Christchurch and Japanese academics are developing new drone technologies that would be able to locate people buried in wreckage following natural disasters.

Canterbury University's Wireless Research Centre has been hosting Professor Ryuji Kohno and his research colleagues from Yokohama National University, Japan.

The Japanese researchers are collaborating on the use of drones for search and rescue in large-scale emergencies, such as earthquakes.

WRC Research Leader Dr Graeme Woodward said researchers were developing technology to enable swarms of drones to locate, and potentially triage, people by flying formations over major disaster areas after earthquakes and tsunamis.


The recent establishment of the university's DroneLab coincided with a call for proposals from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science and the Royal Society of New Zealand to work in technologies that can assist in major disasters.

Japan is prone to earthquakes, with the 2011 Tohoku 9.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami killing nearly 16,000 people.

That struck a month after the February 22, 2011, earthquake killed 185 people in Christchurch.

Canterbury's Dr Woodward, Dr Andreas Willig and Kelvin Barnsdale joined Prof Kohno to suggest using swarms of drones to fly over designated disaster areas to locate and retrieve information about injured or trapped people.

"Professor Kohno has significant expertise in Body Area Networks (BANs) which are the devices the drones would use both to locate casualties and to collect data about the status of those located," Dr Woodward said.

BANs are interconnected devices which are either implanted, attached or carried on the body, he said.

Dr Woodward said WRC researchers were looking at different ways a BAN signal could be located by the swarm, and the different types of signals that may need to be catered for.

The research has two objectives; to use multiple drones to locate people under rubble, and to collect information contained in the BANs those people are wearing.

Another aspect of the research is around operation of the swarm.

Dr Woodward said ideally they would want one or two people to control the swarm, with the drones able to communicate between themselves.

"We are also looking for complementary projects that can provide further funding to develop drone swarm capabilities, and have had some success with Scion around detection and monitoring of hotspots in bushfire situations," he said.