In a paper appearing in Science Robotics this week, the roboticists behind AquaMAV present a fully operational robot that uses a solid-fuel powered chemical reaction to generate an explosion that powers the robot into the air.
An emergency parachute failure raises questions about the safety of urban delivery drones
For about a year, Swiss Post and Matternet have been collaborating on a drone delivery service in three different cities in Switzerland, with drones ferrying lab samples between hospitals far faster and more efficiently than is possible with conventional ground transportation. The service had made about 3,000 successful flights as of last January, but a January 25th crash into Lake Zurich put things on hold until April.
A second crash in May caused Swiss Post to suspend the service indefinitely, and a recently released interim report published by the Swiss Safety Investigation Board provides some detail on what happened—and a reminder that for all the delivery drone hype, there are some basic problems that are still not totally solved.
This drone can dynamically fold and unfold its arms to pass through narrow gaps
Late last year, we wrote about a foldable drone from Davide Scaramuzza’s lab at the University of Zurich that could change its shape in mid-air to squeeze through narrow gaps. That drone used servos to achieve a variety of different configurations, which made it very flexible but also imposed a penalty in complexity and weight. At ICRA in Montreal earlier this year, researchers from UC Berkeley demonstrated a new design for a foldable drone, able to shrink itself by 50 percent in less than half a second thanks to spring-loaded arms controlled by the power of the drone’s own propellers.
Starting out together and then splitting apart makes these bio-inspired drones fly farther and more precisely
As useful as conventional fixed-wing and quadrotor drones have become, they still tend to be relatively complicated, expensive machines that you really want to be able to use more than once. When a one-way trip is all that you have in mind, you want something simple, reliable, and cheap, and we’ve seen a bunch of different designs for dronegliders that more or less fulfill those criteria.
For an even simpler gliding design, you want to minimize both airframe mass and control surfaces, and the maple tree provides some inspiration in the form of samara, those distinctive seed pods that whirl to the ground in the fall. Samara are essentially just an unbalanced wing that spins, and while the natural ones don’t steer, adding an actuated flap to the robotic version and moving it at just the right time results in enough controllability to aim for a specific point on the ground.
Roboticists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have been experimenting with samara-inspired drones, and in a new paper in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters they explore what happens if you attach five of the drones together and then separate them in mid air.
This proposed crowdsensing approach for tracking drones allows participants to make some side cash
Because they’re so useful for so many things, drones will undoubtedly become a more common sight in the next few years. And as the number of drones in the sky increases, the need to track these mini-flying machines as they move from one spot to another will become more important.
In a recent study in IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing, a team of scientists in China proposed an intriguing way to track unfamiliar drones through crowdsensing. Their approach leverages participants’ smartphones to detect the Wi-Fi signals of drones.
Tracking drones would be especially helpful in situations where the devices were being used for ill-intentioned purposes, such as for peeping in at someone or to transport illegal substances. But as Zhiguo Shi of Zhejiang University notes, “Detecting drones, especially in urban environments, is not easy. Traditional approaches are of huge cost, since the corresponding equipment, such as radars, cameras, and microphone arrays, are very expensive.”
His team sought to find a cheaper method. They realized that most drones use Wi-Fi technology to communicate with ground control stations. At the same time, virtually all smartphones can detect Wi-Fi signals and phones are abundant, especially in urban settings.
This whisker sensing system can detect air pressure from objects even before they make physical contact
Animals of all shapes and sizes have whiskers of some sort. Cats and dogs and rodents have them. Seals have them too. Some birds have them, as do insects and fish. Whiskers have shown up across such a diversity of animals because they’re an efficient and effective method of short range sensing. Besides just being able to detect objects that they come into direct contact with, whiskers can also sense fluid flows (like the speed and direction of moving air or water), and they work even if it’s dark or foggy or smoky.
While we’ve seen some research on whiskers before—I’m sure you remember the utterly adorable ShrewBot—there hasn’t been too much emphasis on adding whiskers to robots, likely because lidar and cameras offer more useful data at longer ranges. And that’s totally fine, if you can afford the lidar or the computing necessary to make adequate use of cameras. For very small, very cheap drones, investing in sophisticated sensing and computing may not make sense, especially if you’re only interested in simple behaviors like not crashing into stuff.
