Tag Archives: drones

Drone mini fleet could plant 400,000 trees a day

About half of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost to logging and big infrastructure. That’s equivalent to 24 million tons of CO2 emissions a year. And since it is humans who caused this massive deforestation, it is our responsibility to plant it back — with a little help from tech.

In Myanmar, a nonprofit called Worldview Internation Foundation has planted more than six million trees since 2012, with plans for another four million by the of this year. The ultimate goal, however, is restoring 350,000 hectares of coastal forest, which amounts to more than a billion trees. That’s a commendable target, but also seemingly unrealistic. Just imagine planting these many trees by hand!

Credit: BioCarbon Engineering.

A startup called BioCarbon Engineering has a better way of doing things. In 2018, the company flew drones over a remote field in the south of Myanmar and dropped tiny pods containing a germinated seed and nutrients. Today, the field is covered in 20-inch-tall mangrove saplings.

Speaking to Fast Company, Irina Fedorenko, the startup’s co-founder, says that two operators working with 10 drones could plant as many as 400,000 trees in a single day. The company wants to use this approach to restore forests in India’s mountains, as well as in Sri Lanka.

Not all types of trees can be planted this way due to different seed size and growing conditions. The tests and tweaks BioCarbon Engineering has made thus far, however, suggest that drone planting is perfectly suited to mangroves.

First, the drones survey the planting site, collecting data about the area’s topography and soil as they hover above it. This data is then combined with satellite imagery in order to determine the best location to plant each seed. The startup now knows which species and environmental conditions are best suited to grow as many mangrove trees as possible.

In the future, BioCarbon Engineering would like to partner with companies that would like to offer their customers the option to carbon offset their orders.

According to a recent study, the world has enough room for more than a trillion trees. If allowed to mature, these extra forests would store 205 gigatons of carbon, roughly equal to two-thirds of all the carbon humans have added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Age. This would bring down heat-trapping greenhouse gases to levels not seen for nearly 100 years, according to the authors from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH Zurich).


UK millennials would happily sow, reap, and eat GMOs — unlike older generations

The majority of young adults in the UK say they’ve got no problems with GM crops and more tech in agriculture.


Image via Wikimedia.

Ah, GMOs, that horrible enemy that sends soccer moms scrambling for cover ever since the 1990s. According to a new poll, under-30s in the UK don’t share that view. In their eyes, GMO is a-ok, as is more technology and more futuristic techniques in farms.

Put it on m’plate!

The poll, carried out for the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) to gauge public opinion following farmers’ calls for post-Brexit innovation, involved more than 1,600 participants aged 18 to 30. Two-thirds of responders said more technology in farming is a good thing and that they would support futuristic farming techniques — such as the use of drones in livestock and arable farming to monitor livestock, assess and spray crops — according to The Telegraph.

A similar number said they’d support more innovation, such as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to improve crop security and yields.

Only 20% of responders expressed having any concern regarding GM crops or about the benefits that gene editing can bring to agriculture — a very stark contrast to older generations. A similar number said they’d object to the use of self-driving tractors on farms.

The poll was requested by the ABC as part of their drive to have the UK Government capitalize on novel technology over Brexit. Many of the measures have been previously proposed and blocked on the EU-level. Once the country leaves the bloc and resets its agricultural policy, however, it will be free to pursue such technology should it desire. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, believes next-generation food and farming technology could reduce the impact of pests and diseases — helping keep the UK agricultural sector competitive amid the Brexit fallout.

“We are delighted to see young people embrace technology as part of the future of farming,” says Mark Buckingham, chair of the ABC.“Using cutting edge technology and growing techniques will enable the UK to deal with the serious challenges of keeping our farmers competitive, maintaining a safe, affordable food supply, and protecting our natural environment.



Scientists use astronomy software to protect endangered creatures from poachers

What do star-hunting and poacher-catching have in common? I’m a big fan of both — also, the technology employed.


Infrared image of rhinos in South Africa.
Image credits Endangered Wildlife Trust / LJMU.

Researchers at the Royal Astronomical Society and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) plan to turn star-hunting algorithms to more Earthly pursuits — well, to poacher pursuit, to be exact. They hope this will help conservationists better defend the planet’s most endangered species.

I spy with my little astronomical eye…

The technical details are a bit stuffy and not completely clear, but essentially, the software in question uses on heat emission readings to pick out galaxies or stars invisible to the naked eye. It relies on instruments such as the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to gather the raw data, and an algorithm trained to trawl through it and recognize the shape of far-off stars or galaxies.

