Journalists are obsessed with Amazon’s bid to offer delivery-by-drone services in the next few years. For the most part that obsession has kept us from talking about other more pragmatic retail applications for commercial drones.
It’s just that the idea of a drone zipping through the air with a five-pack of Hanes boxer-briefs in tow is really really alluring … journalistically speaking.
But Amazon’s plan is also fraught with stumbling blocks. It’s not clear the FAA will allow unrestricted drone delivery in urban areas, for example. And insurance for commercial drones that fly over people might make the whole idea cost-prohibitive.
Walmart has a plan that may be a lot more sensible, even if it’s not quite as head turning as ballistic underwear delivery. Walmart’s drones will fly exclusively inside its warehouses.
As opposed to Amazon’s drones, which are likely to be autonomous, Walmart’s idea is to use remote controlled flyers that can capture 30 frames per second of products on warehouse shelves. The information can be used to determine which items are incorrectly stocked and which are running low. According to Reuters, checking warehouses manually currently takes Walmart employees about a month. With drones the process will take a day.
By limiting use to the known and confined environment of its regional warehouses, Walmart will operate under existing commercial drone regulations and doesn’t need to wait for FAA rule-making on deliveries. The controlled environment of the warehouse limits liability while easing some practical concerns. It’ll be much easier to keep a fleet of drones charged in a warehouse environment, for example, and there’s no risk of fly-aways.
Interestingly, the drones may provide Walmart with a cheap way to gain some ground on Amazon’s warehouse logistics. The internet retailer bought Kiva Systems, the leader in automated warehouse logistics, in 2012, and that acquisition has largely enabled Amazon to process and deliver same-day and next-day orders, an offering that’s become a cornerstone of its business model.
Other retailers have struggled to catch up, and the race is now on to automate and streamline retail warehouses. Walmart may have hit on an inexpensive way to make up some of the ground.
HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — From a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a loud pop signals the catapult launch of a small fixed-wing drone that is designed to carry medical supplies to remote locations almost 40 miles away.
The drones are the brainchild of a small group of engineers at a Silicon Valley start-up called Zipline, which plans to begin operating a service with them for the government of Rwanda in July. The fleet of robot planes will initially cover more than half the tiny African nation, creating a highly automated network to shuttle blood and pharmaceuticals to remote locations in hours rather than weeks or months.
Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest nations, was ranked 170th by gross domestic product in 2014 by the International Monetary Fund. And so it is striking that the country will be the first, company executives said, to establish a commercial drone delivery network — putting it ahead of places like the United States, where there have been heavily ballyhooed futuristic drone delivery systems promising urban and suburban package delivery from tech giants such as Amazon and Google.
“The concept of drone ports is something that a very small decision-making unit in the country decided they were going to do,” said Michael Fairbanks, a member of the Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s presidential advisory council. “It took a very short time. It’s something that America could learn from.”
That Rwanda is set to become the first country with a drone delivery network illustrates the often uneven nature of the adoption of new technology. In the United States, drones have run into a wall of regulation and conflicting rules. But in Rwanda, the country’s master development plan has placed a priority on the use of the machines, first for medicine and then more broadly for economic development.
“Rwanda has a vision to become a technology hub for East Africa and ultimately the whole continent of Africa,” said William Hetzler, a founder of Zipline, which is based in this seaside town. “Projects like ours fit very well with that strategy.”
The new drone system will initially be capable of making 50 to 150 daily deliveries of blood and emergency medicine to Rwanda’s 21 transfusing facilities, mostly in hospitals and clinics in the western half of the nation.
The drone system is based on a fleet of 15 small aircraft, each with twin electric motors, a 3.5-pound payload and an almost eight-foot wingspan. The system’s speed makes it possible to maintain a “cold chain” — essentially a temperature-controlled supply chain needed to provide blood and vaccines — which is often not practical to establish in developing countries.
The Zipline drones will use GPS receivers to navigate and communicate via the Rwandan cellular network. They will be able to fly in rough weather conditions, enduring winds up to 30 miles per hour.
When they reach the hospitals, they will not land but will drop small packages from very low altitudes. The supplies will fall to earth suspended by simple paper parachutes. The planes will then return to a home base, where they will be prepared for a new mission by swapping in a new battery and snapping in a new flight plan stored in a SIM card.
“This is the new face of the aerospace industry,” said Jay Gundlach, president of FlightHouse Engineering, an Oregon-based aviation consulting firm. “Established unmanned aircraft companies should learn from Zipline’s agile and innovative culture.”
Like Zipline, others are trying to solve the problem of the autonomous distribution of medical supplies. Many other systems being developed, however, are based on less-efficient multicopter or quadcopter designs that have shorter range and less ability to fly in all-weather situations.
In the United States, a firm named Flirtey has delivered medical supplies using multirotor helicopters as an experiment in Virginia. Another Silicon Valley start-up, Matternet, is experimenting with the government of Malawi and with Unicef to deliver infant H.I.V. tests by quadcopter. Google X, the advanced research arm of Alphabet, is now developing a vertical-takeoff-and-landing system that will hover and deliver packages by the use of winches.
