How mini drones make maps: a TEDx Talk explores drone-powered 3D maps

We’ve all heard story after story about drones. How they’re delivering medicine, tracking endangered animals, entering into war, playing catch and learning to make decisions in groups. But did you know they can map?

At TEDxEcoleHoteliereLausanne in Switzerland, electronic cartographer Olivier Küng spoke about the power of drones to revolutionize map-making techniques.

“Visual knowledge of the Earth is so important — so valuable,” he says in his talk, “that right now there are dozens of satellites dedicated to this task [of mapping the Earth] and thousands of aircrafts taking images of the Earth every single day.

"Thanks to initiatives such as Google Earth or OpenStreetMap, this data has become accessible to everyone — even on your mobile phones. However, who controls this data? Who controls when, where, and how these images, these maps, are taken?

"Control of most of the satellites are inside of the hands of military, governments, and large, multinational corporations. What possibility is there for an individual or for a small institution to acquire aerial maps? What possibility is there for an individual or for a small company to decide when, where, and how these images are taken?"

The answer, he says, is mapping drones: small, autonomous aircrafts about the size of a pigeon. “They are lightweight, inherently safe, and can cover multiple square kilometers,” Küng explains. “This can make a huge difference for individuals, corporations and institutions, which are in desperate need for aerial images, aerial maps, but [for whom] none has — until now — been available.”

With his company Pix4D, Küng has created software that takes the thousands of images a mapping drone takes while in flight and transforms them into interactive 3-D maps. How are these maps being used? Says Küng, by farmers seeking to monitor vast distances of crops and fields, by mining companies that need to measure extensive mines, even by an oil tanker that became trapped by ice in Alaska and needed to find a safe way out.

Yet, the most important question that progress in drone technology raises, Küng says, is: "What would you do with it?"


Watch the entire talk here, and find more great TEDx Talks on our YouTube channel.

(Above, samples of drone-photographed 3D maps and Küng with a mapping drone at TEDxEcoleHoteliereLausanne)

Just what can we hack? Cars, drones, GPS? At TEDxAustin, a hacker explores

imageTodd Humphreys’s hacked drone

After news broke that two security researchers, Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller, hacked into the systems of moving cars with just a laptop, gaining the ability to jerk seatbelts, turn wheels, and kill breaks, the vulnerability of modern devices is hard to ignore.

At TEDxAustin last year, researcher Todd Humphreys spoke of such attacks, explaining how one could easily hack a litany of items with a simple “GPS spoofer.” A GPS spoofer is a device designed to mimic GPS signals that, Todd says in his talk, could create opportunities to run a ship off course, redirect an airplane, even manipulate the measure of time used by the New York Stock Exchange.

In fact, just last June, Todd’s research group at the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas successfully hijacked a civilian drone at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico during a test organized by the Department of Homeland Security, as reported by Wired.

"The key, said Todd in his TEDxAustin talk, "is that civil GPS signals are completely open. They have no encryption. They have no authentication. They’re wide open, vulnerable to a kind of spoofing attack…

As usual, what we see just beyond the horizon is full of promise and peril.”

Now Todd’s group is making waves for having hacked a ship’s navigation system with just “a laptop, a small antenna and an electronic GPS ‘spoofer’.”

With this hack, says Todd, a ship could be manipulated to go off course, allowing hackers to fool captains and crews into believing their ship is somewhere it isn’t, even when the compass reads the right heading.

“People need to know this kind of thing is possible,” he told Fox News.

Below, watch Todd’s talk in full and read more about his work on the TED Blog:

(Photo: Wired and Todd Humphreys)

Drones for good: Andreas Raptopoulos at TEDxHelvetia

Much has been said about the destructive capabilities of autonomous flying robots — also known as drones — and less about their potential for good.

TEDx speaker Andreas Raptopoulos wants to start that conversation, and at TEDxHelvetia he did, by introducing Matternet — a project designed to use small, flying autonomous robots to deliver medicine to places inaccessible by typical modes of transportation.

From his talk:

One billion people do not have access to all-season roads. One-seventh of the Earth’s population are disconnected from all socioeconomic activity for some part of the year. 

They cannot get medicine reliably. They cannot get goods. They cannot get their goods to market in order to find a sustainable path out of poverty.

Now mainstream thinking suggests that these nations should invest in building roads — following the lead of the developed world. It’s a pretty tall order. It’s estimated that in some countries, it may take them 50 years to catch up…

We saw that and we thought, ‘…There has to be another way.’ So we asked the question, ‘Can these countries leapfrog?’ After all, many of these nations have excellent telecommunications today, but they’ve never put copper lines in the ground. Could we do the same for transportation? We believe we can.

Imagine this scenario: You are in a maternity ward in Mali and you have a newborn in need of urgent medication. What do you do? Well…you place a request by mobile phone; somebody gets that request immediately: that part works. But the medicine may take days to arrive: that’s the part that’s broken.

We believe we can fix this. We believe we can deliver the medicine within hours — or even minutes — with an electric, autonomous, medical supply vehicle…

The beauty of this technology is its autonomy. There’s no pilot needed to fly this vehicle. They fly using GPS waypoints from one landing station to the next. Once they arrive at a landing station, they swap battery and load automatically. This is the heart of our system

It turns out that it’s amazingly cost-effective. In order to transport two kilograms over 10 kilometers, the cost is only 24 cents…

We believe that Matternet can do for the transportation of matter what the Internet did for the flow of information.

Says TED speaker Ray Kurzweil of the project — in conversation with Fast Company, "The developed world has a huge lead over the developing world in infrastructure but our strategy should be to leapfrog these already obsolete and crumbling systems with 21st century solutions. That’s what we did with phone systems as developing societies went right to wireless and will never put in a wired land line system. Bits are already being widely distributed to emerging economies. Matternet will do that for atoms."

Matternet photo via Electronic Products