Government Drones to Toss M&Ms to Prarie Dogs

We hear a lot about drone surveillance, drone package delivery, drone this, and drone that. Honestly, though, the best use of drones has been taking cool aerial videos and posting them online. Until now.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to cover acres upon acres of prairie-dog habitat with vaccine-laced, peanut-butter coated M&Ms. The snacks also include a dye that will show up in the whiskers of prairie dogs that take the bait, allowing scientists to assess the efficacy of the program. And this is all in the name of saving endangered black-footed ferrets which share burrows with the prairie dogs. It seems they were getting the plague from the prairie dogs.

The quads are outfitted with a “glorified gumball machine” that spreads the vaccine tidbits around. Why a quad? They can cover more space with less disruption to the animals’ habitat. That’s a great application in our book.

But if you think this is a case of the USF&WS showing outrageous innovation, consider the way rabies was all but eliminated in Europe: throwing hundreds of thousands of vaccine-doped chicken heads out of helicopters across France, Switzerland, and Germany. You couldn’t make this up.

(Via [Popular Science], where the title is even more clickbaity than ours. Get it? “Clickbait”?)

Headline image: US Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie

A Drone Photosphere is Worth 4000 Times Pi Words

One of the problems with a cheap drone is getting good video, especially in real time. Cheap hobby quadcopters often have a camera built-in or mounted in a fixed position. That’s great for fun shots, but it makes it hard to get just the right shot, especially as the drone tilts up and down, taking the camera with it. Pricey drones often have a gimbal mount to keep the camera stable, but you are still only looking in one direction.

Some cheap drones now have a VR (virtual reality) mode to feed signal to a headset or a Google Cardboard-like VR setup. That’s hard to fly, though, because you can’t really look around without moving the drone to match. You can mount multiple cameras, but now you’ve added weight and power drain to your drone.

MAGnet Systems wants to change all that with a lightweight spherical camera made to fit on a flying vehicle. The camera is under 2.5 inches square, weighs 62 grams, and draws less than 3 watts at 12 volts. It picks up a sphere that is 360 degrees around the drone’s front and back and 240 degrees centered directly under the drone. That allows a view of 30 degrees above the horizon as well as directly under the drone. There is apparently a different lens that can provide 280 degrees if you need that, although apparently that will add size and weight and be more suitable for use on the ground.

The software (see video below) runs on Windows or Android (they’ve promised an iOS version) and there’s no additional image processing hardware needed. The camera can also drive common VR headsets.

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Gremlins are Air to Air Drones

If you are like most people, your drone flights start on the ground and end either on the ground or–in more cases than most of us want to admit–in a tree. Earlier this year, DARPA awarded initial contracts for the Gremlins program. The idea is to produce unmanned aircraft that can launch from another aircraft and then later have another aircraft recover it.

The idea is to allow a plane to launch an unmanned sensor, for example, while out of range of enemy fire. Later another aircraft can retrieve the drone where a ground crew would get it ready for another flight within 24 hours. An aircraft facing missile fire could unleash a swarm of drones, confusing attackers. The drones have a limited life of about twenty flights, allowing for inexpensive airframes that use existing technology. You can see a concept video from DARPA about how air-launched drones might play a role in future air combat below.

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Taking Killer Robots Seriously

Killer robots are a mainstay of science fiction. But unlike teleportation and flying cars, they are something that we are likely to see within our lifetime. The only thing that’s stopping countries like the USA, South Korea, the UK, or France from deploying autonomous killing machine in the very near term is that they’re likely to be illegal under current international humanitarian law (IHL) — the rules of war.

But if you just sighed in relief that the fate of humanity is safe, think again. The reason that autonomous killing machines are illegal is essentially a technicality, and worse, it’s a technicality that’s based on the current state of technology. The short version of the story, as it stands right now, is that the only thing making autonomous robotic killing weapons illegal is that it’s difficult for a robot to tell a friend from an enemy. When technology catches up with human judgement, all bets are off.

Think I’m insane? The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the folks who bring you the rules of warfare, started up a working group on killer robots three years ago, and the report from their 2016 meeting just came out. Now’s as good a time as any to start taking killer robots seriously.

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FAA Finalizes Rules For Drones, UAS, and Model Aircraft

The FAA and DOT have finalized their rules for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, or drones), and clarified rules for model aircraft. This is the end of a long process the FAA undertook last year that has included a registry system for model aircraft, and input from members of UAS and model aircraft industry including the Academy of Model Aeronautics and 3D Robotics.

Model Aircraft

Since the FAA began drafting the rules for unmanned aircraft systems, it has been necessary to point out the distinction between a UAS and a model aircraft. Thanks to the amazing advances in battery, brushless motor, and flight controller technology over the past decade, the line between a drone and a model aircraft has been fuzzed, and onboard video systems and FPV flying have only blurred the distinction.

