drones

Drone-deployed sterile mosquitoes could check spread of insect-borne illnesses

Posted by | aerospace, drones, Gadgets, hardware, Health, science, UAVs | No Comments

Drone deployment of sterile mosquitoes could accelerate efforts to control their populations and reduce insect-borne disease, according to a proof of concept experiment by a multi-institutional research team. The improved technique could save thousands of lives.

Mosquitoes are a public health hazard around the world, spreading infections like malaria to millions and causing countless deaths and health crises. Although traps and netting offer some protection, the proactive approach of reducing the number of insects has also proven effective. This is accomplished by sterilizing male mosquitoes and releasing them into the wild, where they compete with the other males for food and mates but produce no offspring.

The problem with this approach is it is fairly hands-on, requiring people to travel through mosquito-infested areas to make regular releases of treated males. Some aerial and other dispersal methods have been attempted, but this project from French, Swiss, British, Brazilian, Senegalese and other researchers seems to be the most effective and practical yet.

Mosquitoes grown in bulk and sterilized by radiation are packed at low temperatures (“chilled” mosquitoes don’t fly or bite) into cartridges. These cartridges are kept refrigerated until they can be brought to a target site, where they’re loaded onto a drone.

Thousands of chilled, marked mosquitoes ready for deployment. Image Credit: Bouyer et al.

This drone ascends to a set altitude and travels over the target area, steadily releasing thousands of sterile males as it goes. By staging at the center of a town, the drone operators can reload the craft with new cartridges and send it in more directions, accomplishing dispersal over a huge and perhaps difficult to navigate space more quickly and easily than manual techniques.

The experiment used mosquitoes marked with fluorescent dyes that let the researchers track the effectiveness of their air-dropped mosquitoes, and the new technique shows great improvement over manual methods (on the order of 50% better) — without even getting into the reductions in time and labor. New methods for sterilizing, packing and meting out the insects further gild the results.

The researchers point out that while there are of course plenty of applications for this technique in ordinary times, the extraordinary times of this pandemic present new dangers and opportunities. Comorbidity of COVID-19 and mosquito-borne illnesses is practically unstudied, and disruptions to supply chains and normal insect suppression efforts is likely to lead to spikes in the likes of malaria and dengue fever.

Work like this could lead to improved general health for billions. The researchers’ work appeared in the journal Science Robotics.

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DJI Mavic Air 2 Review: Fantastic drone, despite obstacle avoidance blindspots

Posted by | dji, dji mavic, dji mavic air 2, drones, Gadgets, Reviews, TC | No Comments

I’m supposed to get photos as soon as I take something out of the box. I know better. The rule is not to play with the gadget first. I’m going to crash the drone; I always do.

I crashed the DJI Mavic Air 2 and broke a landing peg. I flew the drone before I took pictures and, of course, the drone found a tree. I swear it’s not my fault this time. I quickly discovered the Mavic Air 2 obstacle avoidance technology is not up to par with its competition.

And yet I still love this drone. The Mavic Air 2 builds on the success of the original and is loaded with updated technology. Now it can go faster, farther and take better pictures while performing automated flight paths and object tracking.

Review

Flying the DJI Mavic Air 2 is a treat and has everything a drone needs: fast speed, high-res camera, long battery life, tremendous range and obstacle avoidance. And it’s relatively inexpensive at $799.

I’m satisfied. And that’s not something I often say when reviewing gadgets. There’s little missing from this product. It’s not perfect — the avoidance system has trouble detecting obstacles on the side of the drone — and yet I have no problem recommending this drone. The DJI Mavic Air 2 is the best consumer drone to date.

I wish I could show video from an epic kayaking trip where the Mavic Air 2 follows our boats down rapids and around a gnarly river. But I’m writing this review during the COVID-19 lockdown, so the best I can do is videos of my golden retriever, Nova, chewing on a stick, and me mowing my yard.

It’s fast and capable of hitting 40 mph. The range is excellent — I was able to stream video from nearly the stratosphere. The automated flight paths are a great way to add drama to any video. Just select a person or lawn tractor, and the drone will follow it, even circling if instructed.

The crash

I love the Mavic Air 2 even though it crashed while performing an automated video. Twice.