But why limit a good tool to only one job? Working alongside staff members from the Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park, the researchers reprogrammed the star-gazing algorithm to recognize a variety of different animals and environments. Like a biodiversity Batman, it will use this knowledge to keep endangered species safe from poachers, warding off extinction at the hands of greedy men.

The project is based on machine-learning algorithms and astronomical detection tools developed through open source software, Astropy. An initial pilot project conducted in mid-2017 at a farm in the Wirral in northwest England tested the concept using infrared drone footage of humans and cows. The LJMU team then teamed up with Knowsley Safari and Chester Zoo to capture the unique thermal profiles of various animals, including rhinos and baboons, and build up a library of different animal thermal signatures. The team has now moved onto field tests to detect endangered animals in their native habitats.

Using thermal cameras to see animals in the dark isn’t a new idea. It’s particularly effective at keeping tabs on them in darkness or when they try to camouflage themselves. What’s new here is the automated recognition software that can decide whether it’s looking at ‘an animal’ or ‘a human’.

“We have been able to combine the technical expertise of astronomers with the conservation knowledge of ecologists to develop a system to find the animals or poachers automatically,” said Dr Claire Burke who works at the Liverpool John Moores University.

The system is particularly exciting since poachers like to ply their bloody trade under the cover of darkness — on account of it being ‘illegal’ and all that. By automatically keeping tabs on the animals and warning gatekeepers whenever a poacher tries to come close, the system should help keep the animals safe.

“Our aim is to make a system that is easy for conservationists and game wardens to use anywhere in the world, which will allow endangered animals to be tracked, found and monitored easily and poaching to be stopped before it happens,” added Burke.

The team has already conducted trial runs of the software using flying drones equipped with infrared cameras that keep tabs on animals at night via their thermal signature. This initial field trial was carried out in South Africa, on an indigenous, fluffy, endangered species: the Riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis). Further trials are planned, starting with endangered Orangutans in Malaysia, river dolphins in Brazil, and lastly spider monkeys in Mexico.

Drones were used instead of fixed cameras as they’re better suited to monitoring huge swaths of terrain, and they have virtually no impact on the workings of the habitats or animals they fly over. Right now, the team is working on getting the drones flying safely even in bad weather. The software itself is also being refined and upgraded to compensate for atmospheric effects, weather, and other environmental factors that could interfere with the thermal readings.

The project was presented by Claire Burke at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) in Liverpool on Tuesday, 3rd April.

The Role of Drones in Climate Change Research

As scientists ramp up their research in an effort to better understand climate change and how to mitigate damage caused by it, they’re increasingly employing the help of a certain high-flying technology. Unmanned Aerial Systems (AES), more commonly called drones, are helping us to gather the data needed to further scientific knowledge about how our environment is changing.

Scientists use a lot of different methods of collecting information, but more is always better and some data is difficult, or even impossible, to collect by hand. For these situations, researchers use drones to fill in the gaps.

Increased Access to Aerial Data Collection Methods

Drones have helped enable more researchers to collect the data they need for their studies due to their relative affordability and ease of use. They’re much less cost-prohibitive than other aerial methods of collection such as planes, helicopters, and satellites. You also need fewer people to operate a UAS that you would a plane. The cost of the technology is still decreasing too.

Unmanned aerial systems are also typically designed to be relatively easy to use. While there are some training and regulatory steps you need to take, you don’t need the same amount of training to pilot a drone as you do for a plane or helicopter. This user-friendliness allows more researchers to collect aerial data for their studies.

Increased Access to Hard-to-Reach Places

To capture the evidence needed to understand the shift in our climate, scientists often need to gather information in hard-to-reach and remote places. Everywhere from the Arctic to deep in the forest, to the tops of mountains, to the bottom of the ocean can provide insights into the climate.

Drones can reach those places without putting people’s wellbeing at risk due to their size, maneuverability and their ability to be unmanned. UAS designs are becoming increasingly advanced and able to reach even more remote places. Although drones are typically associated with aerial use, they can also travel into the depths of the ocean to collect information.

Using an unmanned system helps to reduce costs, increase efficiency and improve safety when exploring hard-to-reach locations.

Faster, More Versatile Data Collection

Researchers can also capture their data much faster by using drones than they could through other methods, saving them time, resources and allowing them to collect more knowledge to improve their research.

