Commercial Drone Pilots Can Now Get Customized Weather Forecasts

Drones have become central to various industries, including agriculture, construction, insurance, gas and oil, public safety, and more. They are essential for tasks such as inspection, crop spraying, and filming. However, it’s currently impossible for drone operators to get the same type of detailed weather information that airplane pilots receive because of the much lower-flying altitudes of drones. A company named Earth Networks is about to change that with its Sferic DroneFlight program, a predictive hyperlocal, low-altitude weather service for drone operators.

Drone pilots using the service will enjoy detailed regional forecasts for anywhere in the world, between 10 to 400 feet of altitude, in 10 foot increments. These will include hourly wind direction and speed forecasts for up to six days in advance. The system spans 90 countries and boasts 10,000 weather sensors and 1,500 lightning sensors.

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of drones in the U.S. will increase dramatically over the next five years. The commercial drone fleet reached about 42,000 by the end of 2016; the FAA estimates that it will grow to at least 442,000 by 2021, and there could be up to 1.6 million commercial drones taking to the air by 2021.

Engadget reports that drone-makers are working to develop planning and preventive features which may be able to work with transmitted data on winds and other weather sent directly to pre-flight apps or drones. This kind of synergy would make it possible for drone systems to calculate trajectory, range, and other flight parameters more effectively. Both pilots and researchers will be able to use the data more efficiently to conduct post-mortems after drone accidents and better identify disruptive conditions.

The company will test the new network via the unmanned aircraft systems test site at the University of Maryland to ensure optimum accuracy. Once running at full tilt, they believe the system will win the praise of the public and agencies like the FAA.

“Until now, drone operators have had to plan missions by relying on surface-level weather information or high-altitude measurements provided to commercial airlines, neither of which provides the needed intelligence to optimize missions,” Earth Networks Chief Marketing Officer Anuj Agrawal said in a Business Wire release. “As the drone market and regulatory environment continue to evolve, weather intelligence will be a key technology to enable longer and beyond line of sight missions.”

Drones Disguised as Bees Could Soon Pollinate Crops

It’s no secret that bees are dying at a alarming rate, but what does that actually mean for us? Since bees are responsible for pollination, they are essential to the production of fruits and plant seeds and the consequences of their absence would be devastating to the future of food. The recent decline in bee populations worldwide are forcing scientists to evaluate how mass bee deaths will affect the global environment, and look for alternate avenues to pollination.

After learning about the bee crisis, Dr. Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, took it upon himself to search for solutions to the pollination problem.

When Miyako stumbled upon a sealed up, long-forgotten gel in his lab, he witnessed the gel’s ability to trap tiny particles from the floor; similarly to the way that a honeybee’s hair gathers and carries pollen. Miyako’s lucky discovery might very well lead him toward revolutionizing the future of pollination.

He immediately took an interest in the gel, going on to formulate and test his theory of artificial pollination. In one test, he coated several ants with the gel and closed them inside a box of tulips. After three days, he discovered that the ants were covered in pollen. Miyako also added light reactive compounds to the gel to help camouflage the pollinators against potential predators.

In his latest experiment, Miyako took things up a notch by using drones as pollinators in order to have better control over their whereabouts. So far, he has successfully tested one small drone by combining his gel with short horsehair and electricity to give the drone bee-like fuzz that is perfect for pollinating. In this combination, the horsehair sticks to the drone by means of the gel, and the electricity makes the horsehair stand up to better collect the pollen.

Tests performed on Japanese Lilies so far indicate that successful artificial pollination has occurred more than a third of the time. Each test brings Miyako closer to the reality of artificial pollination.

Could this revelation mean a future with fleets of drones disguised as bees using GPS and artificial intelligence to pollinate crops? Miyako certainly thinks so. Perhaps this technological reality is not as far away as we once imagined.

Police Departments Are Buying Drones Like Crazy

Police officers, the stereotype goes, love coffee, donuts, and now perhaps drones. A new study from Bard College finds that an unprecedented number of law enforcement and emergency response departments purchased drones in 2016, a trend that doesn’t show any signs of slowing. The report lays out startling figures on drone purchases by police around the country, tracking the dramatic rise in police drone usage over the past few years.

According to the study, published April 6, all but seven states have at least one UAV operated by police, sheriffs, emergency response, or fire departments. Without ruling out the possibility that it missed a significant number of drone purchases, the report says that “at least 347 state and local [agencies] in the U.S. have acquired drones.” In 2016, more of the departments studied acquired drones than in all previous years, combined.