Here’s the thing. I’m known around TechCrunch as the guy who crashes drones. I want to think it’s because I use them a lot during the review process to find their limits and flaws. Maybe I’m just a lousy pilot. Our original DJI Mavic coverage was delayed because I crashed the drone into a birdhouse and snapped a handful of props. Replacements had to be shipped from China. With the Mavic Air 2 I missed the birdhouse, but found a tree, and a landing leg snapped in half when it hit the ground. Later, when the drone was filming me on the mower, it got stuck in a tree after not sensing a massive tree limb.

I don’t think these crashes are my fault.

The DJI Mavic Air comes preloaded with flight routines. The idea has roots in the drone selfie — where someone stands on a picturesque cliff and the drone takes off backwards, pointed at the waving group of people while revealing the stunning landscape. This DJI drone can do this automatically. Just select a subject — me on a mower — and hit start. The drone counts down from three and starts flying while keeping the person or object in focus.

As you can see in the video above, everything was going great. The drone took off from about 8 feet, skimmed the birdhouse that previously claimed another drone, and was slowly circling my yard until it found a tree. I assumed the drone’s obstacle avoidance system would have stopped the drone if it detected an object. That’s what happened during the previous dozen flights. But this time, the drone did not identify the branches and crashed.

I don’t think it’s my fault.

The drone has a hard time detecting objects when moving side to side. There are multiple sensors on the front, back and bottom of the drone and none on the side. The second time it crashed, the drone was in a similar motion, moving side-to-side when it lodged itself on a large limb.

The drone survived both crashes and can still fly, and I’m having a blast. The drone is fast and stable. The range is incredible, though if the FAA is reading this, the drone never left my line of sight.

Operation

DJI states the Mavic Air 2 has a video transmission range of 10 km. In my experience, these range numbers are unachievable in the real world. More often, the range is more than half of that distance, but still impressive and well out of the operator’s sight range.

Drones are increasingly adding technology for capturing personal experiences rather than faraway objects. The Mavic Air 2 seems purpose-built for this task. Sure, it can fly forever in a straight line, but it has the capability of tracking an object and providing a unique vantage point.

The Mavic Air 2 packs DJI’s latest object tracking tech, and it works well as long as its limitations are understood. Just drag a box around an object and the software will lock onto the object and keep it centered in the camera’s field of view. Combined with the obstacle detection sensors, this gives the Mavic Air 2 an impressive suite of capabilities.

DJI’s new object tracking is an improvement over past generations. It seemingly has no issues detecting large objects in front, behind or under the drone.

In my experience, the Mavic Air 2 detected power wires, birdhouses and large tree branches as long as they were not on the drone’s side. And it sees people and vehicles fine. It has a hard time tracking Nova; more often than not, the drone loses him even when he’s walking. If the drone detects a potential collision, the controller starts beeping with fury.

With object tracking, it frees the operator from being in front of the camera. Suddenly, with this feature, the possibilities are endless. As detailed above, the Mavic Air 2 lacks sensors on the drone’s side, which is its limiting factor. Use it in a field or parking lot, and you’re good. Use it down a wooded river or trail, and you’ll have a bad time.

Skydio makes a consumer drone that has a similar feature set. However, in my experience, the Skydio drone’s object detection is superior to what’s found in the Mavic Air 2, making the tracking features more useful. With a Skydio drone, users are able to have the drone fly autonomously through areas the Mavic Air 2 is unable to navigate.

The Mavic Air 2’s camera is fantastic, considering the price of the drone. It easily captures the blue skies and wispy clouds, which is often hard for cameras in consumer drones. Colors pop, and landscape photos come alive. The 48MP sensor provides enough detail to zoom into areas with little loss of quality. The camera can shoot RAW files and DJI released a series of ND filters that can attach to the front of the lens, giving the user more control over lighting.

Best of all, the Mavic Air 2 has excellent battery life. I averaged around 30 minutes of flight time in moderate wind when using the drone in Normal mode. The battery life drops to around 25 minutes with high winds or spirited flying in Sport mode. During my time with the Mavic Air 2, I flew the drone more than a dozen times. I don’t think I ever had to recharge the controller.

Conclusion

The Mavic Air 2 was a long time coming. I’ve used nearly every DJI consumer drone since the original Phantom, and each generation leapfrogs the last in capabilities and convenience. The original Mavic freed me from carrying a large Pelican case with Phantom drone. The second generation Mavic added a better camera. The small DJI Spark made drones even more portable, but the camera and range were lacking. The DJI Mavic Mini filled that need with updated tech in a foldable design, and yet the camera is underwhelming.