Drones can also capture multiple types of information at once. You can equip an AES with a high-definition camera, a multispectral sensor, a thermal sensor, a chemical sensor and many other types of gear. This can make the collection more efficient and more consistent and can help create a more accurate picture of a location by providing additional context for each type of evidence captured. As the equipment improves, even more capabilities are being added.

Real-Time Data Analysis

Not only can drones collect more intelligence, but they can also get it to analysts faster. In fact, the technology can enable real-time data analysis. In combination with regular monitoring, this could help scientists detect threats such as the presence of a chemical and warn the public immediately.

In regards to climate change, it can help scientists process their data faster, which is especially important as more and more information gets collected. UAS technology can also provide real-time monitoring of wildlife populations and even, through the use of AI, automatically identify poachers and different species of wildlife and alert the appropriate personnel.

Enhanced Data Visualization Capabilities

Drones can collect multiple types of information about one location, cover a fairly wide area and collect information over a long period. This knowledge can be combined to create comprehensive visual representations that provide a clear picture of the state of an ecosystem and how it’s changed over time. These maps can help scientists to better understand the big picture of climate change as well as some of the details.

When shared with the public, these visuals can be especially effective for helping people to understand the impacts of global warming. Maps, time lapses and imagery of remote locations can help illustrate what’s happening in an easily digestible, memorable way.

Data is crucial to furthering our understanding of our environment and the shifts it is undergoing, which is essential to figuring out how to respond to climate change and its impacts. Collecting this information, however, isn’t always easy. Drones can help facilitate the capture and analysis of those data, improving the accuracy and scope of the research we can conduct.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger about conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter.

Amazon just completed its first drone delivery. It took 13 minutes

The first drone delivery by the giant retailer was made in Cambridge, UK and took 13 minutes from purchase to drop-off.

It’s been three years since Amazon revealed its audacious plan to deliver purchases by drone. Well, what initially seemed to be a sci-fi scenario turned out to be a reality, as the company is already rolling out its pioneering project. This Cambridge beta program has been in the works for a long time now, as are similar operations in the US and Israel. The delivery itself is fairly simple. The drone picks up the package and is sent out of the facility on a motorized track. After that, it takes off and reaches an altitude of 400 feet (120 meters), makes the delivery, and then return. It will all be much faster than conventional delivery and will only be available to Prime customers – Amazon’s “gold” feature.

Naturally, drone deliveries only cover nearby orders, within a few miles of the shipment center. There are also other limitations – drones can only operate during daylight hours when it’s sunny. Any kind of precipitations would severely impede the functioning of the drones.

Amazon’s drones – coming soon to a house near you. If you live in the US, UK, or Israel that is.

Amazon also says the drones operate in an air space of their own, one that’s reserved for small unmanned vehicles. Clearly, there will be some legal hurdles and some careful planning to be made – especially because delivering in peaceful Cambridge is nowhere near as challenging as delivering in crowded London. But Amazon seems adamant to move forth. A few years ago, when CEO Jeff Bezos said “one day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road” most people thought it was a joke. Of course, we’re still far away from drone delivery being common, but we’re getting there. I don’t know about you, but anything that could clear the streets a bit seems like a blessing to me.

Californian start-up designs drone guards to keep an eye out on your stuff

California-based drone start-up Aptonomy has developed a self-flying security drone that it hopes will prove to be the guards of tomorrow. The octocopter comes equipped with cameras, a loudspeaker and blazing lights to deter unwanted visitors.

Image credits Aptonomy.

If I’ve learned anything from watching TV is that guards are always terrible at doing their jobs. From the medieval watchman catching some shut-eye on patrol to the modern guard passing the time with game-shows, they’re always laughably easy to pass by. Maybe people just aren’t cut out to be guards.

Drone start-up Aptonomy has designed a ‘flying security guard’ that will not succumb to boredom or tiredness. The team modified a DJI Spreading Wings S100+ drone by adding computer systems and cameras to allow it to navigate its environment, avoid obstacles, and identify threats. In case it runs into anything suspicious within its designated perimeter, the team equipped it with warning, flashing red and blue lights and a powerful spotlight to shine on the target. A security guard working in the control center would receive an alert from the drone and take direct control over it — the platform also carries loudspeakers for the guard to speak through it.

“Drones, being machines, are perfect for routine security patrols. [They] can multiply the reach and speed of your existing solutions,” Aptonomy’s website reads.

