Safecast Air Force (drone program)

The above video is a hexacopter with an onboard bGeigie Nano taking radiation readings in flight and broadcasting live via wifi. It’s the result of the just finished week long Safecast hackathon that just took place in Cambridge, MA.

There were a number of reasons to focus on a drone during this hackathon. Of course drones are cool and exciting, so that helped to keep people interested. On a practical level there’s also a need for something like this that would enable us to take measurements in a location that would be too dangerous or just plain unreachable for people, such as a steep hillside or a contaminated area. We could also plot out a flight path and let a drone measure a huge field much quicker than a person might be able to navigate the area. Thinking about our data in relation to a drone also allowed us to consider some existing issues from a different perspective and tackle them with renewed vigor.

The concept of a Safecast Air Force – that is a modular drone platform with a number of interchangeable elements – was originally suggested by Ray Ozzie and and over the week Safecasters Naim Busek, Joe Moross, Pieter Franken, Steven Wright, Ariel Levi Simons, Haiyan Zhang, Paul Campbell, Anthony DeVincenzi, Samuel Luescher and I took it from idea to reality.

We started off with a prebuilt Hexacopter from 3D Robotics and then upgraded the motors and blades, as well as giving it a more robust DJI Flame Wheel Frame. With Ardupilot (an open sourced arduino based autopilot system) providing the brains and Safecast providing the payload, we built quite a full featured flying machine.

While this is certainly our flagship at the moment, we also looked into using the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter as a prebuilt platform as well. We have a lot of work to do reducing weight of devices for that to work, but if we can prove a concept works on a more expensive design and then scale it back to a minimum viable product that easier for people to contribute to that’s an exciting prospect as well.

If we step back for a moment, this modular system becomes quite elegant. The drone is the “platform” but could easily be swapped out for a bike, a car, or carried by a person. The “sensors” for this proof of concept were radiation, but could also be swapped for air quality or anything else you wanted to monitor. We were using wifi to “upload” the data, but there are any number of other data transfer methods that could be deployed here. We’ll continue to develop this program and are excited to see how it helps spring board our other initiatives.

A handful of earlier test flight videos can be found after the jump.

About the Author

Sean Bonner


Sean Bonner is a co-founder and Global Director of Safecast. Based in Tokyo, he's an Associate Professor at Keio University and an Associate Researcher at the Center For Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab.