Tag Archives: drone

Drone racing

AI-powered drones race against human pilots

In a work funded by Google, NASA engineers trained an artificial intelligence to race drones in a challenging obstacle course. The AI proved to be a worthy match against one of the world’s best human pilots. While it didn’t have the fastest time, the AI never fatigues and made far safer turns and twists.

Drone racing

Credit: NASA.

The drone-racing AI is the culmination of two years of work by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The team designed three drones — Batman, Joker, and Nightwing — which were embedded with complex algorithms that instruct the flying gizmos how to navigate obstacles. JPL used some of the visual-based navigation technology it had previously used for spacecraft.

To see how well their drones behave, NASA enlisted world-class pilot Ken Loo who raced against the drones on October 12.

The drones could reach a staggering 80 mph (129 kph) in a straight line. However, during the actual race itself which took place in a JPL warehouse, the drones mainly flew at 30 or 40 mph (48 to 64 kph).

Loo scored a better time, averaging 11.1 seconds, while the completely autonomous drones clocked in 13.9 seconds on average. The AI was far more steady, on the other hand, while Loo’s times varied more. What’s more, the AI flew the same racing line every lap.

“We pitted our algorithms against a human, who flies a lot more by feel,” said Rob Reid of JPL, the project’s task manager. “You can actually see that the A.I. flies the drone smoothly around the course, whereas human pilots tend to accelerate aggressively, so their path is jerkier.”‘

Unlike Loo, however, the drones never get tired and are always up to the task of navigating a challenging environment time and time again. This makes them far safer and reliable in the long run.

“This is definitely the densest track I’ve ever flown,” Loo said. “One of my faults as a pilot is I get tired easily. When I get mentally fatigued, I start to get lost, even if I’ve flown the course 10 times.”

Autonomous drones typically rely on GPS to navigate their surroundings but this is not an option in enclosed spaces such as a warehouse or dense urban areas. Camera-based localization and mapping are far more useful in this situation which is what’s been used here. According to Reid, their technology could be used by commercial drones to check inventory in a warehouse, for instance, or assist in rescue operations at disaster sites where there unpredictable and numerous obstacles. One day, autonomous drones might even shuttle around a space station.

Drone Explorer.

Dragonfly dual-quadcopter drone proposed to explore Titan to understand how life appeared

A new explorer joins the ranks of proposals for NASA’s New Frontiers initiative. Christened Dragonfly, this nuclear-powered robotic dual-quadcopter will take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity to hop about the moon and beam back data from potentially habitable sites.

Drone Explorer.

Image credits JHUAPL/Mike Carroll.

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is quite an exciting place for scientists trying to understand how life develops. It has enough water to be comfortably called an ocean world. To be fair it’s frozen solid on the surface, but the interior seems to be a relatively warm, liquid ocean. It also has a diverse chemistry rich in the building blocks biology (as we know it) needs. Put the two together, and what you get is a place with a lot of organic material undergoing the same reactions that we believe went down in Earth’s early days.

All in all, it’s a place that could offer us insight into how life appeared that lab work simply can’t provide. So what NASA wants to do, as part of its New Frontiers exploration program, is to send a pair of eyes to Titan and see what’s what. That pair of eyes, engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory believe, should come in the shape of a dual-quadcopter they named Dragonfly.

“This is the kind of experiment we can’t do in the laboratory because of the time scales involved,” said APL’s Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission.

“Mixing of rich, organic molecules and liquid water on the surface of Titan could have persisted over very long timescales. Dragonfly is designed to study the results of Titan’s experiments in prebiotic chemistry.”

The drone explorer will carry an array of instruments to any points of interest across the moon’s surface. For this mission, flying sticks out as an ideal method of transportation. Given Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, flying is much easier to do here than on Earth. This means Dragonfly will be able to carry more instruments with the same effort, and flying will let it navigate rugged terrain much faster and with less risk of damage than wheeling about the place.

At every site, the drone will sample atmospheric and surface chemistry with a suite of instruments. This data will allow scientists to estimate the habitability of the moon, see how far Titan’s chemistry has progressed towards biotic chemistry, even pick up eventual traces of water- or hydrocarbon-based life. Mass spectrometry will reveal atmospheric and soil composition, gamma-ray spectrometry will be used to probe into the chemical composition of the shallow sub-surface. A suite of meteorology and geophysics sensors will record wind, pressure, temperature, seismic activity, as well as a host of other factors. Finally, a camera will let scientists peer at the nature of the moon’s surface.

“We could take a lander, put it on Titan, take these four measurements at one place, and significantly increase our understanding of Titan and similar moons,” said Dragonfly project manager Peter Bedini of APL.

“However, we can multiply the value of the mission if we add aerial mobility, which would enable us to access a variety of geologic settings, maximizing the science return and lowering mission risk by going over or around obstacles.”

