Are drones a force for good?
Drones usually feature in the news due to their controversial use as weapons of war or, more prosaically, for their use as fun but largely impractical toys. But what if the technology could be used to help the environment or save lives? This month, the UAE is again promoting the humanitarian use of drones with a $1 million competition that features the best designs from around the world. Here is a bird’s eye view of the technology and its pitfalls, in the Middle East and beyond.
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, April 10, 2015. Four years after the March 2011 meltdown, a stream of images is being recorded inside reactor No 1, one of three that was badly damaged after the plant was hit by a devastating tsunami. As the remote-controlled robot crawls through debris, the on-board searchlight struggles to penetrate a thick dust cloud. It also has to navigate charred concrete girders coated in solidified molten metal that now resemble warped stalactites.
At the bottom of the video screen is a digital display of the radiation exposure. It reads 25 Sievert per hour, far beyond the levels that ordinary electronics can withstand.
When the robot enters ‘location 14’ its camera tilts down, stops with a jerk, then cuts out. The machine is stranded. The operators of the device, who work for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) attempt various fixes before admitting defeat. All they can do now is cut the cables to the stricken device. Its mission is over.
Dr. Young Soo Park, a principal mechanical engineer at the US government’s Argonne National Laboratories near Chicago, develops robotic applications for nuclear reactor operations. When asked about the outlook for remotely controlled machines to handle disasters like Fukushima, he outlines the limits of their capabilities: “We don’t have a system we can deploy there to do any useful work. The equipment needs to be simple and robust. We can’t rely on complex set-ups that are vulnerable to breakdown.”
Clearly, a new approach is needed if drones have a part to play in such situations in the future. But could that answer be closer to hand than Dr. Young Soo Park imagines?
Rewind to January 2015, Dubai. The Gimball, a flying robot, is broadcasting live video. Humming with an insect-like buzz, the globe-shaped drone squeezes through a narrow tunnel and enters a seemingly abandoned house. When it bumps into the wall in its path, the camera twitches wildly, then stabilises. As the device turns a corner, we spot a human figure slumped against the far wall. Immediately, the machine hovers over it and begins to take close-up pictures.
This is no search-and-rescue mission. The figure is a lifeless dummy. But designers Adrien Briod and Patrick Thevos are thrilled. Gimball has just won them the UAE’s Drones for Good competition and $1 million in prize money. The Swiss duo, from start-up company Flyability, have seen off 800 competitors from 57 countries to scoop the prestigious prize in the first contest of its kind held in the region.
Flyability co-founder Thevos thinks machines will change the way search-and-rescue operations are conducted in future. “Professionals risk their lives every day in dangerous missions, whether it’s firefighters entering unstable structures, workers inspecting power lines, or rescuers trying to find victims in collapsed buildings,” he says. “We believe we must save lives, and send drones instead of humans.”
The idea of taking humans out of the flying equation isn’t new, and pilotless designs far precede the Wright brothers’ craft. Perhaps surprisingly, the first drones weren’t designed by the military – even though, in 1849, the Austrian army did attack Venice with bombs suspended from unmanned balloons. English inventors John Stringfellow and William Henson patented a steam-powered, unmanned plane as early as 1842. Their Aerial Transit Company was founded a year later with the intention “to convey letters, goods and passengers from place to place through the air” using an “aerial steam carriage”. During a demonstration in 1848, a model with a 10-foot wingspan made a 40-yard flight before being stopped by a safety canvas. Twenty years later, Stringfellow trialled another version at London’s Crystal Palace. According to eyewitnesses, the steam-powered tri-plane generated lift, with a guide wire successfully preventing it “from crashing into walls”.
“The technology is inspired by insects. It can collide with obstacles and carry on flying undisturbed. The innovation is in the protective rotating frame and control algorithms that keep the machine stable after impact”
In 1896, during the last attempt at drone flight using steam power, American tinkerer Samuel Langley flew his “aerodrome number 5” model a kilometre down the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two years later, Nikola Tesla patented his “teleautomation” concept and was the first person to successfully steer a small vessel on a pond in Madison Square Gardens without the use of a controlling wire. Even though Tesla’s machine was operating on water, his invention added a key dimension to early drone technology — wireless remote control.
