Tag Archives: drone

The swarm is near: get ready for the flying microbots

Imagine a swarm of insect-sized robots capable of recording criminals for the authorities undetected or searching for survivors caught in the ruins of unstable buildings. Researchers worldwide have been quietly working toward this but have been unable to power these miniature machines — until now.

A 0.16 g microscale robot that is powered by a muscle-like soft actuator. Credit: Ren et al (2022).

Engineers from MIT have developed powerful micro-drones that can zip around with bug-like agility, which could eventually perform these tasks. Their paper in the journal Advanced Materials describes a new form of synthetic muscle (known as an actuator) that converts energy sources into motion to power these devices and enable them to move around. Their new fabrication technique produces artificial muscles, which dramatically extend the lifespan of the microbot while increasing its performance and the amount it can carry.  

In an interview with Tech Xplore, Dr. Kevin Chen, senior author of the paper, explained that they have big plans for this type of robot:

“Our group has a long-term vision of creating a swarm of insect-like robots that can perform complex tasks such as assisted pollination and collective search-and-rescue. Since three years ago, we have been working on developing aerial robots that are driven by muscle-like soft actuators.”

Soft artificial muscles contract like the real thing

Your run-of-the-mill drone uses rigid actuators to fly as these can supply more voltage or power to make them move, but robots on this miniature scale couldn’t carry such a heavy power supply. So-called ‘soft’ actuators are a far better solution as they’re far lighter than their rigid counterparts.

In their previous research, the team engineered microbots that could perform acrobatic movements mid-air and quickly recover after colliding with objects. But despite these promising results, the soft actuators underpinning these systems required more electricity than could be supplied, meaning an external power supply had to be used to propel the devices.

“To fly without wires, the soft actuator needs to operate at a lower voltage,” Chen explained. “Therefore, the main goal of our recent study was to reduce the operating voltage.”

In this case, the device would need a soft actuator with a large surface area to produce enough power. However, it would also need to be lightweight so a micromachine could lift it.

To achieve this, the group elected for soft dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) made from layers of a flexible, rubber-like solid known as an elastomer whose polymer chains are held together by relatively weak bonds – permitting it to stretch under stress.

The DEAs used in the study consists of a long piece of elastomer that is only 10 micrometers thick (roughly the same diameter as a red blood cell) sandwiched between a pair of electrodes. These, in turn, are wound into a 20-layered ‘tootsie roll’ to expand the surface area and create a ‘power-dense’ muscle that deforms when a current is applied, similar to how human and animal muscles contract. In this case, the contraction causes the microbot’s wings to flap rapidly.

A microbot that acts and senses like an insect

A microscale soft robot lands on a flower. Credit: Ren et al (2022).

The result is an artificial muscle that forms the compact body of a robust microrobot that can carry nearly three times its weight (despite weighing less than one-quarter of a penny). Most notably, it can operate with 75% lower voltage than other versions while carrying 80% more payload.

They also demonstrated a 20-second hovering flight, which Chen says is the longest recorded by a sub-gram robot with the actuator still working smoothly after 2 million cycles – far outpacing the lifespan of other models.

“This small actuator oscillates 400 times every second, and its motion drives a pair of flapping wings, which generate lift force and allow the robot to fly,” Chen said. “Compared to other small flying robots, our soft robot has the unique advantage of being robust and agile. It can collide with obstacles during flight and recover and it can make a 360 degree turn within 0.16 seconds.”

The DEA-based design introduced by the team could soon pave the way for microbots that work using untethered batteries. For example, it could inspire the creation of functional robots that blend into our environment and everyday lives, including those that mimic dragonflies or hummingbirds.

The researchers add:

“We further demonstrated open-loop takeoff, passively stable ascending flight, and closed-loop hovering flights in these robots. Not only are they resilient against collisions with nearby obstacles, they can also sense these impact events. This work shows soft robots can be agile, robust, and controllable, which are important for developing next generation of soft robots for diverse applications such as environmental exploration and manipulation.”

And while they’re thrilled about producing workable flying microbots, they hope to reduce the DEA thickness to only 1 micrometer, which would open the door to many more applications for these insect-sized robots.

Source: MIT

A drone carrying a defibrillator saved the life of a heart-attack patient

A man in Sweden is alive today partly thanks to an autonomous drone. The 71-year-old suffered a heart attack while shoveling snow in the city of Trollhättan and was resuscitated by a doctor after a drone flew in a defibrillator. A heart attack has to be responded to within ten minutes of the incident, and the drone only took three to arrive — raising hopes that this type of technology could become widespread.

Image credit: Everdrone.

Everdrone, a company from Sweden, has developed an Emergency Medial Aerial Delivery (EMADE) service drone in partnership with the Center for Resuscitation Science at Karolinska Institutet. It’s designed to allow emergency dispatchers to send the drone to a caller’s home and kickstart the medical process before the ambulance.

Over 275,000 people in Europe and 350,000 in the US suffer from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) every year, Everdrone says. Up to 70% of these happen in private homes without defibrillators, and ambulance response times can something be too long. For every minute that passes, the chances of survival decrease by 7% to 10% — so time is of the essence. 

This is where the new drone enters the stage. It has the potential to significantly increase survival rates among OHCA patients, which is now merely 10%. The service now covers 200,000 people in Sweden and is planned to expand across Europe this year; the way the drone industry is evolving, we can likely expect progress to be quick. For now, one life has already been saved, which is already an important milestone.

“I can’t put into words how thankful I am to this new technology and the speedy delivery of the defibrillator. If it wasn’t for the drone I probably wouldn’t be here”, the 71-year-old patient who has made a full recovery and is now back home said in a statement. “This is a truly revolutionary technology that needs to be implemented.”

The life-saving drone

Before being operational, researchers carried out a four-month test of the EMADE program back in 2020. The service got 14 heart attack alerts that were eligible for drones, which were used in 12 of those cases. In all cases except one the drones successfully delivered the defibrillators, and in seven cases the defibrillators arrived before the ambulance.

After the defibrillator arrived through the drone, the 71-year-old man was assisted by a bystander, who luckily turned out to be a doctor — Dr. Mustafa Ali. Ali initiated the lifesaving measures before the arrival of the ambulance. After the initial treatment on-site, the Swedish resident was rushed to the hospital and has now made a full recovery. 

