Researchers at Microsoft are attempting to use drones to minimize our risk from the most deadly animals on earth; mosquitos.
‘Project Premonition’ seeks to monitor the progress of infectious agents around the globe, tracking where these dangerous insects move, and by extension, where diseases move along with them. The overarching aim of the project is to set up a worldwide monitoring system of infectious diseases, and allow agencies to intervene if either new or established viruses are on the move and pose a risk to humans or other animals.
Whilst mosquitos are already being collected and monitored, the collection techniques available at present are hugely time consuming, open to biases, and require a large amount of money and manpower to carry out on a significant scale.
This project aims to overcome these challenges by automating both the collection and transportation of mosquitos, using a combination of state of the art traps, semi-autonomous drones, and advanced computers. If successful, this will improve the efficiency, cost and scale of mosquito analysis.
Once the mosquitos are transported back to laboratories with the use of drones, they will be analysed for the microbes and viruses that they carry. James Pipas, the Herbert W and Grace Boyer Chair in Molecular Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, explained the process on a Microsoft blog.
“What our team will do is to take the mosquitos, then deep sequence them. The results of that sequencing will be placed through a series of computational steps that will detect viruses, and will distinguish between viruses that are known viruses, and those that are novel viruses”.
Despite the revolutionary nature of Microsoft’s mosquito-fighting mission, certain developments are necessary before it can reach its full potential. Amongst these are improvements in drones, and their ‘cyber-physical systems’; essentially how their computational systems can robustly interact with the real world. Once drones can adapt to wind, temperature, animal activity and other variables, they will be able to be sent out on long tasks around the globe with minimal supervision.
Which animal kills the most humans? Telegraph (June 2015)
Microsoft's Drones to Catch Mosquitoes, Help Stop Epidemics (June 2015)
Project Premonition aims to use mosquitoes, drones, cloud computing to prevent disease outbreaks (June 2015) Microsoft.
The most obvious way that drones can assist in emergency response comes from their ability to monitor and survey from the skies. However, this passive role is far from the only capability they offer to help those in need. Garret Bryl, a volunteer drone pilot working with the Joshua Fire Department in Texas, proved this on two separate occasions on May the 25th 2015.
Over the US Memorial Day weekend, unprecedented levels of rain fell over Texas, claiming over 20 lives. If it weren’t for Bryl and his specially modified DJI Inspire one drone; the death toll could have easily been even higher.
The amateur pilot had fitted out his quadcopter with a number of modifications, including a searchlight, an aerial delivery system, and thermal vision capabilities.
Bryl’s first rescue of the day was two people in a pickup truck, who had been forced off the road and into heavy foliage by the fast flowing water. The truck had drifted into trees and was impossible to locate by first responders, leaving the two civilians and their vehicle completely stranded. The truck was, however, visible from the air, and Bryl was able to use his drone’s torchlight to guide search teams in a hovercraft towards the vehicle. The fire and rescue operatives then located, and were thankfully able to rescue, the stranded driver and his passenger.
Incredibly, these weren’t the only lives that Garret Bryl was able to help rescue on the 25th of May. Before he’d even landed his drone, Bryl and the fire services were notified that Bill and Tracey Kaskel also required assistance, only a few miles from the first incident.
The couple were stranded in their home, and the emergency team was concerned that the house’s foundations would begin to shift. They decided that it was essential to send Bryl’s drone to help with the rescue attempt.
Seeing as too much water separated the rescue services and the Kaskels, The ‘Valkyrie’ drone was fitted with the thin leader line, which it then successfully delivered to the couple. Using the line, the two were then able to pull a stronger line across the gap, which was attached to the foundation of the house and to a rescue vehicle.
The emergency responders attempted several rescues with the use of the line, but found the waters too dangerous to cross, so the couple were eventually airlifted to safety with the use of a helicopter.
Following these rescues, Garett Bryl and his drone continued searching the floodwaters for more victims, and the Valkyrie was also used to map out the extent of the damage in the aftermath of the flood.
After the event, Bryl told the Huffington Post that the specialized UAV was able to safely lift between 3 to 4 pounds in weight; meaning that it could have delivered life jackets and radio equipment had it been necessary. With the crucial role this modified recreational drone was able to play in a large-scale rescue operation, it seems unlikely that this will be the last we see of drone-aided flood response in the future.