Later this year, NASA will select a few of the proposals for New Frontiers for further study. Sometime in mid-2019, one will be selected to become the fourth mission in the planetary exploration program.

Defibrillator drone.

Drones in Sweden carry defibrillators to save cardiac arrest victims

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden hope to lower the response time for cardiac arrest patients by equipping drones with defibrillators to carry them wherever they’re needed — much faster than a conventional ambulance could.

Defibrillator drone.

Image credits Andreas Claesson et al., JAMA, 2017.

Response time is paramount in cases of cardiac arrest, as every minute without CPR and defibrillation reduces a patient’s survival chance by 10%. Having someone perform CPR improves these odds but usually doesn’t cut it by itself, and a defibrillator shock must be applied to jump-start the heart. Even in hospitals, where help is just around the corner only roughly one in ten people survive a cardiac arrest. Outside of the hospital, though, that rate drops even lower.

A team of researchers led by Jacob Hollenberg at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden hope to stack the odds in the patients’ favor by attaching defibrillators to drones which can fly wherever they’re needed, around the clock, much faster than an ambulance. They’re currently testing the prototype at a fire station in Norrtälje, a rural location near Stockholm, by testing its performance against that of ambulances in previous cases of cardiac arrest.


All objectives were selected from cases that had taken place in the past 8 years within a 10-kilometer radius around the station. The prototype defibrillator-wielding drone performed 18 flights with an average arrival time to the emergency location of 5 minutes 21 seconds. By contrast, the average arrival time of ambulances at the time the emergencies took place was 22 minutes.

“If we can decrease the time in cardiac arrest from collapse to defibrillation by a few minutes, hundreds of lives would be saved each year,” Hollenberg said.

Hollenberg’s team is now working with local emergency services for the drone’s baptism by fire — real-emergency dispatches — to see if it can improve on the response time. If all goes well, the team plans to have the drone system up and running within a year or two, they add.

But no matter how quickly the drones get there, first response should remain a top priority. Teaching people how to properly perform CPR could prove to be a very cheap, low-tech way to save a lot of lives in the long run. And many people have recognized its importance, with cities such as Stockholm or London trialing apps that alert people trained in CPR of nearby cases of cardiac arrest.

But the drones have an undeniably huge potential in the field of emergency response. Hollenberg’s team has also tested drones’ efficacy in searching for people who are drowning, and these flying bots could prove invaluable for applications in rugged areas, in emergencies involving chemical, biological or nuclear materials, or simply for delivering precious medical supplies in otherwise inaccessible areas.

The full paper “Time to Delivery of an Automated External Defibrillator Using a Drone for Simulated Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrests vs Emergency Medical Services” has been published in the journal JAMA.

Cooperative prey hunting and sharing observed in Norwegian seal-eating killer whales

Drones have become increasingly used for research on cetaceans. Remotely controlled from distances of up to several hundred meters, drones enable the capture of unbiased behaviors whilst removing potential disturbances that could arise from boats standing directly around the animals. Moreover, drones enable observations of activities that may occur within the first meters below the surface, yet completely out of the observers’ sight.

Image credits: Norwegian Orca Survey

Image credits: Norwegian Orca Survey

In Norway, a research project regularly uses drones to investigate dietary habits and predation behaviours of killer whale groups. So far, and based on studies from the last three decades, Norwegian killer whales have been thought to be relying on the Atlantic herring as a main prey. However, a subset of groups also appears to regularly prey upon pinnipeds, as first documented by Vongraven & Bisther (2014). Part of an ongoing study that aims at monitoring the extent of killer whale predation on pinnipeds in northern Norway, a research team recently launched a drone above a group of killer whales hunting and feeding on a harbour seal. The drone captured stunning footages showing a group of killer whales cooperatively hunting and subsequently sharing a pinniped-prey. The video is available below.


With consistent heading, speed and between-individual spacing, the five killer whales, presumed to be foraging, were travelling with approximately 5 knots along the shoreline. Suddenly, the large male of the group showed drastic behavioral changes, displaying sharp turns, explosive breathings and arching his back while diving. In a matter of only a few seconds, all the four other whales adopted similar displays. Thereby, the perfectly synchronous surfacing behaviour that first characterized the travelling whales rapidly turned into a pattern where the whales were alternately coming up to breath. Each whale surfacing seemed to systematically dive straight downwards, and the whole group remained on this restricted spot, where something was apparently going on.

Explanations came shortly when the drone flying above the spot revealed a seal laying on the surface, apparently exhausted. The five killer whales were persistently circling it, leaving it with no chance to escape towards the haul-outs nearby. After a minute, the seal attempted a fast escape down to the bottom, as visible on the footage. The immediate reaction of the five whales, prompted by a flying start, was to rush after it. For a few minutes, the sea surface remained quiet. The seal may have escaped to the bottom where cavities and rocks offer hiding places. Yet, killer whales are skilled top-predators able to cooperatively search and handle all prey types and, eventually, the group came up back to the surface with the prey: dead.

