UAVs

Team studies drone strikes on airplanes by firing them into a wall at 500 MPH

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Bird strikes are a very real danger to planes in flight, and consequently aircraft are required to undergo bird strike testing — but what about drones? With UAV interference at airports on the rise, drone strike testing may soon be likewise mandatory, and if it’s anything like what these German researchers are doing, it’ll involve shooting the craft out of air cannons at high speed.

The work being done at Fraunhofer EMI in Freiburg is meant to establish some basic parameters for how these things ought to be tested.

Bird strikes, for example, are tested by firing a frozen poultry bird like a chicken or turkey out of an air cannon. It’s not pretty, but it has to be done. Even so, it’s not a very good analogue to a drone strike.

“From a mechanical point of view, drones behave differently to birds and also weigh considerably more. It is therefore uncertain, whether an aircraft that has been successfully tested against bird strike, would also survive a collision with a drone,” explained Fraunhofer’s Sebastian Schopferer in a news release.

The team chose to load an air cannon with drone batteries and engines, since those make up most of any given UAV’s mass. The propellers and arms on which they’re mounted are generally pretty light and will break easily — compared with a battery weighing the better part of a kilogram, they won’t add much to the damage.

drone testing

The remains of a drone engine and battery after being propelled into the plate on the left at hundreds of miles per hour

The drones were fired at speeds from 250 to 570 miles per hour (115 to 255 meters per second by their measurement) at aluminum plates of up to 8 millimeters of thickness. Unsurprisingly, there was “substantial deformation” of the plates and the wingless drones were “completely destroyed.” Said destruction was recorded by a high-speed camera, though unfortunately the footage was not made available.

It’s necessary to do a variety of tests to determine what’s practical and what’s unnecessary or irrelevant — why spend the extra time and money firing the drones at 570 mph when 500 does the same level of damage? Does including the arms and propellers make a difference? At what speed is the plate in danger of being pierced, necessitating additional protective measures? And so on. A new rig is being constructed that will allow acceleration (and deceleration) of larger UAVs.

With enough testing the team hopes that not only could such things be standardized, but simulations could be built that would allow engineers to virtually test different surfaces or materials without a costly and explosive test rig.

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This clever transforming robot flies and rolls on its rotating arms

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There’s great potential in using both drones and ground-based robots for situations like disaster response, but generally these platforms either fly or creep along the ground. Not the “Flying STAR,” which does both quite well, and through a mechanism so clever and simple you’ll wish you’d thought of it.

Conceived by researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the “flying sprawl-tuned autonomous robot” is based on the elementary observation that both rotors and wheels spin. So why shouldn’t a vehicle have both?

Well, there are lots of good reasons why it’s difficult to create such a hybrid, but the team, led by David Zarrouk, overcame them with the help of today’s high-powered, lightweight drone components. The result is a robot that can easily fly when it needs to, then land softly and, by tilting the rotor arms downwards, direct that same motive force into four wheels.

Of course you could have a drone that simply has a couple of wheels on the bottom that let it roll along. But this improves on that idea in several ways. In the first place, it’s mechanically more efficient because the same motor drives the rotors and wheels at the same time — though when rolling, the RPMs are of course considerably lower. But the rotating arms also give the robot a flexible stance, large wheelbase and high clearance that make it much more capable on rough terrain.

You can watch FSTAR fly, roll, transform, flatten and so on in the following video, prepared for presentation at the IEEE International Convention on Robotics and Automation in Montreal:

The ability to roll along at up to 8 feet per second using comparatively little energy, while also being able to leap over obstacles, scale stairs or simply ascend and fly to a new location, give FSTAR considerable adaptability.

“We plan to develop larger and smaller versions to expand this family of sprawling robots for different applications, as well as algorithms that will help exploit speed and cost of transport for these flying/driving robots,” said Zarrouk in a press release.

Obviously at present this is a mere prototype, and will need further work to bring it to a state where it could be useful for rescue teams, commercial operations and the military.

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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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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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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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First ever drone-delivered kidney is no worse for wear

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Drone delivery really only seems practical for two things: take-out and organ transplants. Both are relatively light and also extremely time sensitive. Well, experiments in flying a kidney around Baltimore in a refrigerated box have yielded positive results — which also seems promising for getting your pad thai to you in good kit.

The test flights were conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland there, led by surgeon Joseph Scalea. He has been frustrated in the past with the inflexibility of air delivery systems, and felt that drones represent an obvious solution to the last-mile problem.

Scalea and his colleagues modified a DJI M600 drone to carry a refrigerated box payload, and also designed a wireless biosensor for monitoring the organ while in flight.

After months of waiting, their study was assigned a kidney that was healthy enough for testing but not good enough for transplant. Once it landed in Baltimore, the team loaded it into the container and had it travel 14 separate missions of various distances and profiles. The longest of these was three miles, a realistic distance between hospitals in the area, and the top speed achieved was 67.6 km/h, or about 42 mph.

Biopsies of the kidney were taken before and after the flights, and also after a reference flight on a small aircraft, which is another common way to transport organs medium distances.

Image credit: Joseph Scalea

The results are good: despite the potential threats of wind chill and heat from the motors of the drone (though this was mitigated by choosing a design with a distal motor-rotor setup), the temperature of the box remained at 2.5 degrees Celsius, just above freezing. And no damage appeared to have been done by the drones’ vibrations or maneuvers.

