California Start-Up Aims to Change the Cargo Industry With a Drone

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A start-up in the San Francisco bay area is aiming to shake up the way cargo is delivered with drones. Natilus, Inc. is building a 30 foot drone cargo plane prototype that they hope to get airborne later this year.

Natilus aims at creating drones as big as 140-feet that are capable of carrying over 200,000 pounds of cargo at half the cost of current jet cargo planes. The sturdy carbon fiber drone is designed to take off from water and also land in water before taxiing to a dock to unload its cargo. This eliminates the need for ground-based infrastructure like large landing strips.

But how the drone really saves money is its ability to fly for longer times at slower speeds than any commercially available jet. Because of factors like pilot fatigue, normal cargo planes travel at higher speeds and in the process burn more fuel, making the trip faster, but also much more expensive. Because the Natilus drones will be autonomous, this is not a concern. The company uses the following cost comparison to get an idea of how this new drone could change the way cargo is transported.

Time and cost of shipping 200,000 pounds of cargo by:

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The prototype of the Natilus drone is not yet built, but if this start-up can get things right they have the possibility of changing the way cargo is transported. Natilus plans on flying cargo drones between California and Hawaii by 2019.

Autonomous Drones Take Flight

The future of drones is autonomous flight. While the technology to make autonomous flight a reality is almost there, the willingness of many aviation authorities has not advanced as quickly.

However, authorities are starting to adjust. While the FAA still prohibits beyond-line-of-sight flying (something which is key to autonomous flight), it has granted waivers to companies like PrecisionHawk for such operations. This week two important development also happened overseas.

In Switzerland the American company Matternet successfully delivered laboratory samples between two hospitals via autonomous drones. Matternet was given permission to test autonomous flight by the Swiss Aviation Authority with plans by Swiss authorities to make such deliveries more common place by next year. Matternet’s M2 drone which was used for this test is, “Designed to operate around people and infrastructure within urban, suburban and industrial environments.”

Then in Israel, home-grown Israeli company Airobotics, was authorized by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones without a pilot. Airobotic’s fully automated Optimus drone has its own little drone house. It self deploys, self lands and can autonomously do tasks like monitoring a facility, which makes it ideal for industrial applications.

Airobotics Optimus system is already in use and the company is now eyeing moving into helping with traffic analysis and emergency response using autonomous drones.

Connecticut Considers Weaponizing Drones for Police

A new bill is being considered in Connecticut that would allow police in that state to arm drones with deadly weapons. If passed, Connecticut would be the first state to allow drones to be armed with deadly weapons. (North Dakota has allowed police to use drones armed with “less than lethal” weapons since 2015) This proposed law was picked up by numerous news sources and is getting a lot of attention on social media.

Some are worried that this could be a turning point that starts to fill American skies with armed police drones. Drone Dossier understands that this law could set a important precedent for use of armed drones but it may be too early to accurately know the potential impact of this bill. For example, the bill could fail and set an example for states not to arm drones. Also, the bill does not explain how the drones will be armed, or what kind of drones will be used. Most of the drones that police departments around the country are acquiring are commercially available drones that are not designed to be weaponized.

If passed, it appears Connecticut is planning only a minor role for weaponized drones. State Senator John Kissel said, “Obviously this is for very limited circumstances. We can certainly envision some incident on some campus or someplace where someone is a rogue shooter or someone was kidnapped and you try to blow out a tire.”

Australia Catches Environmental Violators with Drones

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The Australian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now using drones to clean up the environment. In particular, they are aiming at surveying landfills to see if their operations are environmentally safe. The idea appears to be working as EPA authorities in the State of Victoria recently used a drone to find out a landfill was operating in breach of its license.

According to the report, drone surveillance of a B.T.Q. Group landfill found “extensive areas of exposed waste”, even though the group’s license requires them to put at least 30 cm of soil on exposed soil every day. Based on the drone-collected evidence, the Australian EPA fined the landfill 7,000 Australian dollars.

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Australian authorities aren’t the only ones using drones to enforce laws and regulations. Police in the UAE city of Ajman use drones to catch traffic violators and monitor the structural integrity of roads. The drones are equipped with infrared sensors and cameras capable of reading license plates from the air. From March to December of 2016, drones recorded over 2,000 violations in the roads around Ajman. The police say that the use of drones has helped to clear up traffic problems in the city.