A Drone Helped Rescue Four People Stranded in a Flood (May 2015) Motherboard.
Volunteer Firefighter Garret Bryl Looks Back On Using A Drone To Rescue Texas Flood Victims (June 2015)
One of the most exciting potential uses for drones is in surveying and mapping land to aid in emergency response efforts. One such example of drones helping in this field was in wake of a devastating cyclone that hit the small island nation of Vanuatu Early in 2015.
Cyclone Pam, with its winds of up to 300 kilometers per hour, absolutely devastated the series of islands making up Vanuatu, leaving thousands of people homeless, hungry and in desperate need of help. The problem was, due to the fact that the nation's people often grew their own food, they were suddenly left without adequate supplies. Starving inhabitants took to drinking saltwater after the cyclone, and were in some cases left for days without relief.
Vanuatu is amongst the poorest countries on earth, and was totally unequipped to deal with a cyclone of this magnitude. Aid efforts were initially hampered by the geographical features of the nation, and because there was a lack of deep-water ports where boats could harbour. There were also very few runways; so using planes as part of the relief efforts proved very difficult. To make matters worse, the damaged area was colossal, and spread between over 80 small islands, meaning it was almost impossible to survey it thoroughly using traditional means. The few helicopters that were available were busy rescuing civilians, and there was a crucial need for response teams to assess the full extent of damage across all of Vanuatu's islands. It was here where drones were able to provide some much needed assistance.
Vanuatu's government called upon Heliwest to take on the task at hand. Using Lockheed Martin's remote-controlled Indago quadcopter drones, Heliwest were able to survey the damaged area quickly, safely and effectively on 50 separate sites. The rotary drone hovered above Vanuatu's many islands, and was able to gauge how bad damage was to arable land, as well as houses and public buildings, giving a clearer insight into areas that needed relief most urgently, and which regions would be completely depleted of food.
The Indago quadcopter was perfect for this task, able to fly in strong winds and rain, and for over a mile at a time. The drone also flew at a low altitude, so could capture images in a high enough resolution to determine the specific damage to each building it passed above. In addition, drones could provide shots at more oblique angles than a satellite would be able to, again increasing the degree of detail available to emergency responders through the images that were captured.
In 12 days, a single quadcopter was able to cover 2,500 acres of the island's devastated terrain, and provide some much needed assistance to locals and emergency services alike.
Because of huge volume of pictures taken by the drones, relief agencies crowd-sourced the job of deciphering the images that were taken; they posted them online and relied on volunteers to make notes on what they saw.
This combination of drone surveillance and volunteer assistance meant that the limited resources available to aid workers could be focused where they were most needed, saving money, time, and the lives of those left devastated by the cyclone.
Cyclone Pam: Vanuatu islanders forced to drink saltwater (March 2015)
Vanuatu Cyclone Pam: President appeals for 'immediate' help (March 2015)
In Cyclone-Ravaged Vanuatu, a Drone Helps Survey the Damage (May 2015)
Brian Clark Howard
Vanuatu Puts Drones in the Sky to See Cyclone Damage (April 2015) National Geographic
Whilst legally, drones are only allowed to fly to a maximum height of 400ft, this hasn’t deterred many recreational users from breaking the rules in order to test out the capabilities of their new toys. The subsequent risk to planes because of this is a serious concern, with an alarmingly high number of near misses in recent months.
One of the most widely reported incidents happened at Heathrow airport in July 2014, where a passenger airliner hurtled past a drone at an altitude of 700ft, narrowly avoiding a serious catastrophe. After the event, one of the Airbus A320’s pilots reported seeing the drone just feet away from the plane as it passed over its wing, and the CAA issued its highest possible threat rating, classifying the incident as having incurred “serious risk of collision”.
Professor David Dunn made headlines in wake of this near-miss, claiming that drones could provide an easy vehicle for terrorists to bring down planes. When we spoke to the terrorism expert about the possibility of a drone attack however, he was clear to highlight that it’s not just those with ill intentions that have the potential to cause serious damage:
“In my view, the most likely way that a drone could cause harm is a by a recreational user endangering a plane in a way which brings that plane down; not through malice, but just through misadventure. There seems to be a widespread ignorance of the law, and a widespread ignorance of the potential dangers of drone use.”