“I was on my way to work at the local hospital when I looked out the car window and saw a man collapsed”, Dr. Ali said in a statement.  “I immediately understood that something was wrong and rushed to help. The man had no pulse, so I started doing CPR while asking another bystander to call 112. Just minutes later, I saw something flying above my head.”

Drones are currently being used in many areas more and more every day — including scaring birds near airports to prevent accidents, delivering goods, overall scientific research and chasing down other drones due to anti-drone measures. It’s a revolution that it’s barely starting, with a lot of potential on the medical field, if used wisely. 

Europe’s biggest ever drug drone was just seized by Spanish cops

A French smuggling gang was using the drone to traffic drugs from Morocco to southern Spain, taking advantage of its capacity to carry up to 150 kilograms of cargo. The drone has a wingspan of nearly five meters and a flight range of seven hours. It can reach a maximum speed of over 100 miles per hour and is worth up to $7.700. 

Image credit: Spanish police

The gang trafficked the drugs from Morocco to the small town of Almachar in Spain, with only 1,811 inhabitants. Pedro Luis Bardón, from the National Police’s airborne resources unit, told El País newspaper that they had never seen a drone that big used for this purpose. It’s the biggest one ever found in Spain and very possibly in Europe. 

The five-motor drone, made in China, was discovered in a warehouse in the city of Malaga, following a joint investigation by Spanish and French cops. They also found 85 kilos of weed and hashish and arrested four people in the operation, three in France and one in Spain – who will now face prosecution because of drug trafficking. 

The gang flew the drone using an electronic system that relayed the exact takeoff and landing points. It could also be flown using a remote control. The police said the criminals didn’t have much knowledge related to its use, which posed a danger to other air traffic, even for passenger flights, considering the massive size of the seized drone. 

The inside of the drone is hollow, and would normally be used for cameras or other electrical equipment. In the case of the drug gang, it was being used for packages of narcotics, particularly cocaine. “Technology makes our lives easier, but it also ends up in the hands of the bad guys,” said the Málaga police chief, Roberto Rodríguez Velasco. 

A trafficking hotspot

It’s not random that the gang chose to move the drugs in the stretch of sea between southern Spain and Morocco. This is known as one of Europe’s busiest trafficking zones, with large amounts of weed and cocaine being smuggled. The stretch could be easily covered by the seized drone thanks to its average seven hours flight autonomy. 

The discovery of the drone follows similar busts by the Spanish police. In July this year, they found a network of drug traffickers that used a fleet of small drones to move cocaine from Morocco to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city near the coast of Africa. The police found seven drones, each capable of carrying between four and 25 kilograms. 

Image credit: Mugin.

Drones are also frequently used to move drugs from Mexico to the United States. The first reported seizure was in Calexico, on California's border with Mexico, in April 2015. It had been used to carry a total of 28 pounds of heroin over the border in four trips. Over the next five years, 170 similar incidents were officially reported. 

Still, drones aren’t the only method used by gangs to traffic drugs, at least in Europe. In March this year, Spanish police found a 30 feet long fiberglass narco-submarine, capable of carrying two tons of drugs. Since 2019, when the first submarine was discovered in Spain, the police have found several of these vessels being used to traffic drugs across Europe.

A drone-flying software outperforms human pilots for the first time

The rise of the machines won’t be as dramatic as those in Terminator or the Animatrix if people can simply outrun the murderbots. And, currently, we can do that quite comfortably. Some robots can walk, some can run, but they tend to fall over pretty often, and most are not that fast. Autonomous flying drones are also having a very hard time keeping up with human-controlled ones, as well.

Image credits  Robotics and Perception Group, University of Zurich.

New research at the University of Zurich, however, might finally give robots the edge they need to catch up to their makers — or, at least, give flying drones that edge. The team developed a new algorithm that calculates optimal trajectories for each drone, taking into account their individual capabilities and limitations.

Speed boost

“Our drone beat the fastest lap of two world-class human pilots on an experimental race track,” says Davide Scaramuzza, who heads the Robotics and Perception Group at UZH and corresponding author of the paper.”The novelty of the algorithm is that it is the first to generate time-optimal trajectories that fully consider the drones’ limitations”.

“The key idea is, rather than assigning sections of the flight path to specific waypoints, that our algorithm just tells the drone to pass through all waypoints, but not how or when to do that,” adds Philipp Foehn, Ph.D. student and first author of the paper.

Battery life is one of the most stringent constraints drones today face. Because of this, they need to be fast. The approach their software uses today is to break down their flight route into a series of waypoints and then calculate the best trajectory, acceleration, and deceleration patterns needed over each segment.

Previous drone piloting software relied on various simplifications of the vehicle’s systems — such as the configuration of its rotors or flight path — in order to save on processing power and run more smoothly (which in turn saves on battery power). While practical, such an approach also produces suboptimal results, in the form of lower speeds, as the program works with approximations.

I won’t go into the details of the code here, mainly because I don’t understand code. But results-wise, the drone was pitted against two human pilots — all three navigating the same quadrotor drone — through a race circuit, and came in first place. The team set up cameras along the route to monitor the drones’ movements and to feed real-time information to the algorithm. The human pilots were allowed to train on the course before the race.

In the end, the algorithm was faster than the pilots on every lap, and its performance was more consistent between laps. The team explains that this isn’t very surprising, as once the algorithm identifies the best path to take, it can reproduce it accurately time and time again, unlike human pilots.

Although promising, the algorithm still needs some tweaking. For starters, it consumes a lot of processing power right now: it took the system one hour to calculate the optimal trajectory for the drone. Furthermore, it still relies on external cameras to keep track of the drone, and ideally, we’d want onboard cameras to handle this step.

The paper “Time-optimal planning for quadrotor waypoint flight” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

Drones can elicit emotions from people, which could help integrate them into society more easily

Could we learn to love a robot? Maybe. New research suggests that drones, at least, could elicit an emotional response in people if we put cute little faces on them.

A set of rendered faces representing six basic emotions in three different intensity levels that were used in the study. Image credits Viviane Herdel.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have examined how people react to a wide range of facial expressions depicted on a drone. The study aims to deepen our understanding of how flying drones might one day integrate into society, and how human-robot interactions, in general, can be made to feel more natural — an area of research that hasn’t been explored very much until today.

Electronic emotions

“There is a lack of research on how drones are perceived and understood by humans, which is vastly different than ground robots,” says Prof. Jessica Cauchard, lead author of the paper.

