drones

Did you fly a drone over Fenway Park? The FAA would like a chat

Posted by | drones, FAA, Gadgets, hardware | No Comments

Drones are great. But they are also flying machines that can do lots of stupid and dangerous things. Like, for instance, fly over a major league baseball game packed with spectators. It happened at Fenway Park last night, and the FAA is not happy.

The illegal flight took place last night during a Red Sox-Blue Jays game at Fenway; the drone, a conspicuously white DJI Phantom, reportedly first showed up around 9:30 PM, coming and going over the next hour.

One of the many fans who shot a video of the drone, Chris O’Brien, told CBS Boston that “it would kind of drop fast then go back up then drop and spin. It was getting really low and close to the players. At one point it was getting really low and I was wondering are they going to pause the game and whatever, but they never did.

Places where flying is regularly prohibited, like airports and major landmarks like stadiums, often have no-fly rules baked into the GPS systems of drones — and that’s the case with DJI. In a statement, however, the company said that “whoever flew this drone over the stadium apparently overrode our geofencing system and deliberately violated the FAA temporary flight restriction in place over the game.”

The FAA said that it (and Boston PD) is investigating both to local news and in a tweet explaining why it is illegal.

FAA Statement: The FAA is investigating a report that a #drone flew over @fenwaypark during the baseball game last night. Flying drones in/around stadiums is prohibited starting 1hr before & ending 1hr after the scheduled game & prohibited within a radius of 3 nm of the stadium. pic.twitter.com/o6nOGVf8K2

— The FAA (@FAANews) April 12, 2019

That’s three nautical miles, which is quite a distance, covering much of central Boston. You don’t really take chances when there are tens of thousands of people all gathered in one spot on a regular basis like that. Drones open up some pretty ugly security scenarios.

Of course, this wasn’t a mile and a half from Fenway, which might have earned a slap on the wrist, but directly over the park, which as the FAA notes above could lead to hundreds of thousands in fines and actual prison time. It’s not hard to imagine why: If that drone had lost power or caught a gust (or been hit by a fly ball, at that altitude), it could have hurt or killed someone in the crowd.

It’s especially concerning when the FAA is working on establishing new rules for both hobby and professional drone use. You should leave a comment there if you feel strongly about this, by the way.

Here’s hoping they catch the idiot who did this. It just goes to show that you can’t trust people to follow the rules, even when they’re coded into a craft’s OS. It’s things like this that make mandatory registration of drones sound like a pretty good idea.

(Red Sox won, by the way. But the season’s off to a rough start.)

The Inning: Bottom 9
The Score: Tied
The Bases: Loaded
The Result: pic.twitter.com/lrRneiCGim

— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) April 12, 2019

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DroneBase raises capital and partners with FLIR Systems to train pilots on thermal imaging tech

Posted by | dronebase, drones, electronics, Gadgets, hardware, Los Angeles, Media, targeting, TC, technology, telecommunications | No Comments

Publicly traded sensor technology developer FLIR Systems is investing in a strategic round of funding for the outsourced drone imaging company, DroneBase.

The two companies are also partnering to provide FLIR’s thermal imaging technology and training services to DroneBase’s stable of pilots.

Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

“Our investment in DroneBase helps expand the adoption of FLIR thermal imaging technology by putting it in the hands of more pilots who fly drones every day,” said Jim Cannon, the president and chief executive of FLIR, in a statement. “DroneBase’s enterprise pilot network will receive training by professional thermographers, enabling DroneBase to offer specialized thermal inspection services for customers on a wider scale, and creating an opportunity for FLIR to incorporate additional service offerings through DroneBase in the future.”

Los Angeles-based DroneBase has contracted pilots to complete more than 100,000 commercial missions in 70-plus countries for residential and commercial real estate, insurance, telecommunications, construction and media companies, according to a statement.

Through FLIR’s Infrared Training Center, FLIR and DroneBase will develop a specialized training program that will be certified exclusively by DroneBase.

