Quadrotor Safety System Stops Propellers Before You Lose a Finger

With spinning hoops to detect obstacles combined with electromagnetic braking, this quadrotor safety system is both effective and cheap Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Quadrotors have a reputation for being both fun and expensive, but it’s not usually obvious how dangerous they can be. While it’s pretty clear from the get-go that it’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid the spinny bits whenever possible, quadrotor safety primarily involves doing little more than trying your level best not to run into people. Not running into people with your drone is generally good advice, but the problems tend to happen when for whatever reason the drone escapes from your control. Maybe it’s your fault, maybe it’s the drone’s fault, but either way, those spinny bits can cause serious damage. Safety-conscious quadrotor pilots have few options for making their drones safer, and none of them are all that great, due either to mediocre effectiveness Continue reading Quadrotor Safety System Stops Propellers Before You Lose a Finger

FlyJacket Lets You Control a Drone With Your Body

EPFL’s FlyJacket exosuit allows you to embody a fixed-wing drone, making it feel like you’re flying Photo: EPFL LIS It takes a lot of practice to fly a drone with confidence. Whether it’s a multirotor or a fixed-wing drone, there are a lot of complicated things going on all at once, and most of the control systems are not even a little bit intuitive. The first-person viewpoint afforded by drone-mounted cameras and VR headsets helps, but you’re still stuck with trying to use a couple of movable sticks to manage a flying robot, which takes both experience and concentration. EPFL has developed a much better system for drone control, taking away the sticks and replacing them with intuitive and comfortable movements of your entire body. It’s an upper-body soft exoskeleton called FlyJacket, and with it on, you can pilot a fixed-wing drone by embodying the drone—put your arms out like Continue reading FlyJacket Lets You Control a Drone With Your Body

See Straight Through Walls by Augmenting Your Eyeballs With Drones

A drone combined with a HoloLens can simulate X-ray vision while offering easy and intuitive control Image: Graz University of Technology Robots make fantastic remote-sensing systems, ideal for sending in to disaster areas or for search-and-rescue. Drones in particular can move rapidly over large areas or through structures, identifying damage or looking for survivors by sending a video feed from their on-board cameras to a remote operator. While the data that drones provide can be invaluable, managing them can be quite difficult, especially once they get beyond line-of-sight. Researchers from Graz University of Technology, in Styria, Austria, led by Okan Erat, want to change the way we interface with drones, using augmented reality to turn them from complicated flying robots into remote cameras that an untrained user can easily control. Through a HoloLens—Microsoft’s mixed reality head-mounted display—a drone can enable a sort of X-ray vision, allowing you to see straight through Continue reading See Straight Through Walls by Augmenting Your Eyeballs With Drones

Zipline’s Bigger, Faster Drones Will Deliver Blood in the United States This Year

After taking over deliveries for 20 percent of rural Rwanda’s blood supply, Zipline is introducing its drone fleet to the rural United States Photo: Zipline We’ve been following Zipline very closely for the last few years. The delivery drone startup has been operating in Rwanda since October of 2016, using small autonomous fixed-wing aircraft to paradrop critical blood products to rural medical clinics. T he system is able to get blood from a centralized distribution center to where it’s needed in minutes, independent of time of day, traffic, or weather. Zipline now manages 20 percent of rural Rwanda’s blood supply, and has flown more than 300,000 kilometers (km) worth of commercial deliveries, carrying some 7,000 units of blood. Today, Zipline is announcing major upgrades to its entire delivery system, introducing a bigger drone that can deliver blood faster and more efficiently than ever. The new hardware is already flying in Continue reading Zipline’s Bigger, Faster Drones Will Deliver Blood in the United States This Year

Research Proves Drones Sound Like Bees, Which Is Good News for Elephants

There isn’t much that scares an elephant, but drones designed to sound like bees could help save them Photo: iStock Photo There isn’t much that scares a fully grown African elephant. Lions? Maybe a little bit. Humans? Not really. Mice? Nah, that’s kind of a myth. It turns out that what really scares elephants is something much smaller, although it can fly in large swarms: honeybees. And it makes sense, because an elephant’s bulk doesn’t do much to protect it from bees, which can find all kinds of unpleasant nooks and crannies to sting. Elephants reliably flee from bees, which has led some communities to create fences made of beehives to keep elephants from raiding their crops. It works pretty well. The Duke researchers ran a series of tests to compare bee sounds with drone sounds, and were able to show that especially at the high frequency ranges, the similarities are Continue reading Research Proves Drones Sound Like Bees, Which Is Good News for Elephants

