Autonomous drones could herd birds away from airports
Bird strikes on aircraft may be rare, but not so rare that airports shouldn’t take precautions against them. But keeping birds away is a difficult proposition: How do you control the behavior of flocks of dozens or hundreds of birds? Perhaps with a drone that autonomously picks the best path to do so, like this one developed by CalTech researchers.
Right now airports may use manually piloted drones, which are expensive and of course limited by the number of qualified pilots, or trained falcons — which as you might guess is a similarly difficult method to scale.
Soon-Jo Chung at CalTech became interested in the field after seeing the near-disaster in 2009 when US Airways 1549 nearly crashed due to a bird strike but was guided to a comparatively safe landing in the Hudson.
“It made me think that next time might not have such a happy ending,” he said in a CalTech news release. “So I started looking into ways to protect airspace from birds by leveraging my research areas in autonomy and robotics.”
A drone seems like an obvious solution — put it in the air and send those geese packing. But predicting and reliably influencing the behavior of a flock is no simple matter.
“You have to be very careful in how you position your drone. If it’s too far away, it won’t move the flock. And if it gets too close, you risk scattering the flock and making it completely uncontrollable,” Chung said.
The team studied models of how groups of animals move and affect one another and arrived at their own that described how birds move in response to threats. From this can be derived the flight path a drone should follow that will cause the birds to swing aside in the desired direction but not panic and scatter.
Armed with this new software, drones were deployed in several spaces with instructions to deter birds from entering a given protected area. As you can see below (an excerpt from this video), it seems to have worked:
More experimentation is necessary, of course, to tune the model and get the system to a state that is reliable and works with various sizes of flocks, bird airspeeds, and so on. But it’s not hard to imagine this as a standard system for locking down airspace: a dozen or so drones informed by precision radar could protect quite a large area.
The team’s results are published in IEEE Transactions on Robotics.
Venezuela claims drones loaded with explosives used in failed attack on president
Is the dystopian future of shoestrong budget weaponized drone attacks here already? The BBC and AP are reporting claims by the Venezuela government of an assassination attempt on its president using a couple of drones carrying explosives.
President Nicolás Maduro was giving a speech at a military event in Caracas which was being screened live on television when the incident occurred.
Footage of the speech on the BBC website shows the president, flanked by military generals and with his wife also standing alongside, being interrupted mid-flow by what appears to be a blast from above them.
The people in the shot react by looking startled and looking up. The audio to the video cuts out before the blast can be heard.
Footage of the incident from a different camera angle showing a panorama view of a military parade at a standstill during the speech, does include the sound of a blast. Afterwards people can be seen pushing into and then running into the frame. The soldiers break rank in panic and the sound of screams can be heard.
#BREAKING Speech by Venezuela President #Maduro cut off during a military parade, soldiers seen running pic.twitter.com/1mPcrSiDYV
— Guy Elster (@guyelster) August 4, 2018
Venezuela authorities have reported that seven soldiers were injured in the incident and several people were later arrested. Communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, said two drones loaded with explosives went off near the president’s stand.
In a national address later, Maduro said: “A flying object exploded near me, a big explosion. Seconds later there was a second explosion.”
However there has been no independent verification that explosive-carrying drones were the cause of the blast. And a report by AP cites firefighters at the scene of the blast disputing the government’s version of events.
It reports that three local authorities said there had been a gas tank explosion inside an apartment near the speech and where smoke could be seen streaming out of a window. But AP adds that they provided no further details on how they had reached that conclusion.
There has also been an unverified claim of responsibility for an attack using drones.
The BBC and AP report that a little known group called Soldiers in T-shirts has claimed on social media that it planned to fly two drones loaded with explosives at the president but that government soldiers shot them down before they reached their target.
Both news organizations say the group did not respond to attempts to contact it.
Venezuela’s president has blamed Colombia for the attack — an accusation that has been refuted by the neighboring state as “baseless”.
PSA: Drone flight restrictions are in force in the UK from today
Consumers using drones in the UK have new safety restrictions they must obey starting today, with a change to the law prohibiting drones from being flown above 400ft or within 1km of an airport boundary.
Anyone caught flouting the new restrictions could be charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft — which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.
The safety restrictions were announced by the government in May, and have been brought in via an amendment the 2016 Air Navigation Order.
They’re a stop-gap because the government has also been working on a full drone bill — which was originally slated for Spring but has been delayed.
However the height and airport flight restrictions for drones were pushed forward, given the clear safety risks — after a year-on-year increase in reports of drone incidents involving aircraft.
The Civil Aviation Authority has today published research to coincide with the new laws, saying it’s found widespread support among the public for safety regulations for drones.