The Mavic Air 2 builds on the success of the original but is loaded with updated technology. Now the Mavic Air 2 can go faster, farther and take better pictures while preforming automated flight paths and object tracking.

The Mavic Air 2 is the drone for most consumers. It hits the sweet spot of capabilities for the price.

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Matternet’s new drone landing station looks like a sci-fi movie prop

Posted by | aerospace, artificial intelligence, drone delivery, drones, Gadgets, hardware, matternet, TC | No Comments

Drones making deliveries is of course the hot new hyperlocal tech play, but where are these futuristic aircraft supposed to land? On the lawn? Matternet has built a landing station for its cargo drones that looks less like a piece of infrastructure and more like a death ray from a ’60s sci-fi movie.

Far from the free-form delivery network envisioned by Prime Air or the like, Matternet’s drone deployments have been fixed point-to-point affairs focused on quickly connecting a handful of locations that frequently trade time-sensitive deliveries: hospitals.

The company has performed pilot tests in Switzerland and North Carolina, and just started a new one in San Diego, in which medical facilities are able to send blood samples, medications and (soon, one hopes) vaccines and other supplies back and forth without worrying about traffic or other complications on the ground.

But there’s the problem of where exactly the drones land, and what happens afterwards. Does someone have to swap out the battery? Who says when it’s safe to approach the drone, and how to detach its payload? Whatever the process is, it could probably be easier and more automated, and that’s what the station aims to accomplish.

With its techno-organic curves and flower-like hatch on top, the 10-foot-tall station seems to channel the likes of “Star Trek: The Original Series” and “Lost in Space,” and no doubt it’s intended to be eye-catching as well as functional.

When the drone arrives, the top opens and the drone lands right in the center, where it is enclosed and grasped by the station’s machinery, unburdened of its payload, and given a fresh battery. The payload is contained in the tower until it is called for by an authorized person, who scans a dongle to receive their package.

If there’s just the one drone, it can live in the top part, the bulb or whatever you’d call it, until it’s needed again. If there are multiple deliveries or drones, however, the one inside will leave and enter a holding pattern about 60 feet above, in an “imaginary donut.”

The station will get its first installation in the second quarter of this year, at one of Matternet’s existing customer hospitals. Presumably it will roll out more widely once this shakeout period ends.

You can see the full operation in the dramatization below:

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This autonomous security drone is designed to guard your home

Posted by | articles, CES 2020, drones, Gadgets, General Catalyst, home security, robotics, San Francisco, sunflower, Sunflower Labs, TC, zurich | No Comments

One of the new products unveiled at CES this year is a new kind of home security system — one that includes drones to patrol your property, along with sensors designed to mimic garden light and a central processor to bring it all together.

Sunflower Labs debuted their new Sunflower Home Awareness System, which includes the eponymous Sunflowers (motion and vibration sensors that look like simple garden lights but can populate a map to show you cars, people and animals on or near your property in real time); the Bee (a fully autonomous drone that deploys and flies on its own, with cameras on board to live-stream video); and the Hive (a charging station for the Bee, which also houses the brains of the operation for crunching all the data gathered by the component parts).

Roving aerial robots keeping tabs on your property might seem a tad dystopian, and perhaps even unnecessary, when you could maybe equip your estate with multiple fixed cameras and sensors for less money and with less complexity. But Sunflower Labs thinks its security system is an evolution of more standard fare because it “learns and reacts to its surroundings,” improving over time.

The Bee is also designed basically to supplement more traditional passive monitoring, and can be deployed on demand to provide more detailed information and live views of any untoward activity detected on your property. So it’s a bit like having someone always at the ready to go check out that weird noise you heard in the night — without the risk to the brave checker-upper.

Sunflower Labs was founded in 2016, and has backing from General Catalyst, among others, with offices in both San Francisco and Zurich. The system doesn’t come cheap, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given what it promises to do on paper — it starts at $9,950 and can range up depending on your specific property’s custom needs. The company is accepting pre-orders now, with a deposit of $999 required, and intends to start delivering the first orders to customers beginning sometime in the middle of this year.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

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Pyka and its autonomous, electric crop-spraying drone land $11M seed round

Posted by | aerospace, agriculture, AgTech, artificial intelligence, autonomous flight, drones, farming, Gadgets, hardware, Prime Movers Lab, Pyka, Recent Funding, robotics, Startups | No Comments

Modern agriculture involves fields of mind-boggling size, and spraying them efficiently is a serious operational challenge. Pyka is taking on the largely human-powered spray business with an autonomous winged craft and, crucially, regulatory approval.