Each eight-propeller craft is a bit over one meter across and comes equipped with conventional and night vision cameras to allow it to patrol around the clock. The addition of one thermal camera is planned in the future, to allow the drone to spot people farther away.

Currently, each unit needs about 15 to 20 minutes of dock-time to fully charge its batteries.

“The drone automatically returns to its dock to recharge its battery, as needed. For maximum security, you can deploy a team of drones — once an active drone’s battery gets low, another drone seamlessly takes its place.”

The perimeter to be patrolled can be set through a smartphone app, and the footage is fed to a screen in the building to be patrolled.

The main problem to getting the drones off the ground and into the marketplace right now is that US airspace rules forbid unmanned aircraft from flying at night or to operate autonomously without direct supervision by a controller. However, the firm says its drones will be available for lease sometime next year.

There’s only one thing the company needs to prepare their drones for by that time: highly-trained killer eagles.

The Dutch Police will train bald eagles to hunt drones out of the sky

The Dutch National Police (DNP) plans to launch the most metal anti-drone program in existence: they will train bald eagles to take down flying unmanned threats. They’re also planning to equip them with armored talons.

It’s going to be a world-first for law enforcement, DNP officials say. In a statement released on Sept. 13, they announced that the DNP is the only police force in the world at this time who will include birds of prey in its done defense arsenal. The announcement comes at the end of a one-year testing partnership between the DNP and Guard from Above, a private company based in the Hague that trains raptors to attack drones in flight.

The company’s chief executive officer Sjoerd Hoogendoorn says the project is “a low-tech solution for a high-tech problem”. He and Guard from Above’s chief operating officer Ben de Keijzer have pooled their experience to bring avian terror on unwanted drones — Hoogendoorn’s expertise is in private security while de Keijzer cares for and trains the birds.

The tests were so promising that the police force recently purchased juvenile bald eagles which it plans to train for this purpose. The birds have a wingspan of around 3.3 feet (1 meter) right now, but they’ll grow to between 5.9 to 7.5 feet (1.8-2.3 m) in adulthood. That’s a lot of bird, and it seems they’re naturally out to get drones in the first place.

Image credits US Fish & Wildlife Service.

“The drones are pretty much the size of a bird of prey, so smaller birds on the ground aren’t likely to mob a bird of prey when it’s flying – but larger birds are, especially when it’s around their nests,” reports the National Audubon Society’s Geoff LeBaron.

“The birds of prey are having an aggressive interaction to defend their territory from another bird of prey.”

This instinct will be enforced through training, so the eagles will see the drones as pray and engage them accordingly. And, just as they capture prey and bring it to their nests to feed, the birds will not only hunt the drones but also take them a safe distance away from crowds.

Michael Baeten, operational manager for the DNP, told AFP that the birds are “one of the most effective countermeasures against hostile drones” the force has at its disposal. Their arsenal includes several other methods as well, such as electromagnetic pulses and laser technology.

“What I find fascinating is that birds can hit the drone in such a way that they don’t get injured by the rotors,” LeBaron added. “They seem to be whacking the drone right in the centre so they don’t get hit; they have incredible visual acuity and they can probably actually see the rotors.”

The same tough skin on the eagles’ feet that protects them from the efforts of their usual prey should also be solid enough to ward off any small drones’ propellers. But larger drones might prove more dangerous, and the DNP said that the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) is working on designing special “claw protectors” for the birds — klauwbeschermer in Dutch — that will keep the eagles safe while hunting.

LeBaron says that the extra protection is welcome, but doesn’t think the birds will need it.

“Their method of attack is always going to be to hit it in the middle of the back; with the drones they perceive the rotors on the side and so they just go for the rear.”

Here’re two birds (one mature eagle and one juvenile) going at it:

Rotterdam’s new sharks will eat all the trash in the port’s waters

The port of Rotterdam will soon feature a new marine resident. The ‘Waste Shark,’ a drone roughly the size of your average car, will float around the port’s waters keeping an aye out for trash which it can “eat” for processing.

Put a fin on it! Image credits RanMarine.

Put a fin on it!
Image credits RanMarine.

The city of Rotterdam, Holland has been making a lot of effort in the past few years to lessen its environmental impact, and the port hasn’t been overlooked. Under the startup program PortXL, the city’s port authority has also been promoting new solutions to help make it more efficient, more sustainable, and overall just a better place. At the conclusion of the program’s first year, the port signed an agreement with South-African startup RanMarine to deploy a new drone on its waters — the Waste Shark.