“Through FLIR’s strategic investment in DroneBase, we are now able to offer scalable thermal solutions to enterprises of any size,” said Dan Burton, founder and chief executive of DroneBase, in a statement. “This access to valuable data will allow stakeholders to make better decisions about their most critical assets. Like myself, many DroneBase pilots relied on FLIR products when they served in the military. This integration will offer military veterans a chance to work with FLIR again and leverage their training in their civilian lives.”

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Mars helicopter bound for the Red Planet takes to the air for the first time

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, Government, hardware, jpl, mars 2020, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC, UAVs | No Comments

The Mars 2020 mission is on track for launch next year, and nesting inside the high-tech new rover heading that direction is a high-tech helicopter designed to fly in the planet’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. The actual aircraft that will fly on the Martian surface just took its first flight and its engineers are over the moon.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, who manages the project at JPL, in a news release. An engineering model that was very close to final has over an hour of time in the air, but these two brief test flights were the first and last time the tiny craft will take flight until it does so on the distant planet (not counting its “flight” during launch).

“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued. “The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”

Artist’s impression of how the helicopter will look when it’s flying on Mars

A helicopter flying on Mars is much like a helicopter flying on Earth, except of course for the slight differences that the other planet has a third less gravity and 99 percent less air. It’s more like flying at 100,000 feet, Aung suggested.

It has its own solar panel so it can explore more or less on its own

The test rig they set up not only produces a near-vacuum, replacing the air with a thin, Mars-esque CO2 mix, but a “gravity offload” system simulates lower gravity by giving the helicopter a slight lift via a cable.

It flew at a whopping two inches of altitude for a total of a minute in two tests, which was enough to show the team that the craft (with all its 1,500 parts and four pounds) was ready to package up and send to the Red Planet.

“It was a heck of a first flight,” said tester Teddy Tzanetos. “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher.”

A few months after the Mars 2020 rover has landed, the helicopter will detach and do a few test flights of up to 90 seconds. Those will be the first heavier-than-air flights on another planet — powered flight, in other words, rather than, say, a balloon filled with gaseous hydrogen.

The craft will operate mostly autonomously, since the half-hour round trip for commands would be far too long for an Earth-based pilot to operate it. It has its own solar cells and batteries, plus little landing feet, and will attempt flights of increasing distance from the rover over a 30-day period. It should go about three meters in the air and may eventually get hundreds of meters away from its partner.

Mars 2020 is estimated to be ready to launch next summer, arriving at its destination early in 2021. Of course, in the meantime, we’ve still got Curiosity and Insight up there, so if you want the latest from Mars, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.

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Ocean drone startup merger spawns Sofar, the DJI of the sea

Posted by | drones, eCommerce, Exit, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, M&A, openrov, Recent Funding, science, Startups, TC, underwater drone | No Comments

What lies beneath the murky depths? SolarCity co-founder Peter Rive wants to help you and the scientific community find out. He’s just led a $7 million Series A for Sofar Ocean Technologies, a new startup formed from a merger he orchestrated between underwater drone maker OpenROV and sea sensor developer Spoondrift. Together, they’re teaming up their 1080p Trident drone and solar-powered Spotter sensor to let you collect data above and below the surface. They can help you shoot awesome video footage, track waves and weather, spot fishing and diving spots, inspect boats or infrastructure for damage, monitor acquaculture sites or catch smugglers.

Sofar’s Trident drone (left) and Spotter sensor (right)

“Aerial drones give us a different perspective of something we know pretty well. Ocean drones give us a view at something we don’t really know at all,” former Spoondrift and now Sofar CEO Tim Janssen tells me. “The Trident drone was created for field usage by scientists and is now usable by anyone. This is pushing the barrier towards the unknown.”

