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Discover new species with drones that grab samples from hard to reach locations

Image credit: Mongabay

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Darko Savic
Darko Savic Aug 22, 2021
A long-range, autonomous drone with a device that grabs a sample and holds it for later examination. Find undiscovered species by collecting samples from random, hard-to-access locations.

Gradually comb the entire world for samples. Send scientists to remote locations and release the drones from there. The same thing can be done with underwater drones.

It's probably easiest to sample for microbes and plants using such a grab-and-retrieve drone. With some effort, the solution could be scaled up for insects and aquatic life.

A lot of creativity and hard work could turn this into a drone that detects and hunts smaller animals. If it is determined that the particular animal is not interesting enough to be examined, just replace the drone's battery and have it return the animal unharmed to its original location.

The drone (air)
  • long battery life for long distances
  • rotor guards so that the drone doesn't crash if it encounters a branch
  • advanced sensors to be able to navigate through canopies
  • cameras all around and live streaming of video
  • threat detection (humans, apes)
  • autonomous navigation
  • autonomous search for an optimal sample
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Creative contributions

People on hoverboards

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Povilas S
Povilas S Aug 25, 2021
I had a similar idea some time ago, just it involved humans exploring sensitive/protected natural environments while levitating on hoverboards. Some functioning hoverboards have already been invented, just that all of them are limited in one way or another. Supposing the efforts to invent a less limited, silent hoverboard won't be abandoned, one day they could be used for this purpose. The benefit of levitating on a hoverboard is that you could approach such sensitive, unexplored habitats silently from the air, without stepping on vegetation and thus attracting as little attention of wildlife as possible. This would best be used for live nature observations without intervening. It would be especially suitable for exploring arboreal wildlife.

Deploying small, cheap drones for scouting ahead first

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salemandreus
salemandreus Aug 30, 2021
Potentially you also want to use recon drones with cameras to first scout out and scope out new areas before sending in the more specialised sample collection drones. This would be ideal because recon drones could be smaller, faster, cheaper and more maneuverable in scouting the area where the specimens would be gathered from. They could then mark an exact GPS location to deploy the collection drone to. This process itself could be semi-automated as it detects an unknown specimen and the final approval for sending in the collector drone can be performed by a human if need be, or also be automatic.

Aside from the benefit of being faster at covering ground, and lower expense than deploying the larger collection drones every time (as you could then have a fleet of standard small recon drones with one or two collectors), first investigating the location via another drone would help mitigate risks if there are concerns about safety of the more expensive collector drones from the aforementioned predators or fears about drones disrupting a fragile ecosystem.

You could also use these recon drones to locate downed collector drones before manual retrieval to ensure the least dangerous and invasive route taken by humans to collect the drone, and prior investigation via cheaper and easily deployed drones would also be useful if you were not able to identify from the live footage of the downed drone what kind of animal attacked it, or if the visibility on the original drone was poor or the camera/livestream malfunctioned.
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Darko Savic
Darko Savic2 months ago
There could be a bigger collector drone that recovers any that are damaged.

Any downed drone would have an SOS location emitting signal that lasts for a few days

Technical and design considerations - including location/navigation accuracy, cameras, video live stream, live backup, sizing and potentially autonomous flight

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salemandreus
salemandreus Aug 30, 2021
Mark Rober on his second version of the glitter bomb, a revenge prank targeting package thieves and video-capturing their reactions, added some creative improvements to his original design. A fair number of his design strategies can lend some inspiration here, as well as other enhancements.

Surround Cameras:
He uses four of “the world’s finest [cellphone] cameras” (in his case he uses the entire cellphones themselves, one on each lateral side of the box, though we’d just use the cameras of course). Cellphone camera technology has become increasingly sharp in resolution through the demand for its development, so we’d have extensive options utilising tiny cameras if we end up wanting a very lightweight drone. For proper scouting out and observation of habitats we are gathering from, we may want to use at least 5 if not more cameras to capture around and below the drone for maximum viewing.

As an alternative to having multiple surrounding cameras and to avoid blind spots (besides the drone itself), we could alternatively use a small 360° camera that can be mounted to a drone, which is done in examples here and here with a regular front camera for more traditional steering. This might be particularly useful for observing the habitat around the sample or for observing natural habitats themselves if scouting for samples. We would want the camera mounted below the drone in order to capture the full landscape, possibly suspended fairly low down or not directly below to minimise the amount of above camera space blocked out by the drone.

Size constraints and considerations:
If we do go for the small 360° camera option we might then want to consider making the drone itself as small or narrow as aeronautically possible to maximise video capturing, which would be easier to do with only one camera. The size of the drone and thus the power required to fly a long distance would affect the requirements of the battery.

The size in turn would then be constrained depending on the size of samples we are collecting.
For example a small sample of soil, leaves or insects that that can fit in a small container or test tube or a small liquid sample that can potentially be captured by an eyedropper.
If we do want to collect larger samples, it would be ideal to add this functionality later as a feature. Starting with a lightweight drone for collecting smaller samples would be easy to optimise for sustained flights and quicker to build a working demo. It would require lighter constraints - we would require less power, a smaller lighter specimen container, less work in order to balance the sample being carried (as carrying a test tube of liquid or a small container of leaves or sand is far easier than transporting a living rodent for example) and we can also use lightweight robotics materials requiring less PSI of strength to gather samples as we would then be scooping a small teaspoon or two of sand, snipping small leaves or using our aforementioned eyedropper to draw small samples instead of sawing off larger twigs or potentially more complex lifting and balancing care in transporting something as large as a captured rodent.