At ICRA last month, Pauline Pounds from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, demonstrated a new whisker sensing system for drones. The whiskers are tiny, cheap, and sensitive enough to detect air pressure from objects even before they make physical contact.
Amazon is finally starting to address some of the actual challenges with drone delivery, making us slightly less skeptical
Amazon has been working away at its Prime Air urban and suburban drone delivery for years. Many years. It’s been at least half a decade now. And for the entire time, we’ve been complaining that Amazon has been focusing on how to build drones that can physically transport objects rather than how to build drones that can safely and reliably transport objects in a manner that makes economic sense and that people actually want.
At its re:MARS conference today, Amazon showed off a brand-new version of its Prime Air drone. The design is certainly unique, featuring a hybrid tailsitter design with 6 degrees of freedom, but people have been futzing with weird drone designs for a long time, and this may or may not be a.) what Amazon has actually settled on long-term or b.) the best way of doing things, versus other techniques like Google Wing’s dangly box.
What’s much more exciting is that Amazon seems to now be addressing the issue of safety, and has added a comprehensive suite of on-board sensing and computing that will help the drone deal with many of the complex obstacles that it’s likely to encounter while doing its job.
The U.S. military and defense industry see drone racing as a new frontier for AI development
Drone racing’s ultimate vision of quadcopters weaving nimbly through obstacle courses has attracted far less excitement and investment than self-driving cars aimed at reshaping ground transportation. But the U.S. military and defense industry are betting on autonomous drone racing as the next frontier for developing AI so that it can handle high-speed navigation within tight spaces without human intervention.
Bamboo drones are just one way that local companies hope to meet Tanzania’s needs
It’s late afternoon on the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, and Bornlove Ntikha is building a drone out of bamboo. One large piece forms the body of the drone, and smaller crosspieces are secured with zip ties. The motors at the ends of the crosspieces are held in place with 3D-printed mounts; more zip ties and tape keep the battery and electronics in place. With a small handsaw, Ntikha trims some bamboo twigs down to size. He’s decided that his drone needs longer landing legs.
“In Swahili we call it ‘mianzi drone,’ for the Swahili word for bamboo,” Ntikha says. “We built it two days ago, in two hours. With controls, motors, receiver, power system, GPS, 3D-printed parts—it’s about US $150. And bamboo is around for free.”
The bamboo grows at the Malaika Beach Resort in Mwanza, near the southern tip of Lake Victoria. Mwanza is the second-largest city in Tanzania (after the business hub, Dar es Salaam), and its economy is heavily dependent on the lake for fishing and trade. But moving goods among towns on the lake’s winding shores and numerous islands is often slow and inefficient. So in late 2018, the Tanzanian government and the World Bank held the first Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC) to explore how autonomous cargo drones might help things. The event brought together academics, industry leaders, and East African government officials to attend presentations and watch flight demonstrations.
A handful of European drone companies exhibited their machines, all of them very capable, all built with custom hardware and software and encased in sleek fiberglass and carbon fiber. But these drones are too expensive for East Africa. Here the drones need to be cheap, both to build and to repair—and that means bamboo and zip ties instead of fiberglass and carbon fiber.
Ntikha’s flight wasn’t part of the official LVC program, but he came to show what a local drone enthusiast can do with simple materials. While government regulators attended a cocktail party hosted by the LVC, Ntikha’s bamboo drone tentatively took to the air and hovered. The handful of onlookers might not be writing the rules, but they’re the ones figuring out how drones will work in Tanzania, on the ground and in the air.
Ntikha’s rustic-looking drone actually uses an advanced feature called an unmanned traffic management system, which broadcasts the drone’s position to make it safer to fly in crowded airspaces. Most commercial drones don’t yet have this capability, but Ntikha is prepared for a day when his country’s skies will be crowded.