The federal government is also training local cops to use drones.

Local law enforcement purchases the most drones by far. Local municipal police departments and fire departments comprise 28 and 20 percent of drone purchases, respectively, and sheriff’s offices account for a whopping 35 percent. The researchers note that the law enforcement organizations typically opt for consumer-level drones rather than more expensive, professional level surveillance drones. This is likely due to cost, more than anything else, but it also allows police drones to “blend in” among the ever-growing air-traffic population over densely populated areas. With the FAA beginning to enforce more stringent no-fly zones over cities, however, lone cop-drones sailing through restricted airspace might eventually start to stick out.

Drones are still subject to the same restrictions in use by police as any other technology, meaning that they’re only being used for surveillance and other non-violent uses. Last year, police in Dallas famously used a non-lethal drone for lethal purposes by strapping an explosive to its back. That was the first ever use of a lethal robot by police — but there are rumblings indicating that American law enforcement may be gearing up for a flurry of similar uses, in the future.

In this parlance, there’s little difference between aerial drones and ground-based robots, though aerial drones are much more likely to be automated, at this point. The same researchers who produced this study also previously documented the police acquisition of ground-based drones like the one used in the Dallas killing.

That said, drones can be used by police much more widely than just to attack or even follow suspects. Some police departments are turning to drones to try to reduce traffic fatalities, others for search and rescue.

Check the study to see if your local department is on there — but, spoilers, it almost certainly is.

U.S. Military Testing Drone To Evacuate Wounded And Dead Soldiers

Since World War II, the United States military has used helicopters for casualty evacuations (CASEVAC) and medical evacuations (MEDVAC) out of combat zones. MEDVAC aircrafts are designed to allow for in-flight care of injured soldiers and are clearly marked on the exterior. Under Article II of the Geneva Convention, it is a war crime to fire at MEDVAC vehicles. Virtually any craft can become a CASEVAC vehicle, and therefore doesn’t have the same protection. But CASEVAC is viewed as one of the military’s most sacred duties — the callsign for it is Dustoff, which stands for “Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces.”

But soon, some of that hallowed responsibility could be placed upon robots. Over the last two weeks, U.S. Military news sites have revealed information about the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s  research into alternative CASEVAC methods and technology. Chief among these concepts is the DP14 Hawk, a dual-rotor drone that can fit a body and not much else.

According to developer DPI’s site, the Hawk can carry a payload of 430 pounds and has a cargo area of six-feet long and 20-inches wide. It can fly about 82 miles per hour for about 2.5 hours. The vehicle uses 3D laser imaging and artificial intelligence to self-navigate — choosing routes, correcting course, avoiding obstacles, and picking a landing site. This navigation system makes the craft immune to GPS jamming and capable of operating through smoke, dust, and rain.

The Hawk can autonomously launch and land at sites that haven’t been prepared, even if it’s on a rocking ship, 15-degree slope, overgrown field, or icy roads. The entire craft fits into a cargo van.

Military researchers see this relatively cheap, agile technology as a boon for defense medicine. They are currently conducting research on how to use the Hawk and similar unmanned systems for medical missions, in addition to casualty evacuations.

“Unmanned and autonomous platforms have the potential to completely rewrite the medical doctrine for how we conduct emergency resupply of unmanned and autonomous platforms, including whole blood products delivered directly to the point of need, as well as monitored CASEVAC missions when dedicated medical evacuation assets are unavailable or are otherwise denied entry due to weather, terrain, or enemy activity,” said Daniel R. Kral, commander of the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, in a statement.

Drones Are Going to Take Over the World

“Drones” has become a kind of buzzword in pop culture these days. We’ve seen real-life drone emulations of TV drones, drones that dance above the biggest stage in television, and even drones that might one day replace our doctors. However, chances are you don’t see them fluttering throughout the skies where you live. I know I don’t.

A primary reason for this is that the government is quite particular about how drones are operated. In the U.S., all drone operators are required to stay within eyeshot of their craft, thus greatly limiting their traveling radius.

Now, a radar array start-up may have developed technology that could cause the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ease those restrictions.

THE AERIAL SOLUTION THAT YOU CAN’T SEE

Echodyne is backed by some big name investors, including Bill Gates, Vulcan Capital, and Madrona Ventures. They believe in the company’s ground-breaking product, the Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA).  This radar array is small enough that it could be easily attached to any drone, such as those used by Google or Amazon to make deliveries.

