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Alphabet’s Wing begins making first commercial drone deliveries in the US

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet -owned drone delivery spin-out Wing is starting to service U.S. customers, after becoming the first drone delivery company to get the federal go-ahead to do so earlier this year. Wing is working with FedEx Express and Walgreens on this pilot, and their first customers are Michael and Kelly Collver, who will get a “cough and cold pack,” which includes Tylenol, cough drops, facial tissues, Emergen-C and bottled water (do people who have colds need bottled water?).

The Collvers are receiving their package in Christianburg, Va., which is where Wing and Walgreens will run this inaugural pilot of the drone delivery service. Walgreens gets a noteworthy credit in the bargain, becoming the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone, while FedEx will be the first logistics provider to deliver an e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

Wing is also working with Virginia’s Sugar Magnolia, a retailer local to the state, and that part of the equation is focused on proving out how Wing and drone delivery can service last-mile e-commerce customers at their homes. Sugar Magnolia customers can get small items, including chocolates and paper goods, delivered directly to them via drone through the new pilot.

Wing drone delivery 3

Wing was able to do this with a new Air Carrier Certificate from the FAA that clears it for expanded service, specifically allowing Wing’s pilots to manage multiple aircraft flying without any human pilot on board at the same time, while providing service to the public.

It’s a big milestone when it comes to U.S.-based drone delivery, and another sign that people should get ready for these services to start to be a more regular fixture. Earlier this month, UPS also secured FAA approval to operate a commercial drone delivery service, so the trials will probably come fast and furious at this point — though widespread service is probably still quite a ways off as both regulators and operators look to learn from their first limited deployments.

Flir purchases IP and assets from defunct drone company, Aria

By Brian Heater

Back in March, Aria Insights suddenly went dark. The news was a bit of a surprise from a startup that had just announced a name change and pivot in tech focus. Today, thermal imaging company Flir announced that it has acquired the intellectual property and some operating assets from the former company.

Flir, best known for its thermal imaging cameras, has become increasingly invested in the drone category, including some high-profile partnerships with some of the industry’s biggest players like DJI and Parrot.

“Tethered UAS systems are becoming a more valuable tool for force protection, border security, and critical infrastructure protection,” Flir’s David Ray said in a release announcing the news. “Aria’s innovative technology and IP assets will enable us to enhance current capabilities and advance the range of solutions we can deliver to customers in this growing market segment.”

The acquisition follows another high-profile purchase by the company, which picked up iRobot military spin-off Endeavor Robotics, back in March. Aria Insights has strong iRobot connections, as well. The startup was founded in 2008 as CyPhy Works by iRobot co-founder, Helen Greiner. After Greiner left, however, the former drone hardware company pivoted to data collection, a matter of months before shutting down.

“We’re pleased to complete the sale of our assets to Flir Systems,” former Aria Insights CEO Lance VandenBrook said in a release. “We are proud of the technology our team developed through the operations of CyPhy Works and Aria, and we believe Flir offers the best opportunity to see it make a difference and support critical missions in the years ahead.”

UPS gets FAA approval to operate an entire drone delivery airline

By Darrell Etherington

UPS announced today that it is the first to receive the official nod from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate a full “drone airline,” which will allow it to expand its current small drone delivery service pilots into a country-wide network.

In its announcement of the news, UPS said that it will start by building out its drone delivery solutions specific to hospital campuses nationwide in the U.S., and then to other industries outside of healthcare.

UPS racks up a number of firsts as a result of this milestone, thanks to how closely it has been working with the FAA throughout its development and testing process for drone deliveries. As soon as it was awarded the certification, it did a delivery for WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, N.C. using a Matternet drone, and it also became the first commercial operator to perform a drone delivery for an actual paying customer outside of line of sight thanks to an exemption it received from the government.

This certification, officially titled FAA’s “Part 135 Standard certification,” offers far-reaching and broad license to companies who attain it — much more freedom than any commercial drone operation has had previously in the U.S. Here’s a good summary of just how broad UPS can operate under its new designation:

The FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations. It is the highest level of certification, one that no other company has attained. UPS Flight Forward’s certificate permits the company to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. This enables UPS to scale its operations to meet customer demand. Part 135 Standard also permits the drone and cargo to exceed 55 pounds and fly at night, previous restrictions governing earlier UPS flights.

Obviously, it’s a huge win for UPS Flight Forward, which is the dedicated UPS subsidiary the company announced it had formed back in July to focus entirely on building out the company’s drone delivery business. But there’s still a lot left to do before you can expect UPS drones to be a regular fixture, or even at all visible in the lives of the average American.