But while Rive has a soft spot for the ecological potential of DIY ocean exploration, the sea is crowded with competing drones. There are more expensive professional research-focused devices like the Saildrone, DeepTrekker and SeaOtter-2, as well as plenty of consumer-level devices like the $800 Robosea Biki, $1,000 Fathom ONE and $5,000 iBubble. The $1,700 Sofar Trident, which requires a cord to a surface buoy to power its three hours of dive time and two meters per second speed, sits in the middle of the pack, but Sofar co-founder David Lang things Trident can win with simplicity, robustness and durability. The question is whether Sofar can become the DJI of the water, leading the space, or if it will become just another commoditized hardware maker drowning in knock-offs.

From left: Peter Rive (chairman of Sofar), David Lang (co-founder of OpenROV) and Tim Janssen (co-founder and CEO of Sofar)

Spoondrift launched in 2016 and raised $350,000 to build affordable ocean sensors that can produce climate-tracking data. “These buoys (Spotters) are surprisingly easy to deploy, very light and easy to handle, and can be lowered in the water by hand using a line. As a result, you can deploy them in almost any kind of conditions,” says Dr. Aitana Forcén-Vázquez of MetOcean Solutions.

OpenROV (it stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle) started seven years ago and raised $1.3 million in funding from True Ventures and National Geographic, which was also one of its biggest Trident buyers. “Everyone who has a boat should have an underwater drone for hull inspection. Any dock should have its own weather station with wind and weather sensors,” Sofar’s new chairman Rive declares.

Spotter could unlock data about the ocean at scale

Sofar will need to scale to accomplish Rive’s mission to get enough sensors in the sea to give us more data on the progress of climate change and other ecological issues. “We know very little about our oceans since we have so little data, because putting systems in the ocean is extremely expensive. It can cost millions for sensors and for boats,” he tells me. We gave everyone GPS sensors and cameras and got better maps. The ability to put low-cost sensors on citizens’ rooftops unlocked tons of weather forecasting data. That’s more feasible with Spotter, which costs $4,900 compared to $100,000 for some sea sensors.

Sofar hardware owners do not have to share data back to the startup, but Rive says many customers are eager to. They’ve requested better data portability so they can share with fellow researchers. The startup believes it can find ways to monetize that data in the future, which is partly what attracted the funding from Rive and fellow investors True Ventures and David Sacks’ Craft Ventures. The funding will build up that data business and also help Sofar develop safeguards to make sure its Trident drones don’t go where they shouldn’t. That’s obviously important, given London’s Gatwick airport shutdown due to a trespassing drone.

Spotter can relay weather conditions and other climate data to your phone

“The ultimate mission of the company is to connect humanity to the ocean as we’re mostly conservationists at heart,” Rive concludes. “As more commercialization and business opportunities arise, we’ll have to have conversations about whether those are directly benefiting the ocean. It will be important to have our moral compass facing in the right direction to protect the earth.”

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Tiny claws let drones perch like birds and bats

Posted by | artificial intelligence, biomimesis, biomimetic, drones, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science | No Comments

Drones are useful in countless ways, but that usefulness is often limited by the time they can stay in the air. Shouldn’t drones be able to take a load off too? With these special claws attached, they can perch or hang with ease, conserving battery power and vastly extending their flight time.

The claws, created by a highly multinational team of researchers I’ll list at the end, are inspired by birds and bats. The team noted that many flying animals have specially adapted feet or claws suited to attaching the creature to its favored surface. Sometimes they sit, sometimes they hang, sometimes they just kind of lean on it and don’t have to flap as hard.

As the researchers write:

In all of these cases, some suitably shaped part of the animal’s foot interacts with a structure in the environment and facilitates that less lift needs to be generated or that power flight can be completely suspended. Our goal is to use the same concept, which is commonly referred to as “perching,” for UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles].

“Perching,” you say? Go on…

We designed a modularized and actuated landing gear framework for rotary-wing UAVs consisting of an actuated gripper module and a set of contact modules that are mounted on the gripper’s fingers.

