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Main article: Drone

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WhiteFox Defense lands $12 million as the demand for drone defense technologies intensifies

18:48 | 5 December

Four months ago, when two commercial DJI-made drones loaded with 1 kilogram each of plastic explosive href="https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/05/venezuela-claims-drones-loaded-with-explosives-used-in-failed-attack-on-president/">detonated during a speech from Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro at a military event in Caracas, the world at large was introduced to the newest threat from our automated, dystopian present — cheap weaponized drone technology.

For Luke Fox, the founder and chief executive of WhiteFox Defense Technologies, it was simply the latest in a string of events proving the need for the kinds of services his company is developing. Something he calls “a highway patrol for the sky.”

From drug smuggling to reconnaissance and information gathering to terror attacks, unmanned aerial drones are no longer the provenance of state military and police actors, and are increasingly being used by criminal organizations to open new, aerial fronts in their operations.

“Drones are by far the biggest asymmetric threat that the U.S. faces,” says Fox. “Countries that don’t have a state sponsored drone program are using them [and] it’s where you see people like ISIS are going.”

In the battle for Mosul in Iraq, ISIS flew over 300 drone missions in one month, according to a talk given last year at CyCon from Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the New America Foundation. One-third of those were strike missions, representing the first time U.S. military faced an aerial attack since the Korean War.

The 24-year-old Fox began thinking seriously about the weaponization of commercial and consumer drone technology six years ago, when he founded WhiteFox Defense.

Creating the company was an extension of the way that Fox had been taught to think about the world as a child, he’s said. Fox grew up in an abusive foster home, raised by a mentally ill foster mother (who was, herself, a child protective service employee) who had adopted him and a number of mentally and physically challenged children.

“The reality i grew up in had my mind constantly looking for vulnerabilities. And instead of seeing these vulnerabilities as opportunities for crime i now had a whole color palette to choose from,” said Fox. “For example when the world started going crazy over drones as recreational toys i saw that they could be used as weapons or crime and this insight into the criminal mind inspired a company that defends the country from drones.”

Fox was adopted from foster care by the librarian of his local Sacramento-area high school, tested out of college and went on to a community college before enrolling in California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

He began working with drones while in school and credits that introduction to the technology as the inspiration for starting White Fox.

“We previously started out in drone manufacturing starting out in high performance drones for specialty clients and research organizations. we needed affordable drones that were highly capable,” said Fox. “Making a highly capable drone that was very affordable attracted some very shady people. And, realizing that there was only so much we could control, it brought us to ask what is out there? At the time, the only thing to counter drones related attacks was large missiles shooting down large Iranian drones.”

WhiteFox currently has three products either in development or on the market. Two have already been released to a select group of customers in different industries and the entire suite will be launched at the beginning of next year, according to Fox.

Without going into specific details of how the technology works, Fox said that WhiteFox Defense systems can detect, identify and mitigate unauthorized drones flying in a particular airspace.

“It’s not jamming or blocking drones or catching them out of the sky,” says Fox. Rather the idea is to provide situational awareness and identify the type of threat that an errant drone represents — whether the operator is, in Fox’s words, “clueless, careless or criminal.”

What Fox would say is that his company has developed a technology that’s based on identifying and differentiating between drones based on their unique radio frequency signatures. That product for identifying drones operating in a space is complemented by a second technology offering which allows WhiteFox to take control of the unauthorized drones in an airspace.

“One of the technologies that was started at Drones For Change [the company that would become WhiteFox] was a universal controller,” said Fox. “That technology really formed the basis. We asked what if this universal controller could become a master controller to take over any drone that was in your airspace? That solved the problem that got us out of drone manufacturing.”

WhiteFox isn’t alone in its attempts to create anti-drone technology. According to some industry statistics there are at least 70 companies working on drone defense technologies with solutions ranging from deploying other drones to capture unauthorized UAVs to jamming technologies that will block a drone’s signal.

Earlier this year, Airspace Systems raised $20 million for its kinetic(drone vs. drone) approach to drone defense, while Citadel Defense raised $12 million and Dedrone pulled in $15 million for their drone-jamming technologies.  And last year, SkySafe raised $11.5 million for a radio-jamming approach similar to WhiteFox, which forces unauthorized drones out of restricted airspace while permitting authorized drones to still fly.