The Port of Rotterdam has already announced one drone resident — the AquasmartXL, a small unmanned boat equipped with a camera that allows real-time inspection and surveillance of the water surface. But where the AquasmartXL is the eyes of Rotterdam, the Wave Shark will be its mouth. This drone is roughly the size of a car and can eat up to 500 kilograms (1102 pounds) of trash using a ‘mouth’ 35 cm under the water line. It will “fight ‘plastic soup’ at the source as 90% of all waste in the ocean starts in urban areas,” PortXL’s page reads.


Allard Castelein, Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Rotterdam Authority said that the Rotterdam Port Authority is determined to explore all avenues of innovation, as stated in their operational philosophy.

“Innovation cannot be forced. However, you can create an environment in which innovation is likely to take place and be in line with the market,” he said.

“We support research in conjunction with universities, such as the Port Innovation Lab with the Delft University of Technology and of course our own Erasmus University in Rotterdam. And we collaborate with contests for students. In addition, we support Dutch start-ups that are relevant to the port, but we also scout worldwide via PortXL; the first accelerator that focuses on port start-ups on a global level.”

The contract requires four Waste Sharks For to scour the waters for the next six months as part of a test run for the drones. They will operate in areas where it is too difficult, dangerous, or undesirable to use manned solutions. This includes under jetties, bridges and other structures.

First U.S. testing of a man-carrying drone planned for later this year in Nevada

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems has granted permission to Chinese drone company EHang to test its on-demand, passenger-carrying aerial vehicle inside state boundaries. This marks the first time a passenger-carrying drone has ever been tested anywhere in the United States.

Chinese company EHang received testing rights for its EHang 184 model inside the state of Nevada on Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. The vehicle is an autonomous human sized drone, which EHang was very happy to hail as the future of personal transport at the CES 2016 conference in Las Vegas. The company already produces a consumer model known as the “Ghost Drone,” which lead some to believe that the 184 is more of a marketing tool for their regular product.

Well, the vehicle certainly is eye-catching.

EHang 184 being presented at CES 2016.
Image via techcrunch

The press kit described the drone as “about four-and-a-half feet tall, weighs 440 pounds, and will be able to carry a single passenger for 23 minutes at a speed of 60 MPH. The 184 also has gull-wing doors and arms that fold up.” They also have a pretty cool video showing the drone in flight and its development process.


So does it have any merit on its own, or is it just a shiny “look at me” lure for the company’s staple Ghost Drone? We’ll have to wait for the test results, planned for later this year, to find out. But there is a lot of excitement at Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) for the testing.

“We will help them submit necessary test results and reports to the FAA and all that kind of stuff,” Mark Barker, the institute’s director, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“It’s a big deal for EHang and it’s a big deal for NIAS and the state of Nevada because we will be helping them to test and validate their system.”

There’s a lot hanging on the outcome of these tests — alongside smart cars, autonomous flying vehicles like the 184 and Ghost Drone could very well be the future of transport. And possibly, the future of getting frisky.


auds system

This isn’t a canon, but a jamming station that ‘freezes’ drones

The battlefield is shifting from trench soldiers to cyberspace and unmanned machines. As always, when a new technology of war is developed, a counter that levels the game isn’t far behind. Business Insider reports three companies in the UK are working on a device that freezes drones in mid-air by flooding them with radio signals across all frequencies, similarly to how cell phone blockers work, or how Cooper in Interstellar captured a drone in his corn fields.

auds system

The Auds system. Image: Blighter Surveillance Systems

Anti-UAV Defence System (Auds) is being developed by Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics, and Enterprise Control Systems primarily to keep hobbyist drones away from busy airports where they can pose a safety hazard. By directing a lot of radio power towards the UAVs, the drones are only able to hear the instructions sent through Auds signals. The operator then has the option to ‘freeze’ the drone, rendering it unresponsive until it runs out of power and crashes.

A drone locked in by Auds. Image: Blighter Surveillance Systems

A drone locked in by Auds. Image: Blighter Surveillance Systems

According to the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) pilots report at least 100 sightings of drones that are risky to their flight patterns each month. Last year only a couple such incidents were reported each month. Soon enough quadcopter owners who venture flying their ‘toys’ around airports might risk losing them. And it’s not just airports that had enough. Ever since a drone crashed into the White House lawn, the Secret Service installed drone jamming tech. Drone manufacturers have also learn to comply to increase government pressure. Hobbyst drones now come hard-coded with instructions that block the flying toys from coming anywhere near restricted airspace.