The courier outlined its next steps from here, which include expanding service to new hospitals and medial facilities, building out ground-based detection and avoidance systems for its drone fleets, building a central operation control facility and partnering with new drone makers to create different kinds of delivery drones for different payloads.

Last year’s Gatwick drone attack involved at least two drones, say police

By Natasha Lomas

A major drone incident at the UK’s second business airport last year continues to baffle police.

Last December a series of drone sightings near Gatwick Airport caused chaos as scores of flights were grounded and thousands of travellers had their holiday plans disrupted.

The incident, which took place during a peak travel period ahead of Christmas, led to the airport being closed for 30 hours, disrupting 1,000 flights and more than 140,000 passengers.

Today Sussex Police have released an update on their multi-month investigation into who was operating the drones — with thin findings, saying they have “identified, researched and ruled out 96 people ‘of interest’”.

Although they are now sure that drones played a part in the disruption. The report confirms that at least two drones were involved. The police are also convinced the perpetrator or perpetrators had detailed knowledge of the airport.

“The police investigation has centred on 129 separate sightings of drone activity, 109 of these from credible witnesses used to working in a complex airport environment including a pilot, airport workers and airport police,” the force writes.

“Witness statements show activity happened in ‘groupings’ across the three days on 12 separate occasions, varying in length from between seven and 45 minutes. On six of these occasions, witnesses clearly saw two drones operating simultaneously.”

“The incident was not deemed terror-related and there is no evidence to suggest it was either state-sponsored, campaign or interest-group led. No further arrests have been made,” it adds.

The policing operation during the disruption and subsequent investigation has cost £790,000 so far.

Sussex Police is drawing a line under its investigation at this point, saying without new information coming to light “there are no further realistic lines of enquiry at this time”. 

The chaos caused by drones shutting Gatwick led to sharp criticism of the government which rushed through tighter restrictions on drone flights near airports.

Shortly after the Gatwick debacle drone maker DJI also updated its geofencing system across Europe.

A comprehensive UK drone bill — intended to beef up police powers to curb drone misuse, and which could contain policy on flight information notification systems — has remained stalled.

In a ‘future of drones’ report published at the start of this year ministers said they intended to bring the bill forward this year. But the government is fast running out of parliamentary time to do so.

It had already made provision to introduce mandatory drone registration.

From November 30 it will be a legal requirement for all UK drone operators to register, as well as for drone pilots to complete an online pilot competency test.

While Sussex Police have ruled out the Gatwick drone incident being related to a campaign or interest-group, earlier this month an environmental group attempted to shut down Heathrow using toy drones flown at head height in the legal restriction zone.

The Heathrow Pause protest action did not result in any disruption to flights. Police arrested a number of activists before and after they flew drones.

Take cover, it’s a drone with a nail gun!

By Devin Coldewey

The FAA has warned against equipping your drone with weapons such as flamethrowers and handguns. But can a nail gun really be considered a weapon — that is, outside of Quake? Let’s hope not, because roboticists at the University of Michigan have made a roofing drone that uses that tool to autonomously nail shingles into place.

In a video shot in UM’s special drone testing habitat, the craft flies up, approaches its bit of roof, and gingerly applies the nail gun before backing off and doing it a couple more times.

It’s very much just a tech demonstration right now, with lots of room to improve. For one thing the drone doesn’t use onboard cameras, but rather a system of static cameras and markers nearby that can tell exactly where the drone is and where it needs to go.

This is simpler to start with, but eventually such a drone should be able to use its own vision system to find the point where to touch down. Compared with a lot of the computer vision tasks being accomplished out there, finding the corner of a roof tile is pretty tame.

Currently the drone is also free flying and uses an electric nail gun; This limits its flight time to about 10 minutes and a few dozen nails. It would be better for it to use a tether carrying power and air cables, so it could stay aloft indefinitely and use a more powerful pneumatic nail gun.

Drones are already used for lots of industrial applications, from inspecting buildings to planting trees, and this experiment shows one more area where they could be put to work. Roofing can be both dull and dangerous, and rote work like attaching shingles may as well be done by a drone overseen by an expert as by that expert’s own hands.

The drone is the subject of a paper (“Nailed it: Autonomous roofing with a nailgun-equipped octocopter”) by UM’s Matthew Romano and others, submitted for the International Conference on Robotics and Automation later this year.

UK police arrest a number of climate activists planning Heathrow drone protest

By Natasha Lomas

U.K. police have arrested a number of environmental activists affiliated with a group which announced  last month that it would use drones to try to ground flights at the country’s busiest airport.