Seal-eating killer whales that frequent Norwegian coastal waters appear to have different strategies to killing their seal-prey, based on the situation. As such, hitting a tired seal laying on the surface with a powerful tail-slap will stun or cause traumas that will weaken the prey, ensuring low risks of injury for the hunting killer whales. The killing method for a seal-prey hiding near the bottom remains uncertain. However, it is likely that the whales would wait for it to drown. Indeed, as shown on the footage, the whales appear to take turns to come up to breathe, ensuring that there are always predators down watching the prey, still holding its breath.

Upon return to the surface, interestingly, the oldest female of the group could be seen leading the carcass towards the surface and taking the first bites out. She then deliberately dropped the carcass, leaving an opportunity for the rest of the group to join the feast. On the footage, the five whales could be seen taking turns to feed on the carcass. After less than 15 minutes, the meal was over and the whales resumed their foraging behavior.

Food-sharing has been previously highlighted in other killer whale populations. As killer whales live in stable groups of related individuals, the benefits of cooperative foraging and prey-sharing are thought to result in increased fecundity and survival of the whole group, thus promoting kin perpetuation.

Drone footages obtained on this specific encounter enabled confirmation of effective predation and subsequent feeding, both of which are extremely valuable for ongoing studies. Great images once more support the killer whale as the ocean’s apex-predator.

This article is by Eve Jourdain and Richard Karoliussen from the Norwegian Orca Survey


Pilot program aims to use drones to drop medical supplies in isolated areas


Credit: Zipline

Zipline, a San Francisco startup, wants to disrupt the way the medical sector handles emergencies in remote areas of the nation. The company wants to use autonomous flying drones, which are fast and very precise, to drop medical supplies in where they’re most needed but take too long to reach using conventional emergency services.

When you need medical supplies, you need them immediately

Still pending FDA approval, Zipline is currently partnering Ellumen and ASD Healthcare as well as the non-profit organization Bloodworks Northwest to this aim. So far, $19 million of venture capital have been poured into the project by companies like Google or Sequoia Capital, signaling that not only big money but big people are behind this idea.

Since 2014, Zipline has been operational in Rwanda where it currently has contracts with 20 hospitals and health care centers to provide blood.

“One delivery, one life saved. It’s that simple,” Zipline states at its website. 

Tests will be made in Smith Island, Maryland and the Pyramid Lake Tribal Health Clinic in Nevada, but the primary focus will be Africa which severely lacks infrastructure.

The company’s flagship product is the Zip, a UAV that’s designed to carry vaccines, medicine, and blood to rural areas. Moreover, the crafts are designed to fly as reliably as possible borrowing safety features from conventional aerospace.

Integrated is the Zip service which allows a health worker to order supplies via the internet or text messaging. Meanwhile, teams are on standby to load the drones with the requested cargo and ship them out ASAP. Once in the air, the Zip drone can cruise at speeds of up to 60 mph. Considering it can move over any terrain, the drone is faster than any conventional emergency medical mode of transportation. Once at the drop zone, Zip lands and delivers its supplies.

Flying Aerobot drone is being designed to soar in the skies of Titan

In preparation for the Cassini probe’s departure from Saturn, NASA is looking to sent a drone on the giant’s moon Titan. The agency has awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 contract for the early-stage development of these vehicles.

Artist’s impression of a winged vehicle entering the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan.
Credit: GAC/NGAS

Two private companies, Global Aerospace Corp. and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, have been picked by NASA to design a vehicle which will explore the surface of Saturn largest moon, known as the Titan Winged Aerobot. The agency also requested that they prepare a prototype of the vehicle for testing on Earth. The two companies will share a Phase 1 SBIR contract — NASA said that such contracts last six months and are worth up to US$125,000.

Several design elements will be incorporated into the Titan bot to allow it to function in the moon’s extreme environment, said principal investigator of the Phase I effort Benjamin Goldman in a statement from Global. The drone will need to have excellent lift and maneuverability while being solid enough to withstand Titan’s atmospheric pressure.

“Titan is a cold, harsh environment that poses many technical challenges for any lighter-than-air exploration platform,” he added.

This won’t be the first time a human craft will land on the moon. In 2005, the Cassini mission sent the Huygens probe to Titan’s surface, where it remained operational for several hours, feeding us data on the moon’s atmosphere and surface. However, the new drones are designed to remain mobile, soaring high above the frozen surface. This would still allow them to map Titan in greater detail than Cassini can achieve during its flybys. They would also be invaluable in astrobiology and habitability studies on the moon, Global representative said.

Unlike Huygens’ single landing, a Titan drone could soar above many locations. Because it will fly closer to the surface, it could map Titan in greater detail than the higher-ranging Cassini flybys. This provides potential for studies in astrobiology and habitability, Global representatives said. One novel feature the company plans to install on the Titan Winged Aerobot is a buoyancy system what let it change altitude without the need for propulsion or traditional control surfaces such as flaps. The robot could fly over sites several times and even send targeted probes down to the surface, they added.