“For the first time, we showed that people can recognize different emotions and discriminate between different emotion intensities.”

The research included two experiments, both using drones that could display stylized facial expressions to convey basic emotions to the participants. The object of these studies was to find out how people would react to these drone-borne expressions.

Four core features were used to compose each of the facial expressions used in the study: eyes, eyebrows, pupils, and mouth. Out of the possible emotions these drones could convey, five were recognized ‘with high accuracy’ from static images (joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise), and four more (joy, surprise, sadness, anger) were recognized most easily in dynamic expressions conveyed through video. However, people had a hard time recognizing disgust no matter how it was conveyed to them by the drone.

What the team did find particularly surprising, however, is how involved the participants themselves were with understanding these emotions.

“Participants were further affected by the drone and presented different responses, including empathy, depending on the drone’s emotion,” Prof. Cauchard says. “Surprisingly, participants created narratives around the drone’s emotional states and included themselves in these scenarios.”

Based on the findings, the authors list a number of recommendations that they believe will make drones more easily acceptable in social situations or for use in emotional support. The main recommendations include adding anthropomorphic features to the drones, using the five basic emotions for the most part (as these are easily understood), and using empathetic responses in health and behavior change applications, as they make people more likely to listen to instructions from the drone.

The paper “Drone in Love: Emotional Perception of Facial Expressions on Flying Robots” has been published in the journal Association for Computing Machinery and has been presented at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2021).

Ingenuity helicopter makes its first one-way flight on Mars

It came, it saw, it conquered — after four successful return flights, Ingenuity (the first man-made machine to take flight on another planet) is now embarking on a new adventure: flying from place to place, accompanying the Perseverance rover, and studying Mars from above.

Ingenuity flying, as seen by Perseverance. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

There’s a drone *on Mars*

Ingenuity was meant to be just a proof of concept, a stepping stone for future missions. But it already is more than just that.

After having its Wright Brothers moment and taking off in a rarefied atmosphere (the Martian atmosphere is just 1% as dense as that on the Earth), it carried out three more flights, each longer than the previous. For each of these flights, though, it went in one direction and then returned to its original launch area (named after the Wright Brothers).

The fifth flight was different, though. After rising up to 33 feet (10 meters) and capturing high-resolution color images of its new neighborhood, it went south and safely landed at a new location.

“We bid adieu to our first Martian home, Wright Brothers Field, with grateful thanks for the support it provided to the historic first flights of a planetary rotorcraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “No matter where we go from here, we will always carry with us a reminder of how much those two bicycle builders from Dayton meant to us during our pursuit of the first flight on another world.”

The view from a helicopter on Mars. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

A new step

The flight marks a transition to a new phase in its mission. This will focus on assessing what capabilities such a device can provide, especially as a complement to the Perseverance rover. The helicopter can scout and provide detailed aerial imaging, information that could greatly benefit future exploration missions on Mars. The rover-helicopter duo will work together to unlock unprecedented research capability.

So far, everything is going according to plan — which, when you’re working remotely with instruments on another planet, is already a fantastic achievement. But in some regards, Ingenuity is even surpassing what its engineers had hoped for.

“The power system that we fretted over for years is providing more than enough energy to keep our heaters going at night and to fly during the day,” a NASA press release mentioned. “The off-the-shelf components for our guidance and navigation systems are also doing great, as is our rotor system. You name it, and it’s doing just fine or better.”

Of course, at any point, something could go wrong. After all, Ingenuity has fulfilled its original mission and is now trying on an extended schedule (proof that even on Mars, those that work well are assigned overtime).

NASA engineers are fully aware of the risks, and they’re taking things step by step.

“We will now be flying over unsurveyed terrains and transfer to airfields that are not well characterized so there’s a higher probability of a bad landing,” explained MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager.

“We will be celebrating each day that ingenuity survives and operates beyond the original window.”

“The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations,” said Balaram. “We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing. We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.”

Still, it’s hard to not get excited at the prospect of a helicopter assisting a rover to explore another planet. It’s barely been a century since the first human flight, and now we’re already sending flying devices to other planets. Just a few decades ago, this would have seemed like science fiction more than an actual possibility — yet here we are.

We hope to be reporting on Ingenuity for a long time.

Drone thermal camera reveals ancestral Wichita site in Kansas

Findings like this are pretty rare, but a new surveying method could reveal many similar ancestral American structures.

Left: Drone-acquired orthoimage of the site showing major features discussed in the paper. Right: Thermal images mosaic showing archaeological features. Image credits: by Jesse Casana, Elise Jakoby Laugier, and Austin Chad Hill.

Temperature can tell you many things. It can tell you if someone has a fever or not, if the food is cooking properly — or if there may be archaeological structures under the soil. Physical properties have been used by archaeologists for a number of years, but drone-based thermal surveys are a relatively new (and very useful) addition in the modern archaeologists’ arsenal.

The basic phenomenon is fairly straightforward. Things get cold in the day and hot in the night, but different things heat and cool differently. A ditch or an archaeological structure might behave very differently compared to the surrounding soil. If you have a drone’s birds’ eye thermal view, you can survey a great area with relative ease and see buried features that aren’t visible on the surface.

This is exactly what happened in Wichita, Kansas. Using this technique, a team of researchers have found what they believe to be a part of Etzanoa, a famous Wichita ancestral city. Etzanoa may have housed 20,000 Wichita people, flourishing until the 1700s.

“Our findings demonstrate that undiscovered monumental earthworks may still exist in the Great Plains. You just need a different archeological approach to recognize them,” explained lead author, Jesse J. Casana, a professor and chair of the department of anthropology at Dartmouth. “Our results are promising in suggesting that there may be many other impressive archaeological features that have not yet been documented if we look hard enough,” he added.

There were no visible marks on the surface, but researchers suspected something could be there based on other findings in the area. Specifically, the 18-hectare drone survey revealed a circular shaped ditch measuring 50 meters wide and approximately 2 meters thick that has been infilled. Casana believes this to be the remains of a so-called council circle, similar to several others found in the area. The site suggests a sprawling yet unitary Wichita city.

However, it’s not entirely clear what council circles were used for. Some archaeologists speculated they were ceremonial or political in nature, reserved for important tribal discussions. However, they might have also been built for astronomical or even defense purposes, Casana adds.