What’s particularly notable about MESA is that it’s exponentially more powerful than currently circulated radars, such as those used in Uber and Google’s autonomous cars. The video above illustrates the difference between the data collected by camera and by radar. It is difficult to make out the drone on the camera, but the radar clearly displayed the distance and altitude of the other drone in the vehicle’s line of sight.

Echodyne’s tech is designed to detect Cessna-sized aircrafts from 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away and small drones from up to 750 meters (~0.5 miles) away. In short, the product is developed to fortify trust in unmanned vehicle operation when they are out of eyesight. From use by the government to delivery companies to commercial consumers, MESA has a wide range of potential applications, and as Echodyne grows, so will the number of drones we see fluttering in the skies.

UPS Is Testing Drone Deliveries Launched From Trucks

After first testing the idea of using drones to deliver packages to extra remote locations, UPS is making its move into more residential skies with octocopters that can be launched from roving trucks.

The company says it successfully tested the HorseFly drone yesterday in Lithia, FL, along with the company that built both the drone and the electric UPS vehicle that launches it, Workhorse Group.

The drone docks on the roof of the delivery truck, and a cage suspended beneath it extends through a hatch into the vehicle. A driver on the inside loads a package into the cage, presses a button on a touch screen, and sends the drone flying on a preset autonomous route to its destination.

The battery-powered HorseFly drones recharge during docking, and have a 30-minute flight time limit, carrying a package weighing up to 10 pounds.

For this test, UPS launched the vehicle from the roof of a truck about a quarter mile away to a blueberry farm. The octocopter delivered its payload at a home on the property and then flew back to the truck, which had moved down the road to allow its driver to make another delivery.

UPS says the system is different from its other drone work thus far, and could make the company’s network more efficient while reducing emissions.

“It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery,” said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. “Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road. Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly miles driven.”

As always with these tests, it’s worth noting are still obstacles to drone deliveries: Federal Aviation Administration regulations don’t allow commercial drones to fly over any humans not involved in operating them, and requires them to stay within line of sight of their pilots at all times — something drivers could ostensibly do from their trucks in this case, depending on how far away the destination is.

This Drone Could Pollinate Your Entire Garden

When you hear ‘bees’ and ‘drone’ in the same sentence, you think of the low, continuous hum that the insects omit. What you don’t think is expensive gadget used to film smug family’s Jamaican getaway. Nonetheless, the scientific community’s concerns about the imminent demise of honeybees has instigated the development of drones – of the tangible persuasion – to carry out artificial pollination.

The development comes amidst ongoing concerns about the world’s bee population, and the ramifications if bees die out altogether. Extinction would have huge consequences for the global ecosystem: bee pollination is responsible, in varying capacities, for apples, cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, celery, broccoli and onions. In turn, it is estimated that bees are responsible for approximately 1.4 billion jobs worldwide; they’re a critical component of human welfare. Pound for pound, they contribute more to the nation’s GDP than the royal family.

In a recent endeavor, scientists in Japan have come up with a backup plan should the world’s honeybee population collapse, in the form of mini hummingbird-sized drones. Protruding from the drone’s body are a cluster of horsehair paintbrush bristles coated in a sticky gel, which facilitates the pick-up and redistribution of pollen grains amongst flowers.

The researchers stressed that “The global pollination crisis is a critical issue for the natural environment and our lives. The need to develop an innovative pollination tool that does not require time and effort to achieve pollination with a high success rate is urgent.”

The drones signal a step forward, certainly, but they lack the honey-producing capacity of the bees themselves. Plus, there’s a long way to go before the drones can operate without human guidance, not to mention a huge financial barrier to overcome. Nonetheless, flawed though they may be, the drones are a necessary evil; it is estimated that about 9% of bees are classified as ‘threatened’, and bee colonies are in sharp decline.

This isn’t the first time that humans have intervened, laden with technology, in an attempt to save the bees; in 2015 Australian scientists installed micro tracking chips on bees in an endeavor to find out the causes of ‘colony collapse’, the phenomenon which depletes the honeybee population.

As unsettling as all this bee-interventionism may be – you may remember a similar scenario going horribly wrong in the final episode of Black Mirror – it’s a solution to a potentially devastating problem. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of ‘buzz’ (I’m sorry) surrounding the issue…

This Submersible Drone Uses Sonar and LED Lures To Hunt Down Fish For You

You’ve got to feel sorry for the fish that comes face-to-face with the PowerRay submersible drone. Unveiled at CES this year (but not yet on sale), the drone is designed to “redefine recreational fishing,” says creator PowerVision. Well, the basics will stay the same: the fish are in the water, you’re on the land. But the PowerRay drone will use sonar and LED lures to track down and attract the fish for you, and even film them being caught in 4K.