Titan is the only moon in the solar system known to have a significant atmosphere and a liquid cycle — though its lakes are made of hydrocarbons, not water. Despite its incredibly low surface temperatures (minus 300 Fahrenheit, or minus 184 Celsius degrees) and lack of water, it has been proposed that the moon could support methane-based life. So there is a lot of excitement for what the drones might find on the moon.

While the glider is being designed for Titan, it can be adapted for use on  “any solar system body with an atmosphere,” Global added. Other applications could include returning cargo to Earth from the ISS or surveying Mars from a drone built for its thin atmosphere.


First solar-powered boat to cross the Atlantic embarks on historical journey

The Solar Voyager — a small, autonomous solar-powered boat — is braving the winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean to show the power of green energy. The craft left Boston harbor on June 1st and is expected to land in Portugal in October.

Image via inhabitat

Back in 2013, engineers Christopher Sam Soon and Isaac Penny started building a solar-powered boat powerful enough to brave the world’s oceans on its own from scratch. They’re not the first to try this — Wave Glider had been launched just a year before, relying on waves to power it forward on its journey. But Wave glider was funded by California based Liquid Robotics, while Soon and Penny had no such help. The duo designed and built the craft by themselves, working on the project in their spare time after work. Anyone can build a ship like they did, Penny said.

“Only Liquid Robotics can build a Wave Glider, but anyone can do what we did. We don’t even have a garage!” laughed Penny.

Solar Voyager’s photovoltaic panels can churn out 7 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy every day in summer and 3 kWh in winter. The ship was built from aluminum, which the engineers chose over the usual “glass reinforced plastic” used in other autonomous crafts for its better resilience. On the flip-side, the metal also makes the craft heavier and thus more energy consuming, but the team hopes it will help it survive the harsh open ocean. Just to make sure though, the engineers monitor their little boat through the Iridium satellite network, and can receive updated data every 15 minutes.

“Durability is the obvious problem, but there isn’t an obvious solution,” Penny told techcrunch. “Designing something that runs for a day is one thing — designing something that will run for months in such harsh conditions with no one there to fix it is different.”

Image via inhabitat

So why did they do it? To show the world that solar energy isn’t just an alternative — often times it’s the best solution.

“We always think about solar as this alternative energy thing, but you just couldn’t do this with fossil fuels – you couldn’t build something that will run forever,” Penny said.

“Whether it’s long endurance drones, or data gathering for maritime security, or monitoring wildlife preserves – solar isn’t just an alternative form of energy, it’s the best solution. It brings something to the table that nothing else has.”

The engineers are now looking for a boat owner in Portugal who can help them collect the Solar Voyager once it makes its journey. If you want to cheer the little ship onward, you can check on the Solar Voyager and see its current position here.

perching robot

Flying quarter-sized RoboBee perches to save energy

perching robot

Credit: Harvard // YouTube

Harvard roboticists made an insect-like flying robot that perches on ceilings to save energy, like bats, birds or butterflies. To ‘rest’ on these surfaces, the RoboBee uses electrostatic adhesion instead of sticky adhesives or latching with talons, but works just as well.

“Many applications for small drones require them to stay in the air for extended periods,” said Moritz Graule, a researcher at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “Unfortunately, smaller drones run out of energy quickly. We want to keep them aloft longer without requiring too much additional energy.”

Sticky electricity

For their delicate flying RoboBee, no bigger than a quarter coin, it made more sense to use an electrode patch that electrostatically ‘sticks’ to a surface than anything fancy with moving parts. You’ve seen it work all the time when you rub a wool sweater to a balloon, for instance.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”What is static electricity?” footer=””]When two different materials come into close contact, for example, felt rubbing against a balloon or two air masses in a storm cloud, electrons may be transferred from one material to the other.

When this happens, one material ends up with an excess of electrons and becomes negatively charged, while the other ends up with a deficiency of electrons and becomes positively charged.

This accumulation of imbalanced charges on objects results in the phenomena we commonly refer to as static electricity. [/panel]

When wool is rubbed against a balloon, the latter becomes negatively charged. If you then bring the balloon close to a wall, it will stick. This works for only a little while, though, since the charge dissipates over the time.

Robo Bee

Image by Peter Allen/Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

This is why the Harvard researchers pumped a small amount of energy into the electrode to keep the negative charge going. Yes, this requires power, but makes flying more efficient in the long run. The patch required 1,000 times less power to perch than typically required to hover, the researchers write in the journal Science.

“One of the biggest advantages of this system is that it doesn’t cause destabilizing forces during disengagement, which is crucial for a robot as small and delicate as ours,” said Graule.

“When making robots the size of insects, simplicity and low power are always key constraints,” said senior author of the study,  Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS and the Wyss Institute.