Zipline began in 2014 when two of its founders, Keller Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler, visited a young public health worker in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The worker had created a text-messaging system that enabled hospital workers to urgently request medical supplies in life-or-death situations.
But Mr. Rinaudo said he realized that what he was looking at was a long list of death sentences. Today in many places worldwide, attempts are made to deliver medical supplies by motorcycle or pickup truck over roads that are frequently impassable.
The public health worker “showed me the database that had entries every time someone texted, and it was thousands of names long,” Mr. Rinaudo said. “It was mostly infants, and there was no response. The supply chain had no way of taking them into account.”
Mr. Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler set about to find an airborne alternative to automate a supply chain. They met Keenan Wyrobek, a Stanford-trained roboticist who was instrumental in the design of the PR1 robot, a pioneering general purpose mobile robot with arms, and later the more advanced PR2 robot developed by Willow Garage.
The three technologists assembled an engineering team with aerospace industry experience, attracting talent from Space X, Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as Stanford and Google. The start-up has raised $18 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Stanford University and individuals including Jerry Yang, a founder of Yahoo, and Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft.
Mr. Hetzler said that by placing engineers who have consumer electronics expertise in close collaboration with roboticists and aerospace engineers, it had been possible to rapidly build a highly automated system that would be operated by a staff of five to eight.
In February, Zipline signed a contract with the Rwandan government to begin operating the drone service this summer. A small team will be based in a city near the Rwandan capital of Kigali to oversee the service.
“I always think of Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, who said, ‘They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters,’” said Paul Willard, a former Boeing aerodynamics engineer who is now an investor in Zipline, referring to the social media service Twitter. “This feels a little bit more like flying cars.”
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office could soon be flying unmanned aircraft in search-and-rescue missions, drug-trafficking investigations and disaster assessments.
This year’s state budget includes a $1 million appropriation to start a drone pilot program at the Sheriff’s Office.
The agency declined to discuss the program or the funding request because it is considered “operational in nature,” said Teri Barbera, a sheriff’s spokeswoman.
The state budget describes the department’s unmanned aircraft program as geared toward “search and rescue, disaster assessment and assistance, interdiction of drug and human-trafficking activities and situational awareness of a person whose life is in imminent danger.”
Operational activities will be limited to “navigable bodies of water within 25 miles” of the Sheriff Office’s jurisdiction, according to the budget.
“It’s an opportunity in regards to what we saw with the two kids who went missing in the Jupiter Inlet,” said Todd Bonlarron, Palm Beach County‘s director of legislative affairs. “This is the type of thing law enforcement could get up quickly in the air for search and rescue.”
Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, both 14, went missing after a July 24 fishing trip and were never found.
The U.S. Coast Guard does not use drones in search-and-rescue missions, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney, who is based in Miami.
In a funding request filed with state lawmakers, Sheriff’s officials wrote the state funds would be used to purchase a “marine-based fixed-wing” unmanned aircraft with hardware and software to “military-grade specification.” The unmanned aircraft would supplement aviation units in searching for missing boaters off 47 miles of coastline and 750 square miles of Lake Okeechobee, along with identifying illegal activity at the coastal border, according to the request.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office received authorization in December for “training, familiarization and proficiency development,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Once the Sheriff’s Office demonstrates proficiency, it can apply for approval to use drones in operational missions, said Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman.
Unmanned aircraft can be more cost-effective than helicopters and have a multitude of advantages in law enforcement, particularly in minimizing risk in armed standoffs and other emergencies, said Brent Terwilliger, chair of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s master’s program in unmanned systems.
Smaller drones can be carried on the back of a squad car and launched in the field. Flight times can vary from about 20 minutes for smaller, multirotor platforms to more than 24 hours for some fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, he said.
The fastest unmanned aircraft available to law enforcement can travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph, Terwilliger said.
It costs about $800 an hour to operate the Sheriff Office’s manned airship, and it’s possible an unmanned aircraft could produce significant cost savings, according to the department’s request.
In 2013, state lawmakers passed the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,” which places restrictions on how law enforcement can use drones. They can be used if swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious property damage; to search for a missing person; to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack; to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence; or if a warrant is obtained.
The American Civil Liberties Union has documented uses of drones by law enforcement it considers inappropriate, such as monitoring “black lives matter” protests and mosques, said Chad A. Marlow, the organization’s advocacy and policy counsel.
In general, the organization approves of the use of drones by law enforcement if a warrant is obtained or if there is an emergency, such as a forest fire or a hostage situation, Marlow said.
He questioned why the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is not being more forthcoming about the program and expressed skepticism that drones will be restricted to use over water in perpetuity.
“It’s extremely troubling,” Marlow said. “The public has an absolute right to know and understand what its law enforcement is doing and how the public is being surveilled.”
Other agencies have written policies on drone use that the public can read, he said.
Eighty-seven public safety organizations across the country have received approval for training or operational use of drones, according to the FAA, which did not provide the approval list.