The distinction between a UAS and model aircraft  is an important one. Thanks to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012, the FAA, “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” under certain conditions. These conditions include aircraft flown strictly for hobby or recreational use, operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines (read: the safety guidelines set by the Academy of Model Aeronautics), weighs less than 55 pounds, gives way to manned aircraft, and notifies the operator of an airport when flown within five miles of a control tower.

Despite laws enacted by congress, the FAA saw it necessary to create rules and regulations for model aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, and operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines. The FAA’s drone registration system doesn’t make sense, and there is at least one pending court case objecting to these rules.

The FAA’s final rules for UAS, drones, and model airplanes change nothing from the regulations made over the past year. If your drone weighs more than 250 grams, you must register it. For model aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems conducting ‘hobbyist operations’, nothing has changed.

Unmanned Aerial Systems

The finalized rule introduced today concerns only unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds conducting non-hobbyist operations. The person flying the drone must be at least 16 years old and hold a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating. This remote pilot certificate may be obtained by passing an aeronautical knowledge test, or by holding a non-student Part 61 pilot certificate (the kind you would get if you’d like to fly a Cessna on the weekends)

What this means

Under the new regulations, nothing for model aircraft has changed. The guys flying foam board planes will still have to deal with a registration system of questionable legality.

For professional drone pilots – those taking aerial pictures, farmers, or pilots contracting their services out to real estate agents – the situation has vastly improved. A pilot’s license is no longer needed for these operations, and these aircraft may be operated in class G airspace without restriction. Drone use for commercial purposes is now possible without a pilot’s license. This is huge for many industries.

These rules do not cover autonomous flight. This is, by far, the greatest shortcoming of the new regulations. The most interesting applications of drones and unmanned aircraft is autonomous flight. With autonomous drones, farmers could monitor their fields. Amazon could deliver beer to your backyard. There are no regulations regarding autonomous flight from the FAA, and any business plans that hinge on pilot-less aircraft will be unrealized in the near term.

DJI Phantoms are now ‘drones’

This is a quick aside, but I must point out the FAA press release was written by someone with one of two possible attributes. Either the author of this press release paid zero attention to detail, or the FAA has a desire to call all unmanned aircraft systems ‘drones’.

The use of the word ‘drone’ in the model aircraft community has been contentious, with quadcopter enthusiasts making a plain distinction between a DJI Phantom and a Predator drone. Drones, some say, have the negative connotation of firing hellfire missiles into wedding parties and killing American citizens in foreign lands without due process, violating the 5th amendment. Others have classified ‘drones’ as having autonomous capability.

This linguistic puzzle has now been solved by the FAA. In several places in this press release, the FAA equates ‘unmanned aircraft systems’ with drones, and even invents the phrase, ‘unmanned aircraft drone’. Language is not defined by commenters on fringe tech blogs, it is defined by common parlance. Now the definition of ‘drone’ is settled: it is an unmanned, non-autonomous, remote-controlled flying machine not flown for hobby or recreational use.

Master’s UAV Project Takes Flight

Pushing the maker envelope all the way to the Master level, [Przemyslaw Brudny], [Marek Ulita], and [Maciej Olejnik] from the Politechnika Wroclawska in Poland packed a UAV full of custom sensor boards for their thesis project.

The Skywalker X-8 FPV drone underwent extensive modifications to accommodate the embedded systems as well as upgrading the chassis with carbon glass to withstand the high load and speeds they would need to perform their tests. The ailerons were customized for finer control of the drone. But for our money, it’s all the board design that supports those sensors which is really fun to delve into.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Raspberry Pi Zeros And Drones

How do you get eyeballs on a blog post? Put Raspberry Pi Zero in the headline. How do you get even more eyeballs? Put the word drone in there too. Lucky for us, there’s one very special project in the Hackaday Prize that combines both. It’s the Pi0drone from [Victor], and it’s exactly what it looks like: a flying Raspberry Pi Zero.

[Victor] has been working on the PXFmini, a ‘shield’ or ‘hat’ for the Raspberry Pi that integrates a barometer, IMU, and a few PWM outputs into a very small form factor that is just a shade larger than the Raspberry Pi Zero itself. It comes with standard connector ports for UART and I2C to attach GPS and on screen display for FPV flying.

Of course, there are dozens of flight controllers for drones and quads out there, but very few are running Linux, and even fewer platforms are as well supported as the Raspberry Pi. To leverage this, [Victor] is running Dronecode on the Pi for mission planning, real autopilot, and everything else that turns a remote controlled quadcopter into a proper drone. It works, and it’s flying, and you can check out the video proof below.

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