Drones and Aerial Observation: our primer for New America is finished!

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We’ve finally done it: the “Drones and Aerial Observation” primer I’ve been working on for New America with support from the Omidyar Network and Humanity United has been released into the wild.  Ever wondered how drones can help with peaceful endeavors, from disaster response, to conservation, to archaeology? We have you covered.

With this book,  I’m of the mind that myself, my colleague Konstantin Kakaes, and the drone experts who contributed chapters have created an overview of drone technology accessible to people who don’t already know what a “gimbal” is. (Yes, I am aware that is a funny word).

We hope the book will encourage people to start thinking of drones as a tech they can practically use for their own field endeavors. While drones certainly look complicated when you first encounter them – at least, that’s how I felt about them – it’s a tech that’s remarkably accessible to people who don’t have aeronautical engineering PHDs.

You can download the whole shebang as a PDF,  or you can also download individual chapters. Share it, print it out, tell your friends, tell us what you think, tell your friends what you think.

On my end, I wrote chapters 4 and 5: “How to Make Maps with Drones” and “Mapping in Practice.”  Writing these chapters was a real crash-course in drone mapping for me, and I’m grateful to come out the other side alive and with a better sense of what’s required to carry out mapping projects. I hope I can pass that on to you. I’m also planning to get my own mapping drone in the very near future so I can start carrying out some of this work myself.

I also wrote Chapter 9, which is a case study of the world’s largest archaeological drone mapping project, carried out by the Ministry of Culture in Peru. They were incredibly hospitable to me,  and I had a great time watching the researchers deal with the quotidian, difficult, occasionally terrifying realities of making maps with drones in remote and difficult areas. Many thanks to Aldo Watanave and Dr. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters for taking me along for the ride. A Slate piece about this work is impending as well.

To celebrate the release of the book on July 22nd, we held a “Drones and Aerial Observation” symposium at our Washington DC offices. The half-day event featured a lot of great thinkers and practitioners on UAV technology, and from my admittedly biased perspective, I thought it went very well. You can see videos and slideshows of the panel discussions at this link. 

I’d love to hear what you think about the primer, so feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook, or maybe even email. More drone-related writing and research coming up: watch this space!

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My favorite photo from my distinctly drone-focused trip to Peru.

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How Drones can Protect Indigenous Land Rights – Latest for Slate

The countryside in Flores. Which is not Borneo, but I like the picture.

The countryside in Flores. Which is not Borneo, but I like the picture.

Drones to the Rescue: how unmanned aerial vehicles can help indigenous people protect their land – Slate 

My latest on Future Tense, documenting how inexpensive UAVs can help indigenous people (and other people without much access to resources) document where they live and what they own. From an interview with Irendra Radjawali, a fascinating Indonesian geographer who begun pioneering this kind of work with the Dayaks of Borneo, with some inroads into Papua and Bali. It’s really cool stuff.

I think this is going to be a particularly important usage of drones, and I hope to do more writing and research on that potential in the near future.

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3D Mapping with a Drone in Wildest Vermont

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If you know me at all, you’re probably aware that I write about and research the humanitarian uses of drones for a living. One aspect of today’s drone technology I find particularly interesting is how aerial imagery can be used to make 3D modeling, even with inexpensive consumer technology. I’ve been wanting to try it for a long time.

Well, I don’t currently have a UAV that I can program for autonomous flight, to create the pattern of transects that allow drone-shot images to overlap in an optimal way, so they can be stitched together to create maps and 3D models. I also don’t have a point and shoot camera, just a GoPro Hero 3+ with a fish-eye lens, which is rather less than optimal for mapping applications.

But as it turns out, with the help of the open source Visual SFM software, you can *still* get pretty good results. I was visiting my boyfriend Dan’s family in Southwestern Vermont last weekend, which is a really ideal place to mess around with drone mapping since there are very few people there to notice. My friend Matthew Schroyer of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists has been getting good 3D modeling results just by pulling out video imagery from drone videos shot by amateur pilots.

So, I figured I’d give it a go and see what we got. I flew my Phantom 2 over my boyfriend’s parent’s house in some approximation of a zig-zag pattern, with the GoPro 3 set to shoot an image every second – probably overkill, all things considered. I eyeballed the pattern, and since it was a bit of a windy day, it wasn’t as tight as I’d have liked it to have been.

With the initial fly-over done, we had a few hundred images that could be fed into Visual SFM, which Dan handled. Dan says the VisualSFM model used 378 photographs and took about 20 hours to render using his late-2013 Macbook Pro Retina laptop. That’s including the time required to render the image in MeshLab, which creates the mesh required for three-dimensional modeling and overlays the photographic texture on top of it. You can read about how you can use Visual SFM to crunch images over at the excellent Flight Riot.

