Amanda Maxwell

Mar 14th 2020

Cognitive Automation: Drones for Disaster Relief


Northrop Grumman engineers Josh Saunders and Mark Sakaguchi are programming a self-thinking quadcopter using cognitive automation, which will allow the vehicle to fly intelligently and respond quickly in emergencies and for disaster relief. This is just the beginning — unmanned aerial vehicle technology is evolving rapidly, and the possibilities are endless.

The Future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

As explained by Expert System, cognitive automation is neither machine learning nor pure artificial intelligence. It uses algorithms like natural language processing and data mining to bring ordered action in response to unstructured data.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that fly through narrow spaces without guidance from a human pilot. According to Quartz, the tiny quadcopters use sensors that monitor their surroundings then adjust to squeeze through windows.

Described by Harvard Business Review as the “internet of flying things,” UAVs can capture high-resolution aerial images of construction sites, which are often missed by street observation and satellites. These images help architects check construction sites for deviations from the computer-aided design file.

Other intelligent UAVs tackle routine but dangerous inspections so human don’t have to undergo the risk, according to IBM. Inspection drones connected with IBM Watson IoT can autonomously plot flight paths between cell towers or wind turbines to look at a loose wire or corrosion and log the damage. Deloitte, in collaboration with Energia and IBM Maximo, flies robotic inspectors around wind farm turbines, enabling closer inspection without climbing ladders. Space exploration can also benefit from cognitive autonomy.

Pushing the Limits

Saunders and Sakaguchi see cognitive automation playing a role in disaster relief as well. Their quadcopter could map victim location and status before rescuers enter a burning building. “It’s really interesting to get a machine to think for itself and to do what you want it to do,” said Saunders. “It pushes my limits but also I get to have a lot of fun, too.”

Interested in pushing your limits (and having fun)? Check out the Northrop Grumman Careers page to find your next big opportunity.