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First Flights

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For the past four years, Drones4Good – a collaborative group from The Bartlett and UCL – has been educating young people in the use of drone technology.

First Flights

A student uses goggles to see what the drone sees.

Credit: All images by UCL Engineering / Drones4Good

First Flights

Frames are printed in the shape of dragonflies, butterflies, X- or H-frames.

Drones, once the preserve of the military, are fast-becoming ubiquitous in commercial and civil circles, where they’re used for everything from monitoring crops to inspecting pipelines. There is also a huge consumer market: by 2020, there are expected to be 7.8 million drone purchases in the US compared to just 450,000 in 2014, according to Goldman Sachs Research.

This rapid growth has prompted governments to make publicly available regulations and guidelines for using ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’. But as the drone incident that grounded flights at London’s Gatwick Airport in December 2018, and the new rules that followed from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, showed – the practical and ethical questions of drone use are still being ironed out.

This is why it’s important to get people thinking about the technology as early as possible, believes Dr Richard Milton, Senior Researcher at The Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA). With co-founder Dr Flora Roumpani, a CASA alumna and now Alan Turing Institute Research Fellow, they set up Drones4Good in 2015 to demonstrate to school students how they can use mainstream tools such as drone technology for ‘good’.

“The idea was to recycle the technology we were using and the expertise we’d gained in our own work, and create something really hands on, where the students could make up their own minds,” says Milton. “We wanted to create an environment where it was safe for things to go wrong.”

Grounded in reality

The Drones4Good workshop was inspired by Roumpani’s work on the ReMap Lima project, processing drone outputs with PhD supervisor Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith. The project, a collaboration between The Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit, CASA and Drone Adventures, used drones to map favela areas.

First Flights

Richard Milton demonstrates the CASA custom-built drone to students.

First Flights

Flora Roumpani talks students through one of the 3D scans made during the ReMap Lima project.

Drones4Good runs one or two workshops a year for 12–18 year-olds, mostly for disadvantaged schools around London, organised as part of the Engineering Engagement: Young People & Schools programme by Elpida Makrygianni at the UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences. The team, which includes Milton’s and Roumpani’s CASA colleague Olly Dawkins, as well as researchers and students from CASA, won the ‘Collaborate to Innovate’ Provost’s Engineering Engagement Award in 2018 for their Drones4Good workshops.

Milton says the workshops became popular precisely because they combined drones – as well as other technology that the students wouldn’t normally see outside a university such as 3D printing and VR – with political issues. “We will talk about artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. If a self-driving car runs a person over, who is responsible? The software, the manufacturer, the driver…We’ll ask the students to consider the ethical issues.”

A typical workshop, like the one they ran for year-12 students in Hackney last year, involves an introduction on the mechanics of drones and the technology that supports them. They get to build their own ‘mini quadcopter’ using frames that the CASA team has 3D printed.

Frames are printed in the shape of dragonflies, butterflies, X- or H-frames – “away from the aggressive shaped drones,” says Milton – and controllers and motors are attached with foam tape and elastic bands. Students are encouraged to think about linking electronics with the design of their drones, to think about balance and maneuverability.

This is deliberate, says Milton: “The magic has gone out of technology a little bit – now people just expect things to work, which is why we design the workshop around building your own, so that it doesn’t work and you have to figure out why.”

The same goes for flying. “They all think they can drive a car, but a drone has six degrees of freedom. It’s easy to crash.” The team will use all of these opportunities to talk to students about what they are and aren’t allowed to do, about the UK Drone Code and its application to things like mapping.

First Flights

A student flight tests their drone.

Expanding horizons

Drawing on her experiences working on the ReMap Lima project, Roumpani shows the students how drones, set up with a simple video camera, can become data-capture tools used for mapping environments, and how that data can be used to create virtual and physical 3D models, and how those maps can be used to effect changes in policy and planning.

Students are also introduced to the basics of 3D reconstruction and given the opportunity to fly through the virtual landscapes of Lima tasked with “rescuing Pokemon”, which introduces them to the idea of using drones for search and rescue, explains Roumpani.

“It’s not all about the technology, but its use,” she says. “Like putting sensors in drones that can capture data on air pollution, in conjunction with the IoT [Internet of Things], or how they can be used with remote sensing and image processing. And, importantly, how we can communicate the data that’s captured to engage people and to open up planning processes.”

While some students will be fascinated by the electronics on display in the workshop, others will be taken by the flying experience or captured by the potential of 3D modelling. But whatever draws their attention, Milton says they have seen perceptions change over the past four years.

“There’s been a progression. We asked [in the last workshop], ‘how is drone technology used?’ They used to say bombing, the military, Syria, Libya… Now it’s changed. They’ve seen 3D scans of Naples and Rome on the TV. This kind of scanning is now much more in the public domain. So is using drones for wildlife tracking, for search and rescue in natural disasters, for humanitarian purposes. So it’s changing.”

Drones4Good are gradually making available instructions and software for how to design, 3D print and build your own drone frames at:

The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on the science of cities, applying it to city planning, policy and architecture in the pursuit of making our cities better places to live in. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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