Agisoft Photoscan performs all these functions inside of the same program, and is a more effective and powerful software, although unlike Visual SFM, it isn’t free. Dan ran the images through Agisoft Photoscan and added some still shots from a video we’d taken the day before, but it didn’t seem to make much of an improvement to capturing the backside of the house, which was quite fragmented. He ran it again with 75 photos, taking out the video stills, and got a better result with fewer artifacts.

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Here’s the results with VisualSFM. You can manipulate the model we made with Visual SFM in Sketchfab at this link.

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Here’s the first Agisoft Photoscan model.

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And here’s the second Agisoft Photoscan model, with the Sketchfab link here.

The results obviously aren’t perfect, but considering how little effort or specialized equipment we used, I’m still impressed. I’m planning to have a good quality mapping UAV with a point and shoot camera and the ability to program transects up and running by July. I think that there’s some very interesting potential for story-telling and journalism with 3D modeling, and I want to figure out ways to experiment. Beyond that, it’s rather fantastic that I can use consumer-grade technology to made video-game like maps of the world around me.

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The Arsenal of Democracy: WWII Planes in Washington D.C

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On Friday, I saw the WWII flyover on the National Mall. They called it the “Arsenal of Democracy” after FDR’s famous phrasing in 1940, a name which in our modern age are both comically overwrought and entirely American – perhaps representations of the same thing.  It was the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and 15 historically sequenced formations of historic military aircraft had been permitted to fly over the US capitol, sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force (a group whose existence I was until now entirely unaware of).

They would fly down the Potomac River, then fly over Independence Avenue – buzzing the World War II Memorial, where a group of veterans and dignitaries would gather, proceeding over the Washington Memorial and the Mall.  I could not miss the thing, of course. This is one of the moments that makes enduring some of the indignities of DC, especially when heat-and-metro-outage season hits, slightly more worth it.

When I think of WWII aviation and the war itself, how we remember it in this country – well, I think less of Europe and much more of the tropical remains of the war I’ve seen in Asia, the remains I will divert myself to go look at whenever they are available, as if I feel it is mildly incumbent upon me. And they are, in their way, neglected: the reminders of the war in Burma and in Chongqing don’t get the visitation and the affection that the sites in Europe do.  As a friend noted on Twitter, the  sites are reminders of a sweaty and brutal jungle war – and who romanticizes jungle warfare, with its insects, its rotting feet, its miserable sweat?

We as Westerners are better at imagining great battles on stony beaches and in cities with lots of soaring cathedrals. This particular imagination is, I suppose, what fueled the Arsenal of Democracy. But me, I guess I am a tropical creature, if my life trajectory so far means anything. I remember being the only person knocking around General Stilwell’s house in Chongqing, overlooking the Yangtze river, and the only person in the Flying Tigers museum besides. So, I went to the Arsenal of Democracy in a way to help add some color to the things I have read about World War II in China – the sound of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, what the Douglas C-47 aircraft used to make the nerve-wracking journey over The Hump looked like from below.

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Thousands and thousands of people had emerged from their office buildings to join the tourists to watch the flyover, a rare event everyone could agree on. I made my way from my building at Farragut West and headed down 17th street, past the White House. The heat is already like summer but I can comprehend it, it’s not worse than Cambodia, not yet, anyway. As I was nearly to the mall and passing the Association of American States, I saw some of the first planes go over, in a tight formation, somewhere far away. I hurried up, hoping I hadn’t missed anything. The airspace around Washington D.C. is some of the most tightly restricted in the world, locked down even more after September 11 – a topic I know a little about, as I am bound to know all kinds of tiresome things about FAA regulations on unmanned aerial vehicles. So to see anything flying in this vicinity was a bit of a novelty in and of itself, an exotic sight.

People were massed around the Washington Memorial, but the crowds looked ike a sweating, nostalgic Woodstock. I weaved through them, stopping for a moment to take a picture of a young red-headed man who was staring up at the sky, as an early formation of planes went overhead. I had come to the place in large part for the acoustics, to get a sense of what these particular,  historical airplanes sounded like overhead, but there was highly obnoxious jackhammering going on around, from the perpetual revamp of the Mall, and I kept walking.

I headed for the WWII memorial instead. Famous airshow announcer Rob Reider was commenting in a typically silvery voice and I stayed put, grateful for the interpretation, which I could really use. I only recently became interested in aviation, I was never the kind of person who could identify a certain model of historical airplane from just glancing up at the underside for five seconds, as Reider spoke in a  voice that was entirely suitable for a special presentation on the History Channel about what was to come. The first formation was composed of trainer craft: the Piper L-4 Grasshopper, the Beech AT-11 Kansan with its glassed-in nose, the North American AT-6/SNJ, the Boeing Stearman PT-17/N2S. People applauded in scattered and perfunctory chunks as the planes went over, although it was very evident the pilots couldn’t hear them – which, in that case, what were we applauding exactly?

