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BioDrones: Good for the Earth and for Exploring Mars

For scientist Lynn Rothschild of the NASA Ames Research Center—who holds a title that’s the stuff of sci-fi dreams: Astrobiologist—biology has the potential to be the engine of the future for technology, industry, space exploration and even drones.

Lynn heads an ambitious collaborative robotics project that comprises undergraduate students from Stanford, Spelman and Brown University, along with guidance from NASA researchers, to develop what you could call biodrones: fully biodegradable UAVs composed entirely of cellular and organic material. The idea for a biodegradable drone came to Lynn when a NASA colleague lost a research drone in Arctic waters; UAV components don’t easily disintegrate and the electronics, batteries and metal pose real threats to a delicate ecosystem. The team entered the biodrone as a project in this year’s International Genetics Engineering Machine competition (iGEM), but it also holds promise for real-world, and real-otherworldly, UAV and space exploration applications.


The Biodrone iGEM prototype

The Biodrone iGEM prototype, put together by Eli Block (Brown University).

Sustainable technology

First, the drones are built entirely of, and by, cells, making these UAVs 100% biodegradable, a sustainable technology. The drones begin to self-destruct 24 hours after use, at which time the cells are cued by an enzyme to do their best Wicked Witch impression and dissolve into a puddle of sugar water.

For further environmental safeguarding, a mind-boggling process of genetic engineering called codon security* ensures that the cells’ DNA won’t be able to cross-pollinate and enter other environments. This is critically important because many of the cells used to make the drones have amped-up genetic material taken from extremophiles—organisms that thrive in the most extreme conditions on the planet—and when the drones disintegrate you wouldn’t want these synthetic characteristics transferred to other environments.

Finally, bioengineered technology would have the abilities to self-replicate, self-repair, pick up other atoms and run off of energy from carbon dioxide and water. And with the safeguards that they’ve built in, Lynn says that crashing a biodrone would be no more detrimental to the environment than dropping your cotton sweater on the ground.

The build

Autopilot circuits could be made of conductive silver nanoparticle ink.

Autopilot circuits could be made of conductive silver nanoparticle ink. Dr. Kosuke Fujishima in the Ames lab, in conjunction with AgIC, printed this circuit.

As for the drone itself, the body is basically a mushroom, fungal mycelia spores seeded in a mold and then wrapped in a bio-plastic skin of pure cellulose produced by bacteria. This skin is waterproofed by wasps. Student developer Ian Hull recognized that the paper wasp chews up wood and spits out waterproof paper, which the wasps then use to line the outside of their nests. A research team isolated the proteins in the wasps responsible for this waterproofing process, and the UAV team assigned these proteins the task of waterproofing the UAV.

Remarkably, the onboard electronics can also be synthesized. Instead of traditional electronic sensors for gathering and analyzing things like atmospheric data—the presence of toxic gases, for instance—the biodrones have a cell layer with biosensing capabilities. These cells change color when they detect the presence of certain gases. Bafflingly, even the circuitry for an autopilot can theoretically be bioengineered, thanks to the proven conductivity of silver nanoparticle ink.

The team still uses 3D-printed plastic for the propellers, however. And though they haven’t yet settled on battery design, options abound there as well: microbial fuel cells; appropriating the energy generation process from electric eels; or using solar cells to create energy in a process similar to photosynthesis. “Imagine,” Lynn says, “an asparagus battery!” She also reminded me that people biosynthesize electricity all the time in our brains—our neurons and nerve impulses work by turning chemical energy into electric energy—intimating that there’s untapped potential there as well.


Photo courtesy Lynn Rothschild.

Made on Mars

So why has UAV biotechnology attracted the attention of NASA? First, synthetic biology offers many advantages over traditional construction. Notably, it makes for a great carry-on item. When it comes to space travel, weight is especially precious. So what if, instead of loading a rocket down with components or pre-assembled pieces of equipment, you’d only need to pocket a few vials of cells? These cells would then be triggered to replicate, when on Mars**, for instance, and you’d have an industrial agriculture—growing and harvesting your own construction crop. This means that one day drones, and other technology, could be a renewable resource. You could also apply synthetic biology to growing food, fuel, and even to “biomining” bricks (another project of Lynn’s). For Mars, it’d be like an agricultural and industrial revolution all at once.

Drones, made on Mars, could then map Mars. Turns out UAV technology is valuable to NASA for the same reasons it’s become so valuable to folks like farmers and surveyors here on Earth. With ground sensing from rovers like Spirit and Opportunity, you get a lot of detailed information but have a terribly limited coverage area; with satellite imagery you can get a lot of coverage but pretty lousy detail. Drones, operating in the space between the two, can do both and do them well.