Restrictions on drones and on how organs can be transported make it unlikely that this type of delivery will be taking place any time soon, but it’s studies like this that make it possible to challenge those restrictions. Once the risk has been quantified, then kidneys, livers, blood, and other tissues or important medical supplies may be transported this way — and in many cases, every minute counts.

One can also imagine the usefulness of this type of thing in disaster situations, when not just ordinary aircraft but also land vehicles may have trouble getting around a city. Drones should be able to carry much-needed supplies — but before they do, they should definitely be studied to make sure they aren’t going to curdle the blood or anything.

The specifics of the study are detailed in a paper published in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine.

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Inspired by spiders and wasps, these tiny drones pull 40x their own weight

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, robotics, science, stanford, Stanford University, UAVs | No Comments

If we want drones to do our dirty work for us, they’re going to need to get pretty good at hauling stuff around. But due to the pesky yet unavoidable restraints of physics, it’s hard for them to muster the forces necessary to do so while airborne — so these drones brace themselves against the ground to get the requisite torque.

The drones, created by engineers at Stanford and Switzerland’s EPFL, were inspired by wasps and spiders that need to drag prey from place to place but can’t actually lift it, so they drag it instead. Grippy feet and strong threads or jaws let them pull objects many times their weight along the ground, just as you might slide a dresser along rather than pick it up and put it down again. So I guess it could have also just been inspired by that.

Whatever the inspiration, these “FlyCroTugs” (a combination of flying, micro and tug presumably) act like ordinary tiny drones while in the air, able to move freely about and land wherever they need to. But they’re equipped with three critical components: an anchor to attach to objects, a winch to pull on that anchor and sticky feet to provide sure grip while doing so.

“By combining the aerodynamic forces of our vehicle and the interactive forces generated by the attachment mechanisms, we were able to come up with something that is very mobile, very strong and very small,” said Stanford grad student Matthew Estrada, lead author of the paper published in Science Robotics.

The idea is that one or several of these ~100-gram drones could attach their anchors to something they need to move, be it a lever or a piece of trash. Then they take off and land nearby, spooling out thread as they do so. Once they’re back on terra firma they activate their winches, pulling the object along the ground — or up over obstacles that would have been impossible to navigate with tiny wheels or feet.

Using this technique — assuming they can get a solid grip on whatever surface they land on — the drones are capable of moving objects 40 times their weight — for a 100-gram drone like that shown, that would be about 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds. Not quickly, but that may not always be a necessity. What if a handful of these things flew around the house when you were gone, picking up bits of trash or moving mail into piles? They would have hours to do it.

As you can see in the video below, they can even team up to do things like open doors.

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world,” said co-author of the paper, EPFL’s Dario Floreano, in a news release. “But flying insects do many other things, such as walking, climbing, grasping and building. Social insects can even work together and combine their strength. Through our research, we show that small drones are capable of anchoring themselves to surfaces around them and cooperating with fellow drones. This enables them to perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”

Unless you’re prepared to wait for humanoid robots to take on tasks like this (and it may be a decade or two), you may have to settle for drone swarms in the meantime.

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DARPA wants new ideas for autonomous drone swarms

Posted by | artificial intelligence, DARPA, drones, Gadgets, Government, hardware, robotics, UAVs | No Comments

The Defense Department’s research wing is serious about putting drones into action, not just one by one but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program is kicking off its second “sprint,” a period of solicitation and rapid prototyping of systems based around a central theme. This spring sprint is all about “autonomy.”

The idea is to collect lots of ideas on how new technology, be it sensors, software, or better propeller blades, can enhance the ability of drones to coordinate and operate as a collective.

Specifically, swarms of 50 will need to “isolate an urban objective” within half an hour or so by working together with each other and ground-based robot. That at least is the “operational backdrop” that should guide prospective entrants in their decision whether their tech is applicable.

So a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while practical for farmers, isn’t really something the Pentagon is interested in here. On the other hand, if you can sell that idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they might take a shine to it.

But you could also simply demonstrate how using a compact ground-based lidar system could improve swarm coordination at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you’ve designed a midair charging system that lets a swarm perk up flagging units without human intervention.

Those are pretty good ideas, actually — maybe I’ll run them by the program manager, Timothy Chung, when he’s on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley this May. Chung also oversees the Subterranean Challenge and plenty more at DARPA . He looks like he’s having a good time in the video explaining the ground rules of this new sprint:

You don’t have to actually have 50 drones to take part — there are simulators and other ways of demonstrating value. More information on the program and how to submit your work for consideration can be found at the FBO page.

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University of Michigan opens up its M-Air UAV testing facility to students

Posted by | drones, Education, Gadgets, robotics, Transportation, UAVs, University of Michigan | No Comments

Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.

It may not look like much to the untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.

Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals and, of course, containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.

M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.

We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”

And because it’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.

“With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control — and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions,” said U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.

I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.

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DroneGun Tactical is a portable (but still illegal) drone scrambler

Posted by | dronegun, drones, droneshield, Gadgets, TC, UAVs | No Comments

 The only thing growing faster than the global drone population is the population of people thinking “how can I knock these annoying things out of the sky?” DroneShield offers a way to do just that, and now in a much more portable package, with the DroneGun Tactical — that is, if you’re an authorized government agent, which I doubt. Read More

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