Bigger uses for smaller drones

An Endura underwater drone developed by Aquabotix, which sees increasing military uses for its tech.

Could intelligent drones patrol the skies, predict crimes and “disable” criminals before they act? Watchbirds were intelligent, talking, listening drones that patrolled the sky in packs and used artificial intelligence to predict crimes.

While this was far-fetched science fiction in 1953, much of the technology that makes Sheckley’s Watchbird possible is here now. Small drones equipped with sensors can patrol the sky and monitor activity on the ground. Natural language processing makes it possible for machines to communicate with humans. We could build flying versions of Amazon Alexa and Google Home personal assistants.

As for pre-crimes, artificial intelligence that calculates likely human behaviour ahead of time is not far-fetched. Speaking at the Tech Leaders Forum this week, NEC Asia-Pacific vice-president Mervyn Cheah discussed how artificial intelligence was being used in Singapore buses to predict if a driver would have an accident within three months. They would be sent for retraining if it seemed likely.

While predicting crime from high above is a near-impossible ask, monitoring the movements of “people of interest” is not. Sheckley’s plot is not at all unrealistic. He was also right about how drones could swarm through the air in packs. That’s happening now.

Drone applications can spring up where you least expect them. With the world bee population in decline, researchers have looked at using tiny drone bees to pollinate plants.

Last month a report in research journal Chem discussed using radio-controlled flying robots to collect pollen. They may not need human control if they make use of artificial intelligence navigation. “We believe that robotic pollinators will be able to move smartly and learn the optimal pollination path by using GPS and artificial intelligence,” Chem reports. Sadly, it doesn’t mean there will be honey for your toast in the morning.

There are so many applications for drones beyond flying from A to B, even beyond surveillance and carrying a payload. Last year Google tested solar-powered drones that could deliver 5G internet from the air. British Telecom explored drones that offered communications coverage in battlefields. Microsoft tested using drones to collect airborne mosquitoes as a way of checking whether they are spreading harmful viruses.

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It’s in military areas where fascinating applications are being developed for all kinds of drones.

Military drone technology has gone far beyond creating large drones of the type used in Afghanistan. The trend is for troops to use tiny drones that fit between your fingers– such as the Norwegian-made PD-100 Black Hornet Nano, which can capture video and stills of what’s around corners and over walls. Their small size makes them hard to see and a difficult target. And the tiny drones are fitted with night vision capability. They can be part of a soldier’s kit.

Philippe Odouard is managing director of Xtek, an Australian homeland security specialist that produces military drones and explosive ordnance disposal systems, among other items. He says the trend is towards smaller military drones with different specialties.

There are reconnaissance drones that map terrain and scout enemy movements, maintenance drones that inspect equipment, and drones that detect chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological hazards.

Where early military drones typically operate at 20,000 to 50,000 feet (about 6000m to 15000m), newer ones have much lighter sensors and operate at less than 100m. They cost a few thousand dollars instead of tens of millions of dollars for a high-flying drone, Odouard says.

Flying closer to the ground does have challenges. When mapping, images cover a much smaller area of the ground. But with software, drones can build a map from a mosaic of images. You can map as if you were at 50,000 feet, but you get it fast. And in a battle zone you can create a real-time map of what’s going on a few kilometres away in seconds. An older, larger drone may take hours, if not days, Odouard says.

In future, reconnaissance drones and military attack drones might work in tandem. “You ‘d use a surveillance drone to indicate where you want to attack, and then you ‘d send a another one that uses a charge (bomb) that is more manoeuvrable than a missile and infinitely cheaper,” he says.

He expects to see fleets of mixed, medium-sized drones being sent in to attack targets. You might have drones that are tankers and refuel the others.

Underwater, drones are replacing divers, and, according to emerging technologies firm Aquabotix, will herald an age of underwater machine-to-machine warfare.

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Aquabotix chairman Peter James says underwater drones can be operated from the surface with a fibre-optic cable so that they can be externally controlled. Or they can be untethered for autonomous underwater use.

Untethered drones can be pre-programmed and can work for about eight hours. They can be programmed to periodically return to the surface and transmit data. These underwater drones typically are up to 1m long and have rotors similar to a quadcopter. They can move like a helicopter: up, down and sideways.

James sees unmanned underwater vehicles proliferating in the future. Aquabotix so far has sold 350 to the US Navy, the US Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Pakistan Navy.

Drones can operate in packs below the surface, too. “Out in the open waters, a mother submarine or other large drone with a swarm of smaller drones, potentially with an explosive payload on them, can be programmed to complete the mission. The sensors on them include cameras, sonar, temperature, depth,” James says. He says you could program an underwater drone to constantly patrol within, say, the perimeter of a harbour.

Some 50 to 60 sensors can be attached to an underwater drone. They might test the salinity of the water, chlorine content, or the level of oxygen in the water.

Underwater drones could also do the work of divers. “They’re having to put divers down to inspect dam walls, and to inspect pipes, and to climb into large tanks. We can do that with a vehicle.”

Commercial applications include security, and replacing police divers in the search for a vehicle, a body, or contraband. “You can program an autonomous vehicle to go backwards and forwards until a camera or other sensor discovers something unusual. You can then use a tethered vehicle with a lot of power, including lights.”

Consumers could use an entry-level version to inspect their lobster pots and cray pots. That costs about $1500, while one with more functionality and sensors can cost up to $195,000. He says Aquabotix drones submerge to 300m, but in time will be able to go down 1km.

James sees machine-to-machine warfare between underwater drones as inevitable. “I think that is absolutely likely. One of the drivers for this is the new (Trump) administration in the US that has a program of what they call off-the-shelf products.

” The US Navy has had many years investing in doing R&D in underwater vehicles, but there is now a lot of pressure to use the commercially available ones. There is no reason why you can’t put a payload on one of these,” he says.

His drones are relatively small but larger underwater ones could carry a missile payload. “The US. Navy is already close to doing this.”

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