TIME Innovation

Amazon Gets Permission to Test Its Delivery Drones

Amazone Drone Delivery
Amazon/AP Amazon's 'Prime Air' unmanned aircraft project prototype.

The FAA allowed the company to test a newer prototype

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has once again granted Amazon permission to test drones for commercial use, this time expediting the request.

The company had previously received the go-ahead in March, but it argued since six months had passed since that request, the prototype in question had gone out date. They submitted a new request with an updated prototype, which was approved in less than a month, Reuters reports.

The FAA says Amazon can test drones for delivery as long as it limits altitude to 400 feet and speed to 100 miles per hour. Eventually, the web retailer hopes to use commercial drones to deliver packages to customers at a distance of 10 miles or more.

[Reuters]

TIME technology

Here’s Why Asparagus Is Yet Another Thing We Should Not Deliver by Drone

Spoiler alert: Explosions

In the not-so-distant future, your dinner will probably be delivered straight to the window of your fifth floor apartment via drone.

Amazon is fighting with the FAA for the ability to test drone grocery deliveries, but drones have also been used less formally to delivery everything from burritos to pizza to champagne to… asparagus.

According to Dutch News, restauranteur Ronald Peijnenburg decided to celebrate asparagus season by using a drone to deliver the vegetable from the countryside to his Michelin-starred Netherlands restaurant. (He had previously delivered asparagus via Formula 1 cars and hot air balloons). But a video chronicling his attempted delivery shows a con of drones: Sometimes they crash and burn.

Between this and that one time a promotional drone in a TGI Friday’s accidentally lost control and cut off the tip of someone’s nose, can we maybe agree drones and the restaurant industry might not be a great fit?

TIME Gadgets

This Is What It’s Like to Fly the World’s Best Personal Drone

Meet the DJI Phantom 3

Chinese drones have been spotted over American parks, beaches, cities, and even on the White House lawn. But they’re not of the military variety. Instead, the backpack-sized, camera-equipped aircraft, made by Shenzhen-based startup DJI, are being flown mostly by hobbyists.

The aerial videos taken from the company’s drones have often gone viral, helping DJI build brand recognition. DJI is now the top small drone maker in the U.S., according to Eric Cheng, the firm’s director of aerial imaging. Now, DJI is launching a new model, the Phantom 3, which will ship in the next few weeks. It will be available in in two varieties: The $999 Advanced, which sports a 1080p HD camera, and the $1,259 Professional, which upgrades the optics to 4K.

Notably, they will be the first drones in DJI’s entry-level Phantom lineup to lack an option without a pre-installed camera. While Cheng says having a DJI-made camera on board the Phantom 3 makes for a more integrated and thus better product, it’s also a shot at GoPro, whose action cameras are often used by drone hobbyists and which is said to be working on drones of its own.

The Phantom 3 will also serve as a cheaper alternative to the alien-looking Inspire 1, a $3,399, dual-remote drone aimed squarely at film professionals with big budgets for aerial work. The new DJI drones will compete with rival Parrot’s $499 Bebop and 3D Robotics’ $1350 X8+, though the latter company is teasing a product announcement for next week.

Read more: What happens when drones return home?

TIME met with Cheng and drone photographer Steve Cohen on a breezy April afternoon at a small field just off New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway to test the company’s newest drone. The new Phantom makes several improvements over its predecessor, including an optional higher-resolution camera and technology that allows pilots to broadcast images the drone captures live over YouTube.

The Phantom 3 connects with multiple global positioning satellites and uses ultrasonic sensors to take off, hover, and land with a simple swipe of a selector on an iPad app that functions as a remote control. With some practice, it’s also highly maneuverable—Cheng managed to spell out this magazine’s name in a flight pattern before we arrived, though we preferred to stick with a flight plan that more closely resembled this magazine’s shape.

After TIME logged a few minutes with the Phantom 3, we handed it over to Cohen, who runs a New York metro area drone hobbyist group that has some 1,200 members. Cohen later gave the new aircraft a big thumbs-up. “The level of innovation and performance cannot currently be beat,” said Cohen of DJI’s drones in a follow-up email.

Whether or not DJI keeps on growing will depend in part on its ability to convince more people they need a drone of their own. For hardcore hobbyists and photographers like Cohen, the company pithes the device as a way to get footage for which you’d otherwise need a helicopter. “Most photographers I know are already starting to think of this as a camera,” says Cheng of DJI’s drones.

But the reasons a more mainstream consumer would buy a drone are less clear: Are they the new GoPro action camera, following and recording you shredding down the ski slopes? The new Selfie Stick, perhaps, to take amazing images of yourself and your crew? Or are they really just for professionals only?

These questions remain to be answered. Cheng acknowledges that more competition is coming. “For sure there will be competitors,” says Cheng. But when asked if there’s any particularly threatening rivals—GoPro, Parrot, 3D Robotics—he demurs. “I can’t think of any.”

TIME Drones

This Is How Drones Work

Product Displays At The CP+ Camera And Imaging Expo
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images A DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ drone, manufactured by SZ DJI Technology Co., flies during the CP+ Camera and Photo Imaging Show in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.