Skydio Demonstrates Incredible Obstacle-Dodging Full Autonomy With New R1 Consumer Drone

The Skydio R1 is years ahead of just about any other autonomous drone we’ve ever seen Image: Skydio Almost two years ago, a startup called Skydio posted some video of a weird-looking drone autonomously following people as they jogged and biked along paths and around trees. Even without much in the way of detail, this was exciting for three reasons: First, the drone was moving at a useful speed and not crashing into stuff using only onboard sensing and computing, and second, the folks behind Skydio included Adam Bry and Abe Bachrach, who worked on high-speed autonomous flight at MIT before cofounding Project Wing at Google[x] (now just called X). The third reason we were excited about Skydio’s drone was that, as much as it looked like a research project, it was actually designed to be commercialized, and today, Skydio is (finally!) announcing their first product: the R1, a fully Continue reading Skydio Demonstrates Incredible Obstacle-Dodging Full Autonomy With New R1 Consumer Drone

Modeling Uncertainty Helps MIT’s Drone Zip Around Obstacles

This drone keeps track of what it doesn’t know to quickly plan aggressive maneuvers Photo: Jonathan How/MIT CSAILCatch that drone! It’s not too hard to make a drone that can fly very fast, and it’s not too hard to make a drone that can avoid obstacles. Making a drone that can do both at once is much more difficult, but it’s necessary in order for them to be real-world useful. At MIT CSAIL, Pete Florence (in Russ Tedrake’s lab) has developed a new motion planning framework called NanoMap, which uses a sequence of 3D snapshots to allow fast-moving (10 m/s) drones to safely navigate around obstacles even if they’re not entirely sure where they are. Here’s a video of MIT’s drone in action. Don’t worry if you don’t catch all the details, as we’ll take a crack at explaining what’s going on afterwards: I don’t mind telling you, this is Continue reading Modeling Uncertainty Helps MIT’s Drone Zip Around Obstacles

Cleo Robotics Demonstrates Uniquely Clever Ducted Fan Drone

This donut-shaped drone, not technically known as a dronut, offers a tasty combination of safety and ease of use Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE SpectrumCleo drone prototype at CES 2017. At last year’s CES, Cleo Robotics was showing prototypes of a palm-sized drone with a design unlike anything we’d ever seen. Shaped like a donut, the Cleo drone is essentially a ducted fan, with a pair of completely enclosed propellers (one on top of the other) and then a camera, battery, and electronics housed inside the shell. It’s compact (95 mm in diameter, 33 mm thick, 90 grams), elegant, and inherently safe, since the nasty spinny bits are all tucked away. With fewer motors than conventional quadrotors, it promises to be more efficient as well, and quite possibly cheaper. But if you look closely at the picture, you’ll probably end up with the same question that I did: How the heck does Continue reading Cleo Robotics Demonstrates Uniquely Clever Ducted Fan Drone

Drones That Smash Into Obstacles Can Be a Good and Useful Thing

The usefulness of bumbly, bouncy microdrones Image: Vijay Kumar Lab/UPennJust like bees, these microdrones can bump into things, including each other, and continue flying without a problem. A little over a year ago, we wrote about some clumsy-looking but really very clever research from Vijay Kumar’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania. That project showed how small drones with just protective cages and simple sensors can handle obstacles by simply running into them, bouncing around a bit, and then moving on. The idea is that you don’t have to bother with complex sensors when hitting obstacles just doesn’t matter, which bees figured out about a hundred million years ago. Over the past year, Yash Mulgaonkar, Anurag Makineni, and Luis Guerrero-Bonilla (all in Kumar’s lab) have come up with a bunch of different ways in which smashing into obstacles can actually be a good and useful thing. From making maps to increased agility Continue reading Drones That Smash Into Obstacles Can Be a Good and Useful Thing

How to Fly a Drone With Your Face

Send your drone flying by making a ridiculous face at it Image: Simon Fraser University It’s nice that consumer drones are getting easier and easier to use, incorporating more safeguards and autonomy and stuff. Generally, though, piloting them does still require some practice and skill, along with free hands and a controller that’s probably more expensive than it should be. This is why we’ve been seeing more research on getting drones set up so that unaltered, uninstrumented, and almost entirely untrained users can still do useful things with them. At Simon Fraser University, roboticists are seeing how far they can push this idea, and they’ve come up with a system for controlling a drone that doesn’t require experience, or a controller. Or even hands. Instead, you use your face, and it’s totally intuitive and natural. As long as it’s intuitive and natural for you to make funny faces at drones, Continue reading How to Fly a Drone With Your Face