Debunking the Drone Versus Plane Hysteria

The mass media are funny in the way they deal with new technology. First it’s all “Wow, that’s Cool!”, then it’s “Ooh, that’s scary”, and finally it’s “BURN THE WITCH!”. Then a year or so later it’s part of normal life and they treat it as such. We’ve seen the same pattern repeated time and time again over the years.

The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Seasoned readers may remember silly stories in the papers claiming that the Soviets could somehow use the technology in Western 8-bit home computers for nefarious purposes, since then a myriad breathless exclusives have predicted a youth meltdown which never materialised as the inevitable result of computer gaming, and more recently groundless panics have erupted over 3D printing of gun parts. There might be a British flavour to the examples in this piece because that’s where it is being written, but it’s a universal phenomenon wherever in the world technologically clueless journalists are required to fill column inches on technical stories.

The latest piece of technology to feel the heat in this way is the multirotor. Popularly referred to as the drone, you will probably be most familiar with them as model-sized aircraft usually with four rotors. We have been fed a continuous stream of stories involving tales of near-misses between commercial aircraft and drones, and there is a subtext in the air that Something Must Be Done.

The catalyst for this piece is the recent story of a collision with a British Airways plane 1700ft over West London approaching London Heathrow. The ever-hyperbolic Daily Mail sets the tabloid tone for the story as a drone strike, while the BBC’s coverage is more measured and holds a handy list of links to near-miss reports from other recent incidents. This incident is notable in particular because a Government minister announced that it is now believed to have been caused by a plastic bag, and since there is already appropriate legislation there was little need for more. A rare piece of sense on a drone story from a politician. The multirotor community is awash with plastic bag jokes but this important twist did not seem to receive the same level of media attention as the original collision.

Are multirotors unfairly being given bad press? It certainly seems that way as the common thread among all the stories is a complete and utter lack of proof. But before we rush to their defence it’s worth taking a look at the recent stories and examining their credibility. After all if there really are a set of irresponsible owners flying into commercial aircraft then they should rightly be bought to book and it would do us no favours to defend them. So let’s examine each of those incident reports from that BBC story.

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Has Mankind Gone Too Far With Drone Fishing?

Previously man was limited in his ability to fish the waters of this world by the power of his arm or his ability to procure the services of a boat. Now, as long as man is willing to risk a thousand dollar drone set-up, he can descend upon unsuspecting fish with robotic precision. It is very unfair, and awesome.

The concept is simple. Buy one of those drones every upper middle class teenager seems to get for Christmas. Attach a streaming camera set-up to it. Next, rig it up so that it can fly the fishing line from the rod out, but when the fish bites the line can easily detach. Finally, attach a friend to the controls of the fishing rod.

After that it’s like shooting fish in an ocean. Fly the drone around, pulling the line behind you, until you see a school of fish. Next, dangle the bait in the center of the school. Inevitably one will strike, the line will detach, and it’s up to your friend to reel in your catch. Either that or a bunch of tuna will wreck your drone and you’ll get to watch a livestream of a thousand dollars sink to the ocean floor. Video after the break.

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Colin Furze Flies the Dangerous Skies

To quote our tipster: “Furze is my hero … You just need to know how to weld and have zero consideration for your personal well-being.” We’re not exactly sure that he has no consideration, but [Colin Furze] definitely pulls off some dangerous hacks. This time? Two-engine hoverbike. We don’t have to tell you to watch the video, do we? Continue reading “Colin Furze Flies the Dangerous Skies”

A Friendly Flying Robot Pet

[luca] has always wanted a flying robot, but despite the recent popularity of quadcopters and drones [luca] has never seen a drone that is truly autonomous. Although sometimes billed as autonomous, quadcopters and fixed wing aircraft have always had someone holding a remote, had to stay in a controlled environment, or had some off-board vision system.