He and his colleagues now plan to scan the surrounding area and look for other similar buried structures.

“While we may never know what the council circles were used for or their significance, new archaeological methods allow us to see that people made these earthworks.”

Journal Reference: Jesse Casana et al, A Council Circle at Etzanoa? Multi-sensor Drone Survey at an Ancestral Wichita Settlement in Southeastern Kansas, American Antiquity (2020). DOI: 10.1017/aaq.2020.49

Protesters in Chile bring down police drones using simple laser pointers. Lots and lots of laser pointers

In Chile, protesters are using lasers en masse to bring down hapless police drones.


Videos of Chilean protesters bringing down police drones using nothing but green laser pointers have been hitting social media since Wednesday, attracting quite a large helping of attention. Still, how is it possible for what are essentially toy lasers to bring police-grade technology to the ground?

To kill a spying bird

Chile is in the grip of public protests after a proposed increase in subway fares sparked nation-wide demonstration over low wages and economic inequality. And, in a very fitting allegory of their cause, the protesters have started using cheap laser pointer pens to bring down police drones (which can cost up to several tens of thousands of dollars apiece).

Footage of these protesters hit Reddit late Tuesday, showing how, as more and more light beams found their unmanned aerial mark, the drone begins slowly drifting towards the ground. At one point the UAS (unmanned aerial system) almost escapes, until more beams are trained on it bringing it down for good. Here it is in all its glory (turn the volume down, headphone users, you’ve been warned):

The collective cheer at the end is the best part. So now, the question that’s been plaguing Reddit — how did the humble laser pointer do it?

Christopher Williams, CEO of Citadel Defense Company (a company working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deploy anti-drone “bubbles” along the border) told Aaron Boyd, Senior Editor at Nextgov, that one of two things likely happened.

First, if the drone was piloted by a human operator, they likely used a camera for the pilot to navigate through; in this case, the bright massed beams of several laser pointers could very easily have ‘blinded’ the camera, making navigation extremely difficult if not downright impossible.

Alternatively, in the case of an autonomous drone, Williams says, the laser beams could have caused its onboard sensors to go haywire: its infrared landing sensors would give false altitude and proximity readings, and the craft’s downward-facing cameras (used to spot obstacles) would also give out false readings — all in all, this would cause the drone to either flay about or even perform a forced safety landing.

The Reddit hivemind also proposed that the combined heat of the laser pointers melted the drone’s circuitry or caused the battery to give out; personally, I am strongly inclined to disagree. There just isn’t enough energy in a single laser pointer beam that, even en-masse, it could melt wiring.

What the humble pointer may lack in sheer power, however, other lasers don’t. A recent collaboration between U.S. defense contractor Raytheon and the Air Force resulted in a laser weapon that does just that — melt internals and explodes batteries — in drones.

Google’s Wing makes the first drone-borne delivery in the US

Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet (the parent company of Google) is the first company in the United States to successfully deliver a package by drone.

Wing chose Christiansburg, Virginia, a city with 22,000 residents, to test their US drone delivery service. The company already operates in Helsinki and two cities in Australia. Locals in Christiansburg has the opportunity to have drones deliver goods to them — Wing lists Walgreens medicine, an assortment of candy from a local business, and products that would normally be shipped by FedEx among the options.

On Friday afternoon, the first purchase was made and then shipped to a lucky Christiansburger via drone, Wing told Medium.

The robots are coming! With your purchase

Customers can use an app developed by Wing to order goods via drone. One family had Tylenol, cough drops, Vitamin C tablets, bottled water, and tissues droned to their home, the statement added. Another customer brought a birthday present and, while delivery was handled by a FedEx truck for most of the way, a drone carried the package over the final mile-or-so stretch.

Walgreens thus becomes the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone; FedEx will be the first logistics provider to deliver an e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

At Wing’s local operational center (called the ‘Nest’), the drones are packed with up to three pounds (1.3 kg) of goods at a time. From there, they can deliver the packages in a six-mile (10 km) range. The drones don’t land when they reach their delivery spot; instead, they hover above the building and lower the packages with a cable.

Other companies are working to launch similar systems in the US — Amazon, UPS, and Uber Eats are among the strongest contenders — but so far only Wing has obtained the necessary green lights from the federal government. For an economic actor to legally engage in such a business model, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to issue a license allowing its pilots to fly multiple drones at the same time.

Wing and other drone-delivery companies hope to replace or at least reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Wing itself says their service is further aimed at people with limited mobility options and promises deliveries within “minutes” in Christiansburg’s designated delivery zones. A company spokesperson added that there will be no extra delivery fees.


NASA plans to send a helicopter drone to Titan in search of life

This Thursday, NASA announced a new mission to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.


Image credits Johns Hopkins / APL.

NASA’s next mission will take it to Titan. The Agency plans to send a drone helicopter the moon to search for the building blocks of life. Christened ‘Dragonfly‘, the mission will launch in 2026 and land Titan-side in 2034. The copter will then fly to dozens of locations across the moon on the back of Titan’s relatively thick atmosphere. Titan is of interest because it is the only body in our solar system (besides Earth) that has liquid rivers, lakes, and seas on its surface.

Fly, dragonfly

“Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe, ” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

The drone will be propelled by eight rotors over a 2.7-year-long mission, during which it will explore environments ranging from “organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years,” NASA said in a statement. The goal of Dragonfly is to study how far along Titan’s chemistry has progressed towards life. Another point of interest is the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties, as well as its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs.

“Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life,” the statement adds.

The craft will first land on Titan’s equator to explore the region, and will then move around the area in short trips. A series of flights 5 miles- (8 kilometer)-long are also planned after that, to get the drone to various points of interest around Titan. It will collect samples at these points, and then make its way to the Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of a possible ‘primordial stew’ of liquid water, organic materials, and energy. All in all, the lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers).

Titan’s atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen, like Earth’s, but is four times denser. Its clouds and rains are methane, which pool into hydrocarbon lakes on the surface. The moon’s underground ocean, however, could harbor life as we know it.

Drone landing gear.

New research plans to keep drones in the air longer by giving them the ability to land

An international team wants to make drones fly for longer — by teaching them how to land.

Drone landing gear.

Examples of various perching and resting actions.
Image credits Hang et al., (2019), Sci. Robot.

Drones today are really awesome gadgets, but they’re still severely limited by their short flight time. Despite a lot of effort being expended into improving their batteries or energy efficiency, drones can still only last minutes in the air.

