Amazon’s Real Future Isn’t Drones. It’s Self-Driving Trucks – DAVEY ALBA. 12.20.16. 1:59 PM


DJI Phantom 4 Pro: Price and Details | BRENT ROSE 11.15.16 5:30 PM

DJI’s Phantom line of consumer drones is the 800-pound gorilla of the industry. And now, the company’s latest flying machine, the Phantom 4 Pro, looks like it’s poised to be the new king of the skies.phantom-4-pro_5-1024x768

The Phantom 4 Pro is an upgrade from last year’s Phantom 4. You can now fly a full 31 miles per hour while obstacle avoidance is engaged. Previously, if you wanted to go that fast, you had to put the drone into Sport Mode, which disengaged crash avoidance. It has rear sensors now, too, so you have obstacle avoidance even when you’re backing up. A new return-to-home feature retraces the path it originally took (more or less), so there’s even less chance of it crashing if you lose you connection with the remote (plus, obstacle avoidance will be engaged). It’s debuting infrared sensors, too, and even more angles—basically, you now have to try pretty hard to actually crash the thing. All of this, plus the flight time has been bumped to a generous 30 minutes.

The onboard camera now has an upgraded 1-inch sensor with 20-megapixel still photo capabilities. That larger sensor gives it 11.6 stops of dynamic range, which should keep your shots looking great even when your subject backlit (think sunset landscape). It can shoot 4K at speeds of up to 60 frames per second and bitrates of up to 100Mbps.

There’s an option for a more advanced remote with a built-in 5.5 inch touch display, which is all kinds of awesome. DJI promises lower latency of the video streaming from the video. (The touchscreen remote is one of the things I loved about the GoPro Karma remote—I’ve always hated dealing with pairing a device with the remote.) You can draw a path on the touchscreen, and the drone will follow that path like it’s on a rail. You can repeat that again and again, too. The TapFly feature can now go forward or backward (thanks to those rear obstacle sensors) so you can do automatic reveal shots.

Pre-orders begin today. The Phantom 4 Pro will go for $1,500 will require you to attach your own phone or tablet to the remote to use as a screen. If you want build-in display then get the Phantom 4 Pro+ for $1,800. Pricey on both counts, but dang they look sweet. DJI says orders will begin shipping next week.

Inspire 2

DJI upgraded another one of its flagship drones today. The Inspire 2 is the new DJI drone meant to appeal to professional filmmakers. The Inspire 2 is roughly the same size as the original. It still does the very cool (and kind of creepy) midair Klingon Bird of Prey transforming bit, which keeps the rotors out of the way of your shot.

The new drone can stay aloft for up to 27 minutes—up from roughly 18 minutes on the original. DJI also borrowed from its own Phantom 4 and put obstacle avoidance sensors on the Inspire 2, which is reassuring considering how big it is and how fast it can go: top speed is now 67 mph, and it go from zero to 50 in four seconds.

Camera options have been upgraded too. There’s the Zenmuse X5S, which is an upgraded Micro Four Thirds sensor capable of 20.8 megapixles. It can shoot 4K 60fps, and it has 12.8 stops of dynamic range. It can shoot RAW photos at 20 shots per second, which is extremely impressive. It has more than half a dozen swappable lenses, too, so you have a lot of options for angles. Another option is the Zenmuse X4S which is a 1-inch sensor that shoots 20-megapixel stills, but it can crank shutter speeds nice and high.

Preorders for the Inspire 2 start today for $3,000, and it will ship in December. Spendy! But if you’re an indie production company with some cash burning a hole in your pocket, this will probably be the standard-bearer for prosumer drones going forward.

US drone strike kills key al-Shabab leader in Somalia – Spencer Ackerman Friday 1 April 2016 17.42 EDT

Pentagon press secretary, said an airstrike conducted on Thursday targeted Hassan Ali Dhoore, a ‘senior leader’ of the Somali terror group al-ShabaabUS military Somalia strikes

A US drone strike in Somalia has killed a key leader of the al-Shabab militant group who was involved in two attacks in Mogadishu more than a year ago, killing Americans, several US officials said on Friday.