Just as we’ve seen with DroneSeed, this type of flying is risky for pilots, who must fly very close to the ground and other obstacles, yet also highly susceptible to automation; That’s because it involves lots of repetitive flight patterns that must be executed perfectly, over and over.

Pyka’s approach is unlike that of many in the drone industry, which has tended to use multirotor craft for their maneuverability and easy take-off and landing. But those drones can’t carry the weight and volume of pesticides and other chemicals that (unfortunately) need to be deployed at large scales.

The craft Pyka has built is more traditional, resembling a traditional one-seater crop dusting plane but lacking the cockpit. It’s driven by a trio of propellers, and most of the interior is given over to payload (it can carry about 450 pounds) and batteries. Of course, there is also a sensing suite and onboard computer to handle the immediate demands of automated flight.

Pyka can take off or land on a 150-foot stretch of flat land, so you don’t have to worry about setting up a runway and wasting energy getting to the target area. Of course, it’ll eventually need to swap out batteries, which is part of the ground crew’s responsibilities. They’ll also be designing the overall course for the craft, though the actual flight path and moment-to-moment decisions are handled by the flight computer.

Example of a flight path accounting for obstacles without human input

All this means the plane, apparently called the Egret, can spray about a hundred acres per hour, about the same as a helicopter. But the autonomous craft provides improved precision (it flies lower) and safety (no human pulling difficult maneuvers every minute or two).

Perhaps more importantly, the feds don’t mind it. Pyka claims to be the only company in the world with a commercially approved large autonomous electric aircraft. Small ones like drones have been approved left and right, but the Egret is approaching the size of a traditional “small aircraft,” like a Piper Cub.

Of course, that’s just the craft — other regulatory hurdles hinder wide deployment, like communicating with air traffic management and other craft; certification of the craft in other ways; a more robust long-range sense and avoid system and so on. But Pyka’s Egret has already flown thousands of miles at test farms that pay for the privilege. (Pyka declined to comment on its business model, customers or revenues.)

The company’s founding team — Michael Norcia, Chuma Ogunwole, Kyle Moore and Nathan White — comes from a variety of well-known companies working in adjacent spaces: Cora, Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Google X, Waymo and Morgan Stanley (that’s the COO).

The $11 million seed round was led by Prime Movers Lab, with participation from Y Combinator, Greycroft, Data Collective and Bold Capital Partners.

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The Los Angeles Fire Department wants more drones

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, Los Angeles, Security, TC | No Comments

As it looks to modernize its operations, the Los Angeles Fire Department is turning to a number of new technologies, including expanding its fleet of drones for a slew of new deployments.

One of the largest fire departments in the U.S., next to New York and Chicago, the LAFD has a budget of roughly $691 million, employs more than 3,500 and responded to 492,717 calls in 2018.

The department already has a fleet of 11 drones to complement its fleet of 258 fire engines, ambulances and helicopters.

However, Battalion Chief Richard Fields, the head of the department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program, would like to see that number increase significantly.

Los Angeles has become an early leader in the use of drones for its firefighting applications thanks in part to an agreement with the Chinese company DJI, which the department inked back in April.

At the time, the Chinese drone manufacturer and imaging technology developer announced an agreement to test and deploy DJI drones as an emergency response preparedness tool. The company called it one DJI’s largest partnerships with a fire-fighting agency in the U.S.

“We are excited to be strengthening our partnership with the LAFD, one of the nation’s preeminent public safety agencies, to help them take advantage of DJI’s drone technology that has been purpose-built for the public safety sector,” said Bill Chen, Enterprise Partnerships manager at DJI, in a statement at the time. “Through our two-way collaboration, DJI will receive valuable insight into the complexities of deploying drones for emergency situations in one of the most complex urban environments in the nation.”

Now, roughly five months later, the program seems to have been successful enough that Battalion Chief Fields is looking to double the fleet.

“Our next iteration is to start using our drones to assist our specialized resources,” said Fields. Those are firefighters and support crews that deal with hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, marine environments and swift water rescues, Fields said.

