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Life from Above: Global Drone Network Empowers Humanitarian Efforts

Image: Flood in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Flooding in the Balkans, early 2014

A few months back an employee here at 3D Robotics told me, “The day one of our drones saves a life, just one life, everything we’ve ever done here will have been worth it—everything, everything.”

No one understands this better than Patrick Meier, founder of UAViators.org (pronounced “Wave-iators”), a global humanitarian network of professional, civilian, and responsible hobbyist drone pilots.

“The question today isn’t if drones will one day assist in humanitarian efforts,” Patrick says. “They already do. The question now is how to facilitate that in the most effective, safe, and responsible way.”

That is, when it comes to the usefulness of drones, we’re not talking about “possibility” or “the future” anymore. We’re talking about the present, about having right here and now a new way to solve old problems.

One persistent problem with disaster relief efforts has been that all of our traditional delivery, survey, and assessment mechanisms are in some way constrained by infrastructure—roads, airports, waterways, railways, power and communication lines, etc.—which in crisis zones are obviously often destroyed or unusable. Drones are unique in that they can achieve these same goals while operating outside of infrastructure, offering “frictionless” access to treacherous parts of the world where and when help is needed. And because drones carry less risk and expense than manned flight, and are also more mobile and flexible, more people can use them to gather more information more quickly, and often in greater detail, with much less risk to life.

The Belize Fisheries Department launches a conservation drone to monitor illegal fishing.

The Belize Fisheries Department launches a conservation drone to monitor illegal fishing.

And these aren’t petty capabilities, “local drone does good” window dressing to attract a buying public to a new technology. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, drones were sent in to map radiation levels where no person could safely go. And after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines last year, drones conducted aerial damage assessments of otherwise inaccessible areas. In Kenya it’s been reported that drones could reduce poaching by up to 96%, and in the poaching war currently underway in South Africa’s Kruger National Park—every four days a park ranger is killed in firefights with poachers—the technology promises similar and very welcome returns.

Meier realized that if you could safely and reliably crowdsource this power to qualified and certified volunteer pilots around the world, you’d have a global response network with nearly zero lag time. And to take that even further, you could combine that scope of information with the analytical power of Big Data. Meier believes that this combination—user-generated aerial imagery paired with widespread mobile access—will greatly increase a community’s ability to self-organize. And so he organized his own community, UAViators.org.

Though they’ve only been active for six months or so, they’ve come quite a long way. Check out their successes below.

The Crisis Map

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Provides situational awareness in the form of an interactive map of aerial videos from crisis zones around the world. Pilots upload their video, and anyone with an internet connection will have free and immediate access to valuable and actionable information. This month, the map will also enable the sharing of static pictures.

A “TripAdvisor” for Drones

UAViators has also opened a Wiki travel guide, a resource for information on drone laws and regulations around the world, and a place for pilots to share their travel experiences. It’s open for contributions.

The UAV Review

Meier’s team is in the second stage of reviewing over 170 UAV platforms, including several 3DR models (we’re looking pretty darn good), along a wide range of criteria from flight time to payload capacity to cameras and software for image analysis. The results from the first stage are posted in an open google spreadsheet, and Patrick has invited anyone to contribute.

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The United Nations

Echoing our own sentiments at 3DR, Meier says, “We really need enlightened leadership and policy making in the humanitarian UAV space.” This is a big reason he organized an Experts Meeting at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The meeting will be held this November, and will feature representatives and volunteers from across the industry.

UAViators.org invites people around the world to contribute their knowledge and expertise to the humanitarian space: pilots, imagery analysts, policy folks, hardware/software experts, researchers, and anyone else in a position to help. Because in this case it’s quite literal: we need all the help we can get.

Learn more about UAViators.org.

3DR Platform Update: The Five Coolest Pixhawk-based Kickstarters

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The Pixhawk is 3DR’s world famous flight control technology. It’s a flying neurosystem that automatically manages and controls UAV position, direction, orientation and speed, and can autonomously pilot your drone wherever you tell it to go along paths of virtually unlimited waypoints. Its 32-bit processor can manage all of these complex inputs, including controlling camera angle, while automatically adjusting for constant and unpredictable environmental variations in real time. While keeping a robot in the air. We secretly like to call it Skybrain.

The Pixhawk’s processor is so capable that it offers cathedral-like headroom for adding other sensors, inputs and commands, and the APM flight code that it runs is, thanks to years of selfless dedication from the world’s largest community of UAV developers, totally free and open source.

And it all fits in your palm, and costs less than $300.

For these reasons, the Pixhawk is the platform for all of 3DR’s drones. It’s also the platform of choice for some of the most successful UAV projects and companies around the world. Here’s a rundown of some of our favorites that have popped up on Kickstarter just this year.

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1. AirDog, by Helico Aerospace

Follow Me technology particularly well-suited to action sports and athletic training. 3DR has recently announced a formal collaboration with the AirDog team to develop the next generation of Follow Me technology. From 3DR’s CEO Chris Anderson:

“The talented team behind AirDog have a clear technology and business vision. We’re delighted to welcome them as a premier adopter of the 3DR platform and look forward to working with them to combine our technologies for an unprecedented flight and video experience.”