It was the US military’s second strike in a month on terrorist targets in Somalia, a country against which the US has never declared war.

Hassan Ali Dhoore and two others were killed in the strike Thursday about 20 miles (32 kilometres) south of Jilib in southern Somalia not far from the Kenyan border, the officials said.

They said Dhoore helped facilitate a deadly Christmas Day 2014 attack at the airport and a March 2015 attack at the Maka al-Mukarramah hotel, both in the Somali capital. US citizens were among those killed in the attacks, the officials said.

On 5 March, US-piloted warplanes and drones attacked a Somali training camp for al-Shabaab, killing more than 100 people. While the exact death toll is disputed, according to an eyewitness and other local sources contacted by the Guardian, the strike was likely the single most lethal conducted by the US for a counterterrorism operation since 9/11.

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White House Will Reveal How Many People the U.S. Has Killed With Drones – by Clay Dillow MARCH 7, 2016, 4:12 PM EST

A breakdown of terrorist and civilian deaths.

A breakdown of terrorist and civilian deaths.

A senior White House aide said Monday that the White House will soon disclose how many terrorism suspects the U.S. has killed via drone strikes since President Obama took office, marking the first such disclosure surrounding the controversial program.

Lisa Monaco, a counter-terrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama, said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations Monday that the increased transparency will help shore up public support for the administration’s use of lethal drone strikes. While there’s no set date for the release of the data—which tallies drone deaths going back to 2009—it will happen in the “coming weeks.”

“Not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counter-terrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” Monaco said. She also noted that the report will continue annually, though with less than a year left in office, it remains unclear if the next administration will continue the practice.

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Official data surrounding the use of lethal drone strikes by the U.S. Air Force and the C.I.A. has been virtually non-existent in the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001 when drone strikes became an accepted and now often common method of striking at terrorism suspects abroad. Human rights groups have long called for two U.S. administrations to release more data about the drone program, including how decisions are made with respect to approving targets and how many civilians have been killed as a consequence of the strikes.

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Report: Obama Administration Makes ‘No Progress’ On Drone Program Transparency – Carrie Johnson February 23, 2016 12:01 AM ET

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, carrying a Hellfire missile, lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on Jan. 7.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, carrying a Hellfire missile, lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on Jan. 7. — John Moore/Getty Images

The Obama administration has made “virtually no progress” to increase transparency and accountability for its lethal drone program, a new report has concluded, with only months left to spare before the White House hands control of the targeted killing apparatus to a successor.

The report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center said the administration is failing to release fundamental information about the program or to significantly overhaul it — even after a 2015 strike mistakenly left American contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto dead.

“We have seen relatively few successes,” said Rachel Stohl, a researcher at the center. “The administration has been unwilling to provide the number of strikes, even in aggregate; the number of civilian casualties that they estimate that have occurred because of those strikes; the legal justification, unless required by court order, that allows the program to continue; so even on the most basic levels, what is the program doing, we don’t know.”

A bipartisan task force called on the White House nearly two years ago to reconsider its reliance on targeted killing of suspected terrorists, in part, because the strikes may be doing more harm than good by fomenting hatred overseas. But Stimson researchers said they’ve uncovered little evidence anything like that reorientation has happened.

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Raffaello D’Andrea: Meet the dazzling flying machines of the future – Filmed February 2016 at TED2016

When you hear the word “drone,” you probably think of something either very useful or very scary. But could they have aesthetic value? Autonomous systems expert Raffaello D’Andrea develops flying machines, and his latest projects are pushing the boundaries of autonomous flight — from a flying wing that can hover and recover from disturbance to an eight-propeller craft that’s ambivalent to orientation … to a swarm of tiny coordinated micro-quadcopters. Prepare to be dazzled by a dreamy, swirling array of flying machines as they dance like fireflies above the TED stage.