“As​ ​the​ ​adoption​ ​of​ ​consumer​ ​drones increases,​ ​we​ ​believe​ ​it​ ​is​ ​vital​ ​for​ ​an​ ​ambitious​ ​and​ ​effective​ ​defense​ ​platform​ ​to​ ​emerge,” said Alex Rubacalva, a partner at Stage Venture Partners and an early investor in WhiteFox Defense. 

In all, drone-related startups have raised nearly $2 billion in the last eight years, according to data from Crunchbase, pulled at the beginning of 2018. Roughly $600 million of that investment total has come in 2017 and the early part of 2018 alone, the Crunchbase data indicated.

Technologies like SkySafe and WhiteFox are about more than just defending airspace from malicious actors.

“Counter drone technology is not just about securing spaces from drones and preventing bad things from happening,” says Fox. “It’s about enabling drones to be used in the right way.”

The applications extend far beyond military uses. In fact, Fox’s technology is already being adopted by prisons around the U.S. and, indeed, anywhere where airspace usage can be considered sensitive.

“Someone described as the largest delivery operations in the world is happening at prisons,” said Fox. “You have a lot of money behind buying a DJI at best buy and loading it up with heroin, with drugs, with weapons, with even chinese food that was smuggled in. We found that there were drones smuggling in contraband every single day.”

WhiteFox recently conducted a survey with an undisclosed large public prison system in the United States to study just how pervasive a problem drone-smuggling was among its prison population. What the prison saw as one drone a week flying into restricted airspace became a realization that multiple drone flights per day were occurring in attempts to smuggle contraband onto prison grounds.

Operations extend far beyond police and military applications though, according to Fox.

During the California wildfires, rescue operations were halted thanks to unauthorized usage of drones by civilian operators who wanted to capture footage of the disaster. Their actions potentially risked the lives of not only rescue workers but of the citizens they were trying to save and the fire crews attempting to control the worst wildfire in the state’s history.

“This is one of the fascinating things about this industry as a whole,” says Fox. “It’s not that drones are bad and scary and we need to do something about them. If we’re going to embrace this technology as a society we need to be able to safely integrate it into society.”

From its initial deployments, WhiteFox was able to convince investors to funnel $12 million into the company to finance its expansion plans.

The extension of the company’s seed round included investors like JAM Capital, Stage Venture Partners, Okapi Venture Capital, Serra Ventures, and OCA Ventures. 

“WhiteFox’s customers are armed with a highly robust and scalable-for-deployment technology​ ​platform​ ​that​ ​addresses​ ​the​ ​increased​ ​threat​ ​of​ ​hostile​ ​drones​ ​and enables​ ​greater​ ​control​ ​of​ ​their​ ​airspace.,” said Jeff Bocan, a partner at OKapi Venture Capital, in a statement.​ “Crucially, the WhiteFox’s technology also offers customers the ability to protect against reckless drone use, while enabling “friendly” drones to fly freely – all without any human intervention.”

 


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That night, a forest flew: DroneSeed is planting trees from the air

00:07 | 27 November

Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence, and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods, and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns, and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, 6-gallon tanks of herbicide, and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters, and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones, and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money Droneseed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the US for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as Droneseed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it, and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this Droneseed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion, and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations, and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions, and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Although it’s difficult it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple feet even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded up with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s Head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of 5 or 6 drones does the work of a helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise, and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.

 


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First ever drone-delivered kidney is no worse for wear

03:38 | 20 November

Drone delivery really only seems practical for two things: take-out and organ transplants. Both are relatively light and also extremely time sensitive. Well, experiments in flying a kidney around Baltimore in a refrigerated box have yielded positive results — which also seems promising for getting your pad thai to you in good kit.

The test flights were conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland there, led by surgeon Joseph Scalea. He has been frustrated in the past with the inflexibility of air delivery systems, and felt that drones represent an obvious solution to the last-mile problem.

Scalea and his colleagues modified a DJI M600 drone to carry a refrigerated box payload, and also designed a wireless biosensor for monitoring the organ while in flight.