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The LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team. Photo courtesy of Flickr/ LAFD Mike Horst

The technologal demands of the fire department extend beyond the drone itself, Fields said. “There are a lot of technologies that allows us to make the drone more versatile… the most valuable tool isn’t the drone; it’s the sensor.”

So far, the most useful application has been using infrared technologies to balance what’s visible and combine it with the heat signatures the sensors pick up.

Training to become a drone pilot for the LAFD is particularly intense, Fields says. The typical pilot will get up to 80 hours of training. “Our training is nation-leading. There’s nothing out there in the commercial market that beats it,” according to Fields.

For now, the entire LAFD fleet is composed of DJI drones, something that has given military and civilian officials pause in the past few years.

Concerns have been growing over the reliance on Chinese technology in core American infrastructure, extending from networking technology companies like Huawei to drone technology developers like DJI.

Back in 2018, the Department of Defense issued a ban on the acquisition and use of commercial drones, citing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The ban came a year after officials from the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress called out DJI specifically for its potential to be used by the Chinese government to spy on the United States.

However, the rule isn’t set in stone, and many branches of the military continue to use DJI drones, according to a September Voice of America News report.

In Los Angeles, Fields says he takes those concerns seriously. The department has worked closely with regulators and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to craft a strict policy around what gets done with the data the LAFD collects.

“The way that we establish our program is that the drone provides us with our real-time situational awareness,” said Fields. “That helps the incident commander get a visual perspective of the problem and he can make better decisions.”

The only data that is recorded and kept, says Fields, is data collected around brush fires so the LAFD can do a damage assessment, which can later be turned into map layers to keep records of hotspots.

As for data that could be sent back to China, Fields says that any mapping of critical infrastructure is done without connecting to the internet. “It’s being collected on the drone and 90% of that information is how the drone is operating. There is some information of where the drone is and how it is and the [latitude] and [longitude] of the drone itself… That’s the data that’s being collected,” Fields says. 

From Fields’ perspective, if the government is so concerned about the use of drones made by a foreign manufacturer, there’s an easy solution. Just regulate it.

“Let’s come up with a standard. If you use them in a federal airspace these are the check marks that you have to pass,” he says. “Saying that DJI drones are bad because they come from China [and] let’s throw them all out… that’s not an answer either.”

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Take cover, it’s a drone with a nail gun!

Posted by | artificial intelligence, drones, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, University of Michigan | No Comments

The FAA has warned against equipping your drone with weapons such as flamethrowers and handguns. But can a nail gun really be considered a weapon — that is, outside of Quake? Let’s hope not, because roboticists at the University of Michigan have made a roofing drone that uses that tool to autonomously nail shingles into place.

In a video shot in UM’s special drone testing habitat, the craft flies up, approaches its bit of roof, and gingerly applies the nail gun before backing off and doing it a couple more times.

It’s very much just a tech demonstration right now, with lots of room to improve. For one thing, the drone doesn’t use onboard cameras, but rather a system of static cameras and markers nearby that can tell exactly where the drone is and where it needs to go.

This is simpler to start with, but eventually such a drone should be able to use its own vision system to find the point where to touch down. Compared with a lot of the computer vision tasks being accomplished out there, finding the corner of a roof tile is pretty tame.

Currently the drone is also free flying and uses an electric nail gun; this limits its flight time to about 10 minutes and a few dozen nails. It would be better for it to use a tether carrying power and air cables, so it could stay aloft indefinitely and use a more powerful pneumatic nail gun.

Drones are already used for lots of industrial applications, from inspecting buildings to planting trees, and this experiment shows one more area where they could be put to work. Roofing can be both dull and dangerous, and rote work like attaching shingles may as well be done by a drone overseen by an expert as by that experts’ own hands.

The drone is the subject of a paper (“Nailed it: Autonomous Roofing with a Nailgun-Equipped Octocopter”) by UM’s Matthew Romano and others, submitted for the International Conference on Robotics and Automation later this year.

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UK police arrest a number of climate activists planning Heathrow drone protest

Posted by | climate change, drone regulations, drones, Europe, Gadgets, Heathrow, robotics, social media, United Kingdom | No Comments

U.K. police have arrested a number of environmental activists affiliated with a group which announced  last month that it would use drones to try to ground flights at the country’s busiest airport.