There’s more than just physics keeping these small wonders aloft

When things look easy, they’re typically anything but. From Ted Williams’ swing to Raymond Carver’s prose to Jennifer Lawrence’s acting, this has been demonstrated time and time again. You might think it’s a leap to include drones with these effortless artists, but hold your judgement until after you watch an unmanned aircraft dance gracefully across the sky. Because while these machines may look like little more than propellers and plastic, these aerial acrobats actually pack a lot of tech into their lightweight frames.

In order to describe how drones work, you have to first distinguish them from their predecessors: remote control helicopters. According to Michael Perry, public relations manager at drone maker DJI, the key differentiator between the two airborne devices is that drones have some level of autonomy — meaning they can fly, hover, or navigate without input from a pilot.

“When you’re fully engaged with every single part of the flight process, that’s technically not a drone.” says Perry. “The ability to self-stabilize, to be able to hold a GPS-based position, that’s the level of autonomy that actually makes it an intelligent machine.”

This detail is key when you analyze one obvious differences between model aeronautics and drones: smart copters have multiple rotors. While RC copters also can have multiple propellors, hobbyist drones (not the ones flown government or the military) need them in order to achieve the level of control necessary for the unmanned aerial vehicle to be self-reliant.

“When you have multiple rotors, you get a lot of really interesting benefits,” says Perry. For instance, having more than one propeller gives drones more fail-safes. For instance, if one of the motors fails, the aircraft can still stay aloft with the remaining motors working in concert to compensate. In addition, the more rotors that you have, the more lift an aircraft will generate, allowing it to carry a heavier payload, something that comes in handy when you’re attaching a camera to a drone. And finally, having more rotors lets designers shrink the size of the blades, making them more manageable and even safer to use.

But it takes a power source to get these propellors spinning. Drones typically come with a removable battery that provides around 12 minutes of flight time. Many drone makers sell extra batteries, and you can even upgrade them to get up to 25 minutes of flight. But more power means more weight, which is why these machines get such little airtime. Everyone would love to have a drone that flies for hours on end, but the battery powerful enough to do that would act like an anchor, tying it to the ground.

In order to take flight, drones require a controller, something the pilot uses to launch, land, and navigate. Controllers can take many forms, from gamepad-like controllers to smartphones and tablets. Regardless of how they look, controllers need to communicate with the drone, and typically do that using radio waves. According to Perry, drones are typically run by 2.4 gigahertz radio waves. To communicate with their aircraft, many drone controllers use Wi-Fi, which can be transmitted on the 2.4 gigahertz spectrum, and is something that smartphones and tablets can tap into without any accessories.

Not coincidentally, drones have adopted an array of onboard technology also developed by the smartphone revolution. One is a GPS chip inside the aircraft that relays its location to the controller. It also logs the aircraft’s takeoff spot in case it needs to return unassisted. Gyroscopes, the kind that are found in smartphones’ accelerometers, are also crucial.

“Those accelerometers have gotten smaller, more affordable, and more powerful, making them able to give a lot more information,” says Perry. “We’ve been able to take that size, cost, and power differential and put it into the platform to make something that’s even more accessible to everybody.” And the shift in both price and power has propelled the drone boom.

When it comes to flying, these onboard sensors keep drones aloft. For instance, an altimeter lets the drone know what altitude it’s at. So, when you set the aircraft to hover in place, this chip will tell the drone to maintain that height. In addition, the GPS chip helps to hold the drone within the x and z axes, correcting course when stiff winds blow it around. And these machines are no pushovers, says Perry, who says DJI’s larger rigs can withstand gusts of up to 50 miles per hour.

But landing, as Indiana Jones will attest, can be even more challenging. Drones are programmed to automatically land slowly, a necessity for propellor-based craft. “When you descend quickly there’s a state that’s well known to helicopter pilots called the vortex ring state,” says Perry. While drones may not know it by name, they can certainly feel it, because when they drop in altitude too quickly, they end up sinking into the wash of their own propellors. This vacuum of air is hard to escape even for seasoned pilots (of remote controlled or real helicopters), because when they throttle up to escape, they create an even stronger vacuum that pulls the aircraft down even faster.

But these are just the first advances to propel drones, and there will be plenty more as as technology drifts onward. For example, tapping into its onboard camera, the DJI Aspire 1 has a visual positioning system which uses a downward facing camera and two ultrasonic sensors to land. A key feature for flying indoors or somewhere without GPS, the camera creates a real-time map of the ground below, identifying a grid where it can plot points and safe places to land. If the drone drifts away from the points, it can visually triangulate to correct itself and stay locked in position. Meanwhile, the ultrasonic sensors tell the drone how close it is to the ground. In other words, even in harsh terrain, technology can make landing a drone look easy.

 

 

TIME Gadgets

Drone Photography Is About To Get Way Better

Phase One iXU 180 Camera
Phase One Industrial Phase One Industrial, a manufacturer and provider of medium format aerial digital photography equipment and software solutions, announced the Phase One iXU 180 camera, on March 26, 2015.