Now, a new study reports that we don’t need bigger, better batteries to keep drones aloft for longer; it’s as simple as sticking landing gears on them.

Take a breather

The team says they’ve taken inspiration from birds, bats, and their impressive biological landing gears.

Many birds fly in short bursts and perch on elevated positions between bouts, they explain. By taking these elevated positions, they are able to conserve energy while keeping tabs on their surroundings for food or threats. Bats fly in a similar manner, but instead of perching, they simply hang upside down.

So the researchers set to work on incorporating similar abilities into our drones. The design they came up is reminiscent of a hawk’s talons. Drones equipped with this landing gear can land on flat or semi-flat surfaces like a bird, or perform a leaning landing on objects such as window sills.

An Xbox One Kinect sensor built into the design allows drones to automatically find and navigate perches, the team adds. After landing, the drone can turn down its rotors, thus saving battery power and prolonging its ability to fly. Other onboard devices such as cameras can be kept operational, allowing landed drones to keep performing their intended tasks.


The landing gear has only been tested under laboratory conditions so far. Although the results are encouraging, the team says they still need to tweak their design further to get the drones to land and take off autonomously. With some more work, however, they’re confident we’ll soon see drones perching atop buildings and other high surfaces.

The paper “Perching and resting—A paradigm for UAV maneuvering with modularized landing gears” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.


New sensor backpacks could turn bees into crop-monitoring drones

Drones? No thank you — I prefer backpacking bees.


Image credits Suzanne D. Williams.

Engineers from the University of Washington (UW) plans to give farmers a powerful (and adorable) alternative to drones. The team has developed tiny sensor systems that can fit on the back of a bumblebee without restricting the insects’ ability to fly. Such a package only requires a tiny battery to operate for up to seven hours at a time, and can recharge while the bees sleep in their hive at night.

BEElievable readings

“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”

It’s not the first time researchers have thought of ‘sensorising’ bees. The insects have one massive advantage over drones: they fly on their own power. However, they can’t carry much weight, limiting the range of sensors they can be fitted with. This also makes GPS receivers (which require a lot of energy and, thus, heavy batteries, to run) completely out of the question. Because of that, the farthest researchers have ever gotten was to superglue simple RFID (radio-frequency identification) backpacks onto bees to follow their movement. However, such RFID packs were a proof-of-concept and of limited use — they only worked for distances of about 10 inches and didn’t carry any sensing equipment.

The UW team needed sensors that were able to both accurately tell their location and fit on the tiny backs of bees for this research to pan out. They decided on using bumblebees (genus Bombus) since they’re beefier and can handle the weight of a tiny battery, says co-author Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student at the UW. These batteries, while small, could power an array of sensors for much longer than a conventional drone could be kept operational. Furthermore, they can be wirelessly recharged every night when the bees go to sleep.

The backpack they developed weighs only 102 milligrams, which the team says is roughly the weight of seven grains of uncooked rice. Bees are placed in a cold environment for a short while to slow them down, and the packs are glued to their back. The researchers used a similar method to remove the packs.

“The rechargeable battery powering the backpack weighs about 70 milligrams, so we had a little over 30 milligrams left for everything else, like the sensors and the localization system to track the insect’s position,” said co-author Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in the Allen School.

Because GPS receivers weren’t a viable option, the team developed a unique method of localizing the backpack-toting bees. They set up multiple antennas, each broadcasting signals from a base station across a specific area. A receiver installed in the backpacks could pick up on the intensity and direction of the incoming signal to triangulate its position in space.

The team tested their localization system by installing four antennas on one side of a soccer field and carried a bee-with-backpack around the field in a jar. As long as they stood within 80 meters (roughly three-quarters the length of a soccer field) of the antennas, their system could accurately triangulate the bee’s position.

Small sensors monitoring temperature, humidity, and light intensity were later added to the pack. These would allow bees to collect and log data (along with their location) as they buzzed around the farm.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.'”

The data is uploaded from the backpacks into storage via backscatter when the bees return to the hive. Backscatter is a method through which devices can share information by reflecting radio waves in the environment. Right now, the team says, their packs can store about 30 kilobytes of data (which is very little), and can only upload it once they return to the hive. Going forward, the team would like to develop backpacks with live-stream cameras so farmers can monitor plant health in real time. Such a pack, however, would require instant upload capabilities (or, at least, much larger data storage).

“Having insects carry these sensor systems could be beneficial for farms because bees can sense things that electronic objects, like drones, cannot,” Gollakota said. “With a drone, you’re just flying around randomly, while a bee is going to be drawn to specific things, like the plants it prefers to pollinate. And on top of learning about the environment, you can also learn a lot about how the bees behave.”

The team will present its findings online at the ACM MobiCom 2019 conference.

Foldable drone.

Search and rescue operations might soon call on foldable drones to find victims

A new shape-shifting drone promises to offer rescue teams robotic help even in those hard-to-reach areas.

Foldable drone.

The drone in it’s T-shape configuration (more on that later).
Image credits UZH.

Teams digging through collapsed or damaged buildings are often the only chance of salvation for those trapped after fires, earthquakes, or similar events. It’s obviously dangerous and laborious work. Not only are such structures very unstable, but they’re usually also very hard to navigate (on account of all the fallen rubble).

Needless to say, having drones scour collapsed buildings ahead of human teams would be the safest course of action. However, drones would often have to enter such sites through narrow points — a crack in a wall, a partially open window, through bars — something the typical size of a drone does not allow. A team of researchers from the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich and the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Lausanne Federal Polytechnic School (EPFL) plans to address this issue.

The little drone that folded

“Our solution is quite simple from a mechanical point of view, but it is very versatile and very autonomous, with onboard perception and control systems,” explains Davide Falanga, researcher at the University of Zurich and the paper’s first author.

The drone’s most obvious advantage over counterparts is its ability to morph in shape to tackle cramped environments. and guarantee a stable flight at all times. The team says they’ve drawn inspiration from birds that fold their wings mid-air to navigate narrow passages. In a very similar fashion, the drone can squeeze itself to pass through gaps and then go back to its previous shape while flying. The drone can also transport objects, including during this morphing process.