Of course, the military applications are also important albeit the Auds isn’t cut out for it yet. Military drones are equipped with their own anti-jamming tech, and it takes a lot more to bring them down, like a rocket. Maybe a more refined Auds might prove useful in jamming the military grade drones too.

EX-NASA Engineer Wants to Plant one Billion Trees a Year Using Drones

Each year, we cut down 26 billion trees, for lumber, agriculture, mining and development projects. Every year, we plant about 15 billion trees, so that still leaves us with a huge deficit – something which is not sustainable and has to be addressed as soon as possible to avoid further problems down the road. Now, a former NASA engineer has found that drones could play a key part, and he plans to plant up to 1 billion trees a year using them.

Drones often get a bad rep, and for good reasons; the military has been using them for years, sowing fear and panic in many areas of the world. Now, scientists and engineers want to explore other, beneficial uses for drones – sowing a better future.

The problem is that hand planting takes a lot of time, effort, and money. You need lots of people doing lots of stuff, basically – and it’s not every effective. Enter the stage Oxford-based BioCarbon Engineering; they want to redesign the way trees are planted on an industrial scale, and while 1 billion trees a year won’t eliminate damage of deforestation, it’s a hell of a start!

The thing is, drones won’t just fly at a low height and drop seeds – that’s just not going to cut it. The drones are equipped with pressurized air canisters that force the seeds into the soil, so you need a special type of drone, able to carry all this equipment, weighing 8 kg (17.5 pounds). Each pod is encapsulated in a “nutrient-rich hydrogel” that presumably feeds the seed until it takes root. Later, the drones can be used to monitor the progress of the fresh growth.

BioCarbon founder Lauren Fletcher, a former NASA engineer, says that their system can not only plant ten seeds per minute, but is also cheaper than existing alternatives.

“First, by planting germinated seeds using precision agricultural techniques, we increase uptake rates. Second, our scalable automated technology significantly reduces the manpower requirements and costs.”

Trials will take place by the end of the year, and hopefully, the technology will be successful in the near future.

“The only option we’ve had previously has been hand planting, which is slow and really expensive, and just can’t keep up with industrial-scale deforestation,” says Fletcher. “We’re hoping that our technology is going to provide opportunities to really scale up the reforestation and replanting rates.”

Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)

Mobile app lets soldiers order an airstrike via their android smartphone

Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)

Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)

Yeah, I know – for heaven’s sake is there an app  for this too now? It seems so. Draper Laboratory, a not-for-profit research and development lab based in Cambridge, Mass, is currently testing a mobile app that may one day actually see the battlefield and help soldiers order airstrikes simply by using their smartphones. The better communication between the various parties involved in an airstrike ( field soldiers and engineers, desktop technicians surveying information and pilots) could help reduce the amount of friendly or civilian casualties during combat operations.

The Android Terminal Assault Kit or ATAK for short is currently developed to work with Android, and besides calling for airstrikes it will help soldiers by offering them navigation, spatial awareness and a means to control drone systems. The system’s high card is that it will relay real-time information about what’s happening in a combat zone during the delicate and crucial moments before and after an airstrike.

A screen shot from the Android Terminal Assault Kit (ATAK). (c) Draper Laboratory

A screen shot from the Android Terminal Assault Kit (ATAK). (c) Draper Laboratory

Typically, troops on ground and in the heat of action use GPS receivers and laptops to organize their airstrike. This still involves taking notes of friendlies, actual targets, civilians and other key points, all while calculating the time it takes for the airstrike to hit. The information is relayed to overhead pilots, but occasionally there are transcription, communication or memory errors.

“It’s one thing for a user behind a desk in a climate-controlled office to toggle back and forth between 10 windows, deal with system crashes, and wait 60 seconds for booting up,” Laura Major, who leads Draper’s human-centered engineering work, said in a statement. “It’s another thing to deal with those issues while someone is shooting at you or if you’re jumping out of a plane. That’s where ATAK comes in.”

As troops designate points on ATAK’s map as enemy targets, friendly forces or civilians, Major said, they can say whether the points are artillery, tanks or a church or school, for example. The program will then automatically generate detailed information, such as grid coordinates and elevation, that are crucial for an airstrike. And to make sure troops aren’t about to call in an airstrike on themselves, or on a hostile force that is dangerously close to their position, ATAK will then display that information with hostile forces in red, and friendly forces in blue, including distance and bearing to the closest friendly force.