Throughout the 20th century, progress was driven by the military. Development spanned several flying bombs, from the Charles Kettering Aerial Torpedo in 1918 and the German doodlebugs of WW2 to the Northrup SM-62 Snark, the first cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead, which became operational in 1960.
Today, operators are able to kill across thousands of miles with a single click on their joysticks, all from the comfort of their air-conditioned control rooms in the UK’s Lincolnshire or America’s Nevada desert. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims that up to 3,900 people have been killed in Pakistan alone since 2004, among them at least 423 civilians, of which 172 were children. The CIA-controlled scheme focuses on militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and has sparked protests around the globe over perceived breaches of international law and national sovereignty. Drones change the basic parameters of war, buzzing unseen in the skies; harbingers of death and terror that could strike at any time. Could John Stringfellow and William Henson have possibly imagined what their early prototypes would one day become?
It’s little wonder that the humanitarian potential of drones is often overlooked given all this bad press. But the UAE-led Drones for Good programme is promising to reverse this trend. The first competition of its kind was held in early 2015, with prizes in three categories: international, national and government teams. While the government prize went to engineers from Etisalat for their network-enhancing device, the national competition’s Dhs1 million first prize was awarded to students from NYU Abu Dhabi for an environmental survey drone used to capture wildlife data in Fujairah’s Wadi Wurayah National Park.
Matt Karau is a research associate at NYU Abu Dhabi and the project’s chief engineer. His team’s work typifies this fresh approach to the potential of drones as a force for good. “We looked at existing applications which were either premature, flying dangerously close to humans, or would only exist to help governments punish people more efficiently. So we focused on conservation,” he says. The team’s 3.2kg robot can stay in the air for up to 45 minutes and collect information about wildlife numbers from ground-based camera traps. Its designers say it could save 90 percent of the park’s annual budget for data collection and protect rangers from dehydration.
The drone itself is a simple fixed-wing plane capable of sending and receiving data; a basic approach that follows experts’ calls for less complexity and more robustness. “We use very inexpensive, off-the-shelf components, so that a loss of the drone would be insignificant compared to a park ranger being stranded in the wild, considering temperatures that reach 50C in the summer,” Karau says.
But what really caught the eye at last year’s competition was the work of Flyability’s Gimball. Patrick Thevos is convinced that his team’s creation outperforms other search-and-rescue robots by far. “The technology is inspired by insects. It can collide with obstacles and carry on flying undisturbed,” he says of their invention. “The innovation is in the protective rotating frame and control algorithms that keep the machine stable after an impact.”
Here lies the crux of the system: it has no radar to avoid obstructions. Instead, it makes use of what Thevos calls the “mechanical intelligence” that obstacles provide. “Gimball isn’t afraid of collisions; on the contrary — it uses them for guidance. Also, it’s safe to fly close to humans. You can even touch it without losing your hand,” the developer laughs.
True to the award organiser’s intentions, Flyability has no intention to make its invention available to the military. “We have no plans to use the system for defence applications. After winning the Drones for Good competition, that would be unacceptable,” business development manager Roberto Passini says.
Flyability has set the bar high, but the substantial prize money on offer by Drones for Good has attracted serious contenders for the 2016 finals, taking place this month. This includes a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which hopes to impress the judges with its RaptorMaps ‘crop-mapping’ drone that flies across farmland and pinpoints damaged crops.
White blotches or curved streaks in fields, for example, may signify damage by insects, weeds or disease; dark, straight lines point to healthy crops. Data is uploaded to the cloud where farmers can identify areas that need attention before pests or disease spread further. The concept has already won its designers $100,000 in MIT’s own Entrepreneurship Competition and the developers hope it will improve on their 2015’s Drones for Good entry, which reached the finals but malfunctioned in front of the judges.
Despite the failure of the 2015 prototype, the idea behind Waterfly is intriguing. It was conceived by Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect, engineer and inventor whose credentials include being named one of the “50 most influential designers in America” by Fast Company magazine and appearing on the American edition of Esquire’s ‘Best & Brightest’ list in 2008.