Commenting in a statement, the regulator’s assistant director Jonathan Nicholson said: “Drones are here to stay, not only as a recreational pastime, but as a vital tool in many industries — from agriculture to blue-light services — so increasing public trust through safe drone flying is crucial.”
“As recreational drone use becomes increasingly widespread across the UK it is heartening to see that awareness of the Dronecode has also continued to rise — a clear sign that most drone users take their responsibility seriously and are a credit to the community,” he added, referring to the (informal) set of rules developed by the body to promote safe use of consumer drones — ahead of the government legislating.
Additional measures the government has confirmed it will legislate for — announced last summer — include a requirement for owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the CAA, and for drone pilots to take an online safety test. The CAA says these additional requirements will be enforced from November 30, 2019 — with more information on the registration scheme set to follow next year.
For now, though, UK drone owners just need to make sure they’re not flying too high or too close to airports.
Earlier this month it emerged the government is considering age restrictions on drone use too. Though it remains to be seen whether or not those proposals will make it into the future drone bill.
500 Intel drones to replace fireworks above Travis Air Force Base for Fourth of July
The Fourth of July will be a little different tomorrow at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif. Instead of fireworks, 500 Intel Shooting Star drones will take to the sky to perform an aerial routine in honor of the holiday and the base’s 75th anniversary.
These are the same drones that preformed at Disney World, the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
One person controls the fleet of drones thanks to a sophisticated control platform that pre-plans the route of each drone. Intel engineers told me that the system can control an unlimited amount of drones. In the version I saw, the drones used GPS to stay in place and the drones lacked any collision detection sensors.
It’s an impressive show of technology. I was in attendance for the first show at Disney World and the drones are a wonderful alternative to fireworks. Sure, fireworks are a Fourth of July tradition, but they can’t do the things these drones can do, plus, because they’re much more quiet, more people can enjoy the show.
UK puts legal limits on drone flight heights and airport no-fly zones
The UK has announced new stop-gap laws for drone operators restricting how high they can fly their craft — 400ft — and prohibiting the devices from being flown within 1km of an airport boundary. The measures will come into effect on July 30.
The government says the new rules are intended to enhance safety, including the safety of passengers of aircraft — given a year-on-year increase in reports of drone incidents involving aircraft. It says there were 93 such incidents reported in the country last year, up from 71 the year before.
And while the UK’s existing Drone Code (which was issued in 2016) already warns operators to restrict drone flights to 400ft — and to stay “well away” from airports and aircraft — those measures are now being baked into law, via an amendment to the 2016 Air Navigation Order (ahead of a full drone bill which was promised for Spring but still hasn’t materialized yet).
UK drone users who flout the new height and airport boundary restrictions face being charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft — which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.
Additional measures are also being legislated for, as announced last summer — with a requirement for owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the Civil Aviation Authority and for drone pilots to take an online safety test.
Users who fail to register or sit the competency tests could face fines of up to £1,000. Though those requirements will come into force later, on November 30 2019.
Commenting in a statement, aviation minister Baroness Sugg said: “We are seeing fast growth in the numbers of drones being used, both commercially and for fun. Whilst we want this industry to innovate and grow, we need to protect planes, helicopters and their passengers from the increasing numbers of drones in our skies. These new laws will help ensure drones are used safely and responsibly.”
In a supporting statement, Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick Airport’s COO, added: “We welcome the clarity that today’s announcement provides as it leaves no doubt that anyone flying a drone must stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields. Drones open up some exciting possibilities but must be used responsibly. These clear regulations, combined with new surveillance technology, will help the police apprehend and prosecute anyone endangering the traveling public.”
Drone maker DJI also welcomed what it couched as a measured approach to regulation. “The Department for Transport’s updates to the regulatory framework strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing the benefits of drone technology to British businesses and the public at large,” said Christian Struwe, head of public policy Europe at DJI.
“The vast majority of drone pilots fly safely and responsibly, and governments, aviation authorities and drone manufacturers agree we need to work together to ensure all drone pilots know basic safety rules. We are therefore particularly pleased about the Department for Transport’s commitment to accessible online testing as a way of helping drone users to comply with the law.”
Last fall the UK government also announced it plans to legislate to give police more powers to ground drones to prevent unsafe or criminal usage — measures it also said it would include in the forthcoming drone bill.
DroneShield is keeping hostile UAVs away from NASCAR events
If you were hoping to get some sweet drone footage of a NASCAR race in progress, you may find your quadcopter grounded unceremoniously by a mysterious force: DroneShield is bringing its anti-drone tech to NASCAR events at the Texas Motor Speedway.
