NASA is using drones to explore volcanoes

Drones are so much more than a means of gathering pretty photos. They’ve gathered whale DNA and they’ve herded elephants.

And now, NASA is using drones to explore volcanoes to improve the accuracy of ashfall measurements.

Ashfall from volcanoes can be dangerous to aircraft; the microscopic particles of the ash cloud can erode metal and clog fuel systems, and in airspace where levels of volcanic ash exceeds 0.2 milligrams per cubic meter of air space, the area becomes a no-fly zone. After the April 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, 95,000 flights were cancelled and $1.7 billion were lost.

But while areas of volcanic activity are too dangerous for manned aircraft to enter, scientists can send drones instead.

NASA is partnering with Boulder-based Black Swift Technologies to create a set of drones, called the SuperSwift XT, that can be sent around volcanoes with sensors that can measure gas and atmospheric parameters, gathering data about particle size-frequency distribution, vertical ash concetration and levels of sulfur dioxide.

NASA is paying Black Swift Technologies $124,849 to work on the project, according to public records. Continue reading NASA is using drones to explore volcanoes

The big DJI May 24 announcement: could DJI’s Spark arrive this month?

Update: the DJI Spark has been formally announced. Read all about it here.

DJI has a big announcement coming at the end of this month. Any thoughts on what it could be?

DJI is hosting an invitation-only event between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on May 24 in New York City. The details are pretty limited except for the event’s incredibly vague titled, “Seize The Moment.”

DJI May 24 announcement
The invitation for DJI’s upcoming event

My bet is on the DJI Spark — a drone that resembled a miniature version of the DJI Mavic. It is unclear what the Spark drone is intended to be used for, though it could fill one corner of the market where DJI is still lacking: low-cost, toy drones. DJI’s cheapest drone available is still about $400-$500.

Others have suggested it could be DJI’s first racing-focused drone.A DJI spokesperson would not confirm or deny the existence of a “Spark” drone. But, a trademark for the name “Spark” was filed by DJI on March 6, 2017. Continue reading The big DJI May 24 announcement: could DJI’s Spark arrive this month?

Intel’s drone light show and other things you missed at AUVSI Xponential

AUVSI XPonential 2017– the conference put on by the Association for Unmanned vehicle System — is in full swing this week at the Dallas Convention Center in Texas.

Among the top draws of the show — an indoor presentation of its drones, flying live for audiences at AUVSI. During the keynote, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced the next version of the Intel Shooting Star drone for outdoor light shows, and said Intel will work with key partners to scale these performances globally. Audiences were then treated to a live demo of the drones.

The Shooting Star drones are a form of nighttime entertainment that could replace fireworks by making light shapes in the sky, and have performed at spots including Coachella, the Super Bowl and Walt Disney World.

The show was also an opportunity for companies to demo new products or announce new initiatives. Grpyon Sensors announced its plan for UTM involving sensors to detect drones. Drone detection company Gryphon Sensors this week announced that it had launched a system for drone traffic management which it calls Mobile Skylight. The system combines self-contained sensors with third-party sensor inputs to record flight data, using radar to detect low-flying drones at ranges of 10 kilometers. Grpyon Sensors is a non-profit research corporation chartered by the State of New York and has been contributing to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Pathfinder Program and NASA’s UAS Traffic Management (UTM) program

As for other things you missed, what’s a conference without a huge show floor? Here are some gems:

A DJI Phantom crashed into a bike race — causing the cyclist to fly over the handles

This is an excerpt from a story originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire piece here.

Just when you thought getting doored was the most traumatizing thing that could happen to you as a cyclist, now there are vehicles in the sky you need to watch out for.

A DJI Phantom drone flying over cyclists on May 6 during the Golden State Race Series in Rancho Cordova, Calif. hit a tree, crashing into a rider’s front wheel. The cyclist was able to bike a bit further down the road, until the drone locked up the front wheel, causing the biker to fly over the handle bars.

Another biker, Kaito Clarke, who was using a Garmin Virb camera to video his race, captured the whole drone collision on camera, which he then posted to YouTube. Watch the drone collision here, which starts around the 30-second mark and replays again in slow motion:

The cyclist suffered a gravel rash and the drone pilot, who immediately came forward to admit it was his device, offered to purchase a new bike for the injured cyclist.

This isn’t the first crash from a drone made by DJI, which has what analysts say is a 70% market share of the drone market. In 2015, a Phantom drone belonging to a government employee crashed near the White House. DJI attempted to mitigate that and future situations by putting a virtual fence on its drones, building software that prevents them from flying within a 15.5-mile radius of downtown Washington, D.C.

As drones become more commonplace, drone crashes like this could happen a lot more frequently. People bought 2.4 million hobbyist drones in the U.S. in 2016, more than double the 1.1 million sold in 2015, according to the Consumer Technology Association.

The Federal Aviation Administration created new rules in 2016 that make it illegal for commercial drone operators in the U.S. to fly drones over people not directly participating in the operation. Only two companies have waivers exempting them from those rules — FLIR, which makes thermal cameras used on drones, and CNN, which tethers its drones to the ground for safety.

