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What’s on the horizon for drones doing science?

by Sarah Everts and Matt Davenport
February 29, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 9

As researchers envisage new ways to use drones as flying laboratories, others are tinkering with their robotic insides, trying to make them smaller, faster, and safer.

Many drone engineers are intent on designing flying robots to be more autonomous so that they can perform tasks without a pilot. Imagine, for example, drones capable of quickly mapping collapsed buildings to help search-and-rescue personnel find trapped victims or identify looming threats such as a fire or gas leak, says Vijay Kumar, who is developing this technology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Others are working to improve communication between drones so that swarms of these flying machines can accomplish tasks that a single unmanned aerial vehicle could not achieve alone. Researchers could, for instance, deploy a flock of flying sensors to track the edges of a suspicious airborne plume spreading across the sky in real time, says Kam K. Leang, director of the Design, Automation, Robotics & Control Lab at the University of Utah.

Of course, as some in the industry build better drones, others are considering ways to prevent people with nefarious intentions from flying the robots to infringe on privacy, property, or public safety.

“Anti-drone technology is an important evolutionary step for our industry,” says David Proulx, vice president of product and marketing at Aeryon Labs. Although brute-force methods are already in vogue—people are forcing drones to the ground by throwing T-shirts, firing shotguns, or releasing trained eagles—some engineers are developing more sophisticated methods to bring them down by, say, disrupting the communication signal between device and pilot.

Credit: Nederlands Politie
Dutch police have trained eagles to track and capture drones.

But that also creates new risks. “You have an aircraft that then plummets to the ground or goes somewhere else,” Proulx says. “And that somewhere else could be as harmful to the public interest as if it were to stay aloft.”

As researchers face a turbulent environment of regulations and public perception, it’s hard not to speculate about where drones will travel in the not-so-distant future. Could these flying robots hunt mosquitoes across entire continents, looking inside the insects for blood-borne human pathogens as a way to track or prevent infectious disease epidemics? Will drones carry electronic nose sensors that can sniff out hidden corpses in disaster zones? Could autonomous aircraft work with other research robots roving the land and diving through the sea?

Anti-drone technology is an important evolutionary step for our industry.

And how will we maintain our privacy as this machinery makes it increasingly possible to monitor, well, everything? As drones fly farther and faster, we’ll be keeping our eyes on the skies.



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