Dunn also pointed out the sheer number of ways in which a drone could endanger or destroy a plane:
“Drones could easily bring down an aircraft, because as they get bigger and faster, there’s a real danger that they could be sucked into an engine, or collide with a cockpit, blinding or disabling the pilots. They could also affect a control system, or puncture an aircraft’s fuselage causing it to depressurize. Even if there isn’t a collision, a plane may have to take avoiding action, which could cause an accident as a consequence”
Despite the FAA and the CAA both setting out stringent regulations on drone use (such as stipulating that a drone must be kept within sight of its user, clear of airports and airfields, and below the aforementioned 400ft limit), near misses such as the incident at Heathrow in 2014 are far from rare.
In the entirety of 2014, there were 238 pilot encounters with drones. This number more than tripled in 2015, and as drone ownership soars, the growth in near misses looks set to continue into the future.
In one widely-reported near miss, a helicopter flying at 1000 feet nearly collided with a medical helicopter taking a patient to Frenso hospital in California. The pilot of the aircraft was forced to sharply turn to avoid the large drone, which was four to six feet wide, and more than twice the legal limit for drone flight altitude.
There has been an even higher altitude close-call in July 2015, when a Delta flight carrying over 150 people was preparing to land at JFK airport when it encountered a drone at around 1700ft. Astonishingly, earlier the same day another pilot at the same airport had also reported a near miss with a drone. Both of these incidents saw a UAV coming within 100ft of a plane, and both could have resulted in a serious collision.
It’s not difficult to envision modern drones reaching into the high altitude territory of aircraft; especially when considering videos such as the one below, created by YouTube user Stefan Ekstam. The aerial imagery in this clip is shot from a DJ1 F550, as it rose well above the cloud line over a densely populated urban area, before he lost control of the UAV and it was sent plummeting to the ground.
As well as showing the risks to planes from drones, the video acts as a reminder of their tendency to malfunction or "flyaway", and the risks to people either on the ground or in the air being created by these faults.
Whilst in this case, the drone user took several precautions before flying; he admitted that it was a mistake, which led to a very dangerous situation, and was lucky to have not caused any significant damage.
We contacted Stefan Ekstam following this incident, and asked whether the near miss had led him to question the safety of drones.
We started by asking probably the most pressing question:
How seriously do you consider drones to be a threat to planes?
"Even though I believe the risk of anything actually happening is very small, the risk is there, and should not be ignored. As far as I know, there has not been a single actual incident where an aerial vehicle was damaged by a hobby drone. However, I still think the drones of today are far too easy to bring into controlled or restricted airspace."
How difficult is it to fly a drone to heights exceeding the legal limit of 400 feet?
"Technically, it’s as simple as pushing a stick slightly forward. If the drone is equipped with a GPS, it can stay balanced at a fixed position, so it’s up to you how high you want to take it. It’s not really difficult at all once you get the drone flying."
"Many drones let you specify a maximum altitude that will not be possible to fly above. However, there is nothing stopping you from setting this value to, say, 4,000 feet instead of the recommended 400 feet."
Do you think that irresponsible drone users pose a serious safety concern to people on the ground and in the air?
"Drones are a safety concern to people on the ground and in the air no matter who is using them. Technical problems could cause any drone to fly away and even crash. Experienced and responsible users will do everything they can to stay safe, but the risk of drones falling down on people will always be there."
"I think we are currently living in the “Wild West” period of drone use, when the rules are unclear, but the technological possibilities are unlimited."
We currently exist in a period of cautious uncertainty regarding drone flying, and seeing as they have the potential to cause severe damage and endanger lives, one thing is certain - users, regulators and manufacturers must find a way to eliminate these risks before a disaster occurs
Investigators confirm Heathrow plane in near miss with drone (December 2014) The Guardian.
Drone sightings on pace to quadruple this year (August 2015) USA Today.
Drone almost hits medical helicopter carrying patient to Fresno hospital (August 2015) LA Times.
