Archive for February, 2014

Dubai's Turning Drones into Firefighters

It makes perfect sense. Burning buildings are very dangerous places for people to enter, so when there’s a fire that needs to be put out, why not recruit robots to do the dirty work?

That’s exactly what Dubai Civil Defense is doing this year. The emergency management organization just bought 15 quadcopters that it plans to use for patrolling high-risk areas like industrial zones for fires. In the event of a fire, Civil Defense plans to deploy the drones to inspect the scene so that they can assess how best to handle the situation. They’ll also use three drones while fighting the fire—one to do reconnaissance, one to assist firefighters, and one to take pictures for the media.

“If a firefighter isn’t going to do that, then let a robot do it. Once there is demand for this, it will revolutionize the industry,” says Folmer Kamminga, managing director of the Dutch drone developer Geoborn who makes the Knight Hawk, a drone with heat sensors and a navigation system. Some day, the Knight Hawk could be able to fight fires autonomously. “By the time my grandchild enters this industry, maybe all they’ll need to do is to press a button and robots will completely extinguish a fire.”

Sounds a lot better than running into a burning building, doesn’t it? Well, just add it to the list of the good things that drones actually do. Of course, this won’t be the first time drones have been used to help fight fires. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become an increasingly common part of the teams that fight wildfires. They’re mainly used for spotting and aerial photography so that firefighters can try to predict what the wildfires will do next. It’s interesting to see that same strategy applied to an urban center.


Contrary to popular wisdom, drones are already among — or above — us.


I want to believe that when we talk about drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems — whose bodies vary from pterodactyl-big to mosquito-small (the Robobee, a robotic insect, weighs less than 1/300th of an ounce), and any one of which will soon be taking off, in ungovernable numbers, in our coming (2015) deregulated airspace, we are not talking about General Atomics’ “Predators and their Hellfire missiles bombing daycare centers in Afghanistan.”

But the drone has already earned its inalterable reputation. Much to the chagrin of the man who uttered the sardonic quote above: the resourceful, loquacious, fingers-in-many-pies Lucien Miller, CEO of Innov8tive Designs, in Vista. Miller is behind his desk in a small office, next to an adjoining warehouse, one of hundreds of manufacturing warrens in the Palomar Business Park. Dressed in a light blue knit shirt, faded jeans, and comfortable loafers, Miller is a-flurry with info and PR on unmanned aerial vehicles and their possibility. Which is why he’s adamant that the word “drone” is a great misnomer.

Miller is a licensed pilot whose less than 20/20 vision did not qualify him to fly commercial jets, as he’d hoped to do. To replace it, he’s developed a next-best passion. He designs, builds, flies, distributes, and sells kits and fully assembled aircraft for the radio-controlled model-airplane industry. This technology has, in just three years, evolved into his specialty, the multi-rotor or quadcopter, the hobbyist’s drone. “Instead of having the one big main rotor” like a helicopter, “they have four small rotors with airplane propellers.” His quadcopters, complete at $2000, have “sophisticated GPS systems so when you set them down and power them up they learn the position they took off from.” Auto-command GPS gives them that sense that they “know” where they are because you, the controller, have positioned them so.

Miller has more fun with his drones than a man in his 40s should be allowed. Imagine him and his joystick, “chasing neighbor kids up and down the street on Halloween” with his “Ghost Quadcopter” — a torso-sized body, cloaked in black, with a frayed skirt, a derby-topped LED-lighted skull, and Frankenstein-stiff arms. In the video, the children scream in fright while the adults laugh at the anomaly, their cellphone cameras flashing and recording the stunt. One year, Miller buzzed the Ghost Quadcopter beside the driver’s window of a passing car, “and it no doubt freaked the poor woman out to no end.”

Video: Lucien Miller’s ghost quadcopter

The ghostcopter in action. Terrifying!

The ghostcopter in action. Terrifying!

Drone strikes in Pakistan — resulting in hundreds of innocent civilians blown apart — have so corrupted Americans’ thinking about drones, Miller notes, that not only does the press ignore the “good uses,” but the consensus remains that all flying things incur surveillance. “It’s all how the media portrays it.” It’s absurd, he says, police peering in our windows with bots. The personal computer and the cellphone did not meet with such bad press. Coverage, for the unmanned aerial vehicles, he finds moronic. So much so that he’s started the rolling blog, Only positive posts, please.

It may be that our deepest fears of a National Security State arrive from outside and above, like in Steven Spielberg’s sadistic War of the Worlds — and not from within our super-hive of laptops and wireless connectivity. Post–Edward Snowden, many privacy rights activists believe the true menace comes from government and corporate surveillance of us via our devices. Still, because of our attack history, we fear the unexpected air assault — 9/11, Pearl Harbor. No wonder we’re spooked by flying machines — those incoming planes are coming for us.


Lucien Miller hates the word drones. So does Monica England at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest unmanned aerial vehicles lobby, which heavily romances both the military and Congress. England writes in an email that unmanned aerial vehicles are not “drones. A drone is a target used by naval aviators in combat training.” She attaches a photo. It’s not a target; it’s a missile, fired from a ship. Headed to Pakistan. Now, that’s a drone.

Jordi Muñoz’s 3D Robotics sells products to dozens of countries. “We’re worldwide neutral.”

Image by Howie Rosen

Jordi Muñoz’s 3D Robotics sells products to dozens of countries. “We’re worldwide neutral.”