Computers are always getting smaller and faster, battery and motor technology is always getting better. That’s why [luca] is building a truly autonomous flying robot for the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

Since [luca] is building a coaxial copter – something that looks like a ducted fan with a few vanes at the bottom – there will be control issues. Normal helicopters use the pitch of the blades and the torque produced by the tail rotor to keep flying straight. A quadcopter uses two pairs of motors spinning in opposite directions to stay level. With just two rotors mounted on top of each other, you would think [luca]’s coaxial copter is an intractable problem. Not so; there are bizarre control systems for this type of flying machine that make it as nimble in the sky as any other helicopter.

The design of this flying robot is a bit unlike anything on the market. It looks like a flying ducted fan, with a few electronics strapped to the bottom. It’s big, but also has the minimum number of rotors, to have the highest power density possible with current technology. With a few calculations, [luca] predicted this robot will be able to hoist an IMU, GPS, ultrasonic range finder, optical flow camera, and a LIDAR module in the air for about fifty minutes. That’s a remarkably long flight time for something that hovers, and we can’t wait to see how [luca]’s build turns out.

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Universities Envision Flying Beetle Swarms; But Crawl Before You Fly

Researchers at Nanyang Technical University and the University of California at Berkley wanted to answer the question: how do you make a small drone that can fly all day? The problem is that a drone needs a battery or other energy source, but a big battery needs a big drone.

Their answer? Take a giant beetle and strap enough electronics onboard to deliver tiny shocks to direct the insect’s flight. The tiny shocks don’t take much power and once the beetle is on course, no further shock is necessary unless the human pilot needs to correct the direction. Recent work allows a similar controller to control each leg of the beetle, turning it into a more versatile flying or walking cyborg.

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Insanely-Quick 3D Tracking with 1 Camera

Let’s face it: 3-dimensional odometry can be a computationally expensive problem often requiring expensive 3D cameras and optimized algorithms that can be difficult to wrap our head around. Nevertheless, researchers continue to push the bounds of visual odometry forward each year. This past year was no exception, as [Christian], [Matia], and [Davide] have tipped the scale in terms of speed with an algorithm that can track itself in 3D in real time.

In the video (after the break), the landmarks are sparse, the motion to track is relentlessly jagged, but SVO, or Semi-Fast Visual Odometry [PDF warning], keeps tracking its precision with remarkable consistency, making use of “high frequency texture” as a reference. Several other implementations require two cameras or a depth camera variant, but not SVO. It uses a single camera with a high frame rate between 55 and 300 frames per second. Best of all, the trio at the University of Zürich have made their codebase open source and available as a package for ROS.

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FAA Reauthorization Bill Includes Provisions For Hobbyists

Every year, Congress passes bills directing the funding for various departments and agencies. Sometimes, this goes swimmingly: congress recently told NASA to attempt a landing on Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon. Sometimes, it doesn’t go as well. The draft of the FAA Reauthorization act of 2016 (PDF) includes provisions for drones and model airplanes amid fears of privacy-encroaching quadcopters.

As would be expected, the 2016 FAA Reauthorization act includes a number of provisions for unmanned aerial systems, a class of aircraft that ranges from a Phantom quadcopter to a Predator drone. The draft of the act includes provisions for manufacturers to prevent tampering of modification of their product, and provide the FAA with a statement of compliance, and prohibit these devices from being sold unless these conditions are met.

For a very long time, the Congress and the FAA have had special rules for model aircraft. Since 2012, the special rules for model aircraft have been simple enough: model aircraft are flown for hobby or recreational use, must operate in accordance with community-set safety guidelines, weigh less than 55 pounds, give way to manned aircraft, and not be flown within five miles of an airport. The 2016 FAA Reauthorization bill adds several updates. No model aircraft may be flown higher than 400 feet above ground level, and the operator of a model aircraft must pass a knowledge and safety test administered by the FAA. Under this draft of the FAA Reauthorization bill, you will have to pass a test to fly a quadcopter or model plane.

While this is only a draft of the 2016 FAA Reauthorization bill, there is a considerable risk flying model planes could quickly go the way of amateur radio with a Morse requirement for the license. This, of course, is due to Congress’ fears of the impact drones and model airplanes could have on safety, despite recent studies that show a 2kg drone is likely to cause injury to a human passenger once every 187 million years of operation. In other words, politicians don’t understand statistics.