Three years ago, Customs and Border Protection placed an order for self-flying aircraft that could launch on their own, rendezvous, locate and monitor multiple targets on the ground without any human intervention. In its reasoning for the order, CBP said the level of monitoring required to secure America's long land borders from the sky was too cumbersome for people alone. To research and build the drones, CBP handed $500,000 to Mitre Corp., a trusted nonprofit Skunk Works that was already furnishing border police with prototype rapid DNA testing and smartwatch hacking technology. They were "tested but not fielded operationally" as "the gap from simulation to reality turned out to be much larger than the research team originally envisioned," a CBP spokesperson says. This year, America's border police will test automated drones from Skydio, the Redwood City, Calif.-based startup that on Monday announced it had raised an additional $170 million in venture funding at a valuation of $1 billion.
The New York police department has acquired a robotic police dog, known as Digidog, and has deployed it on the streets of Brooklyn, Queens and, most recently, the Bronx. At a time that activists in New York, and beyond, are calling for the defunding of police departments – for the sake of funding more vital services that address the root causes of crime and poverty – the NYPD's decision to pour money into a robot dog seems tone-deaf if not an outright provocation. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, put it on Twitter: "Shout out to everyone who fought against community advocates who demanded these resources go to investments like school counseling instead. Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with underresourced schools." There is more than enough evidence that law enforcement is lethally racially biased, and adding an intimidating non-human layer to it seems cruel.
Up close and personal: The FPV is the first DJI drone with accompanying goggles to experience the live feed in VR form, and a trigger-based motion controller. A do-it-yourself market in technology always establishes not just inventions, but also a culture. That's certainly the case for the drone racing culture that has sprung up in the last five years, where enthusiasts cobble together drones from parts, complete with virtual reality glasses and audio-video systems to send the live feed from their drones to the goggles, to give one the feeling of racing at two hundred miles an hour through backyards and living rooms. Hence, stepping into that marketplace, for any consumer vendor, is a challenge, because it means taking on a culture. That's the challenge that DJI, one of the world's most prominent drone makers, has set for itself with its first entrée into what is called FPV drones, for "first person view."
Insect-like drones have taken one large step closer to becoming a practical reality. Researchers at Harvard, MIT and the City University of Hong Kong have developed tiny insect-inspired drones that can not only maneuver in extremely tight spaces, but withstand bumps if things go wrong. The key is a switch to an actuation system that can flap the drones' wings while surviving its share of abuse. To date, drone makers wanting to go this small have had to ditch motors (which lose effectiveness at small sizes) in favor of piezoelectric ceramic-based rigid actuators. The new drones rely on soft actuators made from rubber cylinders coated with carbon nanotubes.
Drones have become a hit with consumers during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, market leader DJI has a new remote-controlled recreational drone that is easier to take on a first-person spin. To fly the DJI FPV (first-person view) drone, available today for $1,299, just don goggles and take in the scenic view as your high-speed drone zips along as fast as 87 mph. You can also control the drone with your hand motions by using a motion controller, sold separately for $199. Until now, most first-person view drones were hand-built or had goggles sold separately.
As leaks suggested, DJI is releasing a cinematic first-person view drone that works with its FPV Goggles. The FPV comes with the latest version of the goggles and there's an optional one-handed motion controller. The company is calling it a hybrid drone that blends elements of cinematic FPV devices and racing drones, but it leans more toward the former category. The company is hoping to make first-person drone flying more accessible by bringing its features to a cinewhoop-style drone. The DJI Virtual Flight app should help beginners practice before they actually start flying.
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The US military has invested in a prototype energy beam weapon designed to zap drones in the sky. This week, the US Air Force said the prototype, dubbed the Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR), is a "directed energy" weapon that could use both lasers and microwaves to take out unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drone swarms. THOR, perhaps named in deference to the Norse god of thunder, is being developed to fire at multiple targets at the same time with what the military calls "rapid results." The weapon needs to be housed in a shipping container that is 20-foot-long, but this means it can also be transported, moved via cargo plane, and could be installed at different military bases. THOR has been developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate, located at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Drones are being used to carry Covid-19 test samples and other medical materials up to 40 miles (64km) across four locations in western Scotland. London drone firm Skyports has become the first operator to receive permission from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to carry diagnostic specimens by drone. Cargo – including test samples, medicine, personal protective equipment (PPE) and Covid-19 testing kits – is being transported by the drones in the Argyll & Bute region. A whole fleet of the drones are carrying up to 3kg of the supplies each, improving services for patients and healthcare staff in one of the UK's most remote areas. Drones can complete a journey that takes a whopping 36 hours by road and ferry to just 15 minutes, while increasing the frequency of pick-ups.