Both teams collaborated closely to design the drone — a quadrotor with four propellers that rotate independently, each mounted on mobile arms outfitted with servo-motors that can fold around the frame. It also sports a video camera. What really keeps the drone aloft during these foldings is a control system designed and programmed by the team. It keeps tabs on each propeller’s position in real time, adjusting their thrust as the drone weaves and bobs through the air.

The drone’s standard configuration is the traditional quadcopter X-shape (like these drones here), with the four arms stretched out and the propellers at the widest possible distance from each other. When faced with a narrow passage, the drone can morph into an H-shape, with all arms lined up along one axis. It can also take on an O-shape (with all arms folded as close as possible to the body) or a T-shape, which can be used to bring the onboard camera as close as possible to objects that the drone needs to inspect.

“The morphing drone can adopt different configurations according to what is needed in the field,” adds Stefano Mintchev, co-author and researcher at EPFL.

The researchers plan to further improve the structure of their drone so that it can fold in all three dimensions. They also want to develop software that will make the drone truly autonomous, so it can find its own way through rubble and collapsed buildings in real-life scenarios. “The final goal is to give the drone a high-level instruction such as ‘enter that building, inspect every room and come back’ and let it figure out by itself how to do it,” says Falanga.

The paper “The Foldable Drone: A Morphing Quadrotor that can Squeeze and Fly” has been published in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Illustration of the world's first ionic-wind-powered aircraft. Credit: MIT.

World’s first ion-drive airplane can fly without any moving parts

Researchers at MIT have achieved the first sustained flight powered by ionic wind. Their small unmanned aircraft prototype has no moving parts and creates lift by ionizing the atmosphere around it in an electric field, instead of pushing the air with a propeller or turbine.

Illustration of the world's first ionic-wind-powered aircraft. Credit: MIT.

Illustration of the world’s first ionic-wind-powered aircraft. Credit: MIT.

In order to move air around it, the world’s first solid-state aircraft generates an ionic wind. By applying a high voltage to a pair of electrodes, electrons are stripped off nearby air molecules, and the ionized oxygen and nitrogen molecules collide with neutral air molecules as they move from one electrode to the other. It’s this bulk movement of atmospheric molecules — the ionic wind, flowing in one direction and pushing the aircraft in the opposite direction — that enabled MIT’s drone-sized aircraft to stay airborne.

The ion-drive aircraft’s design is fairly simple: a thin wire acts as the leading edge, where nitrogen and oxygen get ionized by 20,000 volts of electricity. Behind the wire is a thin airfoil covered by the second electrode, which is charged with negative 20,000 volts, creating a difference of 40,000 volts. The winged body, a 40 kilovolts custom-built battery, and an electronic control system round off the rest of the setup.

Ion drives have been used in spacecraft for decades, but getting them to work in Earth’s gravity had not been possible until now. It’s thanks to advances in electronics and batteries that researchers were able to design an ion-drive aircraft capable of generating practical amounts of thrust.

There is a series of inherent trade-offs due to physical limitations that scientists had had to constantly joggle. For instance, an ion-drive generates the most thrust with a lower electric field strength. However, if the field’s strength drops below a threshold, air molecules won’t get ionized in the first place. Then, if the mass of the aircraft is too great, you need more power, which implies bigger and heavier batteries — at some point, the thrust is just not large enough to carry the airplane’s weight.

Timelapse image of the craft in flight in a gym. Credit: MIT.

After tweaking various thruster designs, the researchers finally found a version that is capable of sustaining flight. Their a 5-meter wingspan,  2.5-kilogram aircraft made 10 flights, flying up to 9 seconds over a distance of 45 meters at a speed of 5 meters per second. It had to be launched from a mechanical bungee system in order to give it a brief time to power up. A computer algorithm optimizes the electric field constraints so that maximum thrust is achieved during flight.

According to the MIT researchers, the ion-wind thruster generated 5 newtons for each kilowatt of power, which is on par with the output of jet engines. However, the overall efficiency of the system is just 2.5%m which is well below a conventional aircraft that pushes the air mechanically.

This is just a proof of concept, and the researchers are confident that they can come up with a much more efficient system. Their current design was limited by the fact that they had to fly inside an indoor track. By fitting larger wings, the authors say that they could up the efficiency of the system to 5% without changing the setup. Different designs for the electrode and better power conversion electronics could further boost efficiency.

An ion-drive might never be capable of generating enough thrust to carry human passengers or large cargo like conventional aircraft can. To move that much mass, you’d need a huge power input, which is not feasible with current battery technology. However, there are various applications where its low thrust density would be well suited to. A silent aircraft with no moving parts may be advantageous as an urban monitoring vehicle or for transporting small packages, thus avoiding the annoying noise pollution generated by mechanically propelled drones.

The ionic-wind-powered drone was described in the journal Nature.

FlyCroTugs’ multimodal operation allows them to combine small size, high mobility in cluttered and unstructured environments, and forceful manipulation. Credit: Science Robotics.

Wasp-inspired micro-drone can tug 40 times its own weight

Inspired by the natural world, researchers have designed a microdrone that can pull objects up to 40 times its weight. By anchoring itself to various surfaces using adhesive action inspired by geckos and wasps, the tiny aerial vehicle is able to lift cameras, water bottles, and even pull door handles, while the drone itself is as light as a bar of soap.

FlyCroTugs’ multimodal operation allows them to combine small size, high mobility in cluttered and unstructured environments, and forceful manipulation. Credit: Science Robotics.

FlyCroTugs’ multimodal operation allows them to combine small size, high mobility in cluttered and unstructured environments, and forceful manipulation. Credit: Science Robotics.

The FlyCroTugs drone was developed by Stanford’s Mark Cutkosky and Dario Floreano at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Other similar drones demonstrated previously could only lift twice their own weight using aerodynamic forces alone. To drastically improve their tiny aerial vehicle’s towing power, the researchers turned to one of the most feared predators in the insect world: the wasp.

When a wasp captures prey too big to transport by flight, it chooses to drag it using different attachment options. Researchers studied the various ways wasps choose to transport prey and computed the ratio of flight-related muscle to total mass that determines whether the predator flies or drags its prey.

“When you’re a small robot, the world is full of large obstacles,” said Matthew Estrada, a graduate student at Stanford and lead author of the new study published in Science Robotics. “Combining the aerodynamic forces of our aerial vehicle along with interaction forces that we generate with the attachment mechanisms resulted in something that was very mobile, very forceful and micro as well.”