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At the  memorial, the first rows of folding chairs were reserved for veterans of the war, and there were lots of them, in olive green uniforms and military hats, looking up at the sky with baseball hats on, with wives and children sitting beside them, often clutching their forearms. Young soldiers in vintage paratrooper gear stood and looked over the water. I photographed two girls in WWII outfits, in blue and red, who smiled prettily. A man in a old Navy uniform, with stark white bell bottoms, patrolled the area and frowned a lot while shooting pictures.

I circulated around the area, trying to figure out where the source of the announcement was coming from, but I could never quite get sight of him. “And our special guest former senator Robert Dole!” he announced, and everyone cheered. I tried to stand up and see what Robert Dole looked like from one of the raised platforms around the WWII memorial but couldn’t pick him out of the crowd, which was a disappointment, since I recalled going through the 1996 elections as a young child and having no clear conception of his appearance (beyond “elderly).

As I looked down to the platform where the special guests were, the planes kept going overhead – there were 56 of them in all, and they would all go over our heads over the next 40 minutes or so, in formation according to certain battles or some other (somewhat loose) historical association. The weird shape of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which famously and retributively shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. The speedy North American P-51 Mustang, of which there were seven present at the flyover, and the Grumman F4F Wildcat, which went toe-to-toe with Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

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On the platform below, I watched as a group of veterans with artificial legs, most about my age, walked below, taking pictures with one another, and I looked at them for a moment, then felt strange about looking at them, about noticing the particular nature and origin of their injuries. I looked up at the planes again, to break up the weirdness of the moment, the noticing : a huge Boeing B-29 Superfortress cut through the sky ahead of us, and everyone stared at it for a moment, a little moment of distinct mechanical reverence, tinged slightly (perhaps I imagined this) with fear.

It is the only flyable B-29 Superfortress in the entire world, and I did feel lucky to see it, outside of computer-generated versions of such in nostalgia-drenched movies – an enormous black form, as big as you had imagined it if you were prone to historical re-imagining. They are the planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. This was not, I think, mentioned in the commentary.

The last formation was devoted to the dead of America’s air wars in WWII, the Missing Man Formation, composed of the gull-winged Vought F4U Corsair, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the North American P-51 Mustang, and the cyan-colored Grumman TBM Avenger. “This is the symbolic moment of this flyover,” Reider told us, in case we were wondering what to feel, and also wondering why one plane would intentionally fall away from the others, which would perhaps be the kind of thing everyone would Tweet about.

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“Everyone should stand,” he added. Someone started to play taps, and all the veterans rose to their feet and saluted, and in that moment I felt like I should salute too, but I didn’t, although at least I was standing up. My sensation of patriotism, which is fickle and odd, emerged in me for a bit and I had uncharitable thoughts about the people who remained splayed out on their lawn chairs and on their towels, who failed to meet the moment with reverence, or at least with bothering to entirely notice.

The planes came over, with one plane – either the Mustang or the TBM Avenger, I can’t tell – with a plume of colored jet trail behind it, meant to represent the smoke from a direct hit. It fell away as it passed over our heads, and was gone. That was the end of the flyover.

We all started to walk back immediately, to get out of the sun. “Remember: if you speak English, thank a veteran,” he reminded us, as a sign-off. A woman began thanking people.

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Nepal Disaster Response, and Please Don’t Just Go There With a Drone

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About a week ago, I wrote an article for Slate about how drone pilots were assisting with the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Here’s the article, which is a general overview of the planned response – at the time of writing, not much had actually happened yet with disaster response UAV flights.

 

Patrick Meier, organizer of the UAViators collective of humanitarian drone pilots, filled me in on how the UAV teams affiliated with UAViators would work closely with humanitarian aid organizations and with local officials.. This coordination and organization would hopefully help prevent the skies over Nepal’s disaster areas from becoming dangerously choked with UAVs, flown by teams who weren’t working with or even aware of one another.

Unfortunately, Nepal has just banned the usage of drones without explicit permission from authorities. The stated reason fro Nepali authorities is that the drones could be capable of leaking “sensitive information and pictures of its valuable heritage sites .”

Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve also got to wonder if the influx of drones into Nepal – including those flown by journalists and others who didn’t liase with UAViators – helped to influence this decision. I’m not in Nepal, I don’t know much about Nepal, and I can’t say if that’s actually what happened or not. But as we’ve seen in Cambodia, drone use that isn’t very responsible and very well coordinated with local authorities can lead to hasty lawmaking.

Patrick’s written a great article about his observations from the Nepal disaster response, which you should really read. I especially think his point about building local capacity to do disaster response missions with UAVs is important. With the low price and relative ease of use of todays’ drone technology, here’s no reason why a country should have to wait for UAV teams from developed nations to get in the air.

I support everything he’s said, and would like to reiterate a point here: if you’re planning to book a ticket to Nepal and schlep your drone over there to help, don’t. Or at least, don’t do so without first contacting UAViators, following its Code of Conduct, and making a concrete effort to ensure you’ll be hurting, not helping.

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