The group, which calls itself Heathrow Pause, is protesting against the government decision to green-light a third runway at the airport.

In a press release published today about an operation at Heathrow Airport, London’s Met Police said it has arrested nine people since yesterday in relation to the planned drone protest, which had been due to commence early this morning.

Heathrow Pause suggested it had up to 200 people willing to volunteer to fly toy drones a few feet off the ground within a 5km drone “no fly” zone around the airport — an act that would technically be in breach of U.K. laws on drone flights, although the group said it would only use small drones, flown at head height and not within flight paths. It also clearly communicated its intentions to the police and airport well in advance of the protest.

“Three women and six men aged between their 20s and the 60s have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” the Met Police said today.

“Four of the men and the three women were arrested yesterday, Thursday, 12 September, in Bethnal Green, Haringey and Wandsworth, in response to proposed plans for illegal drone use near Heathrow Airport.

“They were taken into custody at a London police station.”

The statement says a further two men were arrested this morning within the perimeter of Heathrow Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance — though it’s not clear whether they are affiliated with Heathrow Pause.

Videos of confirmed members of the group being arrested by police prior to the planned Heathrow Pause action have been circulating on social media.

Roger Hallem , our brave drone pilot being arrested preemptively . We will not give up and we urge all right minded people to rise up with us . Don't sleep walk into oblivion . Protect your children as if their lives depended on it . It does @ExtinctionR @GretaThunberg pic.twitter.com/10gpVtVVEF

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 12, 2019

In an update on its Twitter feed this morning Heathrow Pause says there have been 10 arrests so far.

It also claims to have made one successful flight, and says two earlier drone flight attempts were thwarted by signal jamming technology.

More flights are planned today, it adds.

UPDATE: 3 attempted flights, at least one successful. 10 arrests so far. More flights planned today.

James, having completed his flight, is about to hand himself into police. Currently in Heathrow Terminal 2 Departures for interviews/photos.

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Heathrow using signal jamming to frustrate early flights 💚🌲🌍🌲💚#HeathrowPause #ClimateBreakdown #ActNow https://t.co/F4b8NvcLj1

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Thank you James Brown for your courage. @HeathrowAirport when will you adhere by your own rules and close the airport? https://t.co/fJFlLx2dGb

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

A spokeswoman for Heathrow told us there has been no disruption to flights so far today.

In a statement the airport said: “Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby. We will continue to work with the authorities to carry out dynamic risk assessment programmes and keep our passengers flying safely on their journeys today.”

“We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer. The answer to climate change is in constructive engagement and working together to address the issue, something that Heathrow remains strongly committed to do,” it added.

We’ve asked the airport to confirm whether signal jamming counter-drone technology is being used to try to prevent the protest.

The Met Police said a dispersal order under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been implemented in the area surrounding Heathrow Airport today.

“It will be in place for approximately 48 hours, commencing at 04:30hrs on Friday, 13 September,” it writes. “The order has been implemented to prevent criminal activity which poses a significant safety and security risk to the airport.”

FAA threatens $25,000 fine for weaponizing drones

By Devin Coldewey

It’s perfectly natural for a red-blooded American to, once they have procured their first real drone, experiment with attaching a flame thrower to it. But it turns out that this harmless hobby is frowned upon by the biggest buzzkills in the world… the feds.

Yes, the FAA has gone and published a notice that drones and weapons are “A Dangerous Mix.” Well, that’s arguable. But they’re the authority here, so we have to hear them out.

“Perhaps you’ve seen online photos and videos of drones with attached guns, bombs, fireworks, flamethrowers, and other dangerous items. Do not consider attaching any items such as these to a drone because operating a drone with such an item may result in significant harm to a person and to your bank account.”

They’re not joking around with the fines, either. You could be hit with one as big as $25,000 for violating the FAA rules. Especially if you put your attack drone on YouTube.

That’s the ThrowFlame TF-19, by the way. TechCrunch in no way recommends or endorses this extremely awesome device.

Of course, you may consider yourself an exception — perhaps you are a defense contractor working on hunter-killers, or a filmmaker who has to simulate a nightmare drone-dominated future. Or maybe you just promise to be extra careful.

If so, you can apply to the FAA through the proper channels to receive authorization for your drone-weaponizing operation. Of course, as with all other victimless crimes, if no one sees it, did a crime really occur? The FAA would no doubt say yes, absolutely, no question. So yeah, probably you shouldn’t do that.

wepdrone

DJI aims for the best first-person drone experience with new goggles, controller and more

By Darrell Etherington

New gear from DJI will equip you with everything you need to become the best first-person drone racer that’s ever graced the Earth — you’ll be the Anakin Skywalker of FPV drone racers. The company is launching a new suite of products specifically to make the most of Digital First Person Viewing (FPV) when operating drones, with a wide range of compatibility.