Because the electrode is only attached to the top of the robotic bee, the flying gizmo can only attach itself to ceilings. An upcoming version should be able to stick to any surface.

MQ-9 Reaper taxiing. Image: Wikimedia Commons

NSA’s Skynet might be marking innocent people on its hit list

Between 2,500 and 4,000 so-called ‘extremists’ have been killed by drone strikes and kill squads in Pakistan since 2004. From as early as 2007, the NSA has targeted terrorists based on metadata supplied by machine learning program named Skynet. I have no idea who would find naming Skynet a machine designed to list people for assassination a bright idea, but that’s besides the point. The real point is that the inner workings of this software, as revealed in part by Edward Snowden from his leaks, suggest that the program might be targeting innocent people.

MQ-9 Reaper taxiing. Image: Wikimedia Commons

MQ-9 Reaper taxiing. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ars Technica talked to Patrick Ball, who is a data scientist and the executive director at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. Judging from how Skynet works, Ball says the machine seems to be scientifically unsound in the way it chooses which people deserve to be on the black list.


In a nutshell, Skynet works like most Big Data corporate machine learning algorithms. It works by mining the cellular network metadata of 55 million people and assigning a score to each, the highest pointing to terrorist activity. So, based on who you call, how long the call took and how frequent you dial a number, where you are and where you move, Skynet call tell if you’re a terrorist or not. Swapping sim cards or phones will be judged as activity that’s suspiciously linked to terrorist activities. More than 80 different properties, in all, are used by the NSA to build its blacklist.


So, judging from behaviour alone, Skynet is able to build a list of potential terrorists. But will the algorithm return false positives? In one of NSA’s leaked slides from a presentation of Skynet, engineers from the intelligence agency boasted how well the algorithms works by including the highest rated person on the list, Ahmad Zaidan. Thing is, Zaidan isn’t a terrorist but an Al-Jazeera’s long-time bureau chief in Islamabad. As part of the job, Zaidan often meets with terrorists to stage interviews and moves across conflict zones to report. You can see from the slide that Skynet identified Zaidan as a “MEMBER OF AL-QA’IDA.” Of course, no kill squad was sent for Zaidan because he is a known journalist, but one can only wonder about the fate of less notorious figures who had the misfortune to fit “known terrorist” patterns.

According to Ball, the NSA is doing ‘bad science’ by ineffectively training its algorithm. Skynet is  a subset of 100,000 randomly selected people, defined by their phone activity, and a group of seven known terrorists. The NSA scientists feed the algorithms the behaviour of six of the terrorists, then asks Skynet to find the seventh in the pool of 100,000.

“First, there are very few ‘known terrorists’ to use to train and test the model,” Ball said. “If they are using the same records to train the model as they are using to test the model, their assessment of the fit is completely bullshit. The usual practice is to hold some of the data out of the training process so that the test includes records the model has never seen before. Without this step, their classification fit assessment is ridiculously optimistic.”


According to leaked slides, Skynet has a false positive rate of between 0.18 and 0.008%, which sounds pretty good but is actually enough to list thousands for a black list. Nobody knows if the NSA uses a manual triage (it probably does), but the risk of ordering hits on innocent people is definitely on the table.

“We know that the ‘true terrorist’ proportion of the full population is very small,” Ball pointed out. “As Cory [Doctorow] says, if this were not true, we would all be dead already. Therefore a small false positive rate will lead to misidentification of lots of people as terrorists.”

“The larger point,” Ball added, “is that the model will totally overlook ‘true terrorists’ who are statistically different from the ‘true terrorists’ used to train the model.”

“Government uses of big data are inherently different from corporate uses,”  Bruce Schneier, a security guru, told Ars Technica. “The accuracy requirements mean that the same technology doesn’t work. If Google makes a mistake, people see an ad for a car they don’t want to buy. If the government makes a mistake, they kill innocents.”

“On whether the use of SKYNET is a war crime, I defer to lawyers,” Ball said. “It’s bad science, that’s for damn sure, because classification is inherently probabilistic. If you’re going to condemn someone to death, usually we have a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard, which is not at all the case when you’re talking about people with ‘probable terrorist’ scores anywhere near the threshold. And that’s assuming that the classifier works in the first place, which I doubt because there simply aren’t enough positive cases of known terrorists for the random forest to get a good model of them.”



This is the first human-carrying drone: is the world ready for it?


Chinese drone making company  Ehang recently showed off one of the most impressive contraptions at the CES convention in Las Vegas: a manned drone. It can fly as high as  11,500 feet, top speed of 63mph and a range of 20 minutes worth of powered flight. It can fit one person and a small backpack. It looks and sounds impressive, but is the world ready for it? For sure no, but the prospects for the future already sound appealing. Finally, the age The Jetsons foretold might finally be nigh.

flying manned drone

The other day I was listening to a speech by Peter Thiel, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist who, in a moment of disappointment with today’s technological progress, famously said: “They promised us flying cars, but all we got was 140 characters.” Hilarious, but so true! What Thiel was alluding to was that while computers and information technology have made fantastic leap forward, the same thing can’t be said about other fields of science where progress looks more like incremental than exponential. Humans haven’t been to the moon for decades, and it still takes just as long to fly from New York to Paris as in the 1970s. The trip actually takes longer if you consider the Concorde’s decommissioning.