Ratti’s concept consists of several Frisbee-like devices. Acting like a swarm of dragonflies, the UAVs communicate with each other, fly collaboratively and can land on lakes and rivers to collect samples for monitoring water quality. “We wanted to play with the idea of swarms as a collaborative system,” Ratti says. “Some drones look at the big picture, others perform in-depth sampling. As a result the swarm becomes much more efficient than if it were composed of individual drones.”
Unlike his Swiss competitors at Flyability, Ratti doesn’t rule out a potential military application of the system. “Waterfly is for water quality monitoring. But it could be used for another purpose.
In most cases, swarming behaviour can bring value,” he says.
The idea shows how the scope of civil drones is widening rapidly as technology advances. Flyability’s Gimball drone can be used beyond its search-and-rescue capabilities to explore caves or inspect the underside of railway bridges. The company even plans to release a lower-spec version as a toy. And there are many other companies around the world working on different applications. In KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, for example, the AirShepherd project employs fixed-wing surveillance drones to protect a population of 2,500 rhinos from poachers.
Activists in Indonesia use UAVs for what they call “counter-mapping”, a process devised to prevent sell-offs of community land by the state to private companies. In their 2015 study, researchers Irendra Radjawali and Oliver Pye describe how Indonesia is conducting a “national, state-coordinated programme of land grabs” as part of the country’s role in the newly liberalised ASEAN economy. This has led to protestors using drones “to generate high-quality community controlled maps to challenge spatial planning from above.” The study outlines the case of a large bauxite mining operation in Tayan, where activists used drone-made maps to prove that the company had operated outside its concession and had destroyed a nearby lake important for the residents’ livelihood. Campaigners presented the evidence at the provincial spatial planning meeting, leading to land rights being guaranteed within planning law.
It’s no surprise that the ease of recording things from above is the civil drone’s biggest selling point. Accordingly, sales of camera drones are booming and the technology has advanced quickly. But this of course brings with it two major concerns, the first one being safety. A couple of decades ago enthusiasts invested many months into learning how to fly their model aircraft, whereas piloting a modern professional camera drone in 2016 is mere child’s play. DJI is a world leader in easy-to-fly drones and aerial photography systems. At Gitex in Dubai last year, the Chinese technology company displayed new functions such as automatic take-off and landing, cross-wind compensation and set flight paths. It also has a new line of modular camera UAVs that can be flown by two pilots, one steering the drone and the other operating the camera. A recent partnership with Swedish camera maker Hasselblad should ensure even better video footage.
Advanced safety features address concerns that serious accidents will become inevitable in our overcrowded skies. “If the battery on one of our drones runs low, it will automatically return to the operator,” says Caroline Briggert, an associate director of communications at DJI. “We also have a software system that remembers over 6,000 airports and other no-fly zones where the devices won’t even take off if you try to operate them nearby.”
“We need to have military-level discussions because if an automated craft falls out of the sky it might be considered an accidental weapon. At what point does a model aircraft become a missile?” – Matt Karau
But even if these safety measures work, the other issue that is rapidly gaining importance in the debate about civil drones is privacy. With increasing ease of use and ever better image quality, UAVs might soon become the weapon of choice for voyeurs, tabloid hacks and law enforcement agencies. At DJI, developers agree that legislation is needed. “We are very much for introducing a global regulatory framework that promotes safe skies open to innovation. When it comes to aerial imaging, we need to make
sure that drone operators comply with data protection rules.
But, in truth, privacy issues are not such a big concern because our cameras are optimised for filming landscape images rather than close-ups. If you wanted to do that kind of thing, you could get much better pictures using a normal camera on the ground and telephoto lenses,” Briggert says.
Not everyone agrees. At the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), campaigners have recently called for tighter rules on government surveillance drones. “Except in an emergency, law enforcement agencies should only use drones to conduct surveillance with a warrant,” writes Neema Singh Guliani, from ACLU’s Legislative Counsel, in her blog on the issue. “They should only be used… in situations where they are unlikely to intrude on people’s privacy, such as environmental surveys,” she argues.