The group, which calls itself Heathrow Pause, is protesting against the government decision to green-light a third runway at the airport.

In a press release published today about an operation at Heathrow Airport, London’s Met Police said it has arrested nine people since yesterday in relation to the planned drone protest, which had been due to commence early this morning.

Heathrow Pause suggested it had up to 200 people willing to volunteer to fly toy drones a few feet off the ground within a 5km drone “no fly” zone around the airport — an act that would technically be in breach of U.K. laws on drone flights, although the group said it would only use small drones, flown at head height and not within flight paths. It also clearly communicated its intentions to the police and airport well in advance of the protest.

“Three women and six men aged between their 20s and the 60s have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” the Met Police said today.

“Four of the men and the three women were arrested yesterday, Thursday, 12 September, in Bethnal Green, Haringey and Wandsworth, in response to proposed plans for illegal drone use near Heathrow Airport.

“They were taken into custody at a London police station.”

The statement says a further two men were arrested this morning within the perimeter of Heathrow Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance — though it’s not clear whether they are affiliated with Heathrow Pause.

Videos of confirmed members of the group being arrested by police prior to the planned Heathrow Pause action have been circulating on social media.

Roger Hallem , our brave drone pilot being arrested preemptively . We will not give up and we urge all right minded people to rise up with us . Don’t sleep walk into oblivion . Protect your children as if their lives depended on it . It does @ExtinctionR @GretaThunberg pic.twitter.com/10gpVtVVEF

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 12, 2019

In an update on its Twitter feed this morning Heathrow Pause says there have been 10 arrests so far.

It also claims to have made one successful flight, and says two earlier drone flight attempts were thwarted by signal jamming technology.

More flights are planned today, it adds.

UPDATE: 3 attempted flights, at least one successful. 10 arrests so far. More flights planned today.

James, having completed his flight, is about to hand himself into police. Currently in Heathrow Terminal 2 Departures for interviews/photos.

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Heathrow using signal jamming to frustrate early flights 💚🌲🌍🌲💚#HeathrowPause #ClimateBreakdown #ActNow https://t.co/F4b8NvcLj1

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Thank you James Brown for your courage. @HeathrowAirport when will you adhere by your own rules and close the airport? https://t.co/fJFlLx2dGb

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

A spokeswoman for Heathrow told us there has been no disruption to flights so far today.

In a statement the airport said: “Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby. We will continue to work with the authorities to carry out dynamic risk assessment programmes and keep our passengers flying safely on their journeys today.”

“We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer. The answer to climate change is in constructive engagement and working together to address the issue, something that Heathrow remains strongly committed to do,” it added.

We’ve asked the airport to confirm whether signal jamming counter-drone technology is being used to try to prevent the protest.

The Met Police said a dispersal order under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been implemented in the area surrounding Heathrow Airport today.

“It will be in place for approximately 48 hours, commencing at 04:30hrs on Friday, 13 September,” it writes. “The order has been implemented to prevent criminal activity which poses a significant safety and security risk to the airport.”

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Climate activists plan to use drones to shut down Heathrow Airport next month

Posted by | climate change, drones, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, Gadgets, Gatwick Airport, GreenTech, Heathrow, quadcopter, robotics, TC, United Kingdom, unmanned aerial vehicles | No Comments

A UK group of climate activists is planning to fly drones close to Heathrow Airport next month in a direct action they hope will shut down the country’s largest airport for days or even longer.

The planned action is in protest at the government’s decision to green-light a third runway at Heathrow.

They plan to use small, lightweight “toy” drones, flown at head high (6ft) within a 5km drone ‘no fly’ zone around the airport — but not within flight paths. The illegal drone flights will also be made in the early morning at a time when there would not be any scheduled flights in the air space to avoid any risk of posing a threat to aircraft.

The activists point out that the government recently declared a climate emergency — when it also pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 — arguing there is no chance of meeting that target if the UK expands current airport capacity.

A press spokesman for the group, which is calling itself Heathrow Pause, told TechCrunch: “Over a thousand child are dying as a result of climate change and ecological collapse — already, every single day. That figure is set to significantly worsen. The government has committed to not just reducing carbon emissions but reducing them to net zero — that is clearly empirically impossible if they build another runway.”

The type of drones they plan to use for the protest are budget models which they say can be bought cheaply at UK retailer Argos — which, for example, sells the Sky Viper Stunt Drone for £30; the Revell GO! Stunt Quadcopter Drone for £40; and the Revell Spot 2.0 Quadcopter (which comes with a HD camera) for £50.

