This Drone Aircraft Could Save Lives

We generally hear about drone aircraft killing people in war zones. But there's a reverse side to that narrative -- an autonomous copter can drop medicine and supplies to people stranded after a natural disaster even when roads have been demolished. A humanitarian group called Ideate recently tested drones' viability as a real-world delivery vehicle in one of the harshest, most brutal environments imaginable -- Burning Man.

Brent reported live from Burning Man last week, in a possibly fruitless attempt to convince Joe that this trip should not come out of his holiday time.

When disaster strikes a developing nation, aid workers face a "last kilometre" problem. Medicine and supplies can generally reach cities, but it's difficult to get them past the last mile to remote villages where stranded people really need help. But even in the most remote villages in the world today, someone almost always has a cell phone. In Ideate's plan, the cell phone could be used to send an emergency text message, and using the phone's GPS for navigation, a drone carrying medicine could be dispatched from a nearby city. Theoretically.

To test the plan, Ideate -- a part of the San Francisco nonprofit ReAllocate, founded by Prototype This! host Dr. Mike North -- brought the system to the rugged environment of northern Nevada. The basic plan was for a Burning Man attendee to walk into a shipping container, strike a pose, and let a pair of Xbox Kinects scan their image. That data travels to a second shipping container that's been modified to be a clean-room with three 3D printers. While one of those prints out a plastic action figure of you, Ideate sends you on your way with a GPS transmitter. When your statue is ready, the transmitter vibrates, and you wait in a clear area for a multi-rotor drone copter to deliver your new toy. You put the GPS transmitter on the copter, and it returns home.

To make the delivery happen, Ideate tapped two pioneers in the drone field. Zurich-based Sergei Lupashin, best known for his YouTube videos of drones juggling balls and flying in balletic formations, brought several small quad-rotors, and worked at tackling the software side of the problem. For the heavy lifting (and windier days), San Francisco-based Ziv Marom of ZM Interactive had his octocopter, and insane 12-rotored dochechacopter, which is capable of lifting over 13.6kg.

The project was, beyond the art cars, one of the most technologically intriguing endeavours at Burning Man. Google's Sergey Brin stopped by to check it out, wearing a blue cape, Vibram Five Fingers, and, of course, Google Glass (which he told me worked surprisingly well in the desert) . When I arrived to be the first guinea pig, I was told I missed Elon Musk by five minutes.

Once flights got under way, desert environment did everything to thwart everyone's best intentions. Two of the Kinect cameras went down on arrival, slowing down the capture process. Dust jammed the 3D printer's heads and blocked light to the operation's solar panels. Plus, the logistics of drone delivery by GPS to somewhere far off on the playa was a constant challenge -- the winds were so high and the streets so densely populated, there was a constant risk of flying a drone into a naked person's head. In the end, the lofty goals had to be dialled back a bit.

We did two runs two with the small quadcopters, with Sergei driving, then two with the octocopters, with Ziv at the controls. The light quadcopters (which were built for indoor acrobatics) struggled in the high winds, but they were able to get close enough to make the delivery, each time landing in my hands. For the two quadcopter runs and the first octocopter, GPS coordinates were used to pinpoint my location (though, for the sake of safety, I was only about 9.1m away), and the pilots used those coordinates to navigate to me via remote control. In the final run, everyone held their breath and let go of the controls. The octocopter successfully used GPS to navigate to right above me, autonomously, then Ziv pulled the trigger which rotated the camera gimbal and dropped the figurine right into my hand.

This was the proof of concept that Ideate was hoping for. A copter could navigate itself to a spot by GPS, then return home. Programming it to drop something automatically would be trivial, though they may still opt to have a remote operator do it, so they could get visual confirmation that the package got to the person who needed it. The biggest hurdle remaining? The battery life on the drones. Right now, Ziv's multi-rotor drones can go roughly one kilometer out and back at speeds of up to 35mph and durations of up to 16 minutes -- an awesome start, and useful enough for many remote drops, but not enough to cover all the distances that might be required in the field. A fixed-wing drone may be a more likely solution, at least until battery packs get more efficient, though they would struggle more with accuracy in their drops. Ziv is also working on designs for auto-charging stations for his drones, which could extend their range considerably.

With the desert's high temperatures, winds, and asphyxiating dust clouds, the creators theorized that delivering in any other location would be a cakewalk. If it could work here, it could work anywhere. The technology is there -- almost. The biggest accomplishment, perhaps, is seeing an art project at Burning Man solving a problem back in the real world.

Huge thanks to CEO Sandra Kwak, Project Manager Dara Dots, and Founder/Chair Dr. Mike North of ReAllocate, and to Sergei Lupashin, and Ziv Morom for taking the time to talk with us.