At least three law enforcement agencies in Florida have received approval from the FAA to operate drones, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization that has been tracking drone use by law enforcement.
Deep learning algorithms have taught these aerial robots how to follow an unfamiliar path.
Autonomous drones have already mastered the wide-open skies. DHL, Amazon, and Google have each demonstrated self-piloting drones that can deliver packages — in fact, the latter two, as The Vergerecently reported, are ready to implement full-scale drone delivery operations in the US and are simply waiting on regulators to get out of the way. But drones that can fly autonomously in complex environments with multiple obstacles (i.e. not the wide-open sky) are another story.
Navigation in terrains that are densely populated with obstacles is an ongoing challenge for researchers. There’s been some headway by a team at MIT, who last November demonstrated an autonomous drone avoiding trees while flying at high speeds in a wide-open field. Now, a group of Swiss researchers have developed technology that allows drones to autonomously navigate forest trails, a development they say could one day aid in search-and-rescue operations.
The group, comprised of researchers from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the University of Zurich, and NCCR Robotics, used deep learning neural networks to tackle the challenge of training an autonomous drone to navigate a densely wooded forest. Teaching a computer to recognize the direction of a trail is a complex task. It can even be difficult for a human to determine the direction of a trail. Just take a look at these photos of trails taken by the researchers and try to determine which direction they’re headed in:
In order to train their algorithm, the researchers mounted three GoPro cameras to a headset and took off on hiking trails across the Swiss Alps. One camera was pointed ahead of the hiker, one to the left, and one to the right. After hours spent on these trails, the researchers had snapped over 20,000 images (images in front of the hiker and on either side). Then they used these images to teach their algorithm what the boundaries of a hiking trail should look like.
The result was a deep-learning algorithm that allows a drone equipped with a single forward-facing color camera to navigate a previously-unseen trail completely on its own — no human interaction whatsoever. The algorithm, the researchers claim, was even better than humans at determining the correct direction of the trails it traveled on, guessing the correct direction of a trail with 85 percent accuracy. Humans tasked with determining the direction of the same trails were able to do so correctly only 82 percent of the time.
The team cautions that these results are still in very preliminary stages. But while there’s a lot more work to be done before autonomous drones will be able to search forests for missing people, the researchers believe their work is a good sign of how deep neural network will allow autonomous vehicles to navigate situations that involve complex and highly dimensional inputs.
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today announced a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft (UAS) weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras.
The Registration Task Force delivered recommendations to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on November 21. The rule incorporates many of the task force recommendations.
“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”
Registration is a statutory requirement that applies to all aircraft. Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS who has previously operated an unmanned aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016. Owners of any other UAS purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before the first flight outdoors. Owners may use either the paper-based process or the new streamlined, web-based system. Owners using the new streamlined web-based system must be at least 13 years old to register.
Registrants will need to provide their name, home address and e-mail address. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.
Owners using the model aircraft for hobby or recreation will only have to register once and may use the same identification number for all of their model UAS. The registration is valid for three years.
The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days (from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016).
“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Huerta. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”
The online registration system does not yet support registration of small UAS used for any purpose other than hobby or recreation – for example, using an unmanned aircraft in connection with a business. The FAA is developing enhancements that will allow such online registrations by spring of 2016.
Federal regulators said Monday that they plan to require recreational drone users to register their aircraft with the government for the first time in an attempt to restore order to U.S. skies, which have been invaded by rogue flying robots.
U.S. officials said they still need to sort out the basic details of the registration system but concluded that they had to take swift action to cope with a surge in sales of inexpensive, simple-to-fly drones that are increasingly interfering with regular air traffic.
“The signal we’re sending today is that when you’re in the national airspace, it’s a very serious matter,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters.
Pilots of passenger planes and other aircraft are reporting more than 100 sightings or close calls with rogue drones a month — a significant increase just in the past year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Under FAA guidelines, drone owners are not supposed fly their aircraft above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport without permission. But the rules are widely flouted, and officials have been largely powerless to hunt down rogue drone operators.
Requiring drones to be registered will be of limited use for investigators unless the remote-controlled aircraft crash and a registration number can be found. Most drones are too small to appear on radar and do not carry transponders to broadcast their locations.
But regulators hope that forcing owners — many of whom are aviation novices — to register their drones with the government will at least make them think twice about their responsibility to fly safely and the possibility that they could be held accountable for an accident.
The FAA and the Transportation Department are setting up a task force composed of government officials and industry representatives to devise the new registration system. Foxx said the group has until Nov. 20 to finalize its recommendations so the government can set up the registry before Christmas — the peak season for drone sales.
“We do intend to move very quickly,” he said.
The task force will have to wrestle with the basic question of size limits and what kinds of drones will have to be registered. Most consumer models weigh only a few pounds and resemble toys, but many can easily reach altitudes above 1,000 feet.
Foxx said the registration rules will also apply to people who have already bought drones in recent years, not just new owners. He said the FAA would impose penalties — which he did not spell out — on anyone who does not comply.