That day may come soon. All across Tanzania, from the shores of Lake Victoria to the bustling streets of Zanzibar City, on the largest of the islands off Tanzania’s eastern coast, local entrepreneurs are building a drone industry that meets the needs of East Africans. These pioneers have to overcome immense hurdles in a country where regulation is still being developed, parts are hard to come by, and expensive drones can seem out of reach. The rewards, however, may be worth the effort: If the country’s drone revolution takes off, Tanzanians will manage their farmland, plan their cities, and upgrade their infrastructure in ways that aren’t even on the radar for the United States and Europe. Tanzania could very well become a leader in the drone world.
Freddie Mbuya’s house in the Mikocheni neighborhood of Dar es Salaam is hard to miss: An exterior wall facing the road is completely covered in a mural depicting Mbuya and his family as human-size meerkats. From that house he runs Uhurulabs, a nonprofit organization that enables Mbuya to pursue his wide-ranging technological interests. “Uhuru in Kiswahili means ‘freedom’ or ‘independence,’ ” Mbuya says. “Uhurulabs is a place where people can do innovative things, and perhaps make money. The goal is not to make money but to push the Tanzanian technical envelope. And our focus right now is on 3D printing, blockchain, and drones.”
In Mbuya’s home office and workshop, drones and drone components cover the furniture, fill the corners, and hang from the ceiling. “I truly think that drones could have the potential to be a game changer in Africa,” he says. “Drones are definitely allowing us to leapfrog past traditional technologies, and it’s being done out of necessity.”
He sees the biggest potential in land surveying and says that only about 3 percent of Africa is mapped using techniques other than satellites. “Given that land is probably our second most important asset—after our people—it would be important to actually know where things are, and who owns what, to start getting more value out of it.” For example, many farmers don’t know the exact extent of their land, which makes it harder to buy it or sell it, or to take out loans to improve it.
Up until now, surveying has been done by crewed aircraft. In 2004, when aircraft were used to survey the island of Zanzibar—part of an archipelago that forms a semiautonomous region of Tanzania comprising nearly 2,500 square kilometers—the effort cost $2.5 million. “About two years ago, we said, we can do that for much cheaper, using drones!” Mbuya says, laughing. “We did it. And our cost was between $250,000 and $300,000.” While Mbuya says his team “cheated” by using university students, he adds that these students learned valuable skills, and that some of them, now graduated, are doing commercial drone work.
With its low-flying drones, the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative (ZMI) also provided images of much higher resolution than crewed planes or satellites can manage. Another advantage of using drones is that clouds never get in the way, potentially obscuring the ground you want to map. Other survey projects in Tanzania have taken note and followed suit. In Dar es Salaam, several nonprofits are collaborating on the Ramani Huria (“our map” in Swahili) project, which is using drones and a community-driven mapping system called OpenStreetMap to map the entire city in unprecedented detail.
Communities have rallied around the Ramani Huria project because the government’s standard ways of tracking changes in the city can’t keep up with reality. The population of some Dar es Salaam neighborhoods is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, with new residents building informal dwellings out of whatever materials they can find. In the Ramani Huria project, drones can fly over neighborhoods as often as every six months, creating maps to help the city government understand how neighborhoods are growing, where services are needed, and what areas are at risk for seasonal flooding.
Gayton says hobby drones, such as DJI’s Mavic or Parrot’s Bebop, are more realistic for projects in Tanzania. They’re not quite as reliable or as capable as the professional gear, but they’re good enough, and the price is right. “We can put a platform together for $600 that’s ample for the mapping we want to do here,” Gayton says. And it’s not just the upfront cost that’s an issue, he notes. When an eBee gets damaged, there’s no way to repair it in Tanzania—it has to be shipped back to Switzerland to be fixed, which is costly and slow. Gayton says Africans require more open and DIY drone technologies. “Go to the market and watch how they’re repairing cellphones,” he says. “We rip things apart to get at the guts, and we repair them. Proprietary closed black boxes just don’t work in Africa.”