After months of waiting, their study was assigned a kidney that was healthy enough for testing but not good enough for transplant. Once it landed in Baltimore, the team loaded it into the container and had it travel 14 separate missions of various distances and profiles. The longest of these was three miles, a realistic distance between hospitals in the area, and the top speed achieved was 67.6 km/h, or about 42 mph.

Biopsies of the kidney were taken before and after the flights, and also after a reference flight on a small aircraft, which is another common way to transport organs medium distances.

Image credit: Joseph Scalea

The results are good: despite the potential threats of wind chill and heat from the motors of the drone (though this was mitigated by choosing a design with a distal motor-rotor setup), the temperature of the box remained at 2.5 degrees Celsius, just above freezing. And no damage appeared to have been done by the drones’ vibrations or maneuvers.

Restrictions on drones and on how organs can be transported make it unlikely that this type of delivery will be taking place any time soon, but it’s studies like this that make it possible to challenge those restrictions. Once the risk has been quantified, then kidneys, livers, blood, and other tissues or important medical supplies may be transported this way — and in many cases, every minute counts.

One can also imagine the usefulness of this type of thing in disaster situations, when not just ordinary aircraft but also land vehicles may have trouble getting around a city. Drones should be able to carry much-needed supplies — but before they do, they should definitely be studied to make sure they aren’t going to curdle the blood or anything.

The specifics of the study are detailed in a paper published in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine.

 


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Lidar startup AEye raises $40M Series B led by the Taiwanese government’s investment firm

16:00 | 19 November

Lidar technology developer AEye will scale its operations globally through manufacturing partnerships after raising a $40 million Series B. The round was led by Taiwania Capital, the investment firm created and backed by Taiwan’s National Development Council, and included returning investors Kleiner Perkins, Intel Capital, Airbus Ventures, and Tychee Partners.

This brings the California-based startup’s total funding so far to about $61 million. In a press statement, founder and CEO Luis Dussan said Taiwania’s investment is a strategic one and will give AEye more access to manufacturing, logistics, and tech resources in Asia. AEye also plans to launch a new product at CES in January.

In a press statement, Taiwania Capital’s managing partner Huang Lee said “We see AEye as the foremost innovator in this space, whose systems deliver highly precise, actionable information at speeds and distances never seen in commercially available lidar sensors. We look forward to working closely with AEye’s team to explore and pursue growth opportunities in this burgeoning space.”

The point cloud created by AEye’s iDAR

Along with its funding, AEye also claimed it has set a new record for the distance from which a lidar system is able to detect and track a moving object. (Lidar stands for “light detection and ranging” and is used to create “point clouds,” or three-dimensional maps made of coordinates from laser pulses. Lidar has many applications, but a lot of attention is being paid to how it is used by autonomous vehicles and drones).

In

monitored and validated by VSI Labs, a research company that focuses on autonomous vehicle technology, AEye said that its iDAR sensor, which was launched earlier this year and combines a solid-state lidar and high-resolution camera in one device, was able to detect and track a moving truck from one kilometer away. AEye claims that this is four to five times the distance other current lidar systems can detect and is possible because iDAR is better able to mimic the way human brains process visual information. In a press statement, AEye chief of staff Blair LaCorte said the company believes iDAR can potentially track moving objects, including trucks and drones, from five kilometers to 10 kilometers away.

 


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Self-flying camera drone Hover 2 hits Kickstarter

18:00 | 14 November

Two years after launching the original Hover, Zero Zero Robotics has returned for the sequel. In spite of landing a $25 million Series A back in 2016, the startup is going to the crowdfunding well on this one, launching a $100K Kickstarter campaign to launch the latest version of the self-flying drone.

Hover 2, which the company expects to arrive in April 2019, will feature updated obstacle avoidance, improved visual tracking and some updated internals, including a new Snapdragon processor on-board.

There’s a two-axis gimbal with electronic image stabilization for smoother shots that houses a camera capable of capturing 4K video and 12-megapixel photos. There are a number of different shot models on-board as well, including movie-inspired filters and music and a battery that’s capable of going 23 minutes on a charge.

Of course, Hover’s chief competition, the DJI Mavic line, has made some pretty massive leaps and bounds in practically all of those categories since launching the first Pro back in 2016, so the company’s got some stiff competition. Even Parrot has gotten more serious about their videography-focused Anafi line.