The company makes a handful of products, all aimed at detecting and safely intercepting drones that are flying where they shouldn’t. That’s a growing problem, of course, and not just at airports or Area 51. A stray drone at a major sporting event could fall and interrupt the game, or strike someone, or at a race it may even cause a major accident.
Most recently it introduced a new version of its handheld “DroneGun,” which scrambles the UAV’s signal so that it has no choice but to safely put itself down, as these devices are generally programmed to do. You can’t buy one — technically, they’re illegal — but the police sure can.
Recently DroneShield’s tech was deployed at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and at the Olympics in PyeongChang, and now the company has announced that it was tapped by a number of Texas authorities for the protection of stock car races.
DroneShield’s systems in place in PyeongChang
“We are proud to be able to assist a high-profile event like this,” said Oleg Vornik, DroneShield’s CEO, in an email announcing the news. “We also believe that this is significant for DroneShield in that this is the first known live operational use of all three of our key products – DroneSentinel, DroneSentry and DroneGun – by U.S. law enforcement.”
It’s a big get for a company that clearly saw an opportunity in the growing drone market (in combating it, really) and executed well on it.
DARPA wants new ideas for autonomous drone swarms
The Defense Department’s research wing is serious about putting drones into action, not just one by one but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program is kicking off its second “sprint,” a period of solicitation and rapid prototyping of systems based around a central theme. This spring sprint is all about “autonomy.”
The idea is to collect lots of ideas on how new technology, be it sensors, software, or better propeller blades, can enhance the ability of drones to coordinate and operate as a collective.
Specifically, swarms of 50 will need to “isolate an urban objective” within half an hour or so by working together with each other and ground-based robot. That at least is the “operational backdrop” that should guide prospective entrants in their decision whether their tech is applicable.
So a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while practical for farmers, isn’t really something the Pentagon is interested in here. On the other hand, if you can sell that idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they might take a shine to it.
But you could also simply demonstrate how using a compact ground-based lidar system could improve swarm coordination at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you’ve designed a midair charging system that lets a swarm perk up flagging units without human intervention.
Those are pretty good ideas, actually — maybe I’ll run them by the program manager, Timothy Chung, when he’s on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley this May. Chung also oversees the Subterranean Challenge and plenty more at DARPA . He looks like he’s having a good time in the video explaining the ground rules of this new sprint:
You don’t have to actually have 50 drones to take part — there are simulators and other ways of demonstrating value. More information on the program and how to submit your work for consideration can be found at the FBO page.
Chinese police foil drone-flying phone smugglers at Hong Kong border
Dozens of high-tech phone smugglers have been apprehended by Chinese police, who twigged to the scheme to send refurbished iPhones into the country from Hong Kong via drone — but not the way you might think.
China’s Legal Daily reported the news (and Reuters noted shortly after) following a police press conference; it’s apparently the first cross-border drone-based smuggling case, so likely of considerable interest.
Although the methods used by the smugglers aren’t described, a picture emerges from the details. Critically, in addition to the drones themselves, which look like DJI models with dark coverings, police collected some long wires — more than 600 feet long.
Small packages of 10 or so phones were sent one at a time, and it only took “seconds” to get them over the border. That pretty much rules out flying the drone up and over the border repeatedly — leaving aside that landing a drone in pitch darkness on the other side of a border fence (or across a body of water) would be difficult to do once or twice, let alone dozens of times, the method is also inefficient and risky.
But really, the phones only need to clear the border obstacle. So here’s what you do:
Send the drone over once with all cable attached. Confederates on the other side attach the cable to a fixed point, say 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Drone flies back unraveling the cable, and lands some distance onto the Hong Kong side. Smugglers attach a package of 10 phones to the cable with a carabiner, and the drone flies straight up. When the cable reaches a certain tension, the package slides down the cable, clearing the fence. The drone descends, and you repeat.
I’ve created a highly professional diagram to illustrate this technique (feel free to reuse):
It’s not 100 percent to scale. The far side might have to be high enough that the cable doesn’t rest on the fence, if there is one, or not to drag in the water if that’s the case. Not sure about that part.
Anyway, it’s quite smart. You get horizontal transport basically for free, and the drone only has to do what it does best: go straight up. Two wires were found, and the police said up to 15,000 phones might be sent across in a night. Assuming 10 phones per trip, and say 20 seconds per flight, that works out to 1,800 phones per hour per drone, which sounds about right. Probably this kind of thing is underway at more than a few places around the world.
University of Michigan opens up its M-Air UAV testing facility to students
Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.
It may not look like much to the untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.
Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals and, of course, containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.
M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.
We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”
And because it’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.
“With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control — and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions,” said U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.
I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.