The FAA’s rules around hobby drone operators — meaning people flying drones not for profit — are significantly less strict. Hobby drone pilots are supposed to follow safety guidelines developed by groups such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which say you should not intentionally fly over people. But those are guidelines, not rules, meaning that the drone pilot flying over this race may not have broken any rules if they weren’t flying for commercial purposes.

Parrot Professional joins 3D Robotics in repackaging consumer drones as enterprise solutions

Drone manufacturer Parrot on Monday announced Parrot Professional — Parrot’s consumer drones (the Disco and the Bebop) repackaged as commercial enterprise products through add-ons like Pix4D and thermal cameras.

Parrot’s new products include the $4,499 Parrot Disco-Pro AG — Parrot’s $899 Disco drone packaged with Pix4D and access to the Airinov online mapping platform and the $1,100 Parrot Bebop-Pro 3D Modeling — the $595 Bebop 2 quadcopter with Pix4D capture and Pix4D model software.

The drones target enterprise use cases; the Parrot Bebop-Pro Thermal could enable inspection and thermal detection companies, roofers, plumbers, building workers, and also firefighters, to get thermal and radiometry information. Parrot-Pro 3D Modeling could target real-estate agents and architects who want to create promotional videos or interactive 3D models.

parrot professional disco ag airinov pix4d
Parrot’s Disco-Pro Ag

Amid a long line of consumer drone companies struggling to stay afloat, Parrot is the latest drone company to repackage what are relatively inexpensive consumer drones as professional products. (Parrot in January cut its drone team of 840 employees by 290 people — about one-third. 150 positions would be cut from its headquarters in France, along with other positions around the world, according to its most recent earnings report.) Continue reading Parrot Professional joins 3D Robotics in repackaging consumer drones as enterprise solutions

Drone delivery economics: are Amazon drones economically worth it?

Every day 110 million orders are placed online. 91% of those orders — 100 million of them — are less than 5 pounds. If just 1% of those were delivered by drones, that would be 1 million drone package deliveries per day.

That’s according to economic research firm Skylark Services, which is forecasting that the world will see 8 million operations per day within 20 years on the pessimistic end, and as many as 86 million package deliveries per day within 20 years on the optimistic end.

For a typical FedEx package that costs $8.50, the ground costs are approximately $2.72, according to Skylark Services. Amazon’s purported cost of last-mile delivery with USPS is $2.50. Hence, $2.50 becomes the benchmark for whether or not drone delivery is economically worth it.

Here’s how that cost breaks down, based on average data from 25 commercial drone operators:

  • Wholesale cost of an individual commercial-grade battery that can power a drone weighing up to five pounds and for at least 10 miles is $100 when purchased in bulk
  • Battery life for each commercial-grade battery is at least 250 hours
  • Cost of 4 motors that can lift a 10-pound drone that can travel at least 6 miles is less than $60 for each one and the motor can be expected to last for approximately 750 hours
  • Wholesale cost of a set of four commercial-grade rotors is $1
  • Marginal electricity costs to be approximately $.25 per trip


Coupled with the cost of other factors such as insurance and maintenace, Skylark estimates that the average cost of a flight is $0.94 per hour. Continue reading Drone delivery economics: are Amazon drones economically worth it?

How “Book of Hours” author Janet Pywell used a drone to write her newest book

The following piece is a guest post by Janet Pywell, author of the book “Book of Hours,” a crime thriller in which one of the ‘characters’ is a drone.

I knew nothing about drones until I was walking on the beach near my home and a man was using a drone to photograph the coast. As a writer, I’m naturally curious and I stopped to speak to him. I was surprised when he told me you don’t need a license to fly a drone, that they weren’t expensive and that they were pretty easy to use.

book of hoursI came across drones again after watching Helen Mirren’s film, “Eye in the Sky.” It’s contemporary, controversial and exciting. I thought they would add a thrilling dimension to my novel but I needed to understand their capabilities in order to work them into my narrative – and find out how and where I could use them in the relative scenes.

My latest crime thriller, “Book of Hours,” follows the protagonist Mikky dos Santos. In the novel, Mikky uses a Phantom 4 to help her navigate a pathway through a web of lies and deceit. Continue reading How “Book of Hours” author Janet Pywell used a drone to write her newest book

Ask Drone Girl: How to become an “expert” in the drone industry

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about achieving “expert” level in drones. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

I am in the process of getting my Part 107 and getting jobs as a drone service provider.  I am trying to build up my drone flying experience and  am curious what you would say is the average number of flight hours you need to considered an experienced UAV pilot? Also how much for an expert? I know I need to build up my experience, I am just curious what would be a hour level I need to build it up to.

“Ask Drone Girl” is beginning to reach a deeper, philosophical level! What really is an “expert?” Is it someone who makes a lot of money at their job? Is it someone who carries a lot of influence? Is it someone who never makes mistakes? It’s all quite subjective.

But you asked for an hour level, which is less subjective. I’ve taught dozens and dozens of people to fly over the years, and — this is not the answer you want to hear — but it varies greatly. Continue reading Ask Drone Girl: How to become an “expert” in the drone industry

Drone Girl

Reporting on drones, sometimes with drones