Police in the Indian city of Pun are also doing the same thing. Over one week in August, 2016, Pun police used live drone footage to catch and fine 15 traffic violators on the Pun to Mumbai expressway.

The Laboratory of Asymmetric Drone Warfare

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The Middle East is a laboratory for asymmetric drone warfare. Iran-backed Houthi Rebels in Yemen recently used a drone boat to damage a Saudi frigate. An American ally (mostly like Israel or Saudi Arabia) used a multi-million dollar Patriot missile to shoot down a cheap drone. ISIS terrorists are turning regularly available consumer drones into bombers to attack Iraqi and Kurdish forces that are trying to push the out of Mosul. In all three of these cases, an enemy that had little or no conventional capability in the sea or air, used drones to asymmetrically attack in ways their opponents weren’t ready for.

But it’s the recent efforts of Houthi Rebels in Yeman that are most chilling because it appears they are attempting to use drones for a larger strategic purpose—to suppress the ability of Saudi and UAE Patriot missile batteries.

The Rebel’s Qasef-1 drone (mostly likely from Iran) has the ability to lock unto a particular radio emission and then slam into whatever is producing the emission and destroy it. If the Houthi Rebels can get enough of the Qaesef-1 drones they could attack Saudi and UAE Patriot missile batteries or force them expend all their missiles. If successful, this could open a door in air defenses that the Houthi Rebels could use to launch ballistic missiles at either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

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So when you read about a drone being shot down by a Patriot missile, look beyond the headline to see the significance—drones allow small, technologically inferior forces the ability to make a lot of havoc. Now, everyone has to adapt to this new threat. And just like asymmetric drone warfare, the Middle East is the laboratory for solutions against this threat.

Drones Invade Game of Thrones Set

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Westeros has another invasion to worry about…an invasions of drones! According to Liam Cunningham, the actor who plays Davos Seaworth, drones flew over the Game of Thrones set in Spain multiple times. Video from those flights was supposedly steamed onto the internet. The actor wasn’t happy about these incidents, referring to the invading drone pilots as “low-lifers”.

Maybe the Game of Thrones crew should get medieval on these drones, but remember, Phantom-type drones are quite resistant.

Airbus Dives Into Drones

The last few months European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has been in the news a lot, not because of planes, but because of its recent moves in the drone industry.

In early March, Airbus announced that it’s working on a car-drone hybrid called Pop.Up with its partner Italdesign. The drone can operate on land or in the air thanks to a modular three part design. A passenger capsule can lock into a car chassis or lock into a large quadcopter to fly through the air. The Pop.Up is designed to be controlled by AI and the idea is of it to be summoned for use via a mobile app. The obvious limiting factor is that the Pop.Up cannot just take off or land anywhere it wants because its car chassis is left behind when it flies.

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Airbus is also heavily invested in Singapore’s Skyways project which seeks to safely integrate drones into Singaporean airspace. Additionally, the aircraft-maker signed an agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to test a drone delivery service at the National University of Singapore sometime in the middle of this year.

In the US, Airbus Ventures was part of the new round of funding for drone software startup company AirMap. The Santa Monica-based company has an app that makes it easy for drone pilots to check for flight restrictions and even map their flight info to share with others. As part of their funding agreement, Airbus will be involved in AirMap’s business strategy and will help it build relationships with airports and regulators the world over.

The team here at Drone Dossier wants to believe that this is part of a well thought out plan by Airbus, but in some ways it seems they are throwing out as many ideas that they can and hoping that one sticks.

Why Drones are Valuable Tools for Plant Breeders

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Drone industry analysts have pegged agriculture as one of the top sectors for future drone growth. Drones save farmers time, money and give them valuable data about crops that help them be more profitable. But drones have even more potential for plant breeders.

Its simple really, farmers plant one kind of soybean plat in a 10 acre field, while a plant breeder might have 1,000 different kinds of soybean plants in a single acre. In a recent article in the Daily Register, (local Illinois paper) University of Illinois soybean breeder Brian Diers explained the significance of this, “The farmer can fairly quickly determine whether the single variety in a field is ready to be harvested. However, breeders have to walk through research fields several times in the fall to determine the date when each potential variety matures.”