Nobody knows exactly how many of the robotic aircraft are flying around, but most estimates top 1 million.
The Consumer Electronics Association, an industry group, estimates that hobbyists will buy 700,000 drones in the United States this year, a 63 percent increase from 2014.
In addition to snarling air traffic, nuisance drones across the country have interfered with firefighters, flown into tall buildings and crashed into bystanders on the ground. Criminals have used them to smuggle contraband into prisons. Some property owners have become so irritated by drones buzzing overhead that they have gotten out their shotguns and opened fire.
In general, the drone misadventures have been taking place in a regulatory vacuum. The FAA has banned most businesses from flying drones until it can finalize new safety rules — a step that will take at least another year.
But hobbyists who fly drones for fun are largely unregulated. Under a law passed by Congress in 2012 to protect model-airplane enthusiasts, the FAA is prohibited from imposing new restrictions on recreational drone owners. As a result, they have not been required to obtain pilot licenses or undergo training.
Although the FAA lacks the authority to license recreational drones, it does have the power to impose civil fines on anyone who recklessly interferes with air traffic or endangers people on the ground. Foxx also said the FAA has the authority to require the registration of any aircraft that fly in the national airspace — manned or unmanned.
Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 142, which would have restricted unmanned vehicle use in the state. In a progressive move, Governor Brown wrote in a veto letter to the California State Senate that the bill “while well-intentioned, could expose the occasional hobbyist and FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation and new causes of action.”
State and local legislation throughout the country has become a political hot spot as government agencies grapple with how to manage and govern the explosion of commercial and hobby UAVs. With more than a million small UAVs sold in the U.S. during the last two years, and FAA regulations for recreational drone use no closer to fruition, constituent pressures are at an all time high.
California’s Senate Bill 142 sought to amend the state’s wrongful occupation of real property laws to include UAVs. Had it passed, the law would have extended liability for wrongful occupation of real property and damages to UAV operators flying their aircraft less than 350 feet above ground level over private property without permission of the property owner.
The bill’s author, California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, representing district 19 (which includes Santa Barbara), repeatedly referred to concerns over privacy and lack of oversight for recreational drone operators as motivation for the bill’s creation. While the FAA regulates commercial UAV use, its Modernization and Reform Act only includes a requirement to operate recreational UAVs “in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines.” Senator Jackson wrote in her judiciary of the bill, “the lack of more comprehensive rules establishing clear boundaries for when, where, and how these craft are to be operated has raised concerns.”
While SB 142 is dead, the issue is far from resolved. In his letter to the senate, Governor Brown wrote “drone technology certainly raises novel issues that merit careful examination.” He closed his letter with encouragement to lawmakers — “let’s look at this more carefully.”
Bill Kastel and his wife, Tracey, were hoping to catch some extra Sunday morning shuteye when they were awakened early on May 25 by a loud clanking. Opening the front door of the mobile home they’d mounted on five-foot-high stilts near a creek in Venus, Texas, eight years ago, they were astonished to see a river raging below their front porch.
“It was just one foot away from flooding us out,” says Bill, 58, an auto mechanic who was flooded once before in 2007. “The clanking we heard was the pressure tank for our water well after it fell off. If we hadn’t heard it, we probably would have slept through the whole thing.”
Trapped on all sides by water with their cat and five dogs, the Kastels dialed 911 and waited for help. They didn’t expect that help to come in the form of a drone nicknamed “Valkyrie,” operated by software engineer and Joshua Fire Department volunteer Garrett Bryl.
Bryl, 43, a drone hobbyist for three years, offered his services to the rural fire department six months ago when he realized that his quadcopter could make a lifesaving difference when people needed to be found quickly.
“I’d used it before to assist with fires and find gas-line leaks,” Bryl tells PEOPLE, “but this was my first swift-water rescue.”
Using his drone, Bryl delivered life vests and a safety line to the Kastels, which Bill attached to a beam on his house. The other end was then hooked to the bumper of a fire truck and a rescue by raft was attempted.
“They got close, but in the end, it was too dangerous – they were worried about knocking over the stilts on our house and sending the entire place down river,” Kastel tells PEOPLE.
“It’s scary to think that we might have had to leap for our lives or have been washed away,” he says. “Knowing that we had life vests and a safety line made a huge difference. Watching that drone come in was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. That pilot was no rookie.”
An hour or so later, the Kastels were evacuated by a National Guard helicopter, returning once the water had receded to fetch their dogs and cat.
“We were lucky – the damage to our house could have been a lot worse,” says Bill. “I’m so grateful for everybody who showed up to help us, especially the drone pilot. Everybody thinks of drones as something the military uses for spying on people, but there are lots of other uses, too.”
That same morning, Bryl also used Valkyrie to help locate two people trapped in a pickup truck that was swept away by floodwaters near Joshua.
“With an aerial view, I was able to find them in 45 seconds and we got a helicopter in there to get them out before they were carried away by the water,” he says. “All in a day’s work, I guess.”
