During a natural disaster, it can be difficult for aid workers to get to those affected by the event. To make the situation a bit easier, a group of scientists from the University of Exeter and individuals from FoAM Kernow have created a new app geared toward helping first responders with navigation.

Utilizing on-board sensors that already come with smartphones, the UAV Toolkit app generates spatial data when the device is suspended from a lightweight aerial platform, like a drone. Once the app and phone are airborne, they can capture images according to the user's specifications.

The goal is to use geographical data to map landscapes and provide critical data to humanitarian aid workers during events such as natural disasters.

"Currently the sensors on mobile phones harvest data about their users and send this information to third-parties," said Karen Anderson, a remote sensing scientist at the University of Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute's DroneLab. "We wanted to start using this data for beneficial purposes such as community-led mapping. Alongside recent developments with lightweight drones and a growing public appetite for open-source, free to use mapping data, we are excited to see the variety of mapping applications for which our new app will be used."

In a more basic sense, the app would take advantage of a smartphone's existing GPS, compass, accelerometer and camera. It could collect data from above, whether it's flown with a kite or drone.

"There are now more mobile devices than humans on Earth," Anderson explains. "This global distribution of devices offers a great opportunity for democratic mapping but until now, there have been no apps that exploit the comprehensive sensor sets in modern devices in this way."

It's also worth noting that the app is open source, meaning it can be "live-coded" for specific functions, depending on the situation at hand. This can give users more control over the use of the smartphone's camera, for example, once it's airborne.

"We found that the best results were obtained when the phone was attached to a stable single line kite or to a gliding drone so as to limit the vibrations, but there will undoubtedly be a wide range of ways of capturing high quality data using this app and we are really keen to learn about the ways it is being used," said Dave Griffiths, director at FoAM Kernow and programmer of the app.

The app can be downloaded for free in the Google Play Store, and its full coding is available on GitHub.

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