At $399 for early-bird pledgers, the Hover 2 is priced around the same as the handheld DJI Spark. That price includes a small handheld remote.

 


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Subterranean drone mapping startup Emesent raises $2.5M to autonomously delve the deep

01:39 | 6 November

Seemingly every industry is finding ways to use drones in some way or another, but deep underground it’s a different story. In the confines of a mine or pipeline, with no GPS and little or no light, off-the-shelf drones are helpless — but an Australian startup called Emesent is giving them the spatial awareness and intelligence to navigate and map those spaces autonomously.

Drones that work underground or in areas otherwise inaccessible by GPS and other common navigation techniques are being made possible by a confluence of technology and computing power, explained Emesent CEO and co-founder Stefan Hrabar. The work they would take over from people is the epitome of “dull, dirty, and dangerous” — the trifecta for automation.

The mining industry is undoubtedly the most interested in this sort of thing; mining is necessarily a very systematic process and one that involves repeated measurements of areas being blasted, cleared, and so on. Frequently these measurements must be made manually and painstakingly in dangerous circumstances.

One mining technique has ore being blasted from the vertical space between two tunnels; the resulting cavities, called “stopes,” have to be inspected regularly to watch for problems and note progress.

“The way they scan these stopes is pretty archaic,” said Hrabar. “These voids can be huge, like 40-50 meters horizontally. They have to go to the edge of this dangerous underground cliff and sort of poke this stick out into it and try to get a scan. It’s very sparse information and from only one point of view, there’s a lot of missing data.”

[gallery ids="1742224,1742228,1742227,1742226,1742225,1742223,1742222,1742220"]

Emesent’s solution, Hovermap, involves equipping a standard DJI drone with a powerful lidar sensor and a powerful onboard computing rig that performs simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) work fast enough that the craft can fly using it. You put it down near the stope and it takes off and does its thing.

“The surveyors aren’t at risk and the data is orders of magnitude better. Everything is running onboard the drone in real time for path planning — that’s our core IP,” Hrabar said. “The dev team’s background is in drone autonomy, collision avoidance, terrain following — basically the drone sensing its environment and doing the right thing.”

As you can see in the video below, the drone can pilot itself through horizontal tunnels (imagine cave systems or transportation infrastructure) or vertical ones (stopes and sinkholes), slowly working its way along and returning minutes later with the data necessary to build a highly detailed map. I don’t know about you, but if I could send a drone ahead into the inky darkness to check for pits and other scary features, I wouldn’t think twice.

The idea is to sell the whole stack to mining companies as a plug-and-play solution, but work on commercializing the SLAM software separately for those who want to license and customize it. A data play is also in the works, naturally:

“At the end of the day, mining companies don’t want a point cloud, they want a report. So it’s not just collecting the data but doing the analytics as well,” said Hrabar.

Emesent emerged from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, an Australian agency not unlike our national lab system. Hrabar worked there for over a decade on various autonomy projects, and three years ago started on what would become this company, eventually passing through the agency’s “ON” internal business accelerator.

Data collected from a pass through a cave system.

“Just last week, actually, is when we left the building,” Hrabar noted. “We’ve raised the funding we need for 18 months of runway with no revenue. We really are already generating revenue, though.”

The $3.5 million (Australian) round comes largely from a new $200M CSIRO Innovation fund managed by Main Sequence Ventures. Hrabar suggested that another round might be warranted in a year or two when the company decides to scale and expand into other verticals.

DARPA will be making its own contribution after a fashion through its Subterranean Challenge, should (as seemly likely) Emesent achieve success in it. Hrabar was confident. “It’s pretty fortuitous,” he said. “We’ve been doing underground autonomy for years, and then DARPA announces this challenge on exactly what we’re doing.”

We’ll be covering the challenge and its participants separately. You can read more about Emesent at its website.

 


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Some law enforcement drones are dropping out of the sky

00:50 | 1 November

The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority is cautioning police departments and other emergency services to suspend operations of a specific drone model after some of the devices lost power unexpectedly and fell while in flight.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) safety warning applies to DJI Matrice 200 series drones, used by some emergency services in the U.K. The failures were first reported by West Midlands police department, though law enforcement in Norfolk, Devon, Cornwall and the West Midlands also uses DJI drones. Devon and Cornwall have grounded two affected drones out of their fleet of 20, according to the BBC.