This might look like a slightly ramshackle home-brew drone, but in fact its a new kind of robotic vehicle developed bu NASA that “can gather samples on other worlds in places inaccessible to rovers.”
The new drone has been developed by Swamp Works engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and it’s being built as a kind of prospecting robot. “The first step in being able to use resources on Mars or an asteroid is to find out where the resources are,” explains Rob Mueller, who’s been working on the project, in a press release. “They are most likely in hard-to-access areas where there is permanent shadow. Some of the crater walls are angled 30 degrees or more, and that’s far too steep for a traditional rover to navigate and climb.”
So NASA’s solution is what it calls Extreme Access Flyers. These craft, wich seem to resmeble quad-copter drones, would be able to “travel into the shaded regions of a crater and pull out small amounts of soil to see whether it holds the water-ice promised by readings from orbiting spacecraft.” Unlike Earth-bound drones, though, they use gas jets instead of rotors—because the alien atmospheres like those of Mars and the Moon would be too thin to support spinning blades.
Perhaps several of the drones would be taken to the surface of other worlds aboard a lander, which they’d used as a base to fly from using autonomous navigation systems. The lander would also act as a support unit, with the drones relying on it for the replenishment of batteries and propellants between flights. Speaking or propellants, NASA’s hope is to have the drone’s jets run on something like oxygen or steam water vapor — so, in theory, it may even be able to fuel itself from the planet it’s on. Indded, NASA explains just what it may find while its’s there:
In addition to scouting craters for water and other elements that can be processed into fuel for large spacecraft and air for humans, the flyer would be capable of exploring lava tubes that are known to exist on Mars and the moon and are found in many volcanic areas on Earth. Because some are thought to be 30 feet or bigger in diameter, an extreme access flyer could navigate autonomously during a robotic precursor mission and find a safe place for astronauts during their journey to Mars.
While the project started two years ago, the team has been using rapid advances in commercially available drones to keep the work moving at speed. “The flight control systems of small, unmanned multi-rotor aerial vehicles are not too dissimilar to a spacecraft controller,” explains Mike DuPuis, one of the researchers. “That was the starting point for developing a controller.” In fact they’ve already developed several small craft, from a flyer the size of a person’s palm to a large quad-copter about five feet across that uses ducted gas fans to fly.
The latter, NASA claims, is the kind of size of drone that would likely be used on a mission to Mars or the Moon. It’s not yet clear when such a mission might happen, though.
MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook on Thursday revealed more details about its plan to find cost-effective ways to provide Internet access to the 10% of the Earth’s population that lives far from cell towers or land lines.
The solution: Drones the size of a Boeing 737 — launched by helium balloons.
Powered by the sun, each 1,000 lb. drone would fly lazy circles more than 11 miles above the Earth, providing broadband-level Internet for people in a 50-mile radius below.
The team’s dream is “a backbone of the Internet using lasers in the sky,” said Yael Maguire, director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.
The planes, dubbed Aquila, (Latin for “eagle”) would be unmanned. Each would spend three months aloft before slowly floating down to earth “like a feather” for refit, said Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook.
The effort is part of a project launched a year ago by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to provide Internet access to the 4 billion people around the world who currently lack it.
While many people live in sufficiently connected or urban areas where current methods, such as wires and cellular phones, can provide Internet access, millions of people live where a connection isn’t possible.
“Standard telecommunication infrastructure doesn’t reach them. If they pulled out a phone, it would have nothing to connect to,” said Parikh.
Facebook has set out to find a way to give it to them.
The answer the company’s engineers have come up with involves sending planes that can beam down access far above commercial airspace, where there are no commercial flights to run into and no weather to interfere with flight.
The plane, which is virtually all wing, is about 100 feet wingtip to wingtip.
“If you’re thinking of your little quad copters, this isn’t what we’re building,” said Parikh.
The first test vehicle was built this year by Ascenta, a Somerset, England-based solar drone company that Facebook purchased in 2014.
One of Facebook’s biggest breakthroughs in the project has been increasing data capacity of the lasers that will connect the planes with a land-based fiber line that is the link to the Internet.
Facebook’s team has developed a system whose ground-based laser can transmit information to a dome on the underside of the plane at rates 1,000 times faster than has previously been possible.
It’s something like reading a CD with a laser head just after it’s been thrown into the air like a Frisbee — from 11 miles away.
“The team has figured out how to do a laser communion system that can go tens of gigabits in a second,” Parikh said. “Doing that in fiber is routine, but doing it through the air has never been done.”
None of this means Facebook plans to go into the ISP business, or airplane manufacturing, said Parikh.
“Our intention is not to be an operator here. We want to inspire and get the industry to move faster,” he said.
Facebook’s team plans to spend the second half of 2015 doing structural tests on the one plane they’ve build, “making sure it flies,” said Parikh.
“We still have development to go on the batteries, solar cells and avionics, there are huge challenges, this has never been done before,” said Maguire.