The aim for the protest is to exploit what the group dubs a loophole in Heathrow’s health and safety protocol around nearby drone flights to force it to close down runways and ground flights.

Late last year a spate of drone sightings near the UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, led to massive disruption for travellers just before Christmas after the airport responded by grounding flights.

At the time, the government was sharply criticized for having failed to foresee weaknesses in the regulatory framework around drone flights near sensitive sites like airports.

In the following months it responded by beefing up what was then a 1km airport exclusion zone to 5km — with that expanded ‘no fly’ zone coming into force in March. However a wider government plan to table a comprehensive drones bill has faced a number of delays.

It’s the larger 5km ‘no fly’ zone that the Heathrow Pause activists are targeting in a way they hope will safely trigger the airport’s health & safety protocol and shut down the airspace and business as usual.

Whether the strategy to use drones as a protest tool to force the closure of the UK’s largest airport will fly remains to be seen.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow airport told us it’s confident it has “robust plans” in place to ensure the group’s protest does not result in any disruption to flights. However she would not provide any details on the steps it will take to avoid having to close runways and ground flights, per its safety protocol.

When we put the airport’s claim of zero disruption from intended action back to Heathrow Pause, its spokesman told us: “Our understanding is that the airport’s own health and safety protocols dictate that they have to ground airplanes if there are any drones of any size flying at any height anywhere within 5km of the airport.

“Our position would be that it’s entirely up to them what they do. That the action that we’re taking does not pose a threat to anybody and that’s very deliberately the case. Having said that I’d be surprised to hear that they’re going to disregard their own protocols even if those are — in our view — excessive. It would still come as a surprise if they weren’t going to follow them.”

“We won’t be grounding any flights in any circumstances,” he added. “It’s not within our power to do so. All of the actions that have been planned have been meticulously planned so as not to pose any threat to anybody. We don’t actually see that there need to be flights grounded either. Having said that clearly it would be great if Heathrow decided to ground flights. Every flight that’s grounded is that much less greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere. And it directly saves lives.

“The fewer flights there are the better. But if there are no flights cancelled we’d still consider the action to be an enormous success — purely upon the basis of people being arrested.”

The current plan for the protest is to start illegally flying drones near Heathrow on September 13 — and continue for what the spokesman said could be as long as “weeks”, depending on how many volunteer pilots it can sign up. He says they “anticipate” having between 50 to 200 people willing to risk arrest by breaching drone flight law.

The intention is to keep flying drones for as long as people are willing to join the protest. “We are hoping to go for over a week,” he told us.

Given the plan has been directly communicated to police the spokesman conceded there is a possibility that the activists could face arrest before they are able to carry out the protest — which he suggested might be what Heathrow is banking on.

Anyone who flies a drone in an airport’s ‘no fly’ zone is certainly risking arrest and prosecution under UK law. Penalties for the offence range from fines to life imprisonment if a drone is intentionally used to cause violence. But the group is clearly taking pains to avoid accusations the protest poses a safety risk or threatens violence — including by publishing extensive details of their plan online, as well as communicating it to police and airport authorities.

A detailed protocol on their website sets out the various safety measures and conditions the activists are attaching to the drone action — “to ensure no living being is harmed”. Such as only using drones lighter than 7kg, and giving the airport an hour’s advance notice ahead of each drone flight.

They also say they have a protocol to shut down the protest in the event of an emergency — and will have a dedicated line of communication open to Heathrow for this purposes.

Some of the activists are scheduled to meet with police and airport authorities  tomorrow, face to face, at a London police station to discuss the planned action.

The group says it will only call off the action if the Heathrow third runway expansion is cancelled.

In an emailed statement in response to the protest, Heathrow Airport told us:

We agree with the need to act on climate change. This is a global issue that requires constructive engagement and action. Committing criminal offences and disrupting passengers is counterproductive.

Flying of any form of drone near Heathrow is illegal and any persons found doing so will be subject to the full force of the law. We are working closely with the Met Police and will use our own drone detection capability to mitigate the operational impact of any illegal use of drones near the airport.