It is also worth noting even a small sample drone may still need to handle more weight and balancing than a surveillance drone and we would still potentially be treading new ground by adding in the robotics for gathering, but minimizing size and strength constraints would still be easier in early iterations.

Tracking and navigation:
One of the benefits of his use of four cellphones was the inbuilt technology for using high location accuracy in case of GPS failure. While the Bluetooth and wifi detection functions may be less useful for navigation out in nature, using cellphone towers would help with another means to pinpoint accurate location than GPS trilateration, if, for example, only two GPS satellites are reachable. Thus even if this happens, also transmitting GPS coordinates and being tracked, the location at which it went down could then be identified in order to do any necessary retrieval. This is not to say we would need to use cellphones themselves (again except possibly in the prototype phase), but that we could consider using the same technology of hybridising GPS and also include cellphone signal in a separate lightweight phone or custom transmitting device as a backup/complementary signal device.
One of the most promising and new alternatives to GPS is how NASA and Near Earth Autonomy are working on breaking drones’ dependency on GPS in the case of its failure in order to enable autonomous drone navigation technology.

Autonomous navigation as a later feature
In terms of the abovementioned autonomous navigation technology itself, from a developmental standpoint, this has the potential for massive scope creep for reasons listed below, and so it makes sense to exclude it from the initial draft versions, where our concern would be getting the core functionality of stable and prolonged flight, specimen collection robotics and coordination, camera work and reliable navigation in low-signal areas working.

The reasons would be that autonomous drone navigation is still bleeding-edge technology, which also means potentially less supported, more prone to errors and more expensive and we would want to minimise the number of features while building out the core technology and getting a working prototype as soon as possible - this would be crucial in order to demonstrate our concept to potential investors and secure funding.

Livestream and Live Backup
The live stream in this case also includes live backup of footage in case the unit is destroyed or loses signal/battery or is otherwise unrecoverable so that no footage is lost with the drone. In this case, it would be ideal to deviate from Mark Rober’s method of backup, he uses cellphone data given his phones only start recording when the box is opened and only record a short video, which preserves both data and battery, but this obviously would not work for us in recording continuous drone footage so in the interests of avoiding using expensive and potentially intermittent mobile data for video backups directly from the drone, it would make sense to instead back up the stream from the controlling device (or a companion device) as it receives the drone’s video stream via First-Person View Technology, or FPV, which uses radio signal instead.

This technology can currently extend to a range five miles in regular drones and thousands of miles in the case of more specialised drones like military drones, making it feasible for the types of distances we may be considering for sample gathering although its specialised nature would add to its cost and effort to implement. However, with many companies like Amazon pushing long-distance drone technology the related flying and monitoring technologies will likely become ubiquitous and thus soon more affordable, supported and adaptable for our purposes.
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salemandreus
salemandreus2 months ago
To elaborate on my recommendation to keep the autonomous navigation recommendation as an add-on feature rather than core functionality: unless we have a large and ongoing investment from a very established company (and possibly even if we do) it makes sense to keep that as a secondary priority as we ourselves probably do not want to spearhead creating this technology itself as it would potentially be a massive scope creep rediverting our attention, we would potentially be spreading ourselves too thin on capabilities for a demo or early development models in allowing something that is not a core feature to occupy so much of our resources with the level of scope creep it entails.

We would also then essentially be competing with NASA’s partner company, which would be unnecessary if they can simply fund the research and development of the add-on tech themselves.

But even if we instead rely on that company, bleeding-edge tech is a higher risk to adopt as it is still developing, by fewer providers, or in this case, a singular external provider, which throws throw a curveball if their tech is scrapped or completely reworked, and we would want to keep this as something we can add on rather than something that holds back our drone’s other capabilities and limit other compatibilities as a hardware constraint, which bleeding edge tech is likely to do due to being early draft, having less support and thus generally very specific and outlandish hardware and firmware constraints for compatibility - for example, it may require only a certain larger sized or smaller sized unit, which would immediately constrain how our drone can collect samples and other flight and distance capabilities.

Thus we would not want or to so severely constrain our drone’s other abilities around such an unreliable dependency unnecessarily when such a new tech may still develop further and improve in a new form, so keeping this functionality in particular as modular and secondary as possible and not locked into the core functionality would be a highly prudent decision.

The backup of the livestream, by comparison, might be also considered a “feature”, but crucially it would be trivial to implement while still granting significant benefits. It also is closer to our core functionality needs of the study, navigation, gathering and unit recovery, the tech is less groundbreaking and less constraining technology (particularly if recording from the receiving device’s stream or a companion device) than the autonomous navigation and thus would make sense to include as early as possible in our early developmental models if not even in our demo model when marketing to investors.

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General comments

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Darko Savic
Darko Savic2 months ago
This idea basically proposes alien abductions, only we are the aliens:)