Drone deliveries in the U.S. will soon be an official, government-sanctioned activity. On July 17, the Federal Aviation Administration will allow a collaboration between NASA, Flirtey and Virginia Tech to fly unmanned aircraft to deliver pharmaceuticals to a free medical clinic in West Virginia. The fixed wing aircraft from NASA Langley and multi-rotor delivery drones from Flirtey will become the world’s first autonomous aerial delivery services.
The event organizers hope to prove that drone usage need not be nefarious or purely for enthusiasts. In fact, the goal of these drones is to bring life-saving meds to an under-served community.
“This is a Kitty Hawk moment not just for Flirtey, but for the entire industry,” said Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny in a statement. “Proving that unmanned aircraft can deliver life-saving medicines is an important step toward a future where unmanned aircraft make routine autonomous deliveries of your every day purchases.”
The hexacopter that Flirtey uses, which is made by the University of Nevada, Reno, is made of carbon fiber and aluminum. It also sports some 3D printed components. It can range more than 10 miles from home base, and can lower cargo via tethered line. Built-in safety features, such as a low battery alert, will automatically return the craft to a safe location. In case of a low GPS signal or full communication loss, there’s also an auto-return home feature.
The drones will deliver up to 24 packages of prescription medication, weighing 10 pounds. The event is part of the Wise County Fairgrounds’ Remote Area Medical USA and Health Wagon clinic. Other than free medications, which will be flown to the Lonesome Pine Airport before being drone lifted to the fairgrounds, attendants will receive free eye, dental and other healthcare services.
Flirtey, which bills itself as the world’s first commercial drone delivery service, conducted its first tests in Sydney, Australia in 2013. It started by delivering more than 100 textbooks. It went on to offered humanitarian relief in New Zealand, during a search and rescue mission. In May, 2015, the company conducted what it calls the first drone delivery over a populated area, sending auto parts via hexacopter.
The event blurs the lines between commercial and public use of drones. For drones to be used for commercial use, a company must apply for an FAA exemption. The usage must be deemed as low risk and being performed in controlled environments. Drones can only be used without an exemption for set periods of time in set locations by public entities (government, law enforcement, universities).
WANT TO GET AN AMBULANCE THROUGH URBAN ENVIRONMENTS FASTER? GIVE IT PROPELLERS AND SPACE FOR ONE PASSENGER.
In emergencies, seconds count. An estimated 1,000 “saveable” lives are lost a year because of slow emergency response in the nation’s biggest cities. But in traffic-jammed urban environments, how can a four-wheeled ambulance be expected to make it anywhere and back quickly?
Design firm argodesign has a wild conceptual solution. It’s a one-person ambulance drone modeled after a standard quadcopter—driven by a GPS, pilot, or combination of both—that could be dispatched to an emergency scene with a single EMT. It’s designed to land almost anywhere, thanks to a footprint the size of a compact car. The EMT stabilizes the patient, loads him up, and sends him back to the hospital for further treatment.
“Obviously, it’s not a thoroughly vetted concept, but I think it’s extremely intriguing where drones might show up,” says Mark Rolston, founder of argodesign. “It would be nice to see them used this way, rather than another military function or more photography.”
The idea was born from a team brainstorming session around how health care could become more accessible. The designers first thought about how they could build a better ambulance, and the rise of autonomous vehicles inspired them to consider a self-driving ambulance. Then they thought of helicopters and drones, and the rest developed from there.
Assuming you could build it, the drone’s benefits would be significant. A single pilot who would usually fly a single helicopter could manage a whole fleet of drone ambulances remotely, relying on autopilot through the skies, and taking over manual controls only during more complicated takeoffs and landings. There’s also the issue of price: Rolston believes an ultralight drone could be constructed in the million dollar range. That’s several times more expensive than a wheeled ambulance, but still cheaper than a medical helicopter.
“It’s basic product innovation: Faster, cheaper, better,” Rolston says. “Many more of these would cost less to service.”
As wild as the idea may seem, it’s not entirely implausible. Drones exist, they are getting better by the day, and they’re about to take over our skies (some day). Autonomous drivers will be on our streets within the next year. Why not fuse these two ideas?
“I wouldn’t be surprised to get emails, to hear lots of the aeronautics companies saying, ‘we are working on something like this,’” Rolston says. “It makes perfect sense. We may have underestimated the wingspan challenge for lift, but in a greater scheme of things, that’s a trivial part of the idea.”
Unmanned inspection vehicles will increase safety and efficiency for the freight network.
After years of accusations of foot-dragging on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulation, the Federal Aviation Administration has recently been speeding exemption approvals and announcing new regulatory programs. One beneficiary is BNSF Railway, which has gained approval for a pilot(less) programto use drones to inspect its far-flung network of rails. The inspections could help reduce derailments and other safety problems—and though BNSF isn’t saying so, lead to lower labor costs in the long run.
Rail safety is drawing new focus after May’s catastrophic Amtrak derailment. Though that accident’s immediate cause was excessive speed, the Federal Railroad Administration reports that nearly 500 derailments were caused by defective track in 2014, making up more than a third of total rail accidents. Those derailments caused 35 injuries and $94 million in damages last year. BNSF says its drones will allow for more frequent track inspections, which should reduce track-caused derailments.