This modularization substantially increased the range of possible structures that can be exploited for perching and resting as compared with avian-inspired grippers.

Instead of trying to build one complex mechanism, like a pair of articulating feet, the team gave the drones a set of specially shaped 3D-printed static modules and one big gripper.

The drone surveys its surroundings using lidar or some other depth-aware sensor. This lets it characterize surfaces nearby and match those to a library of examples that it knows it can rest on.

Squared-off edges like those on the top right can be rested on as in A, while a pole can be balanced on as in B.

If the drone sees and needs to rest on a pole, it can grab it from above. If it’s a horizontal bar, it can grip it and hang below, flipping up again when necessary. If it’s a ledge, it can use a little cutout to steady itself against the corner, letting it shut off or all its motors. These modules can easily be swapped out or modified depending on the mission.

I have to say the whole thing actually seems to work remarkably well for a prototype. The hard part appears to be the recognition of useful surfaces and the precise positioning required to land on them properly. But it’s useful enough — in professional and military applications especially, one suspects — that it seems likely to be a common feature in a few years.

The paper describing this system was published in the journal Science Robotics. I don’t want to leave anyone out, so it’s by: Kaiyu Hang, Ximin Lyu, Haoran Song, Johannes A. Stork , Aaron M. Dollar, Danica Kragic and Fu Zhang, from Yale, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the University of Hong Kong, and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

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Koala-sensing drone helps keep tabs on drop bear numbers

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Australia, Computer Vision, conservation, drones, Gadgets, hardware, machine learning, science, TC, UAVs | No Comments

It’s obviously important to Australians to make sure their koala population is closely tracked — but how can you do so when the suckers live in forests and climb trees all the time? With drones and AI, of course.

A new project from Queensland University of Technology combines some well-known techniques in a new way to help keep an eye on wild populations of the famous and soft marsupials. They used a drone equipped with a heat-sensing camera, then ran the footage through a deep learning model trained to look for koala-like heat signatures.

It’s similar in some ways to an earlier project from QUT in which dugongs — endangered sea cows — were counted along the shore via aerial imagery and machine learning. But this is considerably harder.

A koala

“A seal on a beach is a very different thing to a koala in a tree,” said study co-author Grant Hamilton in a news release, perhaps choosing not to use dugongs as an example because comparatively few know what one is.

“The complexity is part of the science here, which is really exciting,” he continued. “This is not just somebody counting animals with a drone, we’ve managed to do it in a very complex environment.”

The team sent their drone out in the early morning, when they expected to see the greatest contrast between the temperature of the air (cool) and tree-bound koalas (warm and furry). It traveled as if it was a lawnmower trimming the tops of the trees, collecting data from a large area.

Infrared image, left, and output of the neural network highlighting areas of interest

This footage was then put through a deep learning system trained to recognize the size and intensity of the heat put out by a koala, while ignoring other objects and animals like cars and kangaroos.

For these initial tests, the accuracy of the system was checked by comparing the inferred koala locations with ground truth measurements provided by GPS units on some animals and radio tags on others. Turns out the system found about 86 percent of the koalas in a given area, considerably better than an “expert koala spotter,” who rates about a 70. Not only that, but it’s a whole lot quicker.

“We cover in a couple of hours what it would take a human all day to do,” Hamilton said. But it won’t replace human spotters or ground teams. “There are places that people can’t go and there are places that drones can’t go. There are advantages and downsides to each one of these techniques, and we need to figure out the best way to put them all together. Koalas are facing extinction in large areas, and so are many other species, and there is no silver bullet.”

Having tested the system in one area of Queensland, the team is now going to head out and try it in other areas of the coast. Other classifiers are planned to be added as well, so other endangered or invasive species can be identified with similar ease.