'You know how it feels to sit in a Ferrari? This is 10 times better,' said George Yan, co-founder of Ehang.

‘You know how it feels to sit in a Ferrari? This is 10 times better,’ said George Yan, co-founder of Ehang.

We can’t seem to trust governments to change the world, considering funding seems to go more and more to ‘safe’ research – the kind that’s expected to work. So, it’s up to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk — who wants make a pressurized tube called the Hyperloop that will get you from L.A. to San Francisco in 35 minutes flat — to change transportation. Huazhi Hu, the EHang CEO, is also up to bold plans.

The 184 uses multiple independent flight control systems to automatically navigate passengers from point A to point B.

The 184 uses multiple independent flight control systems to automatically navigate passengers from point A to point B.

Imagine leaving for work not in a vehicle, but in a fully autonomous flying drone that will get you there in no time. That’s what we were promised at some point, and Huazhi wants to deliver it.

‘Mass-adoption of the 184 has the potential to streamline congested traffic and dramatically reduce the kinds of accidents associated with any human-operated vehicle,’ the firm claims.

‘It’s been a lifetime goal of mine to make flight faster, easier and more convenient than ever. The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy efficient way,’ said EHang CEO Huazhi Hu. 

‘I truly believe that EHang will make a global impact across dozens of industries beyond personal travel.’

‘The 184 is evocative of a future we’ve always dreamed of and is primed to alter the very fundamentals of the way we get around.’

Right now, I expect everyone is worried about safety, as they should be. According to EHang, the manned aerial drone project was started in the first place because current helicopters are too unsafe. Huazhi’s co-founder died in 2011 due to such an accident, and the unfortunate event eventually spurred the company to develop a new generation of propelled flight. The company says that if three of the four arms have their six propellers disabled, the final arm’s working propellers can ensure a rough landing by spiraling toward the ground.

The first 'Autonomous Aerial Vehicle' for transporting people.

The first ‘Autonomous Aerial Vehicle’ for transporting people.

Of course, this is still just a prototype. From a Microsoft Surface tablet, the passenger selects his flight plan then only hits “take off” or “land”. That’s it. At this time, there are no backup controls and this sounds scary, but nothing engineering can’t solve.

Drone footage of Lima’s fireworks is the prettiest thing I’ve seen today

New Year’s Eve is always spectacular, everyone celebrating the coming year with a sky filled with color from a thousand explosions.

But what is awesome from street-level becomes awesomely awesome when viewed from the air, as photographer Jeff Cremer showed by taking his drone up into the skies above Lima, Peru to film the festivities.

The flurry of fireworks shooting from streets and rooftops is incredibly beautiful when viewed from above, and Cremer stated after the release of the video that he wanted to get closer to the action but had to keep his drone at about 200m (656ft) high to avoid all the flak.

So take a little break and enjoy cascade of lights all over again, all thanks to Jeff Cremer and his trusty drone.


Drones build a rope bridge, then grad student bravely crosses it


A couple of quadrotors wove a bridge out of polyethylene fiber rope in an intricate dance. Some 120 meters of rope were used by the quadrotors to bridge the  7.4-meter gap, neatly tying  knots, links, and braiding. Ultimately, the final test was passed after an ETH Zurich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control student crossed the robot-manufactured bridge.

The prospects are very clear: the construction workers of the future might be drones or robots. Of course, there’s a long way from a simple knotted rope bridge – built inside a controlled, lab environment – and something actually useful like a steel and concrete bridge outside. For one, the drones could not have possibly functioned without the uniform steel scaffolding for anchors or the precision indoor tracking system absent which would have made the quadcopters to not only make a mess, but crash and burn. It’s an interesting project, nevertheless. Other projects that hint to the future are the brick-laying robot or the 3D printed house.

Watch these drones build a rope bridge that’s safe to walk on

Drones are often feared as instruments of destruction, and as John Oliver pointed out, in some parts of the world, people fear blue skies because that’s when the drones strike. But this technology isn’t only used to destroy – it can also be used to create, as demonstrated by these very efficient quadrocopters building a rope bridge.

Flying machines, by definition, offer a big advantage over traditional construction machines: they can fly and reach basically any desired point, flying in and about them. Tensile structures fit very well with this characteristic, and researchers, as researchers from ETH Zurich have shown. As seen in the video below, the bridge was entirely built by the flying machines. Every knot and braid in the 7.4 meter (just over 24 feet) bridge was tied by the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) using Dyneema rope, a strong, resilient variety of rope – the bridge can easily carry a man. The technology could be replicated for larger bridges.