That’s why today’s consumer-grade machines are the best tool for the job. But even the hobby drones can be expensive: Parrot’s latest model of its Bebop costs $600. DJI’s latest models of its popular Phantom and Mavic drones both retail at $1,500.
Fortunately, Leka Tingitana is here to help. As managing director of the nonprofit organization Tanzania Flying Labs, Tingitana teaches Tanzanians how to fly drones and helps them develop successful business models. “If you cannot afford a drone, it should not be a barrier for you to run a drone business,” says Tingitana. Tanzania Flying Labs runs a training program for aspiring drone operators; people who complete the program are eligible to borrow the lab’s drones for their work projects.
One of the lab’s graduates is Rose Funja, the founder and managing director of Agrinfo. Her startup supplies information to farmers, including highly detailed aerial images. “Whenever we talk to the farmers, we don’t talk about the [drone] technology that we’re using,” she says. “It’s about the value that we can bring.”
On a sunny day in November, she takes a borrowed Parrot Bebop drone to Hashim Jabil’s mango farm in the Mbopo district north of Dar es Salaam. Standing between squat mango trees, Funja flies her drone back and forth over the farm, occasionally pausing it over points of interest. She uses the onboard camera to capture the farm’s finer details by hovering only a dozen meters or so above the ground.
Jabil says his 6-hectare (14-acre) farm is a typical size for Tanzania. The mango trees, laden with ripe fruit, seem spaced out at random. Jabil says drone surveying has great value: “If I’m applying for a loan to do development on my farm, or if I want to sell the farm, it can help me.” In fact, without a map showing the farm’s exact size and boundaries, a farmer can’t apply for a deed.
Another Tanzania Flying Labs offshoot is Drone Wings, a startup based in Zanzibar that uses DJI Phantoms and SenseFly eBees to create aerial maps for use in city planning. Drone Wings cofounder Abdul-rahman Mohammed Hafidh points out a construction site on the main road that connects the State University of Zanzibar to the old city of Stone Town. Every year, the heavy rains of April and November flood the road, forcing students to take a circuitous route that turns a 30-minute drive into a 4-hour journey. But now, thanks in part to images and data from Drone Wings, the Zanzibar government is upgrading the section of the road that experiences the worst of the flooding.
Drone Wings wants to map the other roads and numerous homes on Zanzibar that flood during the rainy seasons. For Hafidh, the imaging Drone Wings can provide is key for proper planning—which, in turn, is the key to “a sustainable, resilient city.”
Africa has a history of rapidly adopting emerging technologies. Perhaps the best example of this technological leapfrogging is mobile money, an industry that initially sprung up because people lacked access to brick-and-mortar banks. Now, mobile payment companies link together the African economy to an extent not seen in the United States and Europe.
For aerial surveys, Tanzanians have already leapfrogged past crewed aircraft to drones. The organizers of the Lake Victoria Challenge hope that drones can also help Africans dodge an infrastructure obstacle by replacing the motorbikes that are currently used on rough roads to make deliveries.
The LVC organizers say that the Lake Victoria region offers a particularly compelling use case for drones, because the millions of people living on the lake’s shores and its nearly 1,000 islands have very limited transportation options. The few thousand fishermen who live on Juma Island offer a typical example. By motorboat, it takes the better part of an hour to travel the 20 kilometers from the island to Mwanza. But most of the island’s residents take boats that they must paddle themselves, making a visit to the mainland a tiring all-day affair.
To show how drones can help, the LVC features a flight demonstration by the Swiss startup Wingtra. On the second day of the gathering, a delegation of LVC participants visits Juma, traveling by motorboat across choppy waves. Weather conditions on the lake can be variable and treacherous; shortly after the motorboat lands, an afternoon storm batters the island. Waterspouts twist across the surface of the lake, while the island’s uneven dirt paths turn to rapids.
After the weather clears, the LVC participants and curious villagers stand on the beach to watch the Wingtra drone finish its 20-minute flight from the Malaika Beach Resort. The brilliant orange drone settles neatly on the sand, showing off its capacity for vertical takeoff and landing. One of the goals of the LVC is to determine whether small cargo drones can deliver urgently needed shipments—maybe lifesaving medicines—to Juma and other islands in Lake Victoria. Existing drones can carry only a few kilograms of cargo, and the safety of their autonomous flights must still be proven.
