. See NSF website for details of this grant. 

This vital project, called “FlyNet,” is a collaborative effort among UMass Amherst, the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California, and the University of Missouri. The co-principal investigators for the new NSF project are Anirban Mandal (RENCI), Ewa Deelman (USC/ISI), and Prasad Calyam (University of Missouri).

As the four-institution research team says, drones pose a variety of pressing challenges that must be addressed by the science community.

For example, according to the researchers, “because of their characteristics and flight modalities, drones need very detailed, close-to-the-ground weather information for safe operations, and their on-the-fly data processing and energy consumption need to be handled intelligently.”

The NSF FlyNet project will provide an architecture and tools that will enable scientists to include edge computing devices and, in particular, drones in their computational workflows. This capability is critical for low-latency and ultra-low-latency applications like drone video analytics and flight route planning.

According to Zink and his colleagues, FlyNet will allow researchers and drone application developers to address these and other operational drone challenges by using advanced computer and network technologies. According to Zink’s research team, the proposed work will include four major tasks.

“First,” as the team members explain, “cutting edge network and compute infrastructure will be integrated into the overall architecture to make them available as part of scientific workflows. Second, in-network processing at the network edge and core will be made available through new programming abstractions. Third, enhanced end-to-end monitoring capabilities will be offered. Finally, the architecture will leverage the Pegasus Workflow Management System to integrate in-network and edge processing capabilities.”

The researchers go on to say that providing best practices and tools that enable the use of advanced cyberinfrastructure for scientific workflows related to drones will have a broad impact on society in the long term. “The science drivers that will be supported by this project have the potential to increase the safety and efficiency of drone applications,” as the team members say, “an area that will grow in significance in the foreseeable future.”

The project team will also enable access to a rich set of resources for researchers and educators from a diverse set of institutions – especially historically black colleges and universities, community colleges, and women’s colleges – to further democratize research. In addition, collaboration with the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Site in Consumer Networking will promote participation of under-served/under-represented students in project activities.

Read the UMass News Office story here.

(July 2020)