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Drone swarms to inspect infrastructure throughout Europe

A new Danish-led research project will allow swarms of advanced, autonomous drones to keep a watchful eye on bridges and railways and report if something needs to be repaired.

[Translate to English:] Projektet Drones4Safety har i alt ni partnere fra hele Europa. Fra Aarhus Universitet deltager bl.a. lektor Rune Hylsberg Jacobsen (tv). Foto: Peer Klercke.

With a funding injection of more than DKK 26 million from Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Danish researchers in an international collaboration project are hoping to develop swarms of autonomous drones that can inspect important infrastructure such as railways and bridges.

It is hoped that the invention can help to avoid accidents caused by visible neglect and corrosion, like the collapse in 2018 of the Moray Bridge in Italy, when 43 people lost their lives.

Today, such inspections are performed by trained helicopter pilots and are therefore very costly. The idea is to have autonomous drones perform the task instead, and they can perform it better, faster, safer and much cheaper.

The project is called Drones4Safety and is headed by the University of Southern Denmark. Aarhus University is represented in the project through the Department of Engineering, where Associate Professor Rune Hylsberg Jacobsen will get the swarm of autonomous drones to communicate with each other, carry out tasks together, self-charge, and avoid colliding with each other or with other obstacles:

"Like birds, every single drone in the swarm will have its own role. This requires a lot of new algorithms and research, and we are pleased to be able to contribute. It's a very innovative project, and we have talented partners in the project from all over Europe," he says.

Each drone in the swarm will be equipped with a camera and artificial intelligence that will enable it to detect defects, cracks or other problems in the infrastructure. The drones will fly together in swarms and will report with GPS coordinates when something is not as it should be.

The idea is also for the drones are to be able to self-charge directly from railway cables or nearby high-voltage cables.

The project has a total of nine partners from all over Europe and it is headed by Associate Professor Emad Samuel Malki Ebeid from the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute at the University of Southern Denmark.

The project is expected to reduce inspection costs by as much as EUR 15 billion annually.

"We want to create a system that saves time and money, and that ensures reliable and sustainable inspection. But more importantly, the system will have the potential to prevent disasters like the one we saw in Genoa in 2018, and knowing that is a great motivation for all of us," says Emad Samuel Malki Ebeid.

In addition to Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark, Fraunhofer IMS, Delair, EUCentre, NEAT SL, Automotive & Rail Innovation Center, Deep Blue SRL and Eurocontrol are participating in the project. The project will run from 2020 to 2023.

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The project is just one of a number of exciting projects that are currently in full swing at AU Engineering, Aarhus University. You can read about many other projects in our profile magazine here.

Rune Hylsberg Jacobsen
Associate Professor, Aarhus University
Mail: rhj@eng.au.dk
Tel.: +45 41893252