How Cranfield is using UAVs to assist accident investigation

By Luke Clark - June 26, 2019

We are utilising new drone technology, otherwise known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), for investigations, and pioneering new 3D modelling techniques on accident sites.

Impact of our research

We are aiming to enhance current accident investigation techniques by flying a range of drones (also called Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems or RPAS) with a wide array of sensors. This could revolutionise how evidence is gathered, analysed and then relayed to the public and the wider safety community.

Also, we are pioneering new 3D modelling techniques in order to provide accurate, measureable 3D models of accident sites (using the video and stills captured for evidence collection, and then applying surveying and mapping techniques to convert these images to 3D models). These can then be used for investigative analysis and as graphic representation in final accident reports.

Why the research was commissioned

Accident sites are often dangerous or difficult places to work. There are always hazards that will require the accident investigator to expose themselves to risk and these can take many forms (environmental, physical, material, biological and psychological). These need to be addressed as the investigator needs to collect as much evidence – particularly perishable evidence which might be washed or blown away, or destroyed – as quickly as possible.

Drones allow the investigator to conduct a dynamic risk assessment from a distance while also capturing the evidence required with video and stills. Previously, helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – expensive and not always practical – might have been chartered to provide this service.

This imagery is then, in real time, also used to assist with communicating the situation to other agencies. This imagery can confirm the extent of the accident site and even control access if required. 3D modelling techniques in order to provide accurate, measureable 3D models of accident sites also then become a reality.

We are aiming to perfect the applications outlined above using Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) drone technology to design a reliable and accurate methodology which can be employed by investigators around the world.

UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the UK Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) are just two of the state-level investigation agencies currently using drones. With rapid improvements in this technology, some of the best results are being achieved with the smallest and most readily available systems.

Why us?

We are leading the way in the utilisation of new and innovative drone technology which gives us the edge when investigating serious accidents and incidents.

We are constantly looking to the future and it is our aim to continue to be the centre of excellence by continuing to test theories and push investigative / research boundaries on accident sites.

Facilities used

We are extremely well-placed to conduct this research. With an active airfield, and access to many different forms of wreckage, we can quickly stage accident sites for research purposes. These research opportunities are often combined with ongoing investigator training courses, so the lessons identified can be applied in almost real time.

To find out more about what it might be like to study a Transport Systems course at Cranfield University, check out the video below.