Their paper was published today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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Drones ground flights at UK’s second largest airport

Posted by | Civil Aviation Authority, drone, drones, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, Gadgets, Gatwick Airport, gchq, hardware, robotics, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

Mystery drone operator/s have grounded flights at the U.K.’s second largest airport, disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people hoping to get away over the festive period.

The BBC reports that Gatwick Airport’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night on safety grounds, after drones were spotted being flown repeatedly over the airfield.

It says airlines have been advised to cancel all flights up to at least 16:00 GMT, with the airport saying the runway would not open “until it was safe to do so.”

More than 20 police units are reported to be searching for the drone operator/s.

The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

Further adding to the misery of disrupted passengers today, the Civil Aviation Authority told the BBC it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” — meaning airlines aren’t obligated to pay financial compensation.

There’s been a marked rise in U.K. aircraft incidents involving drones over the past five years, with more than 100 recorded so far this year, according to data from the U.K. Airprox Board.

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg faced a barrage of questions about the Gatwick disruption in the House of Lords today, including accusations the government has dragged its feet on bringing in technical specifications that might have avoided the disruption.

“These drones are being operated illegally… It seems that the drones are being used intentionally to disrupt the airport, but, as I said, this is an ongoing investigation,” she told peers, adding: “We changed the law earlier this year, bringing in an exclusion zone around airports. We are working with manufactures and retailers to ensure that the new rules are communicated to those who purchase drones.

“From November next year, people will need to register their drone and take an online safety test. We have also recently consulted on extending police powers and will make an announcement on next steps shortly.”

The minister was also pressed on what the government had done to explore counterdrone technology, which could be used to disable drones, with one peer noting they’d raised the very issue two years ago.

“My Lords, technology is rapidly advancing in this area,” responded Sugg. “That is absolutely something that we are looking at. As I said, part of the consultation we did earlier this year was on counterdrone technology and we will be announcing our next steps on that very soon.”

Another peer wondered whether techniques he said had been developed by the U.K. military and spy agency GCHQ — to rapidly identify the frequency a drone is operating on, and either jam it or take control and land it — will be “given more broadly to various airports”?

“All relevant parts of the Government, including the Ministry of Defence, are working on this issue today to try to resolve it as quickly as possible,” the minister replied. “We are working on the new technology that is available to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. It is not acceptable that passengers have faced such disruption ahead of Christmas and we are doing all we can to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

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This drone shrinks to fit

Posted by | drones, EPFL, Gadgets, TC | No Comments

Researchers at the University of Zurich and EPFL have created a robot that shrinks to fit through gaps, a feature that could make it perfect for search and rescue missions. The researchers initially created a drone that could assess man-made gaps and squeeze through in seconds using only one camera. This extra feature — a scissor-like system to shrink the drone in flight — makes it even more versatile and allows these drones to react to larger or smaller gaps in nature.

“The idea came up after we worked on quadrotor flight through narrow gaps,” said PhD candidate Davide Falanga. “The goal of our lab is to develop drones which can be in the future used in the aftermath of a disaster, as for example an earthquake, in order to enter building through small cracks or apertures in a collapsed building to look for survivors. Our previous approach required a very aggressive maneuver, therefore we looked into alternative solutions to accomplish a task as passing through a very narrow gap without having to fly at high speed. The solution we came up with is the foldable drone, a quadrotor which can change its shape to adapt to the task.”

The system measures the gap and changes its shape without outside processing, a feat that is quite exciting. All of the processing is done on board and it could be turned into an autonomous system if necessary. The team built the drone with off the shelf and 3D-printed parts.

“The main difference between conventional drones and our foldable drone is in the way the arms are connected to the body: each arm is connected through a servo motor, which can change the relative position between the main body and the arm. This allows the robot to literally fold the arms around the body, which means that potentially any morphology can be obtained. An adaptive controller is aware of the drone’s morphology and adapts to it in order to guarantee stable flight at all times, independently of the configuration,” said Falanga.

