We generally hear about drone aircraft killing people in war zones. But there's a reverse side to that narrative—an autonomous copter can drop medicine and supplies to people stranded after a natural disaster even when roads have been demolished. A humanitarian group called Ideate recently tested drones' viability as a real-world delivery vehicle in one of the harshest, most brutal environments imaginable—Burning Man.
Brent reported live from Burning Man last week, in a possibly fruitless attempt to convince Joe that this trip should not come out of his vacation time.
When disaster strikes a developing nation, aid workers face a "last mile" problem. Medicine and supplies can generally reach cities, but it's difficult to get them past the last mile to remote villages where stranded people really need help. But even in the most remote villages in the world today, someone almost always has a cell phone. In Ideate's plan, the cell phone could be used to send an emergency text message, and using the phone's GPS for navigation, a drone carrying medicine could be dispatched from a nearby city. Theoretically.
To test the plan, Ideate—a part of the San Francisco nonprofit ReAllocate, founded by Prototype This! host Dr. Mike North—brought the system to the rugged environment of northern Nevada. The basic plan was for a Burning Man attendee to walk into a shipping container, strike a pose, and let a pair of Xbox Kinects scan their image, using specialized software by 3D3 Solutions called KScan3D. That data travels to a second shipping container that's been modified to be a clean-room with computers and three 3D Cube printers made by Cubify. While one of those prints out a plastic action figure of you, Ideate sends you on your way with a GPS transmitter. When your statue is ready, the transmitter vibrates, and you wait in a clear area for a multi-rotor drone copter to deliver your new toy. You put the GPS transmitter on the copter, and it returns home.
To make the delivery happen, Ideate tapped two pioneers in the drone field. Zurich-based Sergei Lupashin, best known for his YouTube videos of drones juggling balls and flying in balletic formations, brought several small quad-rotors, and worked at tackling the software side of the problem. For the heavy lifting (and windier days), San Francisco-based Ziv Marom of ZM Interactive had his octocopter, and insane 12-rotored dochechacopter, which is capable of lifting over 30 pounds.
The project was, beyond the art cars, one of the most technologically intriguing endeavors at Burning Man. Google's Sergey Brin stopped by to check it out, wearing a blue cape, Vibram Five Fingers, and, of course, Google Glass (which he told me worked surprisingly well in the desert) . When I arrived to be the first guinea pig, I was told I missed Elon Musk by five minutes.