In the second LVC, coming this November, drone companies will compete in a number of challenges: They’ll simulate the delivery of emergency medical supplies, retrieve medical samples from remote clinics, and survey some of the lake’s tiny islands. But the biggest challenge for the participating European and American companies will be proving that their drones can be useful beyond the managed environment of the LVC. If they aim to deploy their drones commercially in Tanzania, they need to be sure that when drones break down, local operators can repair them with parts on hand.
In the best-case scenario, the government officials and drone companies gathered at the LVC will pay attention to Ntikha and his bamboo drone. For Tanzania to truly make its mark as a world leader in drone innovation, the players in this young industry will need to have a keen eye for the kinds of technologies that work best for the country. They’ll also have to decide which use cases are the most valuable. Even if drone delivery gets most of the attention and government support, it may be that Tanzanian startups can benefit more people with their aerial surveying, from small farmers to university students who just want to get to class on time.
As Ntikha’s bamboo drone takes flight one evening at the LVC, only a handful of people are on hand to watch the contraption lurch into the air before finally hovering steadily a few feet off the ground. The demonstration isn’t part of the official program—most LVC attendees are off enjoying a cocktail. It’s a harsh reminder that, no matter how much work Tanzanian drone pilots put into their projects, ultimately it’s the government regulators who will decide what kinds of drone operations are allowed. Nobody is quite sure what will happen next. But many locals are hopeful that people like Ntikha will demonstrate the potential of an indigenous drone ecosystem, and that it won’t just be Western companies that define the future of drones in Africa.
At the Lake Victoria Challenge, cargo drones showed off their capabilities
In October of 2018, the World Bank and the Government of Tanzania cosponsored the first Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC). Set on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, in the city of Mwanza, the event is intended to promote the development of delivery drones.
It’s a good spot for such a gathering; Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, and the towns and villages scattered across its islands and along its shores could benefit from drones that transport goods.
In addition to a symposium on drone policy, the LVC featured demos from a handful of European delivery-drone companies. The German company Wingcopter flew its high-speed cargo drone, which has a range of 100 kilometers and a maximum payload of 6 kilograms. The drone takes off vertically, then its propellers rotate 90 degrees for efficient fixed-wing flight.
RigiTech, a company based in Switzerland, sees its drone as a cargo workhorse. The boxy interior can hold up to 15 liters in volume, and the drone is both rugged and easy to repair—important features when operating in areas with little infrastructure.
The drone from Stockholm-based Globhe is designed for high-speed delivery of medical supplies and blood samples for humanitarian organizations. It can also be equipped with a camera to provide data for automated image analysis after disasters. While Globhe is optimistic about the future business potential for cargo deliveries, company representatives say that today’s restrictive regulations have shifted its current focus to aerial mapping.
Lake Victoria’s shores are home to a diverse population of birds—including hawks that didn’t always appreciate robotic intrusions into their airspace. While the hawks were mostly just curious, they occasionally made close feints at the drones. As far as we know, no drones (and no birds) were harmed during the LVC. But the avian harassment was a reminder that drones will have to deal with a variety of natural hazards.
Juma Island is one of nearly 1000 islands in Lake Victoria. Most of Juma’s inhabitants make their living by fishing, as do the residents of many of the other islands. Currently, these fishing communities rely on middlemen with motorboats to bring their catch to the market in Mwanza. During the LVC, the Zurich-based startup Wingtra demonstrated that its drone could fly autonomously to Juma. One day, larger cargo drones might transport fish to market.
On the day of Wingtra’s mission to Juma, the weather was ominous, with tornadoes in the forecast. But if cargo drones are to operate commercially, they’ll need to make deliveries even if conditions aren’t optimal. On mission day, Wingtra representatives got reports of multiple waterspouts touching down over the lake but decided to fly their bright orange drone anyway.