China’s Factories Hunt for Growing Markets – By GILLIAN WONG Updated Feb. 13, 2016 5:35 a.m. ET

Amid economic slowdown Shenzhen turns focus to drones, 3-D printers and robots

A Shenzhen Rapoo Technology Co. in Shenzhen, China, is using its manufacturing automation know-how to build high tech products like quadcopters as the market for its computer peripherals shrinks. ENLARGE

A Shenzhen Rapoo Technology Co. in Shenzhen, China, is using its manufacturing automation know-how to build high tech products like quadcopters as the market for its computer peripherals shrinks. Photo: Gillian Wong/The Wall Street Journal


Gillian Wong

Updated Feb. 13, 2016 5:35 a.m. ET

SHENZHEN, China—As global investors fret over the health of China’s stuttering economy, some battered manufacturers in the industrial south are pinning their hopes on moving up the technology ladder.

Inside the factory of struggling electronics maker Shenzhen Rapoo Technology Co., robotic arms that for years swiveled and bent to churn out computer mice and keyboards are now reaching further up the gadget spectrum: making consumer drones. Such products, it expects, will deliver bigger margins and find new customers as its original business shrinks.

Like many companies in Shenzhen—the city bordering Hong Kong that helped power China’s industrialization over the past 35 years by mass producing cheap toys, clothes and household goods for the world—Rapoo is racing against the clock to find new markets that will let it thrive again.

“If you know only one move well, can you really be unbeatable and not have to change for 10 years?” said Xie Haibo, Rapoo’s board secretary, a wiry 37-year-old who was skipping lunch one day last month to prepare to meet potential customers. “That’s the kind of problem we face, so we need to transform, transform, transform.”

Across Shenzhen, small manufacturers increasingly are turning out 3-D printers, hoverboards and robots that are expected to continue to grow, a view encouraged by visits and financial incentives from China’s leaders. Beijing wants the upgrade to help pull the country through a painful economic transition from infrastructure investment to a consumer model.

The city that Deng Xiaoping anointed in the late 1970s to lead China’s market reforms is once more showing the way forward. Its economy grew 8.9% last year, faster than the national expansion of 6.9%. High-tech and advanced manufacturing grew at almost double the national average, in terms of share of GDP.

China’s economic woes are largely imperceptible here, in contrast to the depressed towns built on state-run mining and steel companies that are suffering from collapsing demand. The city is home to the world’s biggest drone maker by revenue, SZ DJI Technology Co., boasts a thriving Internet startup scene and hosts technology giants such as Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s biggest telecoms networking gear provider, and Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd.

The country’s economic slowdown has even brought an unexpected benefit for once-bustling hardware makers and startups: excess factory capacity.

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Things Will Get Messy if We Don’t Start Wrangling Drones Now – TIM MOYNIHAN 01.30.16. 7:00 AM

Parker Gyokeres knows what he’s doing with a drone. A retired US Air Force photojournalist, Gyokeres now runs his own aerial photography business, and has flown photo and video missions for clients as varied as Wu-Tang Clan, the Department of Defense, and Nike.

But once in a while, Gyokeres’s DJI Inspire drone won’t take off. There’s nothing wrong with the UAV, and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s the work of built-in geofencing software, invisible guardrails that stop pilots straying into restricted areas—mostly no-fly zones like airports, but also entire cities like Washington, DC, public areas like Tiananmen Square, and, apparently, decommissioned blimp bases.

“I went to a job in Massachusetts, and I went to arm the vehicle, and it wouldn’t arm because it was on the perimeter of an abandoned Navy airfield.” Gyokeres says. Naval Air Station South Weymouth in Abington, Massachusetts—a former Navy airfield that served as the home of blimp squadron ZP-11 during World War II—hasn’t been in operation since 1997. Still, the “No Fly Zone” feature in DJI’s A2 Flight Controller system had it tagged as off-limits. And because the system’s no-fly zones are hooked up to a geofencing system, Gyokeres’ mission was auto-grounded. That canceled flight is a good example of how drone geofencing systems work, and where they can cause problems.