When encountering a smooth surface, FlyCroTugs uses gecko-like grippers that create non-sticking intermolecular forces between the adhesive and surface. For rough surfaces, the tiny flying robot sticks its 32 microspines into the small pits of a surface, latching onto it.

Fitting all this hardware inside a robot with only twice the weight of a golf ball was no easy feat, but the team was up to the challenge. What they wound up with was a fast, small, and maneuverable flying robot capable of moving very large loads up to 40 times its own weight.

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world, but flying insects do many other things – such as walking, climbing, grasping, building – and social insects can even cooperate to multiply forces,” said Floreano in a statement. “With this work, we show that small drones capable of anchoring to the environment and collaborating with fellow drones can perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”

FlyCroTugs represents a paradigm shift away from drones occupying a single niche. Not only does it show that drones are excellent for navigating remote locations, but they can also be used to interact with the physical world. In tests, FlyCroTugs flew atop a crumbling structure from where it hauled up a camera and even opened a door with the help of another drone (see the video).

In the future, the team hopes to develop an autonomous system that enables them to maneuver and coordinate multiple FlyCroTugs at once.

“The tools to create vehicles like this are becoming more accessible,” said Estrada. “I’m excited at the prospect of increasingly incorporating these attachment mechanisms into the designer’s tool belt, enabling robots to take advantage of interaction forces with their environment and put these to useful ends.”


Novel video shows what drone impacts can do to planes. Spoiler alert: it’s very, very bad

Drones: they’re small, they’re kinda cute, and they’re really cool. But these little fliers can also be very dangerous, especially to air traffic.


Image credits University of Dayton Research Institute.

New research from the University of Dayton (UoD) Research Institute shows that these buzzing motes of technology pose a real threat to larger aircraft, with a direct impact able to cause severe structural damage to an aircraft’s frame.

Winging it

Given that planes are pretty big vehicles and civilian drones tend not to be that way, it’s easy to assume that the former would suffer only minor damage in the case of a collision. However, a new video released by researchers from the University of Dayton shows that this is far from the truth.

The team traditionally studies a similar hazard: that of mid-flight bird-airplane collisions. While such events aren’t too dangerous for planes, they can cause significant difficulties for pilots and some damage to the vehicle. Some of the most dangerous outcomes of a bird-plane collision include broken windows (and subsequent injuries to the crew), and engine damage. The team’s results are forwarded to the aircraft design industry, which uses the data to bird-proof their planes.

Given their background, the team wondered what the outcome of a drone-plane impact would be. In collaboration with researchers at the Sinclair College National UAS Training and Certification Center, they set up an experiment to find out. The test roughly followed the same layout as bird-impact tests: the team set up a target — the wing of a single-engine Mooney M20 — on a fixed mount, shot a drone at it at speeds similar to that of a flying aircraft, and filmed the whole thing. In effect, this simulates a plane hitting a drone during flight.

The footage shows that a drone can cause significant damage to an airplane, should they collide at full speed. Rather than breaking apart, bounding off, or glancing off (like birds tend to do), the drone acted like a cannonball — it tore through the vehicle’s fuselage, causing extensive internal damage. Most worryingly, it chewed right through the wing’s main spar, a key structural unit that carries the plane’s weight (i.e. it’s the part that keeps the wing from breaking off). Damage to the spar has a very high chance of making the plane incapable of flight.

Drone collisions cause greater and more severe damage to planes than birds of comparative size due to their solid motors, batteries, and other parts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported in a study last year. These parts are much stiffer than the flesh of birds (which is mostly water), so they don’t disintegrate, and most often penetrate a vehicle’s skin. That study also says the FAA gets more than 250 sightings a month of drones posing potential risks to planes, most often near airports.

The UoD team says we need to do more extensive testing — using different sizes of drones and aircraft models — to fully understand the risks involved in such collisions. Furthermore, they point to a collision between a civilian quadcopter drone and a military helicopter that occurred last year, saying that it’s nearly certain we’ll see more such events in the future. The helicopter in that collision suffered severe damage to its rotor, but was able to make it back to base, crew unharmed.

The FAA called on drone manufacturers to develop and incorporate technology to detect and avoid planes. Judging from the UoD video, that’s a good first step. Pilots definitely shouldn’t rely on sheer luck, or current planes, to save them in a drone impact — both are flimsy defenses.

British police find rape victim using drone thermal camera

In a remarkable use of modern technology, a British teenage girl who called the emergency number to report that a man had raped her was found after police dispatched a drone with a thermal imaging camera. The 16-year-old was discovered in Boston, Lincolnshire and is now safe.

Drone in the image is not the one used by the police.

It’s a tragic event, but it could have been even worse without the skilled usage of technology. British police officers were notified that a teenage girl did not know where she was calling from 999 (the UK emergency number) to report that she was raped. Even though the girl did not know her exact location, she described an old industrial complex surrounded by a high fence — to make things even more urgent, the victim claimed she was in there with her attacker.

The police thought they recognized the area the girl described as a leveled factory site but were not fully certain. Inspector Ed Delderfield, of Lincolnshire Police, said the officers had the drone with the thermal camera in their car.

They dispatched the drone which was quick to find the girl, and within minutes, led the policemen to her. The thermal camera had discovered two thermal signatures, of the girl and her presumed attacker. A man in his 30s was arrested, and the girl is now safe, taken care of by specially-trained officers.

It’s not the first time the Lincolnshire police used a drone to great effect. Just a week ago, they discovered a man with dementia in a field, in the dark, using the same technology. Without the drone, there’s no telling how the two cases would have ended — we can only be glad technology was deployed and used correctly.

Thermal imaging cameras are already routinely used by some firefighting brigades. By rendering infrared radiation in the visible spectrum, these cameras allow firefighters to see through smoke and darkness. Recently, this type of cameras has been increasingly mounted on drones, which shows great promise in locating missing people.

Potholes could be fixed by asphalt-printing drones

Finally, it feels like we’re in the future!

If there’s one small thing all motorists hate, it’s potholes. Nothing can ruin your day like an inconspicuous, well-placed pothole — and often times, it takes forever to patch them up. But all that may soon change, thanks to a new futuristic invention by University of Leeds researchers, who have proposed and developed an unorthodox approach to pothole repairs.

They “trained” image recognition algorithms to detect potholes, and then installed them into drone cameras. After the damaged areas were identified, a drone was dispatched to the site, using an on-board asphalt 3D printer to patch the hole.