In turn, ACLU recognises that private sector use of UAVs is more complicated. “Their operation should not be suppressed out of a desire to protect the government from scrutiny,” says Jay Stanley, a Senior Policy Analyst for ACLU’s Speech, Privacy And Technology Project. “Neither should there be discriminatory enforcement against people… to prevent them from carrying out photography. Issues around the privacy of citizens may already be covered by existing legislation. The remaining issues are too unclear for us to call for new regulation of privately operated drones at this stage.”
For Stanley, the future of civil drones will be decided in a battle between two forces — government bodies averse to being spied on, and a potent industry lobby. “In America we have very powerful national security, surrounded by a lot of secrecy, that has been gaining political power by warning against the terrorist threat.
At the same time, the defence, aerospace and tech industries are licking their chops over the domestic drones market, especially as overseas American adventures are winding down and military budgets for certain toys are drying up. It’s an open question whether jumping up and down about terrorists is going to prevail, or if it’s the customary American deference to business. We’ll see a real clash of interests here,” Stanley concludes.
Back in Abu Dhabi, Matt Karau is also contemplating the legal aspects of drones. It seems that, as ever, regulation is lagging far behind the technology. “Who is responsible for drones? Is it civil defence or is it the military?” he asks. “When it comes to autonomous devices that fly over the horizon and above cities we need to have military-level discussions, because if the craft falls out of the sky it might be considered an accidental weapon.”
This raises a very interesting dilemma that will one day have to be contemplated: at what point does a model aircraft become a missile? “In the United States, bodies like the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Authorities and Nasa have put themselves forward,” says Karau. “But it’s still very unclear who is actually able to say yes or no to these things.” This is likely to become more than an academic matter.
Ultimately, technology can never be separated from politics. Take the example of the motor car. It only works because governments provide the rules — how and where they are should be driven — and the infrastructure — not least the roads — to make them a viable method of transport. And so it is for drones. Future applications cannot exist without political support. In the UAE, Dubai has a much more favourable climate for drones than the tentative stance in Abu Dhabi. “They benefit from a strong voice at the top that says ‘we want to test this technology’ and the fact that there’s a general civil aviation authority,” says Karau. “Dubai has also adopted a similar strategy to the US where you can get a licence to operate a drone commercially. You don’t even have to be a government contractor; you simply go through an application process.”
Commenting on the UAE’s announcement to trial the delivery of documents such as identity cards to people’s homes via UAVs, Karau says: “Today, you click on a few pixels on a screen and a few hours later somebody delivers your package. What more magic are you looking for in that process? For drone delivery to work, somebody would have to make sure we have virtual highways that are managed by autonomous air traffic control system; that all UAVs have licences and collision-avoidance systems; that all packages are securely delivered… You’d have to promise about 20 different things to create that one magical moment of a package arriving at your door by quadcopter. So for me, delivery by drone is very far into the future.”
For Karau, the focus of his team’s research is on the more intermediate future. “Despatch UAVs are an aspect the rest of the world is itching to hear about,” Karau concludes. “But we’re saying, you can stop itching. The world’s going to be a great place. Even if Amazon isn’t delivering your package by drone.”
Higher up in the hierarchy of human wants and needs ranks survival. With environmental catastrophes, the devastation of war, or man-made disasters never far from the headlines, the world urgently needs rescue drones that are up to the task, even in the most difficult surroundings.
Designs like the Gimball seem to fit the bill. Back at Flyability, Roberto Passini is confident that their impact-resistant drone is capable of handling extreme situations like Fukushima. “In the long term, it will be robust enough,” he says. “We are developing new solutions all the time. Very soon we’ll be venturing into applications such as cave rescue. That’s a huge challenge because down there you have no GPS or any other means to locate your robot. But it’s also very intriguing. We aim to go where no other drone has gone before.” Not least, the future.
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Drones For Good finals, Dubai Internet City, Dubai. February 4 to 6, free admission. Visit dronesforgood.ae