Rutronik News

The Eye in the Sky

  Newsletter Article

Robots are being used in every imaginable (and unimaginable) field – as you surely read in the last issue of our newsletter. They assist their human creators on land and at sea – doesn’t matter if they’re testing automotive seats or simulating fans at a basketball game. But there’s one aspect that we haven’t yet covered: the fact that robots also feel at home in the air and, as drones, perform a wide variety of different tasks.

If you think of a drone, you automatically think about their military use, where unmanned flying objects have been used in the world’s conflict zones for more than a decade – initially in unarmed form for reconnaissance, but in the meantime as a highly weaponized attack platform. But that isn’t the focus of today’s issue. Here at Rutronik24, we find it much more exciting to look at the areas where these flexible, little aerial helpers can save lives in a highly efficient manner instead of wiping them out.

To be more specific, drones are playing an important role in improving the medical situation in Rwanda, for example – for the past one and half years, mechanical worker bees from the company Zipline have delivered blood and plasma reserves to 12 hospitals located throughout the country. As a result, this service is helping reduce maternal mortality as well as malaria-induced anemia. The cost of delivery is about the same as conventional transport by car, but only takes approximately 45 minutes. This makes it much faster than the long drive over bumpy roads, where it can take four hours for the blood to get to where it’s needed – which, in critical situations, is often too late. With Zipline, the doctors place their orders via WhatsApp, and the drone drops its precious cargo off by parachute above its destination. In fact, the system works so well that the company soon plans to expand to Tanzania.

In the United States, the multicopters’ approval ratings are also increasing – and are doing so without the drones needing to constantly praise themselves for their own achievements on Twitter. According to supplier Dronefly, a total of 347 public agencies have purchased drones since 2009 to provide assistance in different scenarios – including 69 fire departments. In August 2017, two of them helped the Los Angeles Fire Department while fighting fires. The first used its cameras to film the damage the wildfire had caused, allowing the department to follow the exact path of the blaze. The second drone used infrared cameras to identify remaining sources of fire, which the firefighters then systematically put out.

At the same time, the eyes in the sky also helped in coming up with an initial estimate of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. But private oil and gas companies are also using drones to monitor their facilities, power lines, and fuel tanks from the air. As you can see from these examples, drones can be used for a wide variety of applications. Yet we should also note that in the United States, even public servants and company employees can’t just zip their drones around through air as they please. Besides requiring a drone pilot’s license (20,000 of which have already been issued as of August 2017), the use of a drone is subject to stringent restrictions. Small drones (between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds) must fly below an altitude of 120 meters, always be in full view of the pilot, and are not allowed to fly over any large groups of people. Yet despite these restrictions, the use of quadcopters is still worthwhile. They are a "couple bucks" cheaper than helicopters and don’t require a pilot on board – meaning the risk of negative publicity is also much lower.

But we admit – drones don’t always serve such noble goals. In fact, they can also be used for much more mundane purposes. Professor John Church from Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada, saw a group of children playing with a drone and immediately thought of ... cattle! Since an estimated 15 percent of all cows do not return to their herd at the onset of winter, and GPS collar trackers are much more expensive, he began searching for the missing animals using drones. And despite the limitations due to battery life, he was apparently so successful that he is now working with ranchers and researchers on the development of a drone-mounted antenna that can receive signals from RFID chips attached to the cows. But it gets even better: Professor Church has also successfully used the drones to shepherd herds like a flying border collie, so to speak. What we don’t know is whether or not he equipped his flying assistants with speakers that go “woof” like a real dog.

It goes without saying that drones, similar to autonomous cars or robots on the ground, also compete with each other in athletic competitions – while robotics enthusiasts have the Robot Soccer World Cup, the flying faction have the US National Drone Racing Championships. In this competition, the human racers wear glasses that allow them to follow the path of the drone from the first-person perspective. Qualifying races are usually held in cooperation with universities, and, in addition to having fun, the organizers also hope to gain scientific insights that can be used to make advancements to the technology.

Not unusual enough for you? Haven’t yet reached the level of a praying Buddhist robot? Well, OK then! In Las Vegas, drones are used as flying butlers to deliver bottles of champagne directly to guests lounging around the pool. And in Alamo, Texas, a young man used his flying pal to present the engagement ring to his girlfriend as he proposed to her. While the drone descended from the heavens in a majestic and dignified manner, the groom-to-be got down on one knee and popped the question to the love of his life. Lucky for him, she was apparently just as much of a nerd as he is – she accepted. And if she hasn’t yet sent him the divorce papers by drone, then they are still together today living happily ever after.