Delivering supplies to unreachable locations, tracking endangered wildlife, performing at the Coachella music festival—some of the many, varied uses for drone technology. The innovative and creative industries emerging from commercial drones are part of the history being documented at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
According to Roger Connor, the curator of the Museum’s remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft collection, visitors often walk right by an unexpected drone example at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia—the Grumman F6F-3K Hellcat. It was “one of the first significant uses of a drone outside of target practice,” Connor said, when the plane was sent on an unmanned flight into the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Photographic plates and other instrumentation on board the aircraft were used to take samples of what was going on inside the atomic clouds.
This is a perfect example of one of the use cases for drones, which Connor classifies at the “3 D’s”: dull, dirty, and dangerous. Flying into an atomic mushroom cloud? Dirty—meaning anything that’s chemically contaminated or radioactive. Need a flying target for practice by military pilots? That’s a dangerous mission that drones can be used for. Dull use cases are often ones where flights are longer than humans can withstand piloting an aircraft—but a drone can be up in the air for 24 or 48 hours without a problem.
These uses cases—and the economic angles, in particular—are pushing today’s commercial drone industry. For the past several years, the Museum has been acquiring what Connor describes as “breakthrough examples” of civilian drones (many of which will be on display for the first time in the upcoming We All Fly exhibition, as part of the Museum’s reimagining).
- DragonFlyer X4-ES: This DragonFlyer X4-ES became the first drone to save a human life. In 2013, a man was driving in rural area of the Canadian province Saskatchewanwhen his car flipped over. It was winter in a remote, wooded area, and the man wandered away from the wreck. First responders couldn’t locate the crash victim, even with a helicopter using infrared equipment. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer decided to deploy this DragonFlyer drone with an infrared camera attached. In just a few minutes, they found the injured driver, unresponsive and huddled near a snow bank. Without the drone, police would have had to wait to start further search-and-rescue missions until the morning—and it’s likely the driver wouldn’t have survived. The DragonFlyerwill be on display in the Museum’s new We All Fly exhibition.
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- Flirtey F3.0 Hexacopter “Nemesis”: The Flirtey, the first delivery drone approved for use in the United States, got the OK from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a humanitarian mission. In the summer of 2015, there was a health fair in southwest Virginia for low-income residents of the region. General aviators flew planes with medicine into local airports, but the fair wasn’t close by. So, this drone was used to take medicine from the airport to the people who needed it—bridging the gap for people in less connected areas of the country. You can see the Flirtey “Nemesis” as part of the upcoming We All Fly exhibit.
- InstantEye: In July 2014, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) became the first utility company to receive approval from the FAA to conduct inspections using drones. Not only are infrastructure inspections like checking power lines labor intensive, they can be dangerous, too. Drones can help save human lives and reduce costs for companies—for the SDG&E, that meant flying a drone up to check the power lines. The InstantEye also fits in the palm of your hand—making it the smallest registered aircraft in the Museum’s collection.
- Insitu ScanEagle x200: The ScanEagle has a long and interesting history of uses, though it was never used for what it was initially developed for—helping fishers scout tuna fleets from above. The “clever” design, as Connor described it, launches via catapult from the boat. To land it, you don’t need a net. Instead, a precise GPS system lets it hit a hanging rope, which snags the drone’s wing, and catches it.
Tuna captains never picked up on the technology, but the military did (it was most notably used in the 2009 rescue of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips). The ScanEagle also became a pioneer for the FAA’s commercial integration of drones into the national air system. During the FAA’s testing phase, they used the ScanEagle in the remote north shore of Alaska, working with petroleum companies to monitor the local wildlife. The ScanEagle is quiet enough at altitude to let researchers track various species without scaring them away.
During the Smithsonian’s 2017 Ingenuity Festival, you can see a new generation of drone technology at our Museum in Washington, DC. Exyn Technologies, the commercial arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Sensory & Perception (GRASP) lab will be demonstrating its autonomous drone on Thursday, November 30. These drones are designed to navigate complex environments using onboard sensors and artificial intelligence, including the “Fukushima Challenge,” an obstacle course designed to test how a drone could be used in a nuclear disaster. During Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, radiation was too high for a helicopter to fly over it. The United States military provided drones to peer into the damaged reactor buildings, and the GRASP lab is taking it to the next level. Their automated drone is designed to go into a dangerous area and navigate around things like broken wires and fallen beams, to scan and take photographs for rescue teams.
On Thursday, November 30, see drones in action at the Smithsonian’s Ingenuity Festival. Join the Museum for a day of space and aviation exploration, and follow the conversation online with #SmithsonianIngenuity.