Lighthouse Locates Drone; Achieves Autonomous Battery Swap

The HTC Vive’s Lighthouse localization system is one of the cleverest things we’ve seen in a while. It uses a synchronization flash followed by a swept beam to tell any device that can see the lights exactly where it is in space. Of course, the device has to understand the signals to figure it out.

[Alex Shtuchkin] built a very well documented device that can use these signals to localize itself in your room. For now, the Lighthouse stations are still fairly expensive, but the per-device hardware requirements are quite reasonable. [Alex] has the costs down around ten dollars plus the cost of a microcontroller if your project doesn’t already include one. Indeed, his proof-of-concept is basically a breadboard, three photodiodes, op-amps, and some code.

His demo is awesome! Check it out in the video below. He uses it to teach a quadcopter to land itself back on a charging platform, and it’s able to get there with what looks like a few centimeters of play in any direction — more than good enough to land in the 3D-printed plastic landing thingy. That fixture has a rotating drum that swaps out the battery automatically, readying the drone for another flight.

If this is just the tip of the iceberg of upcoming Lighthouse hacks, we can’t wait!

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Drone Vs. Airplane? Who Will Win? Science Knows.

Ignore the article, watch the video at the top of the page. The article is about some idiot, likely not even a hacker, who bought a drone somewhere and nearly rammed it into a plane. He managed this with concentrated idiocy, intention was not involved. While these idiots are working hard to get our cool toys taken away, researchers elsewhere are answering the question of exactly how much threat a drone poses to an airplane.

droneexplode_thumbAirplanes are apparently armored to withstand a strike from an 8lb bird. However, even if in a similar weight class, a drone is not constructed of the same stuff. To understand if this mattered, step one was to exactly model a DJI Phantom and then digitally launch it at various sections of a very expensive airplane.

The next step, apparently, was to put a drone into an air cannon and launch it at an aluminum sheet. The drone explodes quite dramatically. Some people have the best jobs.

The study is still ongoing, but from the little clips seen; the drone loses. Along with the rest of us.

Perhaps the larger problem to think about right now is how to establish if a “drone” has actually been involved in an incident with a passenger aircraft. It seems there are a lot of instances where that claim is dubious.

Archaeology, Virtually.

Drone technology is seeing useful application in a new field seemingly every day — so it was only a matter of time before it saw use in archaeology. And so, a team of researches in Australia are combining drone and VR modeling technology to help investigate the Plain of Jars, in Laos.

After the drone images the site, those photos are patched together by object recognition software and are reviewed in the immersive CAVE2 3D facility at Melbourne, Australia’s Monash University. Multiple surveys catalog and archive the dig at various stages and enable the archaeologists to continue investigating the site after leaving — especially useful for digs in dangerous regions. In this case, the landscape around the Plain of Jars is dotted with unexploded cluster bomblets.

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Drone Snags A Snag, Pilot Faces Fine

If you hail from somewhere to which Australian beers have been exported, you could be forgiven for forming a view of the country based solely on TV adverts for Foster’s, or Castlemaine XXXX. Entertaining 30-second stories of wily young Aussies, and their inventive schemes to get their hands on a cool glass of the Amber Nectar.

Whether it’s an accurate depiction or not is something you’d have to ask an Australian, but it seems to provide a blueprint for at least some real-life stories. An Australian man in Sunbury, west of Melbourne, is to face a fine of up to A$9000 for using his multirotor to pick up a sausage in a bun from a stall in a superstore car park, and deliver it to him relaxing in his hot tub.

From one perspective the video of the event which we’ve posted below the break is a very entertaining film. We see the flight over houses and a main road to a local branch of Bunnings, an Australian hardware store chain. Their sausage sizzle is a weekly institution in which local non-profit groups sell barbecued sausages from a stall in the car park as a fundraiser. The drone lowers a bag on a string over people queuing, with a note saying “Please buy snag(Aussie slang for sausage) and put in bag, here’s $10”. Someone complies, and the tasty treat is flown back over suburbia to our hero in his tub. It’s fairly obviously a production with many takes and supporting actors rather than a real continuous flight, but the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority is nevertheless investigating it. Breaches of the rules are reported as being use of a drone within 30 metres of people, as well as flight beyond the line of sight and over a populated area. The original video has been taken down, but it lives on courtesy of Australian tech site EFTM.