The DJI Digital FPV Ecosystem includes a set of FPV goggles, a transmission unit that you attach to your drone of choice, a camera that also attaches to the transmitter unit and the drone body and an FPV controller. Together, they provide the “first low latency HD video transmission signal,” according to DJI, with total end-to-end latency of just 28 milliseconds, per the specs, and the ability to transmit 720p footage at 120fps with that low-lag transmission.

There are a few key ingredients here that are tuned specifically to the needs of drone racers: low latency is important because you want the video feed to be as real-time as possible when you’re racing high-speed drones around courses with tight turns and a field of airborne competitors you can potentially run into. And high-quality speed, with a high refresh rate for the video, is important for similar reasons — you need to “see” accurately from the perspective of the drone in order to race it effectively.

The system can also transmit at a distance of up to 2.5 miles, and there are eight channels of 5.8GHz wireless frequency supported by the Air Unit so you can fly as many as eight drones at the same time connected to a single system. Users can even change feeds on the fly when multiple units are in use, letting them take a look at the competition or just watch the race from an FPV perspective if they don’t actually have a drone in the running.

As for the camera, it offers a 150-degree field of view, and while the feed is optimized for action at 720p 120fps as mentioned, you can export video at either 1080p 60 or 720p 120 depending on your editing needs. The live video transmission also optimizes by first pixelating around the edges and keeping the center clear when it needs to increase broadcast efficiency under heavy load and in sub-optimal connection conditions, so that the important part of the action remains in focus for racers.

DJI will be selling these in two packages, including a “Fly More Combo” that retails for $929 and an “Experience Combo” that will be $819, with the main difference being that you get the remote controller in the mix with the “‘Fly More” version.

Drone crash near kids leads Swiss Post and Matternet to suspend autonomous deliveries

By Devin Coldewey

A serious crash by a delivery drone in Switzerland have grounded the fleet and put a partnership on ice. Within a stone’s throw of a school, the incident raised grim possibilities for the possibilities of catastrophic failure of payload-bearing autonomous aerial vehicles.

The drones were operated by Matternet as part of a partnership with the Swiss Post (i.e. the postal service), which was using the craft to dispatch lab samples from one medical center for priority cases. As far as potential applications of drone delivery, it’s a home run — but twice now the craft have crashed, first with a soft landing and the second time a very hard one.

The first incident, in January, was the result of a GPS hardware error; the drone entered a planned failback state and deployed its emergency parachute, falling slowly to the ground. Measures were taken to improve the GPS systems.

The second failure in May, however, led to the drone attempting to deploy its parachute again, only to sever the line somehow and plummet to earth, crashing into the ground some 150 feet from a bunch of kindergartners. No one was hit but this narrowly avoided being a worst-case scenario for the service: not just a craft failing, but the emergency systems failing as well, and over not just a populated area but immediately over a bunch of children. The incident was documented last month but not widely reported.

Falling from a few hundred feet, the 12-kilogram (about 26 pounds) drone and payload could easily have seriously injured or even killed someone — this is why there are very strict regulations about flying over populated areas and crowds.

Obviously they grounded the fleet following this incident and will not spin up again until Matternet addresses the various issues involved. How was it even possible, for instance, that the parachute line was capable of being cut by something on the drone?

IEEE Spectrum first noted the news stateside. The company the following statement on the matter:

This is the first time ever that our vehicle parachute system has failed. As stated in the report, the flight termination system was triggered nominally per the drone’s specification, but the parachute cord was severed during the parachute deployment.

At Matternet, we take the safety of our technology and operations extremely seriously. A failure of the parachute safety mechanism system is unacceptable and we are taking all the appropriate measures to address it.

Swiss Post and Matternet reacted to the incident immediately by grounding all the operations involving this vehicle type. Our experts analyzed the incident and proposed the appropriate mitigations which are being evaluated by FOCA. We will restart operations once Matternet and Swiss Post, FOCA and our hospital customers in Switzerland are satisfied that the appropriate mitigations have been applied.

Drone delivery is a promising field, but situations like this one don’t do it any favors when regulators take a look. Despite sunny predictions from the industry, there is a huge amount of work yet to be done in terms of flight proving the technology, and although 2 failures out of some 3,000 may not sound like a lot, if one of those failures is an uncontrolled fall that nearly takes out some kids, that could set the entire industry back.

(This story has been slightly updated to accommodate a new statement from Matternet.)

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