Diary of a drone pilot

Scarcely a day goes by when drones don’t capture the daily headlines. Public fascination with these flying devices is steadily rising. A quick Google search yields news that Amazon.com is planning to use drones to deliver packages. Hungry for pizza? In the future, a drone will drop one at your doorstep, with no tipping necessary! Yet, aside from personal deliveries, we aren’t even close to discovering the many positive uses for this emerging technology.

As a technology evangelist and trained UAS pilot (Unmanned Aerial System is the industry term) for Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, the demand for drones doesn’t surprise me. As technology has advanced and prices have dropped, everyone wants a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, another industry term) so it’s a bit like we’re back in the Wild West. Fortunately, Autodesk is committed to finding new technologies that will benefit our customers, and for me, that meant being trained and certified as one of the company’s research UAS pilots, and putting my experience to use in a number of interesting situations.

Flying for Fossils

My primary role as a tech evangelist is to find cutting-edge applications for technology and I get to do some pretty cool stuff, but my first assignment as one of the company’s UAS pilots was in a category all of its own. For this mission, Autodesk Chief Pilot Gonzalo Martinez and I were sent to Northern Kenya to assist Dr. Louise Leakey in her quest to uncover the oldest human and animal fossils ever known to man.

(Above) Louise Leakey monitors UAV fossil-finding efforts. (Below) me, left, and Gonzalo, center, with Kenyan locals.

For those of you who don’t know: Louise is the granddaughter of the renowned paleoanthropologist team Louis and Mary Leakey, whose hominid fossil findings convinced the world that humans first evolved in Africa. Louise has carried the family torch, living in Africa where she continues to explore for evidence of human evolution in the remote Turkana Basin.

One of the biggest challenges around fossil collection is simply finding the artifacts in the first place. In this vast setting, where temperatures often reach 120 degrees, archaeologists scour the desert floor, eyes peeled, searching for tiny fragments of bone. Since UAVs can be used as flying data collection tools, we knew we could help speed up the process.

We mounted a camera on a UAS and captured footage that a computer would then analyze to spot anything out of the ordinary. Each day, we covered an area using a pair of high-end, Octo-rotor UAVs with an attached mirrorless camera. During this time, many of the locals were convinced that miniature people were flying the crafts (they referred to as the “flying spider”) because they had never before seen a UAV, which certainly made for some very interesting conversations!

A group of Kenyan children, fascinated by the “flying spider.”

Ultimately, the fossils we helped uncover were photographed and converted into 3D digital models using technology like Autodesk Memento and then posted to the online laboratory AfricanFossils.org (another of Leakey’s projects), giving people all around the world the chance to explore and interact with the virtual fossils and even download and 3D print models. We also imported our captured data of the excavation site into Autodesk ReCap to create a 3D model of location for historical reference.

Utilizing technology like Memento, Africanfossils.org is able to convert photos of ancient fossils into 3D models to post in its virtual laboratory for everyone around the world to view and interact with online. Center photo credit: Robert Clark @robertclarkphoto.

Lighthouses, Reefs and Beyond

Heading off to Molokai might sound like an excuse for a vacation but this was another Autodesk assignment. While most people associate Hawaii with relaxing on the beach while sipping a tropical beverage, few know the island Molokai was once home to a settlement for people suffering from Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy.

In the early 1900s, lawmakers were reluctant to place a lighthouse near the leper colony, despite the fact that a large amount of Pacific coast commerce passes through the channel between Molokai and Oahu. A temporary light was constructed, and years later Congress finally appropriated money for a permanent lighthouse. This 132-foot octagonal tower is Hawaii’s tallest, now listed on the National Register of Historical places, and established as Kalaupapa National Park.

The historical lighthouse at Kalaupapa National Park.

As part of historical preservation efforts by the National Park Services (NPS), Autodesk was asked and given approval to capture aerial footage of the lighthouse to convert into 3D models as assurance that a permanent record of this culturally significant site will be available at the click of a mouse for future generations.

The crew and I flying a UAS on Molokai.

Autodesk was already working at Kalaupapa with NPS on another project to capture underwater scans of coral reefs, alongside Sly Lee who runs the non-profit science organization, The Hydrous, whose mission is to protect, preserve and educate the public on the world’s disappearing coral reefs. This ambitious organization is using photogrammetry to capture entire segments of coral reefs and turn them into detailed 3D models using Memento, allowing accurate measurement and monitoring of these valuable biological organisms over time. With approvals, I flew a UAV above the reef off the coast of Kalaupapa to document the project. It was absolutely phenomenal and visually stunning.

An aerial image, taken off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, during a UAS research mission of the world’s second largest barrier reef system, the Mesoamerican.

Have You Seen This Dog?

Being a trained pilot means that sometimes you don’t need to look for a situation to use your UAS — instead, a situation might find you.

While on holiday this summer in Oregon, I received a message from a friend at a disaster-response organization who needed help finding a missing Search and Rescue dog. She knew I had my own personal UAV, and I was happy to help out: an aerial search over the fields would help cover nearly 80% of the territory where the dog might be, narrowing down the areas the searchers would have to scour on foot.

An aerial image of the fields, taken by UAV, during the search for the missing Search and Rescue dog.

Using a quad-rotor UAV, I flew above the fields at approximately 300 feet and finished within an hour and fifteen minutes. Having cleared that area, the searchers could then focus on the wooded creek areas instead of the grass fields and pastures, and they eventually found the black Labrador they were looking for. Myself, I was just happy to have saved the searchers a couple days walking through all those fields.

Back at home

Autodesk is also focused on our traditional customers in the design and construction industries so we closely follow the use of UAVs for research projects to capture data that will be used to create 3D models from photos of everything from buildings, stadiums, terrain, and even large dike systems in the southern United States. Gonzalo, who as chief pilot has been flying a lot longer than me, says he still finds it “remarkable the amount of data that can be captured from UAV sensors. That data can be moved to the cloud, and processed to provide solutions to many different industries, including civil engineering, architecture, process and plants and the motion picture industries.”

An aerial image taken with a UAS then processed into a 3D model using Autodesk ReCap technology.

Over the years, I’ve certainly had my share of interesting experiences with UAVs — from design to construction, archaeological assistance to historical preservation efforts, to search & rescue missions — but I have no doubt that the best is still to come. We’re early days yet in the world of UAS, and there are sure to be real-world uses that we haven’t even imagined.

And personally, as a UAS pilot, I can’t wait to try them out.

About the Author

Shaan Hurley is a blogger and technologist for the Office of the CTO at Autodesk Inc. To see video from Autodesk’s African UAV assignment, click here.