FILE – In this Nov. 6, 2013, file photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. A collapse in oil prices won’t derail the railroads profit engine even if it does slow the tremendous growth in crude oil shipments seen in recent years. Railroads went from hauling 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008 to 435,560 last year, as production boomed and oil routinely sold for $90 a barrel or more. But even with the surge, crude oil shipments remain less than 2 percent of all the carloads major U.S. railroads deliver. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
The FAA has greenlit more than 400so-called “333 exemptions” for limited drone operations since this February. But unlike most operators, BNSF will be testing UAV’s outside of direct visual contact with their operator, referred to as “beyond visual line of sight,” or BVLOS, operation.BVLOS operation is regarded as more risky by the FAA.
BNSF has earned this special right as part of the FAA’s Pathfinder program, an initiative to develop UAV regulation in collaboration with industry that was announced in May. CNN and the drone systems maker PrecisionHawk USA are the other two inaugural participants, and the FAA has invited applicants from other sectors.
The ability to fly drones long distances is crucial to BNSF’s goals for the program. The railway owns over 32,500 miles of rail line across the U.S., and says that every foot of track is inspected in person twice a week. But some of that track is hundreds of miles from any major population center, increasing the expense and inconvenience of manned inspection. BNSF has emphasized that its drone program would allow for more frequent inspections, rather than replacing human crews.
Whether you call them drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), they’re here to stay.
Few rules yet govern the commercial use of drones, which have been banned by national parks even as Google, Facebook and Amazon draw up business plans to use the controversial devices as flying package delivery systems or wireless Internet hotspots.
The fact that the regulatory universe and its aircraft overseer, the Federal Aviation Administration, hasn’t caught up to technology or industry demand shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. No one should realistically believe that the process of passing laws or enacting regulations will ever move as quickly as innovation.
FAA begins program to research drone expansion
Advances in UAS technology are dragging the FAA, sometimes reluctantly, along. At the same time, privacy laws and guidelines are well developed and will easily adapt to this new technology. Americans with privacy concerns about drone use can relax – for now.
So, where are we? The FAA has been steadily working away at the backlog of exemption requests seeking approval to operate UAS. Several hundred have been granted and, as the FAA gets better at it, the pace of approvals is picking up. To date, the FAA has approved the use of UAS for the “aerial” collection of information in cases like pipeline inspection, insurance underwriting and claims management, cell tower inspection, and agriculture. The agency has also approved drone use for movie-making on “closed sets,” where the actors and crew are in relatively close proximity to the UAS doing the filming.
But Congress is impatient. Earlier this month, Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced legislation to effectively shortcut the regulatory process and create their own set of UAS regulations to “unlock” innovation in drone use. Some have suggested there’s a certain amount of grandstanding when Congress chooses to enact laws which prescribe standards of safety and operation for UAS.
The frustration of Congress, which in many respects reflects the frustration of industry leaders and donors, is understandable. The FAA got started way too late in the process. Regulators are years behind where they should be and are frantically trying to catch up.
The recent announcements regarding the FAA’s push in the area of UAS that fly beyond their operator’s visual line of sight is encouraging, but it’s not enough. The FAA needs more funding and resources to do the job right. What Congress ought to be doing instead of enacting operational rules for flying UAS is give the needed money to the FAA – and then step back.
The FAA is a superb organization, charged with the monumental task of insuring the safety of our airspace. And it’s a job the agency has done well. Congress should do what it does best – allocate funds – and let the regulators regulate, even if they entered the game too late and have moved too slowly.
The real concern everyone should have is air safety. The rules currently proposed by the FAA set the bar pretty low for entry into the UAS business. Moreover, at least publicly, the FAA hasn’t been very aggressive so far in its pursuit of people who choose to be in the UAS business but operate without any FAA exemption or permission.
During the next 18 months or so, while we await the enactment of new rules, let’s hope the FAA acts in a proactive fashion, aggressively prosecuting offenders in a manner calculated to deliver a message of deterrence. This is an area where criticism of the FAA is warranted. Too many people still see UAS as toys – as recent drone use incidents at the White House should remind us. It’s time to take off the gloves and come down on offenders with an iron fist. If Congress really wants to make a contribution, they should pass a law which focuses on offenders and makes illegal UAS operation a federal criminal offense.
No one can doubt the effectiveness of the FAA and the aviation industry working together to create the safest aviation system in the world. There’s no reason why the introduction of commercial drones into that system should compromise the extraordinary level of safe operation which has been achieved.
Call them drones! Call them UAS! Whatever you choose to call them, they’re airplanes operating in the national airspace. Those who choose not to recognize that fact should be dealt with severely as this new, innovate industry takes wing.
Little by little, the FAA seems to be unclenching from its strict regulatory limits on commercial-drone use.