As I said, it doesn’t seem fair.

PowerVision claims the drone’s sonar can detect fish up to 40 meters away, while the bot itself can dive up to 30 meter downs. A Wi-Fi connection sends data, video, and images up to distances of 70 meters to an iOS and Android app, and operators can choose to receive alerts when something’s nearby. Just take a nap, and let your drone find the fish for you.

A “precision remote bait drop” can be used to attract nearby fish and an underwater 4K camera captures the action. PowerVision even says you can view live footage through a VR headset for a first-person view experience (should have called it fish person view, amirite?) and control the drone’s movements by tilting your head.

All this sounds a lot like over-promising, but PowerVision does at least have some prior experience in ambitious drone designs. The company previously unveiled the PowerEgg drone which folds up its legs and propellers to form a smooth, 2-kilogram egg. First impressions of the PowerEgg have been promising, but we’ve yet to see a full review that really rakes over the drone’s promised functionality. The PowerRay looks like an exciting (if niche) bit of kit, but next, we need to see it in the water.

Preorders for the PowerRay start February this year for an as-yet-unspecified price.

Sorry, No Starbucks Drone Delivery Anytime Soon

One of the reasons Starbucks has been so successful is the speed at which it gets a hot cup of coffee into your hand. As well as ensuring you don’t wait in line very long, there’s also the Starbucks app to speed up payments, and even the ability to order ahead so your coffee is waiting when you arrive.

However, Starbucks wants to go further and remove you from the coffee delivery equation completely. How do you achieve that? With drones.

Using drones means you could order a coffee using the Starbucks app and then simply wait for it to be delivered. Starbucks would use your GPS location to map the route, and as long as you are within range of a coffee drone base station, the hot or cold beverage would arrive from the sky a few minutes later.

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On paper, it’s a great idea for lazy consumers, and one that I’m sure more than a few of us would pay a little extra to take advantage of. But in order for such a system to work, Starbucks requires a hardware partner to provide the drones. That partner was going to be Google parent Alphabet’s X research lab, but the deal has fallen through, according to Bloomberg.

Alphabet is thought to be scaling back its X research lab operations in a bid to save money and refocus on projects that show the most promise in terms of profitability.

Project Wing is a unit of the X research lab “building the next generation of automated aircraft, and working toward the day when these vehicles deliver everything from consumer goods to emergency medicine.” Starbucks was hoping to use it to provide the tech it required for coffee delivered by drone. After all, Project Wing drones have already proven themselves capable of delivering Chipotle burritos.

Neither Starbucks nor Alphabet has commented on the failed partnership, but according to a former X employee Bloomberg spoke with, advanced talks were being held when things fell apart. The sticking point wasn’t cost but data sharing. Alphabet wanted access to Starbucks customer data and clearly Starbucks pushed back.

So for now, Starbucks will have to put its drone deliveries on hold. Whether that’s a temporary or permanent hold depends on who else comes forward to offer the coffee company a reliable drone solution. Could that end up being Amazon?

The Pentagon Warns Of A New Threat From ISIS In The Form Of Exploding Drones

ISIS has been attempting to change its tactics as it becomes increasingly clear neither it, nor forces opposed to it in the Middle East, are going anywhere. Most recently, and horrifyingly, there was an attempt to use mustard gas on American and Iraqi troops. And now there’s another problem: Suicide drones, being built from off-the-shelf parts.

The New York Times has revealed there have been several incidents where hobby drones like the DJI Phantom, easily found on the internet and store shelves, have been found to be carrying explosive devices, in one incident killing two Kurdish fighters. ISIS has been using drones for a while to surveil checkpoints and film propaganda, such as car-bombings, but the explosives are a new and troubling development.

While the drones aren’t capable of carrying much in the way of explosives, they’re still dangerous, and if they get close enough they can kill or otherwise cause damage: Another, non-fatal drone attack destroyed a few buildings. And long-term, there’s the issue of the constant improvement in technology. Hobby drone companies will be building new versions that fly farther, can carry heavier loads, and have more powerful batteries, making the drones potentially more of a problem on the battlefield. But, on the bright side, at least none of them will be armed with flamethrowers.