[NOW READ] Drones capture amazing climbing sights from the Karakoram mountain range [AMAZING PHOTOS]

A prototype has already been tested during military exercises. Results so far have been promising, according to the developers who have used this information to test how efficient and reliable their ATAK app is on the field.

“Operators who used the app during the exercises also indicated that by keeping all of the information in a well-organized, easy to access display, the likelihood of friendly fire accidents, civilian casualties and collateral damage would be significantly reduced,” Draper officials said in a statement.


DARPA wants to store drones at the bottom of the world’s oceans

DarpaAlong the years DARPA has proposed, tested and implemented a slew of preposterous sounding projects like the Minority Report-like interface  threat detection system, the firefighting robot or the surrogate soldier program that aims at deploying robots that bind to a soldier’s will just like the movie Avatar.  Yes, the agency seems to have a thing for movie inspired projects, but I for one couldn’t be more thrilled by this. Out of the box thinking is something governmental agencies generally lack, so it’s always inspiring to hear about new plans from DARPA.

The latest seems audacious, but if ever actually implemented it might provide the US Navy with a tremendous strategic advantage. Apparently, DARPA is thinking deploying drones at the bottom of the world’s seas and oceans as part of  DARPA’s Upward Falling Payloads program. Initially inactive, when duty calls, these drones would awaken from their slumber and travel to the surface providing operational support including situational awareness, disruption, deception, and rescue.

“The goal is to support the Navy with distributed technologies anywhere, anytime over large maritime areas. If we can do this rapidly, we can get close to the areas we need to affect, or become widely distributed with out delay,” said Andy Coon, Darpa’s programme manager.

DARPA insists that this is not a weapons program, still if they manage to pull this off I fear temptation of deploying weaponry would be far too great for military officials to resist. The plan ins’t without hurdles, though. First of all the bottom of seas and oceans are extremely inhospitable environments for living beings and machines alike. The pressure levels there are simply extreme, and containers carrying the drones might prove to be extremely difficult to build and expensive.

Then there’s the technical issue of waking up these drones after possibly years of inactivity. Constant communication with these drones would be required, something extremely difficult to achieve at these depths. Then there’s the matter of propelling these drones to the surface of ocean. All of these have been discussed, and currently DARPA is actually open for suggestions  from anyone on how to tackle these issues – again a hallmark that differentiates the agency from other government bodies.

“We are simply offering an alternative path to realize these missions without requiring legacy ships and aircraft to launch the technology, and without growing the reach and complexity of unmanned platforms,” said Coon.

Peter Ortner and David Lama ascend the Trango Summit in northern Pakistan's Karakoram mountain range. Photos taken by a camera mountain on a small, remote controlled drone. (c) Aurora Photos for Mammut

Drones capture amazing climbing sights from the Karakoram mountain range

Spy drones have been used by the US government on a various occasion in Pakistan to gather intelligence from the tribal area bordering Afghanistan, known for its close ties with terrorist organisations. Most recently, however, drones have been used to capture some mind blowing photos of sights otherwise completely inaccessible. The latest venture follows renowned climbers David Lama and Peter Ortner as they reached the summit of one of Karakoram’s peaks, documenting this formidable adventure.

Photo by Zaeemsiddiq.

The Karakoram mountain range is home to the highest density of peaks greater than 8,000 meters above sea level, including K-2 the second highest peak in the world, topped only by Mt. Everest. It’s not that it’s high, it’s technical difficult to climb as well, with many experienced world-class climbers admitting that the legendary Karakoram range puts most of the world’s mountains to shame. Many have perished trying to surmount its heights, and apart from some photos taken by the climbers part of the expeditions themselves and aerial photos taken from afar by helicopter, little documented footage is available as far as extreme mountaineering is concern.

“Here there are so many mountains, and so many difficult mountains, and mountains that haven’t been climbed,” said Lama. “That’s probably why the Karakoram is known as paradise for us.”

Helicopters, while the prime choice for documenting most climbing expeditions, are unpractical however. They’re extremely expensive, and considering the rough terrain, low air atmosphere and flight conditions in Karakoram or broader Himalayan range, they also can pose a dangerous factor for both climbers and pilots. This is where lightweight, unmanned drones came to fill the gap, in what we hope to be one of the first of many such ventures.