At the LVC launch area, safety-crew members and Juma community leaders gathered around two members of the Wingtra team who were monitoring their drone’s flight. While the drone flew autonomously, the Wingtra technicians watched it closely throughout the flight in case some emergency required them to take the controls.
On Juma, the Wingtra demonstration drew many curious bystanders. Island residents waited for well over an hour after bad weather delayed the launch, but they were rewarded when the drone finally arrived and landed flawlessly on a smooth patch of sandy beach.
While all of the companies demonstrating delivery drones at the LVC were from Europe, Tanzania is developing its own drone industry. One of the primary challenges for local companies is the availability of affordable materials and components that are also easy to fix. That’s why Tanzanian native Bornlove Ntikha designed a drone made partially of bamboo.
With a bamboo frame, simple motors, and about US $60 worth of electronics, Ntikha’s drone made a successful test flight at the LVC. Drones like his are able to carry small cameras for short periods of time. In Tanzania, that capability can enable an entrepreneur to start a small business taking aerial photos or performing agriculture surveys.
Leka Tingitana is the managing director of Tanzania Flying Labs, an organization that promotes drones for social good. He used the LVC as an opportunity to introduce drone technology to students in nearby schools. Leka hopes to inspire the next generation of drone pilots, who will be able to fulfill the growing demand for drone services across Tanzania.
There is already substantial demand for drone services in Tanzania, particularly for aerial photography and the creation of high-resolution community maps. For example, most small farmers in Tanzania don’t have official titles to their land, and being able to define the boundaries of the farm with an aerial map allows them to take out loans against their land to fund improvements.
During Tingitana’s demonstration at a high school, the students seemed fascinated by the drones. Those interested in studying the technology and its applications may go on to institutions like the State University of Zanzibar, which has an active drone lab; the university has been collaborating on the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative for years.
In a paper recently accepted to IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, Davide Falanga and Suseong Kim from Scaramuzza’s group take a look at exactly how much of a difference it can make to use an event camera on drones moving at high speeds. And to validate their research, they hurl soccer balls at a drone as hard as they can, and see if it can dodge them.
IEEE Spectrum reporters traveled across East Africa with their own drones and 360 video cameras to capture new perspectives on the growing drone industry
East Africa’s Big Bet On Drones
Supported by the IEEE Foundation
IEEE Spectrum reporters traveled across East Africa with their own drones and 360 video cameras to capture new perspectives on the growing drone industry. In Rwanda and Tanzania, they visited companies and met entrepreneurs who are setting an example for the rest of the world.
Come along for the ride as drones soar over the farms and schools of Tanzania
With 360-degree video, IEEE Spectrum puts you aboard drones that are flying high above the Tanzanian landscape: You’ll ride along as drones soar above farms, towns, and the blue expanse of Lake Victoria. You’ll also meet the local entrepreneurs who are creating a new industry, finding applications for their drones in land surveying and delivery. And you’ll get a close-up view from a bamboo grove as a drone pilot named Bornlove builds a flying machine from bamboo and other materials.
You can follow the action in a 360-degree video in three ways: 1) Watch on your computer, using your mouse to click and drag on the video; 2) watch on your phone, moving the phone around to change your view; or 3) watch on a VR headset for the full immersive experience.
Purdue roboticists have built a bio-inspired micro air vehicle that flies much like a real hummingbird
Hummingbirds are some of the most nimble fliers on Earth. Their speed and agility are spectacular, driven by the complex muscles that control their wings. This is a difficult system for robots to emulate, and in general, the small winged robots that we’ve seen have relied on compromises in control in order to be able to use flapping wings for flight.
At Purdue University’s Bio-Robotics Lab, Xinyan Deng and her students are taking a very deliberately bio-inspired approach towards winged robotic flight that has resulted in one of the most capable robotic hummingbirds we’ve ever seen. It’s just about the same size and shape as the real thing, and the researchers hope it will be able to perform the same sorts of acrobatic maneuvers as an actual hummingbird. And more importantly, it’s robust enough that it can use its wings as sensors to navigate around obstacles, meaning that it has a shot at being useful outside of a lab.
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