Earlier this week, the agency said it would allow three companies to push past the boundaries of restrictive drone guidelines the FAA proposed earlier this year. Specifically, the FAA will allow these companies to test commercial drones that operate beyond their operator’s direct vision and, in one case, in urban areas.
Would-be commercial drone operators—particularly Amazon and its proposed Prime Air delivery service—have long chafed at the FAA’s unwillingness to allow broader testing and use of remotely piloted copters. The FAA’s proposed rules, for instance, would force all commercial-drone operators to obtain FAA certification, limit flights to daylight hours and altitudes of less than 500 feet, and require drones to remain within their operators’ lines of sight.
Now, however, the FAA says it will allow PrecisionHawk, a North Carolina-based remote sensing and data processing company, to use drones to survey crops in rural areas beyond visual range of their operators. BNSF Railroad, meanwhile, will do something with drone inspections of its rail infrastructure, again outside operator line-of-sight.
In a separate effort, CNN will explore using drones for news gathering in populated urban areas.
“Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for ways to expand non-recreational [unmanned aircraft systems] uses,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Unmanned Systems 2015 conference this week. “This new initiative involving three leading U.S. companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry.”
Drone enthusiasts find the FAA’s move heartening.
“It’s a very big development,” Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, said in an interview with ReadWrite. “Based on what they had been saying, the future of commercial drone use and even continued excitement around consumer drone use looked somewhat bleak. This represents a significant pivot on their part.”
PITTSBURGH Amazon wants to use them to deliver orders. One hovered over a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game last summer. And earlier this year, one crashed onto the White House lawn.
Drones are not everywhere yet, but once the Federal Aviation Administration fine-tunes the rules for commercial drone use, thousands of companies could receive licenses to do business via unmanned aircraft.
Using a drone for business purposes poses a host of potential legal issues, with privacy concerns at the top of the list, according to attorney Doug Wood. He recently co-authored a white paper titled, “Crowded Skies,” which explores the legal implications for companies using drones in the course of doing business.
“There’s a level of clandestine surveillance these things offer,” said Wood, managing partner of law firm Reed Smith’s New York office. “You don’t hear them coming.”
The FAA’s draft rules, released in February, are now subject to a public comment period that ends April 24, according to agency spokesman Jim Peters. Under the proposed rules, commercial drones under 55 pounds would have to be registered with the FAA, and operators would have to pass a written proficiency test and pay a fee.
Commercial users would not have to be licensed pilots, but would only be allowed to fly the drones during daylight hours if the draft rules are adopted as written.
The FAA began allowing drones in the country’s airspace in 1990, but with restrictions on commercial use. Companies must obtain what’s known as a Section 333 “special airworthiness certificate” to receive an exemption that allows limited commercial applications.
Wood said the most prevalent users of drones for commercial purposes at present are motion picture studios.
But for new changes proposed in February, known as Part 107, it’s expected to take much longer before the rules are official. In the meantime, last month the FAA said it would issue waivers to companies that already have the exemption allowing them to operate drones for commercial purposes for flights at or below 200 feet, according to Peters.
Wood pointed out that since so many drones are so quiet, the aircraft could be directly overhead before it’s detected by people on the ground, which is why the privacy issue is usually the first one to consider.
And if a movie producer uses a drone for filming, what responsibility does he or she have to avoid encroaching on private property or filming someone who doesn’t want to appear on camera?
Would trespassing rules apply, or could a drone flying overhead be considered an invasion of privacy? Or, if a company wants to use drones to capture security camera footage, what should the limitations be on how that footage can be used?
There also are considerations for liability. For instance, what steps does a commercial drone user have to take to be sure its aircraft doesn’t crash and injure someone? What level of insurance, if any, should a drone user carry?
While the FAA continues to work on its rules, drone technology is outpacing the regulations. According to a report last month in The Guardian, Amazon is testing its drone delivery services in Canada, apparently frustrated by the slow pace of the U.S. government’s action.
While the laws surrounding drone use lag behind the technology, Wood said commercial operators who don’t consider the potential legal risks before launching their drones do so at their peril.
“Once the commercial side becomes viable, then it creates a host of legal issues beyond the license to use a drone,” Wood said. “With the white paper, we were trying to paint a picture for commercial users so they understand the legal issues before they rush down the road.”
KPBS Evening Edition spoke to Innov8tive Designs CEO Lucien Miller about how regulations may be affecting the drone manufacturing business and various uses for drones. Drones are being considered for use in firefighting and search and rescue.
Meanwhile, Amazon is considering using drones for package deliveries.
The FAA said Thursday that under the provisions of the certificate, the flights must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours. The drone must also remain within line of sight of the pilot and observer. The person flying the aircraft, meanwhile, must have a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certificate.
Amazon must also provide monthly data to the FAA on the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions and other information.
Amazon had asked the FAA for permission to fly drones for package deliveries last July.
Lucien Miller, President & CEO of Innov8tive Designs, Inc. informs us about what kinds of drones there are and what they can do. Click here to see this six minute segment for San Diego’s local news station, Channel 6.