Inroads and Wormholes

Here’s the kicker: All of this took Lynn’s team of undergrad students one summer to work out. She speaks of her team glowingly and trusts them with making all the inroads of innovation. She gives all credit for the project’s success to their hard work and ingenuity. Actually, it seemed the team’s biggest hang-up didn’t have anything to do with solving daunting engineering problems, but with confronting social conventions—they were afraid that calling their project a “drone” would connote a military connection, which they were desperate to eschew. Consummate empiricists, they went so far as to conduct a survey to assess public opinion about the term.

In conversation with Lynn it’s quite clear that these projects are far from an academic exercise. In fact, the first iGEM student project that Lynn headed, in 2011, resulted in a project called PowerCell that’s now a secondary payload on a German satellite. And as a civil servant working for NASA, a government entity, she can only serve as adjunct faculty at Stanford and Brown—teaching work for which she is not paid. And she doesn’t want to be. She just wants to use her position to “create wormholes” that connect her students to NASA and the global scientific community. “It’s the discovery,” she told me. “That’s the thing.”

X8+: The Power To Do More

We didn’t make the X8+ powerful and durable for technology’s sake. We want you to be able to build on this platform, to use it to solve problems, do real work and realize your aerial ideas. Here are a few options for innovation that the X8+ unlocks—the unknown, however, is all yours.

Mounting different gimbals and cameras for pro aerial photography

We’ve always wanted to see and document our world from above—be it sending cameras up with balloons, kites, or even pigeons—and personal drones have opened the aerial perspective to more people on the planet than ever before. We understand that photographers don’t necessarily want drones—they want the shots. Until the X8+, however, if you wanted to put anything other than a GoPro in the air you’d have to shell out big time for the platform that could handle it. But for professional photographers, a GoPro sometimes just won’t cut it. That’s where the X8+ comes in, the first modular and expandable aerial platform available at a true consumer price point.

X8+ Action_webBecause the distance between the lens on your drone and your subject is very real, serious aerial photography requires better zoom capability than a GoPro, whose 20 mm lens is incredibly wide, especially from the air. The X8+ can carry a GoPro and stabilizing gimbal (either 2 or 3 axis), so you can get great map-like views or capture sweeping scapes. However, it’s tough to really get tight on a subject with a GoPro; for that you’d need to put a bigger camera in the air. The X8+ has the additional payload capacity to hard mount high-resolution mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic LX100, whose 24-75 mm (FFE) lens gives you options for choosing focal length. This means that the X8+’s payload capacity ultimately translates into the ability to fly farther away and still get tight and focused shots. This is also incidentally good for safety: If you wanted to get tight with a GoPro, the props would be so close they’d blow hair around. So, beyond a Creed music video shoot, your options there are sort of limited.

You can actually hard mount a variety of point-and-shoot cameras to the X8+, including the Panasonic LX100, or the Canon S110, SX260 or any other mirrorless cameras of similar size and weight. You just need a GoPro mount kit and a small extra piece that attaches to the mount with a 1/4”-20 adapter—these run between $5-10. Screw the mount tightly into the camera, align the camera on the X8+ so it will face forward in flight, then slap on the adhesive from the GoPro mount kit. Now you’ve got a hard-mounted professional camera capable of capturing incredible stable aerial shots with variable focal lengths.

And because the X8+ is built to be expandable, if you add an on-board optical flow sensor you can get remarkably accurate and stable position-hold capability, much superior to GPS. This means the copter will stay exactly where you tell it to stay so that you can precisely stage and capture the shots you want.

x8_aIf you don’t want to hard mount your camera, the lifting power of the X8+ also unlocks new options for stabilized photo and video capture. The flexibility of the platform allows you to attach longer legs so that you can carry bigger, low-hanging gimbals. You can buy the quad kit legs from our store, and make a few modifications to attach them: hack off the lip of the quad legs so you just have the straight leg left, then drill a set of holes into the original X8+ leg so the extended legs are the length that you need; lastly, file down the lowest standoffs on the original leg so that the replacement leg will slide in—with one edge on the outside, one edge on the inside—and then bolt the two together.