Aerial construction requires UAVs to physically interact with their environment, and in this case, the room was outfitted with motion capture devices that offer positional measurements which were then fed back to the drones. In a real case scenario, the drones would interact with their environment as well as with humans, and so far, this works as a great proof of concept.

I could definitely see it implemented in remote areas or areas struck by disaster in which a quick way of access needs to be improvised. Hopefully, drones will one day become an image of salvation, not of destruction.


NASA builds drone prototype for Mars flight

NASA is preparing to send a drone to Mars by 2024 – they’ve already developed a small, lightweight craft that could conduct aerial surveys and identify potential landing areas and zones of interest.

The proposed Prandtl-m is based on the Prandtl-d seen coming in for a landing during a flight test in June. The aerodynamics offer a solution that could lead to the first aircraft on Mars.
Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

In case you’re wondering, no, this is not a cool boomerang, it may be the first aircraft that flies in the Martian skies (that we know of, at least). NASA has revealed that they have almost finished a prototype for a glider/plane that they will launch later this year. The Prandtl–m will be released at about at 100,000 feet altitude, which will simulate the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere, said Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager.

“The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet,” Bowers said.” It would be able to deploy and fly in the Martian atmosphere and glide down and land. The Prandtl-m could overfly some of the proposed landing sites for a future astronaut mission and send back to Earth very detailed high resolution photographic map images that could tell scientists about the suitability of those landing sites.”

“The actual aircraft’s wingspan when it is deployed would measure 24 inches and weigh less than a pound,” Bowers added. “With Mars gravity 38 percent of what it is on Earth, that actually allows us up to 2.6 pounds and the vehicle will still weigh only 1 pound on Mars. It will be made of composite material, either fiberglass or carbon fiber. We believe this particular design could best recover from the unusual conditions of an ejection.”

This illustration shows what a Prandtl-m might look like flying above the surface of Mars.
Credits: NASA Illustration / Dennis Calaba

The tests are crucial because no matter how many theories and models you make, you can never really be sure how the device will react until you actually place it in the right conditions. The tests will also reveal what modifications and improvements should be made.

The goal is to get the drone to Mars by 2022-2024 by having it piggyback the aeroshell/Mars rover stack that NASA has planned.

After it gets in the Martian atmosphere, the aircraft could simply detach and take off.

“It would have a flight time of right around 10 minutes. The aircraft would be gliding for the last 2,000 feet to the surface of Mars and have a range of about 20 miles,” Bowers said.

NASA is employing the help of several students and professionals from related fields, in a truly admirable multidisciplinary effort.

Al Bowers attaches a bungee cord to the Prandtl-d, as Kassidy McLaughlin prepares to release and launch the aircraft.
Credits: NASA Photo / Nicole Gillian

“We have a number of summer community college students coming that are going to help us design and build the aircraft that will complete the first phase of the mission,” Bowers said. “We’re going to build some vehicles and we are going to put them in very unusual attitudes and see if they will recover where other aircraft would not. Our expectation is that they will recover. As soon as we get that information, we will feel much better flying it from a high-altitude balloon.”

In fact, this idea was inspired by one of Bowers’ friends, Dave Berger, a NASA Armstrong aeronautical engineer who specializes in flow physics and propulsion. They were discussing possibilities for a student project, and came up with the idea of creating a Martian drone.

Cicada, the "paper airplane with a circuit board". Image: © AFP Laurent Barthelemy

Military wants to use swarms of disposable “Cicada” drones: dropping flies behind enemy lines

A mini-drone that fits in the palm of your hand could give the military an upper hand on the battlefield by providing key intelligence readings. Hundreds of these small, plastic drones could be dropped off a flight and left to scatter across the battlezone. Though they don’t have any engines, these “Cicada” drones are equipped with sensors that help adjust the gliding pattern, directing the drone towards a dropzone with an accuracy within a couple of feet. These are hard to spot since they easily disguise as a bird from afar and once behind the lines can use their sensors and microphones to spy on enemy positions. These can also prove very useful for civilian missions, most notably for gathering meteorological data.

The name “Cicada” is after a species of insect that lays dormant underground for a couple of years, before it bursts through by the swarms. Once outside the insects quickly reproduce, then drop to the ground dead. Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory  felt inspired and wondered if they could design and deploy drones that are so tiny and numerous, that’s impossible for the enemy to shoot down every single one them. This is how the military’s Cicada, or Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, was born. It’s the smallest and cheapest of any military drone developed thus far. The prototype cost only a thousand dollars, while a full scaled manufactured model could drop to about 250 USD a piece.