A joint project between outdoor clothing and equipment company Mammut, and Dedicam, a firm that specializes in using remote-controlled helicopters to shoot video, the team of engineers and specialized climbers used drones weighing just a few kilograms, and whose cost is but a fraction of that of a full-sized helicopter.

Two drones were used for the expedition, one with four propellers and another with six. Both were manevoured remotely by means of a handheld console that resembles a video game console, and a special pair of goggles equipped with a display which offered the drone’s point of view via its cameras.


It’s not just mountain climbing that drones might make a permanent appearance on. Since they’re extremely flexible and are non-intrusive to competitors, they’re more than fit to document any kind of extreme sport, from surfing to skiing to kayaking. For now, they’re still a novelty, but expect drones to offer you a direct connection between some of the world’s most inaccessible sights and your living room.



(c) Progeny Systems Corporation

New Pentagon Tech: sky drones that identify faces

(c) Progeny Systems Corporation

(c) Progeny Systems Corporation

I’d like to divert from a potential discussion which might build around the trillions of dollars spent on defense by the US government or the more or less futile efforts enterprised in the middle east, and stick to the point at hand – spy drones! Yes, scary, paranoia inducing flying unmanned vehicles whose sole purpose is that of collecting intelligence about its surveyed points. And if you thought there are little places to hide left once with these little buggers up in the sky, seems like the Pentagon is keen on making things even harder for its enemy after it unveiled plans for a new kind of drone tech, capable of identifying individuals from thousands of feet away just by looking at their faces.

The US army has a sort of procedure or technique, if you will, when its efforts of identifying and gathering intelligence about its enemies is concerned, called “Tagging, Tracking, and Locating,” or “TTL”. To this purpose, there is a considerable amount of technology employed to support these efforts, like geo-tagging, heat signature identifies, human thermal fingerprints and all sorts of other tech, most classified. The all-seeing drone visioned by the Pentagon might revolutionize the modern, guerrilla battlefield in the future. You can escape transmitters, you can erase traces, but eventually with enough drones like these in the sky, you’re only hope of not getting discovered is to live underground.

“If this works out, we’ll have the ability to track people persistently across wide areas,” says Tim Faltemier, the lead biometrics researcher at Progeny Systems Corporation, which recently won one of the Army contracts. “A guy can go under a bridge or inside a house. But when he comes out, we’ll know it was the same guy that went in.”

The bird in the sky with the magic eye

Progeny, one of the half a dozen companies awarded contracts by the Pentagon to develop the necessary tech for the new spy drone, just started work on their drone-mounted, “Long Range, Non-cooperative, Biometric Tagging, Tracking and Location” system. In the past, the company has developed algorithms for the army which allowed for 3D modeling of faces, based on 2D photos, a difficult feat. Now, the company is planning on putting the same capability inside a drone, which will have to do its job flying, from a long distance and with loads of perturbant factors – difficulty tenfold.

(c) Progeny Systems Corporation

(c) Progeny Systems Corporation

The company claims that their system will be able to identify an individual indifferent of lighting, pose  or expression, all from an image with just 50 pixels between the target’s eyes to build a 3D model of his face. That’s about the same as what it takes to traditionally capture a 2D image.

If the face is too blurred or masked to identify, Progeny has other means of identifying a target, like its  digital stereotyping tech, developed for a Navy contract. With it, they can asses the identity of an individual based on variou bio metrics, which feeds back the army with anything from age to gender to “ethnicity” to “skin color” to height and weight. To prove their point, Progeny analyzed data containing hundreds of photos from the annual  “Twins Days” festival, where at least pairs of identical twins could be seen. The company zeroed in on the twins’ scars, marks, and tattoos — and were able to spot one from the other.

Drones to intercept “unfriendly” behavior

Identifying known offenders or insurgents isn’t quite enough for the Pentagon. Apparently, it also needs a means of telling which are its potential enemies, without knowing anything about them beforehand. This is where Charles River Analytics is coming with its so-called “Adversary Behavior Acquisition, Collection, Understanding, and Summarization (ABACUS)” tool. Capitalizing on things like informants’ tips, drone footage, and captured phone calls, the system is capable of telling which people are most likely to harbor ill will toward the U.S. military or its objectives.

“The enemy goes to great lengths to hide his activities,” explains Modus Operandi, Inc., which won an Army contract to assemble “probabilistic algorithms th[at] determine the likelihood of adversarial intent,” a system under the working name of “Clear Heart.”

via Danger Room