The X8+ supports the Tarot 2D 2-axis brushless gimbal, available from our store, as well as a 3-axis DYS BLG3SN gimbal, the industry standard for advanced stabilization. In addition to stabilizing the tilt and roll axes, the DYS stabilizes on the yaw axis, enabling steady panning shots. Both of these gimbals allow you to control camera angle while flying via the tilt knob on the X8+ controller. In addition to pro level point-and-shoots, the DYS can also support the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera, enabling you to get film-quality footage from the air. You can get the DYS from Range Video, FPV Model, or even Amazon, but if you’re not an experienced drone builder, installation can be tedious and difficult; it’s probably best to let someone do that work for you so you can just worry about flying and filming.

Lastly, you can pair the X8+ with our Bright View™ FPV kit and link the monitor with the camera, letting you see exactly what your camera sees as you’re taking photos. After all, that’s what we really want in the end—not the technology, but the shots that it gets us.

Much more than a flying camera

Drones can be much more than flying cameras. With the X8+ we’ve created a modular and expandable platform with significant payload capacity to power aerial ideas of all kinds. We’ve thought through a lot of uses for the X8+: autonomous delivery, professional photography, 3D modeling and many more. But what really excites us about this release, and what’s always excited us about the possibilities of drones in general, is the openness and versatility. We’ve taken care of building a durable and versatile aerial platform, now we want to see what you can do with it.

Because the X8+ can carry 800g comfortably, and up to 1kg if you’ve got some flight time to spare, you have room to build on this ultimate DIY platform. Perhaps it’s best to think of the X8+ as an intelligent tool, a power drill that you can outfit with different bits; you have options to experiment with your aerial projects. We’ve seen innovative users take stunning photographs and video, deliver medicine to remote areas with electromagnets, and survey and protect land, people, property, animals and natural resources.

header2For instance, if you’re interested in experimenting with the delivery or transportation of small goods, you can outfit the X8+ with an electropermanent magnet. Unlike a standard electromagnet—which siphons constant voltage from your battery—an electropermanent magnet only needs a single shot of current to turn it on; it then stays activated until you give it another shot to turn it off. You can even automate the injection of current via the Pixhawk, then link it to a waypoint on your autonomous mission where you’d like to drop off your payload, and voila—a fully automated delivery system. The same principle applies if you want to install an arm that can grab, pull and carry small items.

The X8+ is easily the optimum Pixhawk platform for DIY innovation. It’s powerful so it can do more, and redundant so that when you’re flying, you’re not experimenting with your experiment. For instance, you can stack the Pixhawk with a companion computer like a BeagleBone or Intel Edison and extend your computing even further, unlocking options for navigation sensors like LIDAR and optical flow. Optical flow is especially effective for position hold because it recognizes variation of movement exceedingly well. With an optical flow sensor on the X8+, you can pinpoint and stage precision angles for photos and video, or hold the copter still for industrial inspection or any survey application that requires specific focus over time. And if your copter loses a prop or motor, your high-tech payload won’t drop out of the sky.

But again, these are just a few ideas that we’ve already seen or thought through ourselves. The reason that we say drone technology has nearly limitless potential is because future drone users—all 7 billion of them—have limitless potential. We want to be able to power that potential, to be able power the aerial ideas that you’ll build on our back. The X8+ gives you that power to do more.

The post X8+: The Power To Do More appeared first on 3drobotics.com.

Engadget – Five Questions About the Future of Drones

“Everyone, it seems, is talking about drones these days. Whether it’s for industry, research or performance art, the skies have never been busier. Thanks, in no small part, to the ever-increasing number of consumer-friendly, ready-to-fly quadcopters. Colin Guinn left DJI to join one of the biggest names in commercial drones — 3D Robotics — as SVP of sales and marketing. If anyone knows about the future of our skies, it’s him. I’ll be speaking with Guinn at Expand on Saturday, November 8th, about the future of commercial, personal and hobby drones — with maybe a little onstage flying going on, too. Before that though, read on to get a little primer on the buzzing topic from the man himself.”

Announcing the Latest DroidPlanner Release

We’re excited to announce the release of the latest version of DroidPlanner, 2.8.1. This release expands and enhances the user experience of version 2.0, incorporating some cool and innovative new features as well as updates to existing features based on valuable user feedback. New features include an automated 3D modeling waypoint generator, a change of speed waypoint, improvements to help streamline 3PV™ follow me, and further autonomous flight protection. We invite you to download it for free from the Google Play store.

New features:

Building mapper waypoint generator: creates a pattern around a GPS coordinate to snap timelapsed photos which can be stitched together later into a 3D model (stitching software available separately).

Edit multiple waypoints: Hold down on any waypoint, then select the waypoints you want to edit. When you’re done, just hit the Done button.