According to the CAA, “A small number of incidents have been recently reported where the aircraft has suffered a complete loss of power during flight, despite indications that there was sufficient battery time still remaining.” No injuries have been reported, despite “immediate loss of lift with the remote pilot unable to control its subsequent flight path.”

While no reports have surfaced in the U.S. so far, a study by Bard College noted that 61 U.S. public safety agencies (law enforcement, fire departments, EMS, etc.) use the specific model of Mavic drone affected. Collectively, drone models by DJI dominate the space, though the Matrice is not the most popular model.

The manufacturer has responded to the reports, urging Matrice operators to push a firmware update that resolves the issue. “When prompted on the DJI Pilot App, we recommend all customers to connect to the internet on the app or DJI Assistant 2 and update the firmware for their aircraft and all batteries to ensure a safe flight with their drone,” the company wrote in a product warning.

DJI faced a similar issue last year when some of its DJI Spark consumer-grade drones suddenly lost power and fell from the sky.

 


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Failed drone startup Airware auctions assets, Delair buys teammates

23:50 | 29 October

Airware desperately sought cash for 18 months before running out of money and shutting down last month, leaving about 120 employees without jobs after the startup had burned $118 million in funding. Bandaid strategic investments from construction company Caterpillar and others kept Airware alive as it looked for a $15 million round, according to a former employee.

A late pivot from hardware to drone software sales through Caterpillar’s dealers went sour, as Airware lacked the features found in competitors and suffered from slow engineering cycles. “So Caterpillar told them, ‘We’re not going to fund you any more. We’re pulling our money.’ So Airware didn’t make payroll,” the source says. The sudden shutdown of one of the most-funded drone startups sent a shock wave through the industry.

Luckily, at least part of Airware’s team is being rescued from the wreckage. French drone services company Delair is buying Airware’s Redbird analytics software and IP, plus the 26 employees who ran it. Airware had acquired Redbird and its 38-member team in 2016 to integrate its analytics that derived business metrics from 2D maps and 3D models of work sites based on imagery shot by drones.

Now the Redbird team will do that for Delair, bringing along its relationships with 30 drone dealers and 200 customers to try to make sense of aerial imagery from construction sites, mines, energy infrastructure and more. “We managed to keep that business alive with Delair,” says Redbird CEO Emmanuel de Maistre. “Customers wanted us to keep this going. They were very worried to not have a solution anymore.” He says that Airware still isn’t formally in bankruptcy or administration, and that as it’s been “actively reaching out to players in the market, to sell the assets . . . Interest from software companies and hardware companies was quite high.”

Founded in 2011, Delair now has 180 employees selling its UX11 mapping drone, data processing software and enterprise integration services to get businesses properly equipped with unmanned aerial vehicles. Delair had previously raised $28.5 million, and last month added a strategic Series B of undisclosed size from Intel — also an Airware investor. Delair co-founder Benjamin Benharrosh tells me that while his company started in hardware and bought Trimble’s UAV business Gatewing in 2016, “lots of the growth now is dedicated to the software,” so the Redbird buy makes sense.

Meanwhile, Airware’s hardware assets are going to auction on Wednesday. Heritage Global Partners will be selling dozens of DJI drones plus networking equipment and computers. Terms of the Delair deal weren’t disclosed, but the money from that sale and the auction could help Airware pay off any outstanding debts or commitments. However, Airware’s A-List investors, including Y Combinator, Google’s GV, Andreessen Horowitz, First Round, Shasta, Felicis, Kleiner Perkins and Intel, aren’t likely to recoup much of their capital. We’ve reached out to Airware, its founding CEO Jonathan Downey and its final CEO Yvonne Wassenaar for comment and will update if we hear back.

Founded in 2011, Airware tried to build a drone operating system before moving to sell drone hardware to commercial enterprises. But the rapid ascent of Chinese drone maker DJI pushed Airware to pivot out of hardware sales and toward drone data collection and analysis services. But a source says that since the startup entered this market late after the hardware boondoggle, “Airware’s technology was pretty far behind. They didn’t have a lot of the feature set a lot of others in the space did, like Propeller, 3DR and DroneDeploy.” Airware lacked seamless data uploads and quick processing times.