Aside from providing our readership with entertainment courtesy of our Australian friends there is an important message to take away from this story. It’s likely that if they can adequately prove that their flight was never out of the line of sight they can escape some of the charges, but even so they have strayed into difficult territory. We’ve written about drone hysteria on the part of authorities before, and we are living in an age during which twitchy agencies have shown themselves willing to view what we know to be little more than grown-up toys as something akin to terror weapons. Of course people who use multirotors for wilful endangerment should be brought to book in no uncertain terms, but the line between that and innocuous use feels sometimes to have been shifted in an alarming direction. Please keep entertaining us with your multirotor exploits and hacks, but never take your eye off how what you are doing could be misconstrued by those in authority. We’d prefer not to be writing up drone stories involving fines.

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Anti-Drone Fence: Science or Snakeoil?

Remember when it was laser pointers? Well, now it’s drones.

[Thinkerer] sent us this link to what’s essentially a press release for a company called Sensofusion that makes a UAV detector and (they claim) smart jammer, and apparently one is being installed at Denver International airport.

We buy that the “Airfence” system will be able to detect known systems by signature, and possibly even take them over. We’ve seen two exploits of quadcopter radio protocols (one a timing attack and the other a controller ID spoof) that would allow them to do just that. But is that the problem? Don’t most of the major manufacturers fence off airports in software these days anyway? And are drones really the droids that you’re looking for?

They also make some claims about being able to detect and stop DIY copters, but we don’t see how. Imagine that your copter ran encrypted on 2.4 GHz. How is this different from any other WiFi signal? Or imagine that it sends and receives infrequent data in the congested pager bands? And short of jamming, we don’t see how they’re going to take down anything that they don’t already understand.

So, commenteers, how would you do it? Detect and even take over an arbitrary drone? Possible or snakeoil?

You Kids Get Those Drones out of my Airspace!

The PacTec Security Conference in Tokyo had something interesting show up. A countermeasure against drones that allows you to take control of any craft using the popular DSMx protocol. According to Ars Technica, DSMx transmitters and receivers exchange a key to prevent interference between adjacent systems. The key isn’t protected very well so by observing traffic and applying a little brute force, you can recover the key (which is set when the transmitter binds to the aircraft).

What’s more is a timing vulnerability allows the rogue transmitter to lock out the legitimate one. You can see a demonstration of the system, called Icarus, in the video below.

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Umbrella Drones — Jellyfish Of The Sky

Mount an umbrella to a drone and there you go, you have a flying umbrella. When [Alan Kwan] tried to do just that he found it wasn’t quite so simple. The result, once he’d worked it out though, is haunting. You get an uneasy feeling like you’re underwater watching jellyfish floating around you.

A grad student in MIT’s ACT (Art, Culture and Technology) program, [Alan’s] idea was to produce a synesthesia-like result in the viewer by having an inanimate object, an umbrella, appear as an animate object, a floating jellyfish. He first tried simply attaching the umbrella to an off-the-shelf drone. Since electronics occupy the center of the drone, the umbrella had to be mounted off-center. But he discovered that drones want most of their mass in the center and so that didn’t work. With the help of a classmate and input from peers and faculty he made a new drone with carbon fiber and metal parts that allowed him to mount the umbrella in the center. To further help with stability, the batteries were attached to the very bottom of the umbrella’s pole.

In addition to just making them fly, [Alan] also wanted the umbrella to gently undulate like a jellyfish, slowly opening and closing a little. He tried mounting servo motors inside the umbrella for the task. These turned out to be too heavy, but also unnecessary. Once flying outside at just the right propeller speed, the umbrellas undulated on their own. Watch them doing this in the video below accompanied by haunting music that makes you feel you’re watching a scene from Blade Runner.

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