3PV™ Follow Me: In order to change following position, tap and pull up on the Follow Me button (moved from the side menu).

Autonomous mission protection: When you create a mission without a takeoff and/or RTL end point, the app now prompts you to do so. This prevents your copter from automatically going into loiter after your mission finishes, and possibly descending where you don’t want it to.

Change speed waypoint: Allows you to change the copter’s speed during autonomous flight.

Features based on feedback:

The “Dronie” app has some user-friendly updates.

When the user creates the dronie, a message tells the user where to stand.

The app alerts the user when the copter is about to take off to go into the auto mission.

On its way back down, the copter slows as it gets closer to its original location, so users feel less worried the copter might be descending out of control.

How to download:

Visit the Google store here. The version you download should be 2.8.1RC1.

The post Announcing the Latest DroidPlanner Release appeared first on 3drobotics.com.

Drones for Public Safety, and the DronePilot Program

DSC_8564John Buell has been an officer with the Austin Police Department for seventeen years. He speaks at a lawman’s clip and has an impassive build, which makes it seem like he’s been set in stone, but John is actively propelling one of the most forward-thinking initiatives in public safety, the central Texas DronePilot program.

John’s been flying drones for a decade. He started in a military-affiliated WMD response team, where he saw that instead of suiting someone up to carry atmospheric sensors into a hot zone, you could send a drone and get the same information, and more of it. John immediately recognized the potential this technology held for public servants—police officers; firefighters; EMTs; search and rescue teams—but when the Austin Police Department began looking into incorporating drone technology, the public bridled at the idea and the APD put the program on hold. In response John founded DronePilot, a public program to promote the understanding and safe and legal use of drone systems, and today, thanks in part to John’s efforts, the Austin Fire Department is in the process of obtaining one of the FAA’s elusive Certificates of Authorization. Through DronePilot, John now trains off-duty public servants in and around Austin as hobbyists, promoting the safe, effective and legal use of UAV technology. In addition, the DronePilot program educates the public about relevant legal and privacy issues, as well as holds live demonstrations and advocates for the use of drone technology in public safety.

“Drones are invaluable for law enforcement in that they provide you with real-time situational awareness,” John explains. “They can see around corners and over hills, they can watch your back, they can gather data and give you real-time aerial video. It’s like each individual has their own manned helicopter. That’s huge. That saves lives.”

Real-life scenarios abound: Drones can help stop police ambushes, scout fires and other dangerous scenarios, quickly and comprehensively search accident and crime scenes, even pick up heat signatures. It’s a hallmark of our data-driven era: Get the right information, and you’ll make the right decisions.

But it’s another hallmark of our era that John says his biggest obstacle in running the DronePilot program isn’t mastering this new and complex technology, or even training new pilots in it, but in overcoming public mistrust, especially when such a technology is in the hands of a government entity like law enforcement. He says that educating and reassuring a fearful public actually takes up most of his time.

“If I could have one thing in the world,” he says, “I’d ask for the trust of the public.”

John points out what many others have: this is a controversial technology that we’re just now beginning to demilitarize; any technology can be used for good or ill (“You can hit someone with a hammer, or you can build something with it”); the benefits that drones could provide for this very same public are numerous and potentially lifesaving. But he also points out that we trust police officers to carry guns on their hips. “You trust us to wear a badge and a gun, so trust us that we’re going to use a piece of technology to help us do our job, and ultimately to help our colleagues and the people we serve.”

John believes that once the proper regulations are in place the public will come around to seeing drones as a viable technology that they can trust. But he also believes drone manufacturers have a role to play here, too; to promote safe operations and produce safe systems, but also to show data. “A really great thing about 3DR that no one else has is DroneShare,” he says. “You can research all my flights, pull up all my flight data. If something goes wrong we can immediately see what it was, and where it happened and why. That’s great for advancing the technology, and it’s great for the people who benefit in the end, too.”

John gets patently animated when he talks about the people he serves and the colleagues in arms he’s bound to protect. These days he wakes up thinking about DronePilot, and is certain that UAV technology will forever change his profession. “This is our Velcro,” he says, referring to the advent of Velcro straps that are now indispensable to firefighters. “This is big. It’s the lives of the folks I work with, the lives of the people who protect us, and ultimately it’s the lives of the people we protect.”

It’s clear that although the public may not trust John just yet, he certainly trusts them. Everything in his world, it seems, comes back to information: “If people get the right information, they’ll make the right decisions.”

The post Drones for Public Safety, and the DronePilot Program appeared first on 3drobotics.com.

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