Crash-proof ‘drone in a cage’ flies away with $1 million prize

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CNN  — 

For most drones, a tendency to crash into stationary objects would be seen as a design flaw – for “Gimball,” it’s the secret of its success.

Its creators – Swiss company Flyability – are traveling home from Dubai $1 million richer after winning the “Drones for Good” international competition, on February 7.

Gimball is described as the first “collision-tolerant drone,” utilizing a rotating spherical outer cage that means it can be used safely in close proximity with people. Designed to enter hostile environments – such as burning buildings and radioactive sites – Gimball maps its surroundings and can roll across ceilings and floors, navigating restricted areas, and transmit RGB and infrared images back to disaster relief services.

Unlike other rescue robots, where colliding with obstacles could spell the end of an expedition, Gimball is able to bounce back without losing its bearings or damaging its in-built camera.

The design was inspired by the sight of a fly bouncing against a window in an effort to escape.

“We were wondering why insects were so capable of going inside any building – yet had limited senses such as eyesight,” explained co-creator Adrien Briod. “One capability that was completely overlooked was their ability to collide into surfaces. For insects this isn’t a big deal – but it is for robots.”

First announced by the United Arab Emirates government in February 2014, the reason for the “Drones for Good” competition was simple: drones have an image problem. Whether they’re used to conduct bombing missions or disperse protesters, military and security forces have long defined drone capabilities in the public’s imagination. High-profile incidents involving civilian amateurs, such as the recent crash at the White House, have not helped to change opinions.

This is a shame, admitted Drones for Good project manager Saif Al Aleeli, because “at the end of the day, they’re only a tool of technology. Our message is that we can use [them] for the good of people all over the world. We’ve already seen a lot of potential humanitarian uses.”

Drones for Good therefore sought to bring greater publicity to and boost the research and development of drones for civilian applications.

Over 800 teams entered from 57 nations, and the 19 semi-finalists spanned six continents, signifying the appeal of drones as a unitary solution for diverse problems. “Innovation doesn’t have an address,” Al Aleeli explained. “It comes from different geographic areas, from R&D centers and from the poor guy in Africa trying to provide a service or feed a certain need with technology.” The proposals, covering both international and heavily localized issues, reflect as such.

Best of the rest

Disaster relief was a prevalent theme among semi-finalists. Entries from The FRIENDS Project and Falcon Viz were designed to assess hazardous sites, negotiate tight spaces, identify victims and relay information of their whereabouts to emergency services.

Two proposals aided coastguards; the Robo Life Guard from Aeroatena became a floatation device for drowning people and contained a shark deterrent, whilst the entry from Coastguard New Zealand dropped life vests and rafts for those adrift at sea.

Ecology and agriculture also featured heavily. BioCarbon Engineering aimed to plant a billion trees a year by firing pre-germinated seed pods into depleted forests; Quantum System’s Transition UAV monitored crop conditions and fed data back to farmers; Waterfly assessed lakes and rivers for harmful cyanobacteria; and the UAE’s Khalifa University devised a cloud-seeding drone using eco-friendly dispersants.

Local solutions also made their way onto the shortlist, such as The Ranger Drone Project by HEMAV Academics. Designed to aid rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the drone could either hover above their vehicles, scoping the surrounding area, or scan remotely, hunting for poachers using RGB and infrared cameras.

Many entries focused on item delivery. David Kiarie’s catered for the 7.8 million people living in Kenya’s urban slums, aiming to alleviate traffic and provide vital services in hard-to-reach areas. Skynet’s Delivery Catchment System markets itself as a solution for package safety, and Dronlife by Innova addresses the problem of transporting donated organs.

Despite the competition drawing to a close, the UAE’s interest in drone technology is continuing in earnest with its Government Summit 2015. Taking place February 9-11, the summit will focus on radically reshaping government and public services through drones, robotics and other innovation.