Intriguingly, while it may rightfully seem a bit overkill to use complex algorithms, drones, and 3D printers to patch potholes, researchers say this may actually save municipalities money in the long run. Phil Purnell, professor of Materials and Structures at the University of Leeds, told Digital Trends:

“When you look at interventions in infrastructure — whether it’s roads, pipes, bridges, or similar — you’re very often using ton and meter-scale solutions for problems that started out as gram and millimeter-scale defects,” he said.


Image credits: University of Leeds.

Potholes often start out as small holes but can grow very quickly, and identifying and fixing them quickly can prevent a lot of costs further down the line. If the drone can reliably identify and patch things up, it might be very worth it.

Researchers University College London, who have built the asphalt extruder mounted on the Leeds drone, say that the patching has an accuracy of about 1 mm.

This is not a singular approach — it’s part of a multi-university project looking at the possibility of self-repairing cities, using robotics and modern technology to repair and maintain infrastructure.

While this all sounds incredibly cool and useful, it will still be a while before the technology actually hits the road, as this is only a proof of concept so far. But if you think about it, things that seemed sci-fi a few years ago are already becoming commonplace.

“From a technical view, this is like Formula 1,” he said. “Twenty years ago the idea of [technology such as] energy recovery through braking systems was something that was seen as exotic when it was used on Formula 1 cars. Now it’s commonplace in many hybrid vehicles that you can drive about on the road today. It’s the same thing here. This is all about demonstrating how we can glue the various pieces of this puzzle together. We’re academics, so it’s our job to look at the high concept approach. Through our interactions with industry, they’ll then be able to find ways of implementing it.”

NASA Explores the Use of Robotic Bees on Mars

Graphic depiction of Marsbee - Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Graphic depiction of Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Robot bees have been invented before, but Mars might be a place for them to serve a unique purpose. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Japanese chemist Eijio Miyako led a team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in developing robotic bees. So they’re not really bees; they’re drones. Miyako’s bee drones are actually capable of a form of pollination similar to real bees.

Bees have been the prime subject of many a sci-fi films including The Savage Bees (1976), The Swarm (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). In the 21st century, bees have been upgraded. Their robotic counterparts shall have an important role to play in future scientific exploration. And this role could very well be played out on the surface of Mars.

Now, NASA has begun to fund a project to create other AI-steered robotic bees for the future exploration of Mars. The main cause of experimenting with such mini robots is for the desirable need for speed. The problem is this: the traditional rovers sent to Mars in the past move very slowly. NASA anticipates an army of fliers to move significantly faster than their snail-like predecessors.

A number of researchers in Alabama are currently collaborating with a group based in Japan to design these mechanical drones. Sizewise the drones are very similar to real bees; however, the wings are unnaturally large. The lengthened wingspan was a well-needed feature to add since the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner compared to Earth’s. These small insect-like robots have been dubbed “Marsbees.”

If used, the Marsbees would travel in swarms and be able to return to some sort of a base, not unlike the way bees return to their hive. The base would likely be a rover providing a place for the Marsbees to be reenergized. But they would not have to come to this rover station to send out the information they’ve accumulated. Similar to satellites, they would be able to transmit their findings wirelessly. Marsbees would also likely be able to collect a variety of data. If their full development is feasible and economical, the future for Marsbees looks promising.

Leopard seal.

Drones to offer faster, cheaper monitoring of Antarctica’s ecosystems

The health of Antarctic ecosystems could be monitored much cheaper and faster than today — we only need to replace everybody with drones.

Leopard seal.

Image credits nomis-simon / Flickr.

Researchers working on monitoring the condition of leopard seals have demonstrated a cheaper, faster way to do their jobs. Instead of spending hours to pursue, catch, immobilize, and then measure the animals, researchers can now recover all the necessary data from drone photography. A pleasing prospect, considering they ply their trade in the hellishly cold backdrop of the Antarctic Peninsula.


Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx), which can grow to nearly half a ton, are an important reference species for the overall health of the Antarctic ecosystem. They’re at the top of the local food chain, preying on penguins and Antarctic fur seals. In turn, these rely overwhelmingly on Antarctic krill — small, shrimp-like crustaceans. Krill, however, is an important resource for us human as well, as they’re a key ingredient in nutritional supplements, aquaculture feed, and other industries. Because of this, leopard seals, penguins, and fur seals are used as indicators, helping researchers gauge the health of Antarctic krill populations — estimations that are then used to establish how much krill fishing ships can take out of the area.

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center usually have to go out and brave the cold to estimate the body conditions of these species. Now, however, with help from Aerial Imaging Solutions, they might be able to wait for the data enjoying the comfort of a warm room and a hot cup of cocoa.

To test how accurate the drones’ measurements are, researchers from the AERD sent the drones out, then caught and measured the same animals. It took five people over four hours to capture the 15 leopard seals photographed by the drones (which only needed about 20 minutes and a crew of two people). Still, the effort paid off — the team found that length measurements were accurate to within about 2%, and the weight measurements within about 4%.

Even better, the seals don’t seem to mind the drones at all. They showed no reaction to the robot as long as it stayed above 23 meters (75 feet).

“We’re certainly excited because we can get that much more work done, in less time, and at lower costs than ever before,” said Douglas Krause, a research scientist in the Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division (AERD) and lead author of the paper demonstrating the new research method.

“Catching a single seal can take hours, but the drone can photograph every seal on a beach in a few minutes.”

It’s that last element, in particular, that could make the drones better suited to tracking the seals than humans. The photographs they provide could actually improve the accuracy and depth of data over the longer term because the drones can survey far more leopard seals in the same amount of time than human teams. Researchers will feed a single photograph of each animal through the computer software that calculates their weight and size, to minimize errors.

The drones’ first assignment will be to track changes in the leopard seals’ weight throughout summer. The data will show how much food the animals are getting, and will be used to break the population down by age intervals to better understand the overall health of the population.

Seal-watch drone.

A seal-watcher drone and station.
Image credits Douglas Krause et al., 2017, PLOS ONE.

“We’re always looking for more efficient ways to collect data that informs decisions on how to manage these important resources,” said George Watters, director of the AERD. “The better we understand the ecosystem, the better we can ensure it’s protected for the long term.”

The paper “An accurate and adaptable photogrammetric approach for estimating the mass and body condition of pinnipeds using an unmanned aerial system” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.