Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Drone Development In Progress: Aerial Photos and Videos

Despite JournoDrone 2 still being in the shop after its maiden flight, drone development is continuing onward and upward. Above is an aerial photo taken from my latest drone project, which has caused that previous drone to collect dust in the basement.

However, this new drone is superior in at least a couple of ways. One, it's much more stable in flight, thanks to its 68.5" wingspan. Its size also means it can loft a larger payload. The photo above was taken using an 11Mpx GoPro Hero 2, which is small, but has a not insignifcant weight penalty.

JournoDrone 2 was a plastic shell that I wrapped in carbon-fiber and epoxy, which could take a crash on the nose without much harm. This newest drone is made of balsa wood, but it's such a docile aircraft that the need for crash resistance is minimal. All that balsa, some 5 or so pounds of it, is also pretty good at flexing and absorbing a hard landing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Drone Journalism at SXSW, now on the PanelPicker

We almost didn't make it on the list, but at the last minute, several of the developers and myself were able to get on the PanelPicker for SXSW Interactive.

We want to show one of the most important tech conferences in the country what Drone Journalism is all about, with a panel we call "Drones for Journalists: Reporting Evolved." We'll be taking the audience through the basics: what is a drone, how can journalists use them to cover live events and augment investigative journalism, and what's been done to this point. We'll also answer questions about ethics, regulation, and the DIY tech behind this emerging field of journalism.

Here's the description we put on the PanelPicker:

Civilian and commercial drones are coming. As many as 30,000 drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), will be flying in the national airspace within 8 years, by FAA estimates. For the first time, the kind of intelligence once reserved for governments is opening to journalists and the media. This panel brings together an expert in disaster reporting, a data-minded journalist who is developing drones to conduct investigations, and a former war reporter and Discovery Channel documentarian who uses a drone to record landscapes and events from a new perspective, to discuss how this technology is being used today, and how it may be applied in the future
At the speed drone development is coming along, March seems pretty distant in the future. But we've got some pretty interesting things to show, and we anticipate even more impressive things (i.e. some brand new drone-assisted reporting that we have in the works) will happen by presentation time.

We just have one problem. Many of these panels and presentations vying for a spot in this prestigious event had at least a couple more weeks than we had to generate votes (these votes count 30% to the ultimate decision). We are trying to get as many votes as possible to narrow the gap, so we can make it to SXSW and show the public what these drones are all about.

Hopefully we will see you in Austin this March.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Drones are monitoring sea mammals, keeping tabs on oil spills, helping governments prevent floods.

Every year, AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International,hosts the biggest conference and trade show for drones in the country (but don't call them drones there; the term is UAS, for Unmanned Aerial Systems, please).

The industry group's last convention was in Las Vegas, and wrapped up earlier this month. A colleague who was there sent me the exhibition catalog. As is the custom nowadays, you could have read all that info online. But the printed version was still worth reading, and served as a snapshot of the "state of the drone."

I've taken four of what I thought were the most interesting talks, and pasted their descriptions here. The list includes researchers and developers using drones to monitor oil spills and the health of marine mammals. In one discussion, a Thai UAV company claims their technology helped the government make decisions that averted a major flood from inundating Bangkok.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Innovations, the future, and the history of drone journalism: Q&A

Recently I was asked by a Brazilian Journalist, Nina Gazire of the art and design magazine seLeCT, about where drone journalism came from, where it exists now, and where it might be going in the future. Below are the answers I sent. A lot of progress with developing the drones has been made since this email, but everything else is still very relevant to the subject of drone journalism.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Get the fire extinguisher! Drone safety, GPS spoofing, and how I learned to stop worrying and love the drone.

There are certain things you expect when you're building drones for photomapping and journalism. First, you expect some setbacks. Perhaps a crash or two, or at least a few broken props. At worst, you expect a drone to take a fatal nosedive into a field and break into a hundred pieces, never to fly again.

There is a learning curve to this stuff. But you don't expect your drone to go haywire and burst into flames while you're working on it.

Last month, I was busy preparing an electric-powered drone in my basement for a maiden flight. With a wingspan of over 5 feet, and weighing a little over 7 pounds, it was the largest drone I've worked on yet, and it had a decent-sized power source to match.

Much larger drones have flown on the same basic technology, with power sources of twice the capacity used here. Most of our development to this point has focused on battery-powered drones instead of methanol-powered drones, because we want to keep the risk of fire down (even though fuel fires are rare). But that doesn't meant that batteries can't catch fire.

For my drones, I use lithium polymer batteries, or "LiPo," and they're pretty advanced as far as battery technology goes. They run today's electric cars -- the Leafs, the Teslas, the Fiskers and Volts. If you are reading this on a smartphone, you can thank a lithium battery.

Most other cells are contained in cylinders, but lithium polymer cells come in individual pouches. LiPo batteries are packs of lithium polymer cells that have been bound and tightly wrapped together. What really sets LiPo batteries apart, however, is the amount of energy they can store.

Whenever you're storing a great deal of energy in a compact space, and you suddenly release all that energy, you're liable to create tremendous heat. Since LiPos hold a lot of energy, under the right conditions, they can also catch fire.

According to the instructions of the original balsa plane I was hacking into an autonomous drone, the motor and its speed controller required 5 LiPo cells. I did not have a five-cell LiPo pack. I did have two 3-cell packs, and one 4-cell pack (which is quite large). Thanks to fuzzy math, I somehow thought it was safe to use the 4-cell pack and a 3-cell pack, for a total of 7 cells.

Everything seemed OK at first. The motor whirred happily during testing. Then I took the drone back to the basement to finish mounting and calibrating the autopilot, and things got weird.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Drone Journalism: News that Flies

The idea of using homebrew drones for independent journalism is picking up steam globally.

I just got a digital copy of a story from Aug-Sept issue of seLecT, the Brazilian art & design magazine, which features a story about that same topic. In it, writer and art professor Nina Gazire interviews the Occucopter developer Tim Pool, Nebraska Drone Journalism Lab professor Matt Waite, and myself.

As one would expect, the story is in Portuguese, so here it is translated (via Google):