It only contains 10 moving parts and no engine, but it makes no difference since it can make its way by gliding just as well. A built in GPS receiver tells the little drone, which looks more like a paper airplane than a military-grade aircraft, where it needs to land, so it constantly adjusts its wings and rudder to get there. In a test about three years ago in Yuma, Arizona, Cicada drones were released from 57,600 feet (17,500 meters). After dropping and gliding for about 11 miles, the drone landed within 15 feet of its target. This could be refined even further, so later versions might land right atop, with pinpoint accuracy.

“It looks like a bird flying down,” said Daniel Edwards, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory. But, he said, “it’s very difficult to see.”

“They are robotic carrier pigeons. You tell them where to go, and they will go there,” Edwards said.

An airplane or balloon could drop hundreds of Cicadas behind enemy lines. Image: NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

An airplane or balloon could drop hundreds of Cicadas behind enemy lines. Image: NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

It would’ve been nice if the Cicada was also fitted with some cameras, but this would have severely compromised the design and entire scope of the drone. Once you have a camera, you also need a storage medium and hardware that can handle serious bandwidth. But it does have ears, which are often more than enough. For instance, a Cicada dropped behind enemy lines in key points near a road can eavesdrop using its built-in microphone. Based on the noise and ground vibration, you can then learn when, how many, and what kind of vehicles are using the road. Cicada is also equipped with  temperature, air pressure and humidity sensors.

What’s more, the Cicada is extremely robust. In test flights, the engineers flew prototypes through all sorts of obstacles. Sometimes it would get hit pretty hard, but came out in working condition nevertheless.

Edwards said. “You can thrown them out of a Cessna or a C-130,” he said.

“They’ve flown through trees. They’ve hit asphalt runways. They have tumbled in gravel. They’ve had sand in them. They only thing that we found that killed them was desert shrubbery,” he said

According to Edwards, both the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are very interested in the Cicada and closely following the research.


Researchers watch underwater footage taken by various AUVs exploring Australia's Scott Reef. Image: MIT

Autonomous underwater gliders plan missions and coordinate by themselves

Researchers watch underwater footage taken by various AUVs exploring Australia's Scott Reef. Image: MIT

Researchers watch underwater footage taken by various AUVs exploring Australia’s Scott Reef. Image: MIT

Climate models and environmental monitoring missions are ever more reliant on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to scour the ocean depths and bring back valuable data like temperature, salinity, carbon levels and so on. Researchers at MIT have now upgraded the way AUVs perform their missions by adding an extra dimension to their autonomy. They demonstrate how a pack of AUVs, directed by a “captain” drone, is able to navigate obstacles and retrieve data with minimal intervention. This dramatically enhances performance and might revolutionize the way scientists study the oceans.

Typically, these sort of robots require predetermined instructions very precisely laid out by a programmer. The alternative is for a person to remotely control the underwater vehicle, but it wouldn’t be autonomous anymore, defeating the purpose. The team at MIT had a different plan, by infusing the bots with almost cognitive-like behavior. Aptly named “Enterprise”, the program uses a hierarchical decision making system in which one AUV is tasked as the “captain” and the other follow its lead. The captain run his decision based on data delivered by the “navigator”, another AUV which watches for obstacles and plans the route, as well as the “engineer”, an AUV which handles any real time situations where there might be a malfunction or engineering problem. Together, the AUVs performed nicely in the waters off the  western coast of Australia back in March.

“We wanted to show that these vehicles could plan their own missions, and execute, adapt, and re-plan them alone, without human support,” says Brian Williams, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and principal developer of the mission-planning system. “With this system, we were showing we could safely zigzag all the way around the reef, like an obstacle course.”

“We can give the system choices, like, ‘Go to either this or that science location and map it out,’ or ‘Communicate via an acoustic modem, or a satellite link,'” Williams says. “What the system does is, it makes those choices, but makes sure it satisfies all the timing constraints and doesn’t collide with anything along the way. So it has the ability to adapt to its environment.”

A Slocum glider, used by the MIT team, navigates underwater. Credit: MIT

A Slocum glider, used by the MIT team, navigates underwater. Credit: MIT

A while ago, researchers deployed robot gliders equipped with sensors that track temperature, salinity and oxygen levels in the waters around the Antarctic. These showed that swirling ocean eddies, similar to atmospheric storms, play an important role in transporting warm waters to the Antarctic coast. Using smarter, more agile gliders scientists can now probe the oceans in places that were previously physically inaccessible. Who knows what they’ll find then. By giving robots control of higher-level decision-making, Williams says such a system would also free engineers to think about overall strategy, while AUVs determine for themselves a specific mission plan. Such a system could also reduce the size of the operational team needed on research cruises.

“If you look at the ocean right now, we can use Earth-orbiting satellites, but they don’t penetrate much below the surface,” Williams said. “You could send sea vessels which send one autonomous vehicle, but that doesn’t show you a lot. This technology can offer a whole new way to observe the ocean, which is exciting.”

Williams and colleagues will present their Enterprise findings at the International Conference on Automated Planning and Scheduling in Israel in June.