Jordi Muñoz also hates, though good-humoredly, the word drone. The chief technology officer of 3D Robotics, who’s 27, a wunderkind, both affable and brimming with ideas, prefers “flying robots,” he tells me while clearing a desk in his no-longer spacious, research-and-development headquarters in the Kearny Mesa Industrial Park. Floor and shelf space is his number-one burden. He began in his garage, in Riverside, built his first drone at 20, sold it and more at 22, moved to San Diego, where he’s established one of the company’s three sites: a manufacturing plant bubbles along in Tijuana and business and sales are staffed in Berkeley, run by Muñoz’s partner, CEO Chris Anderson, a founding editor of Wired magazine.

A drone or unmanned vehicle, he says, can be anything that “makes a decision by itself or follows a preprogrammed mission.” In the air, underwater, inside buildings, searching the wilderness for a lost child — or, the future butler, Droney, as in, “Hey, Droney, slippers, please. The master wants to relax.” Muñoz employs open-source computer codes, taken from Nintendo and the iPhone, to design the “brain” of the unmanned aerial vehicles, also called the machine’s “autopilot.” The brain is a miniaturized panel of sensors that controls the functions of the unmanned aerial vehicles: a lithium-ion battery for an hour or two of flight; an accelerometer for speed; a gyroscope for locating itself in relation to the ground, other flying robots, and unmovable objects (“Look out for that wall, Droney”); and a magnetometer for finding its bearing vis-à-vis north.

Muñoz is dedicated to open-source design, in which software codes are shared on the internet for free. “It’s the way I grew up; it’s my mentality,” he says, showing me slides of his PowerPoint presentation. As he developed code for his robots, others used it as well, correcting and revising his language. Though such “online collaboration” remains viable, Muñoz found many hobbyists had no time to make brain and bot as he had. “Do it yourself,” he told them when they inquired if he had one for sale. Instead, they begged for his machines — voilà, 3D Robotics, an international supplier of drones and parts with 170 employees, still growing avalanche-fast. In the past four months, $30 million in new venture capital has fattened the company’s bank account. Already they’re scouting larger digs.

Read the rest of this story here:


There’s been a lot of news about drones this year—and most of it makes the near future sound like a scary place full of heavy government surveillance and aggressive Amazon marketing. But technology isn’t inherently good or bad, it depends how it’s used, and some people are trying to harness the potential of drones to make a positive difference in the world. Imagine that! Here are five initiatives that are working to get some good off the ground.


Drone to the rescue

1. RP SearchServices
RP SearchServices
is the nonprofit division of RP FlightSystems, a company based in Wimberly, Texas, that offers drone data and other aerial data collection services. SearchServices specializes in search and rescue, support for disasters like fires, and environmental data collection. Gene Robinson, who owns RP FlightSystems and runs SearchServices, says that the group has assisted on more than 100 search-and-rescue cases around the country and has made 10 recoveries that were directly attributable to the UAVs. Furthermore, Robinson says that photos his drones took in Tijuana, Mexico, assisted in breaking up a human trafficking ring, and even allowed for the recovery of a pregnant llama. SearchServices is also partnered with the San Diego State University VizCenter, which has an unmanned aerial vehicle division. RP SearchServices often works with search and rescue groups that don’t have required FAA drone certifications so investigations can move forward quickly.

2. Height Tech
To bring defibrillators to remote areas, Height Tech is working on an octocopter system that autonomously delivers defibrillators to people in need. The German company, which also uses drones in movie productions and for surveying, is working with defibrillator manufacturer Schiller and presented the system in August. When prompted, a smartphone app transmits GPS coordinates to the drone so it can find the patient and then drop in a defibrillator by parachute. Currently the Height Tech’s octocopters have a range of about six miles and can fly in all weather at 44 miles per hour, so applications are fairly local for now but could still be faster than an ambulance in rural areas.

began in 2011 with a focus on wildlife in Southeast Asia. The founders, conservation ecologist Lian Pin Koh and primate biologist Serge Wich, built their own UAV for about $2,000 and tested it in North Sumatra, Indonesia, for 30 forest and wildlife imaging missions over four days. And enthusiasm for the project, specifically using low-cost drones in research, grew from there. In August, Mongabay sponsored the group to become a nonprofit. is currently raising money to do research and conservation work with Mongolian snow leopards in 2014.

4. Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration
Alaska’s enormous size and undeveloped land create accessibility issues and make aviation the only option for reaching much of the state. As a result the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Geophysical Institute started the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration to work on UAV development and research. The group bet that Alaska’s geography would create unusual pressure and demand to implement drone systems for everything from public services to resource management. And they seem to be correct. So far the group has used drones for things like fighting forest fires, mapping glaciers and sea ice, search and rescue, and monitoring marine life.

5. Matternet
wants to bring a “physical Internet” to remote areas that aren’t easily accessible or don’t have consistent transportation options. To do this, the group has a fleet of drones and is developing network solutions that will allow the UAVs to carry and deliver light packages (no kayak drop-offs here, either) like drugs or medical tests. Matternet wants to create a system that can function in extreme conditions and can reach anyone, anywhere. The group claims that “doing good is our first priority.” Matternet is for-profit, though, and in a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum the company’s CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos, said, “Our plan is to develop the technology for other people to set up transportation networks.” When asked whether Amazon is a potential competitor to Matternet, he said, “We see Amazon as a potential client rather than a potential competitor.”