Flying “toys” may someday
carry mobile information networks © Aug. 9, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications

Will Perry, a sophomore computer science student, practices with a UAV he is adapting to carry and relay a wireless signal.

photos by Jordan Silverman, staffWill Perry, a sophomore computer science student, practices with a UAV he is adapting to carry and relay a wireless signal.

With a brush of his finger, computer science student Will Perry sent a four-bladed “quadcopter” sailing over a patch of lawn, green grass fluttering in its wake. After demonstrating a few maneuvers, he brought it gently to the ground.

Commonly called a drone, this unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] is made of nylon and carbon fiber and available to consumers for about $400. The devices are generally used for fun, education and aerial photography. Perry, who attends Norwich University, has other ideas.

Each UAV is a self-generated Wi-Fi “hotspot” that affords the user control from a smart phone or other device. Each has an onboard computer that controls stability and maneuvering. He believes this connectivity can be expanded into a floating network.

The device, a Parrot A.R. Drone 2.0., is made of materials similar to a bike helmet.

The device, a Parrot A.R. Drone 2.0., is made of materials similar to a bike helmet.

“We’re envisioning a cloud of these things,” said Perry, a civilian student at the Northfield, Vt., university; the oldest private military college in the country. He’s studying computer science as well as computer security and information assurance.

He imagines a cluster of drones, from five to a thousand, communicating with one another, spreading wireless connectivity for miles in every direction. It could be used for combat or emergency management operations when there’s no time to establish or rebuild information technology infrastructure.

“This is just another way to expend that connectivity without having to go in and build all the groundwork,” said Perry, one of several dozen Norwich students who received a grant to spend the summer of 2013 researching ideas.

Networks could be relatively permanent, he said. As the technology of these quadcopters evolve, they’re staying aloft longer. Batteries are holding charges longer and solar power may be added to the system.

“If you had a platform that could provide enough juice to the transmitter, theoretically it could stay up forever,” he said, adding that UAVs could be sent up to replace others removed from a network for repair or maintenance.

That reality is a way off, however. Right now, a modest breeze makes it difficult to keep the quadcopter steady. Playing with the device, which has a heft and feel similar to a bike helmet, is a lot of fun, he said, but hardly the substance of the project.

His initial idea was to make the UAV a mobile extension of a common household computer router, but he encountered problems immediately. The Linux operating system that enables the device’s computer was not interpreting the software Perry needed, and he was unable to find the tools and libraries that would make it work.

After three weeks, he decided to add a simple computer card, called a Raspberry Pi, to allow the onboard computer to focus on flight, as it was designed. The new computer would be programed for networking: communicating with other computers, understanding their locations and passing online traffic.

Computer science Prof. Jeremy Hansen, who mentored Perry during the summer project, said the idea for the UAV network came out of a networking class he led. The class often focused on “mesh” networking—a practice of using participating computers and devices to share resources and relay information to other users, rather than just capturing information. As the price of these quadcopters dropped, there was discussion of using them to create mobile networks.

Perry, a Wallingford, Vt., native who had just entered Norwich as a second-semester freshman in the spring of 2013, was ready to take the idea to another level, and worked with Hansen to apply for a summer fellowship and get an early start.

“He was working on this before the summer—before final exams,” said Hansen.

While people have explored the idea of using drones for a mobile network, most have utilized expensive, high-end equipment.

“We’re trying to get this so that it all works with consumer-grade stuff," said Perry. “A regular household router should be fine.”

This proved more challenging than expected, and Perry eventually switched to a laptop computer for relaying the signal, according to Hansen, who added that software problems that take weeks to resolve are common in this type of research project.

“That really gave him a sense of what it’s like to work in the real world,” said Hansen. “We would laugh ... this should be so easy, but it isn’t!”

As Perry is still in his second year, there is time to keep testing and refining the UAV, and Hansen said he looks forward to seeing what their work yields. They plan to purchase a second drone and Raspberry Pi for testing in a more realistic environment.

“It’s an idea whose day has come, certainly,” said Hansen.