Generally, plant breeders check the plants every three days to see how the different varieties are doing. Obviously this is extremely time consuming. The researchers at the University of Illinois started using drones to scan and observe the plants instead of walking the fields. They used multi-spectral images and were able to tell the difference between mature an immature plants based on changes in the light frequency they reflected. They plugged this information into a self-made algorithm and found that using drones achieved 93% of the accuracy of physically walking the fields and checking plants, while saving a ton of time.

Farmers in Africa are already using this technique to improve plant breeding. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Southern Africa first tested using drones in 2013 and found they can save a lot of time. While it would normally take 8 hours to walk the fields to check the plants, the same task can be done in 10 minutes with a drone.

This efficiency is especially important for African farmers as they have to find new breeds of maize and wheat that are more resistant to the climate changes they are currently experiencing.

Military Drones Are a Big Business

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In the next 10 years, major world militaries will spend over $82 billion on building over 63,000 drones according to a recent forecast from Jane’s Defense. In the US alone, Business Intelligence estimates that drone revenues (of both military and commercial) would reach $21 billion by 2021. That is a lot of money being put into drones.

The US military market is clearly dominated by General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Textron and Boeing who together make up over 66% of the total military market. While new technologies like swarming drones open the doors for other companies to capture more market share, these four companies are positioned very well to reap the benefits of what appears to be expanded drones use under a new US President.

Military Factory currently has a list of 140 drone models in use by world militaries. The list shows that Israel, China and Russia have the most models of drones in service, apart from the United States. Other countries like Iran and India are also heavily investing in military drone technology.

However, such official lists do not even cover more organic home-grown development of military drones like what is being done by the Ukraine and terrorist groups like ISIS.

The conflict in the Ukraine has forced the country to basically crowd source its drones forces. Motherboard has a good video about Ukraine’s internal effort to supply its military with drones. The most advanced home-grown Ukraine drone is the People’s Drone 1 (PD-1) which costs over $30,000 to make and is used by Ukrainian special forces and artillery units for surveillance and spotting. The video also reports on the Ukraine’s efforts to weaponize commercially available drones.

Drones Can Save Lives

The team here at Drone Dossier knows that if you tell the average person on the street that drones save lives, it’s probably not something they will readily agree with you about. Unless they really follow what is happening with drones, their knowledge is going to be limited to what they have heard in mainstream news or social media. For drones that means bombing vast areas of the Middle East and concerns they may threaten privacy here at home.

No one is to blame, it’s just part of the growing pains of the drone industry. But while drones were birthed for military uses, they have now moved beyond that. Media organizations are starting to pick up on this, but it’s not their job to education people about how drones can be used for good. That’s the job of the drone industry—the men and women that really know how to explain that drones are much more than machines that drop bombs or toys some creep uses to spy on their sunbathing neighbor.

Drones are already starting to change major industries like construction and agricultural, but more importantly, drones are a tool that can be used to save people’s lives.

That’s the idea of a recent press release from leading drone company DJI. According to the Shenzhen-based company drones have saved 59 people in 18 incidents around the world since 2013. Fortune picked up on DJI’s release and added its own examples, such as a drone dropping life vests to two drowning teens and a heat-sensing drone that was used to find missing kayakers.

Drone Dossier has also reported on examples, such as a drone being used to find lost skiers in Canada, Microsoft’s efforts to use drones to stop mosquitoes from spreading disease and the University of Toronto testing of drones to deliver defibrillators during emergencies.

Hell, just in the last two days there have been articles—one form Iowa and the other from Texas—about local authorities purchasing drones to help their emergency response efforts. One of the best articles the team here at Drone Dossier has read about this issue is an article from the Guardian that came out last summer. The article tells the story about how drones are being used save both humans and animals in Africa.

Yes, drones can kill you. But the majority of drones that take to the sky everyday aren’t armed with missiles and bombs. They are instead equipped with tools, sensors and new ideas that, if used correctly, can make the world a better place.