Asked why the environmental activists have selected drones as their tool of choice for this protest, rather than deploying more traditional peaceful direct action strategies, such as trespassing on airport grounds or chaining themselves to fixed infrastructure, the Heathrow Pause spokesman told us: “Those kind of actions have been done in the past and they tend to result in very short duration of time during which very few flights are cancelled. What we are seeking to do is unprecedented in terms of the duration and the extent of the disruption that we would hope to cause.

“The reason for drones is in order to exploit this loophole in the health and safety protocols that have been presented to us — that it’s possible for a person with a toy drone that you can purchase for a couple of quid, miles away from any planes, to cause an entire airport to stop having flights. It is quite an amazing situation — and once it became apparent that that was really a possibility it almost seemed criminal not to do it.”

He added that drone technology, and the current law in the UK around how drones can be legally used, present an opportunity for activists to level up their environmental protest — “to cause so much disruption with so few people and so little effort” — that it’s simply “a no brainer”.

During last year’s Gatwick drone debacle the spokesman said he received many enquiries from journalists asking if the group was responsible for that. They weren’t — but the mass chaos caused by the spectre of a few drones being flown near Gatwick provided inspiration for using drone technology for an environmental protest.

The group’s website is hosting video interviews with some of the volunteer drone pilots who are willing to risk arrest to protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds.

In a statement there, one of them, a 64-year-old writer called Valerie Milner-Brown, said: “We are in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency. I am a law-abiding citizen — a mother and a grandmother too. I don’t want to break the law, I don’t want to go to prison, but right now we, as a species, are walking off the edge of a cliff. Life on Earth is dying. Fires are ravaging the Amazon. Our planet’s lungs are quite literally on fire. Hundreds of species are going extinct every day. We are experiencing hottest day after hottest day, and the Arctic is melting faster than scientists’ worst predictions.

“All of this means that we have to cut emissions right now, or face widespread catastrophe on an increasingly uninhabitable planet. Heathrow Airport emits 18 million tons of CO2 a year. That’s more than most countries. A third runway will produce a further 7.3 million tons of CO2. For all Life — now and in the future — we have to take action. I’m terrified but if this is what it will take to make politicians, business leaders and the media wake up, then I’m prepared to take this action and to face the consequences.”

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Lucid’s drone is built to clean the outside of your house or office

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, lucid, TC, Y Combinator | No Comments

Building exteriors tend to get gross. Dirt clings to the walls. Windows get filmy. Spiderwebs amass. If you live in a particularly humid area, mold and mildew can start to make exterior walls look like a science experiment.

On taller buildings, scrubbing it all off generally means bringing a bucket truck, scaffolding or suspension gear and having a crew hang from the side of the building. It’s a lot of prep work, with a lot of potential for falls and injuries. Lucid, a new company out of North Carolina, has a different approach: drones.

Rather than pressure washing, their drone “soft washes” the building — be it a house, an office or the campus library — by spraying a cleaning solution that the company says is biodegradable and works on surfaces like brick and limestone. The operator rolls up to a site, unfolds the drone, powers it up, then plugs it into a tank sitting in the back of their work truck. A hose tether runs from the tank to the drone at all times, feeding the low-pressure sprayer while keeping the bulk of the weight down on the ground. The operator handles the drone via remote control.

The drone is currently battery-powered; in the future, Lucid plans to work tethered power into the design. The company tells me the drone is currently designed/tested to clean buildings up to 120 feet tall. That’s around 10-12 stories tall, depending on the building’s design.

While their early tests were done with off-the-shelf drones, Lucid tells me it’s now custom-building its own; they need to be able to carry the weight of the tether, fly slowly for finer controls and easier operation and stay light enough (under 55 lbs) that it fits within the FAA’s small unmanned aircraft guidelines. The company tells me their drone weighs around 25-30 lbs, depending on payload requirements.

Lucid co-founder Andrew Ashur says they originally set out to be the service provider, hiring operators and cleaning the buildings themselves. When they began testing the concept and other companies started reaching out, the team realized they might be better off selling the drone itself. They’re now starting to rent the drones to companies for $3,000 per month, which includes support, training and maintenance (because, as any hobbyist drone pilot could tell you, things break).

Lucid is part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 batch. As of YC Demo Day last week, the company noted that it had signed contracts worth around $33,000 per month in recurring revenue.

Ashur tells me that while they’re considering a nationwide rollout, their focus right now is on the southeastern United States — it’s where they started, and where mold and mildew issues are common.

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