“What happened in the company wasn’t so much that the management team didn’t manage it correctly. The sales team just couldn’t sell a product that didn’t work as easily as it needed to compared to other products in the market,” our source says. They noted that Wassenaar, who’d replaced Downey as CEO in June 2017, had done a good job and been dedicated to fundraising to save the company since she joined. “Ultimately it was a matter of bad timing, and they didn’t have the engineering to overcome bad timing,” our source says. “The issue Airware had was a lack of funding. They ran out of runway,” confirms Redbird’s de Maistre.

Airware’s story should serve as a warning to startups raising at high-flying valuations. If a pivot doesn’t go smoothly or new competitors emerge, investors may disappear rather than back a down-round that might save the company but leave it in a downward spiral. Once a startup loses momentum, even having top investors and a ripe potential market can’t always stop it from disappearing into the sunset.

 


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DJI releases a modified Mavic 2 drone aimed at enterprise

16:00 | 29 October

DJI announced today at an event in Texas a modified version of its well-received Mavic 2 aimed squarely at business ranging from government to education. The base of the folding drone is the same as the commercial one that launched a few months back, but there are a few updates on-board aimed specifically at enterprise customers.

The most interesting of the bunch of a new modular mount for adding-on a handful of new accessories controllable through the DJI app. The group includes a dual spotlight for night flights, a speaker for transmitting information and a beacon with a flashing strobe, so the device can be spotted in emergency conditions.

The drone sports 24GB of on-board, password protected storage, and all images captured on the drone are labeled with a GPS timestamp featuring the date, time and location the shots were taken. DJI’s also added a self-heating battery to product, making it possible to fly it in temperatures as low as 14 degrees.

The enterprise version of the drone runs $2,000 — a price that includes the Mavic 2, remote, battery, the above mount accessories and a case. It’s available starting today.

 


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Inspired by spiders and wasps, these tiny drones pull 40x their own weight

01:54 | 26 October

If we want drones to do our dirty work for us, they’re going to need to get pretty good at hauling stuff around. But due to the pesky yet unavoidable restraints of physics, it’s hard for them to muster the forces necessary to do so while airborne — so these drones brace themselves against the ground to get the requisite torque.

The drones, created by engineers at Stanford and Switzerland’s EPFL, were inspired by wasps and spiders that need to drag prey from place to place but can’t actually lift it, so they drag it instead. Grippy feet and strong threads or jaws let them pull objects many times their weight along the ground, just as you might slide a dresser along rather than pick it up and put it down again. So I guess it could have also just been inspired by that.

Whatever the inspiration is, these “FlyCroTugs” (a combination of flying, micro, and tug presumably) act like ordinary tiny drones while in the air, able to move freely about and land wherever they need to. But they’re equipped with three critical components: an anchor to attach to objects, a winch to pull on that anchor, and sticky feet to provide sure grip while doing so.

“By combining the aerodynamic forces of our vehicle and the interactive forces generated by the attachment mechanisms, we were able to come up with something that is very mobile, very strong and very small,” said Stanford grad student Matthew Estrada, lead author of the paper published in Science Robotics.

The idea is that one or several several of these ~100-gram drones could attach their anchors to something they need to move, be it a lever or a piece of trash. Then they take off and land nearby, spooling out thread as they do so. Once they’re back on terra firma they activate their winches, pulling the object along the ground — or up over obstacles that would have been impossible to navigate with tiny wheels or feet.

Using this technique — assuming they can get a solid grip on whatever surface they land on — the drones are capable of moving objects 40 times their weight — for a hundred gram drone like that shown, that would be about 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds. Not quickly, but that may not always be a necessity. What if a handful of these things flew around the house when you were gone, picking up bits of trash or moving mail into piles? They would have hours to do it.

As you can see in the video below, they can even team up to do things like open doors.

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world,” said co-author of the paper, EPFL’s Dario Floreano, in a news release. “But flying insects do many other things, such as walking, climbing, grasping and building. Social insects can even work together and combine their strength. Through our research, we show that small drones are capable of anchoring themselves to surfaces around them and cooperating with fellow drones. This enables them to perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”

Unless you’re prepared to wait for humanoid robots to take on tasks like this (and it may be a decade or two), you may have to settle for drone swarms in the meantime.

 


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