The team published a report on their findings in Robotics and Automation Letters. As IEEE notes, this is no flying drone dragon, but it is a far simpler, cooler and more effective product.

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Lift Aircraft’s Hexa may be your first multirotor drone ride

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, hardware, lift aircraft, passenger drones, robotics, Startups, Transportation | No Comments

We were promised jetpacks, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain unsafe. So a nice drone ride is probably all we should reasonably expect. Lift Aircraft is the latest to make a play for the passenger multirotor market, theoretical as it is, and its craft is a sleek little thing with some interesting design choices to make it suitable for laypeople to “pilot.”

The Austin-based company just took the wraps off the Hexa, the 18-rotor craft it intends to make available for short recreational flights. It just flew for the first time last month, and could be taking passengers aloft as early as next year.

The Hexa is considerably more lightweight than the aircraft that seemed to be getting announced every month or two earlier this year. Lift’s focus isn’t on transport, which is a phenomenally complicated problem both in terms of regulation and engineering. Instead, it wants to simply make the experience of flying in a giant drone available for thrill-seekers with a bit of pocket money.

This reduced scope means the craft can get away with being just 432 pounds and capable of 10-15 minutes of sustained flight with a single passenger. Compared with Lilium’s VTOL engines or Volocopter’s 36-foot wingspan, this thing looks like a toy. And that’s essentially what it is, for now. But there’s something to be said for proving your design in a comparatively easily accessed market and moving up, rather than trying to invent an air taxi business from scratch.

“Multi-seat eVTOL air taxis, especially those that are designed to transition to wing-borne flight, are probably 10 years away and will require new regulations and significant advances in battery technology to be practical and safe. We didn’t want to wait for major technology or regulatory breakthroughs to start flying,” said CEO Matt Chasen in a news release. “We’ll be flying years before anyone else.”

The Hexa is flown with a single joystick and an iPad; direct movements and attitude control are done with the former, while destination-based movement, take-off and landing take place on the latter. This way people can go from walking in the front door to flying one of these things — or rather riding in one and suggesting some directions to go — in an hour or so.

It’s small enough that it doesn’t even count as a “real” aircraft; it’s a “powered ultralight,” which is a plus and a minus: no pilot’s license necessary, but you can’t go past a few hundred feet of altitude or fly over populated areas. No doubt there’s still a good deal of fun you can have flying around a sort of drone theme park, though. The whole area will have been 3D mapped prior to flight, of course.

Lifting the Hexa are 18 rotors, each of which is powered by its own battery, which spreads the risk out considerably and makes it simple to swap them out. As far as safety is concerned, it can run with up to six engines down, and has pontoons in case of a water landing and an emergency parachute should the unthinkable happen.

The team is looking to roll out its drone-riding experience soon, but it has yet to select its first city. Finding a good location, checking with the community, getting the proper permits — not simple. Chasen told New Atlas the craft is “not very loud, but they’re also not whisper-quiet, either.” I’m thinking “not very loud” is in comparison to jets — every drone I’ve ever come across, from palm-sized to cargo-bearing, has made an incredible racket, and if someone wanted to start a drone preserve next door I’d fight it tooth and nail. (Apparently Seattle is high on the list, too, so this may come to pass.)

In a sense, engineering a working autonomous multirotor aircraft was the easy part of building this business. Chasen told GeekWire that the company has raised a “typical-size seed round,” and is preparing for a Series A — probably once it has a launch city in its sights.

We’ll likely hear more at SXSW in March, where the Hexa will likely fly its first passengers.

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That night, a forest flew: DroneSeed is planting trees from the air

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Computer Vision, drones, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, robotics, science, Startups, TC, UAVs | No Comments

Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile, if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, six-gallon tanks of herbicide and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money DroneSeed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the U.S. for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as DroneSeed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this, DroneSeed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple of years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people, as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Although it’s difficult, it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple of feet, even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough and tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately, the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of five or six drones does the work of one helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization, you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.

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