In these early days of the drone craze, automated geofencing systems have been put in place by manufacturers including 3D Robotics, DJI, and Yuneec to curb reckless flying. In the most basic sense, geofencing can prevent a drone from taking off or entering restricted airspace based on its GPS coordinates. Geofencing is appealing because recent history shows drone pilots can’t be trusted to stay out of trouble. Drones have interfered with firefighting operations, been spotted by airline pilots around airports, and even crash-landed on the White House lawn. (That last one led to a blanket ban on flying drones in the nation’s capital.)

And with drones quickly filling our skies—the FAA predicted a million would be sold last holiday season alone, and the civilian UAV market could be worth nearly $4 billion in less than a decade—finding a way to make sure they all behave responsibly is increasingly important.

While it’s understandable that drone manufacturers and regulators want to err on the side of caution in terms of safety, these early geofencing systems are prone to errors and confusion. “These things aren’t necessarily bad, because the market isn’t mature at this point,” says Gartner research director Brian Blau. “The devices are only in their infancy, and we’re confident that over the years, some of these issues are going to get worked out—specifically around no-fly zones.”

That resolution may come very soon. In the next year or two, geofencing systems in many high-end drones will get more accurate, more dynamic, and more communicative. They’ll also start to work with lower-end drones—machines that don’t even have GPS. Down the line, geofencing systems could also help power safe autonomous flight, paving the way for those delivery drones Amazon and Google really want to deploy.

The Problems With Current Geofencing Systems

Most early systems, such as the DJI “No Fly Zone” feature that launched in 2013, were developed by the manufacturers themselves. And while it was relatively easy for these companies to hard-code no-fly zones into drone software based on areas that are always restricted (like airports and the White House), it’s harder to keep drones consistently updated with new and changing restrictions. The FAA is constantly setting up temporary no-go zones: airspace over live sporting events, wildfires, presidential motorcades, things like that. Not only did primitive geofencing systems spit out false positives like that old blimp base, they wouldn’t know anything about newly closed areas.

Another hiccup: Right now, geofencing systems are only found in higher-end “prosumer” drones, ones that require substantial skill (and money) to operate. Their pilots tend to be professionals, often with FAA permission to uses drones for commercial purposes like aerial photography, videography, and cinematography. These are the folks who tend to be most aware of airspace restrictions and the nuances of flying responsibly. Meanwhile, geofencing systems don’t come with cheaper, toy-like drones, whose controls are more likely to be in the hands of kids or inexperienced operators. In other words, these geofencing systems can limit the very pilots who are more likely to fly responsibly.

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How Rogue Techies Armed the Predator, Almost Stopped 9/11, and Accidentally Invented Remote War – ARTHUR HOLLAND MICHEL. 12.17.15. 7:00 AM

Predator 034, the first drone that a Hellfire missile was ever fired from. Photographed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  BRYAN DERBALLA

Predator 034, the first drone that a Hellfire missile was ever fired from. Photographed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. BRYAN DERBALLA

On the afternoon of October 7, 2001, the first day of the war in Afghanistan, an Air Force pilot named Scott Swanson made history while sitting in a captain’s chair designed for an RV. His contribution to posterity was to kill someone in a completely novel way.

In the moments leading up to the act, Swanson was nervous. He sat in a darkened trailer tucked behind a parking garage at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, remotely piloting a Predator drone over Kandahar, 6,900 miles away. Nearly everything about his rig had been cobbled together and hastily assembled. The Predator itself, one of just a handful in existence, was flying about 250 pounds heavier than usual. And the satellite communications link that connected Swanson to the aircraft would periodically shut down due to a power issue, which software engineers in California were frantically trying to patch.

When the order came through to take the shot, Swanson pulled a trigger on his joystick. A little more than a second later, a Hellfire missile slid off an aluminum rail on the Predator’s wing and sailed into the Afghan night.

Swanson’s target was a pickup truck parked outside a compound thought to be hiding Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban. The missile killed two unidentified men believed to have been his bodyguards. It was the first time a US drone had fired a weapon in combat. It was the first time a modern drone had ever killed a human being.

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