2 airliners fly within 100 feet of drone above New York (August 2015) CNN.
You may have thought that strict legislation in both the UK and the USA would deter people from operating drones in illegal and dangerous ways. The fact is, however, that this is far from the case.
A high number of illegal drone flights have been reported in the years since they’ve become widely available, and it’s no exaggeration to say that some of these flights are putting lives at risk.
One of the most widely-publicised incidents of drone misuse occurred in California Early in 2015, when a series of small consumer grade drones forced firefighters in the San Bernardino mountains to ground their fire-extinguishing aircraft, hindering their response to three separate fires.
Officials offered a $25,000 bounty for information about any of the three fires that were allowed to spread, and warned that flights of this kind could ultimately lead to deaths. If they did, warned District Attorney Mike Ramos, the drone operator would be prosecuted for murder.
Drone flights over congested areas are completely illegal in the UK, and in the US the ‘Know Before You Fly’ guidelines clearly stipulate the strict rules that govern those wanting to fly drones. Despite these strict rules; the Internet is plastered with images taken from drone operators that are breaking the law.
In late 2014, the BBC featured drone footage filmed over the busy streets of London, as well as above Anfield Stadium in Liverpool, and the towns of Margate and Broadstairs in Kent. Whilst those carrying out these illegal flights may think that they have full control over their drone; crashes due to user error are frequent occurrences. As are incidents known as flyaways, where drones inexplicably fail and dangerously career out of the sky. If either of these were to take place above a heavily populated area, the consequences could likely be disastrous for those on the ground.
Whilst thankfully there have not yet been any reported deaths resulting from negligent drone flying; the number of incidents that could have resulted in death or injury is astounding.
Not only have a number of drones come close to colliding with planes, but two also made their way onto the grass of the Whitehouse in 2015. Had these drones been operated maliciously, these incidents could have had devastating consequences.
In a separate but equally dangerous event, a drone crashed into the roadway on the Golden Gate Bridge, risking the lives of drivers and pedestrians on the famous landmark. Denis Mulligan, the General Manager, told CBS News in June that the issue of drones flying over the bridge had become a real concern, stating that:
“Unlicensed and inexperienced people are flying them in busy places where they have no business flying them”
In a more recent example of dangerous drone use; at the 2015 US Open, a New York teacher crashed a drone into a court that was in use, and was extremely lucky to not injure any of the spectators.
A few professionals who have incorportated drones into their work have shared their concerns regarding the misuse of drones. Photographer Amos Chapple had this to say about the broad misuse of recreational drones when we spoke to him about his pioneering approach to drone photography:
“The golden age of drone photography was from 2013 to 2014, now it doesn’t have the excitement it had before. Drones are a nuisance now, where in the beginning they were something of a wonder.”
Chapple had this advice for those wanting to use drones in their own photography:
“Just don’t be a nuisance. Keep away from people & don’t run risks. You represent a group of people & every bit of bad publicity makes things harder for the rest of us. “
Nigel Butcher of the RSPCA’s Centre for Conservation Science, who we spoke to about the use of UAVs in wildlife monitoring also voiced serious concerns about drone misuse and its effects on regulation:
“We're taking it very seriously. But there are a lot that aren't, who are pushing the legislation, and it's only going to get tighter and tighter with all this stuff. People doing silly things like flying over football stadiums or military bases, and all these other stories you hear are going to make the rules stricter.”
There are undoubtedly a huge number of positive uses for drones, but these are at risk of being inadequately supported due to the irresponsible activities of a few. These incidents and their consequences will determine both the level of regulation that recreational and commercial drones are to adhere to, and public opinion on their ethics and practical use.
County of San Bernardino
Supervisors offer $75,000 bounty for drone operators (July 2015)
Civil Aviation Authority
Drone Safety (March 2015)
Drones flown in London and Liverpool despite CAA laws (October 2014)
Man detained outside White House for trying to fly drone (May 2015) CNN.
The Golden Gate Bridge has a drone problem (June 2015)
Flavia Pennetta and Monica Niculescu
Teacher arrested after drone crashes in Louis Armstrong Stadium during match (September 2015) ESPN
Drone footage of Vanuatu shows human impact of Cyclone Pam (March 2015) YouTube.