AirDog raised $1,368,177, and had an initial goal of $200,000.

3DR Drones in Action: Moss Monster Attacks Texas Drought

Here in central Texas, drought has become the norm. Currently the lakes around Austin, the state capital, are at 38% capacity. These lakes provide drinking water for more than a million people, as well as water to industries, businesses and the environment. When the lakes drop below 30% capacity, projected to happen as early as January 2015, the state will officially declare a “Drought Worse than the Drought of Record,” which will compel industries and other consumers to reduce water use by 20 percent. Compounding the problem is the present danger of nonnative aquatic vegetation—such as the invasive species hydrilla—which when left untended can choke out an entire lake. Moss Monster, a local contracting company owned and operated by Clifton Chowning, harvests aquatic vegetation and dredges the lakes and canals of central Texas, thereby combating threats of invasive vegetation and erosion.

For Clifton, the 3D Robotics Y6 is like having a superpower. The ability to automatically fly a camera over the water makes aerial data acquisition automatic, reliable, affordable and, most importantly for Clifton, repeatable. He can fly identical patterns week after week, capturing crisp and accurate aerial images that allow him to target specific problem areas and over time prove out changes and threats, which ultimately makes Moss Monster’s operations more efficient and effective. Clifton passes this on to customers in the form of savings, and to the city in the form of a cool glass of water.

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The 3DR platform makes this possible. All of our drones are capable of autonomous flight: they’re robots that can fly themselves and carry a hi-res camera or other sensors along customized routes with virtually unlimited waypoints. You can save routes and fly them precisely at any time. This combination—crisp aerial images, automation and repeatability—can be particularly useful for enterprise applications: by flying lower and slower than satellites or manned aircraft, our drones make data acquisition more efficient, accurate and affordable than it’s ever been. But what’s most exciting is what people will discover they can do with this kind of access, and that too is virtually unlimited.

3DR Talks Drones and Environmental Sustainability

IMG_20140710_171803 This month, 3DR’s Senior R&D Engineer Brandon Basso spoke about the critical role drone technology will play in environmental sustainability at an international conference at the University of Exeter, Penryn.

3DR was the only UAV company to present at the conference, a first-of-its-kind EU initiative that brought together academic experts, researchers, and engineers with private sector vendors from 3DR, QuestUAV, and Sensefly, to kick off the academic discussion about using UAVs as a research tool.

“Our connection to the academic community is huge,” said Basso, who gave a keynote about the potentialities of aerial survey and ran hardware demos with Serge Wich of ConesrvationDrones.org. That’s because drones—affordable, autonomous, and accurate aerial technology—represent a better and more reliable collection mechanism to help scientists get the data they need. UAVs will also propel new science, opening up fields and studies and discoveries that would have been unrealistic or unimaginable before this technology.

But the true impact of scientific study is the advancement it enables in real world applications. Ultimately, all of this research manifests into real tools that people outside of the sciences will use for good—bird and habitat protection, site survey, invasive species protection, even archaeology.

“It’s not just consumer electronics, aerospace, and Silicon Valley,” Basso said. “That stuff is very important, but we can embrace much more than that. The academic community will help us innovate and discover important new applications we never could have thought of on our own. And they seem to love 3DR products.”

Click here to learn more about the UAVs in Environmental Science Conference.

3DR Acquires Sifteo: Cutting-Edge Electronics Meets Cutting-Edge Drones!

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3D Robotics is thrilled to announce the acquisition of Sifteo, pioneers in cutting-edge consumer electronics.

Sifteo brings to 3DR valuable and unique expertise in developing fun and engaging high-tech consumer products. With their groundbreaking Sifteo Cubes (which The New York Times called “a kick in the imagination”), the company bridged the digital and physical divide by applying the latest in computing, software, and sensors to everyday objects—it’s a divide that 3DR’s vehicles also bridge, though drones aren’t exactly everyday objects (yet).

However, 3DR isn’t thrilled only by Sifteo’s cutting-edge approach to technology. Sifteo also boasts a consumer acumen proven over years of developing and delivering world-beating customer experiences and shipping high-volume products into mass-scale retailers. The acquisition of the technology and resources specific to Sifteo will further elevate our company’s capabilities on many fronts, and will help propel 3DR into new markets as the industry matures.

Said 3DR CEO Chris Anderson, “When we first engaged with the Sifteo team and saw their skillset, experience, and IP portfolio, we immediately recognized the impact they would have working with us to transform and grow the consumer drone market. Their consumer electronics experience and deep product skills complement our technology perfectly. We are thrilled to have the resources of both groups together to lead what we believe will be a billion dollar market over the next few years.”

Sifteo’s fusion of fun and high-tech utility has found a perfect match in 3DR’s technology, products, and future ambitions. Please join us all in welcoming these beautiful and brilliant people!

Read the full press release here.

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