Phase One Industrial is out with a super small, hi-res aerial camera

Danish camera maker Phase One Industrial has unveiled a new aerial camera that could help take drone photography to the next level.

The lightweight iXU 180 is the world’s smallest 80-megapixel medium format aerial camera, the company said in a statement. The camera can be integrated into small oblique systems that can fit inside a gyro mount, giving drone operators more flexibility for aerial photography.

The company’s last 80-megapixel camera, the IQ 180, has already produced stunningly detailed aerial footage. Here’s a look at a time-lapse video filmed with the iXU 180’s predecessor:

iXU 180 will begin shipping in mid-April. A Phase One spokesperson said the camera is priced at $60,000.

Read next: Someone Flew a Drone Into a Fireworks Display and This Is What Happened

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TIME animals

This Drone Is Surprisingly Good at Herding Sheep

You're fired, Babe

Get ready to cash in your 401ks, sheepdogs, because you can retire now.

An ingenious Irish farmer has discovered the sheepdog of the future, and it doesn’t require kibble, a warm bed or even a pat on the head for a job well done. That’s because the sheepdog of the future isn’t a dog at all— it’s a drone.

In this video, filmed by Paul Brennan in Carlow, Ireland, the aptly named Shep the Drone flies above a flock of sheep, filming as it herds them from one field to another. It’s unclear why the drone is so good at the job (sheep pliancy induced by terror, perhaps?) but it is incredibly effective at moving the flock across fields with no training, breeding or Milk Bones required.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 25

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. ISIS can be beaten. But we need to think and plan now for what happens after that.

By Robert Joustra in the Globe and Mail

2. Facebook is still experimenting on you. It’s time to bring back informed consent.

By Ilka H. Gleibs in Psychology@LSE

3. What happens when we pay elected officials better? They start caring about voters more than special interests.

By Ian Chipman at Stanford Graduate School of Business

4. How can we spur innovation in U.S. advanced industries? Think beyond our borders.

By Kenan Fikri and Devashree Saha at the Brookings Institution

5. To cheaply reduce carbon in the atmosphere, we can reforest the planet — using data and drones.

By Emiko Jozuka in Wired.co.uk

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Drones

Drones Help Find Stray Dogs in Texas

Drones Texas Tests
Eric Gay—AP A test drone with a wing span of almost 13 feet flies over a ranch near Sarita, Texas, Jan. 15, 2014.

It's for a TV show

We all know about drones and their more dangerous missions – flying in war zones, crashing onto the White House lawn. But now they’re being used in Texas for a gentler reason: to find stray dogs.

The World Animal Awareness Society (WA2S) is filming a new television show called “Operation Houston: Stray Dog City,” USA Today reports, to examine the stray dog problem in Houston and profile the people trying to save the animals.

That’s where the drones come in. Tom McPhee, executive director of WA2S, said the drones will “draw a big circle in the air” while volunteers and GPS technology work on the ground, and that combination will help them count all the stray dogs in the Houston area.

“It’s another amazing tool,” McPhee said of drones.

[USA Today]

TIME Amazon

Amazon’s Drone Delivery Dreams Just Took a Step Closer to Reality

Amazone Drone Delivery
Amazon/AP Amazon's 'Prime Air' unmanned aircraft project prototype.

But don't expect a drone on your doorstep anytime soon

Amazon’s hopes of delivering shipments to customers via drones got a little more real Thursday as federal regulators granted the company approval to test its unmanned aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave Amazon’s drones what’s called an experimental airworthiness certificate, which lets the company fly its aircraft for research, testing and crew training purposes. Amazon must follow a handful of rules laid out by the FAA: It must keep flights at 400 feet or below, only fly in daylight, and pilots must hold at least a private pilot’s certificate, among other stipulations. The company also has to report a wealth of data about its drone flights to the agency every month.

However, the FAA is not yet allowing Amazon to conduct commercial drone flights. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos first said back in late 2013 that he wants to use drones to deliver packages directly to customers’ doorsteps in a program dubbed “Prime Air.”

The FAA’s Thursday decision comes after Amazon petitioned the agency last July to let it test its drones. In February, the FAA proposed new commercial drone rules that would make it significantly easier to legally operate a drone for money in the U.S., an activity that currently requires case-by-case approval from the agency. However, the plan would require drone pilots to fly their aircraft with “unaided vision” and avoid flying over people, rules that would seem to preclude Amazon’s drone delivery concept.

The FAA is expected to vote on those new rules later this year.

 

TIME National Security

Al-Shabab Leader Killed in Drone Strike

Adan Garar is believed to have masterminded the 2013 Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi

An American drone strike has killed a leader of Somali militant group al-Shabab, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday.

Adan Garar was hit by a drone missile near the town of Diinsoor, southern Somalia, on March 12, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Garar is believed to be behind the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that killed 67 people.

The U.S. describes Garar as “a key operative” who was “responsible for coordinating al-Shabab’s external operations, which target U.S. persons and other Western interests.”

The Pentagon believes he “posed a major threat to the region and international community.”

Just hours before Garar’s death was confirmed, al-Shabab, a militant Islamist organization, attacked a shop in the Kenyan town of Wajir, killing four people.

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