The curious case of a ‘mysterious flying object’ that dropped from the sky

Posted By dickens on Mar 7, 2014 | 0 comments

Kenyan newspapers today published a picture of a UAV which crashed in a farm in Naivasha causing panic among the locals. The police retrieved the unclaimed equipment which has sparked conversation and curiosity. The Star newspaper published the picture of the UAV on the front page with an alarming headline. ” Mysterious flying object drops in Naivasha”

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MALFUNCTION: Naivasha police examine the unidentified flying object that crashed in a Naivasha farm yesterday. The flying object was equipped with a surveillance cameradrone

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to participate in a national conversation about UAVs. We have planned to do several projects in the next two weeks to prove different uses cases of UAVs which will be published on this website. It’s therefore a wonderful coincidence that the Naivasha incident has happened when Ben Kreimer from the Drone Journalism lab, University of Nebraska is in Kenya. I asked him to

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give his expert opinion about the incident. The article (below) will be published in the Star newspaper


Naivasha ‘mysterious flying object’ is a hexacopter – BY Ben Kreimer

The “mysterious flying object” that recently crashed on a Naivasha farm is a hexacopter remote control aircraft. Without talking to the operator it’s impossible to determine what caused the crash, but it’s likely that the aircraft ran out of battery power, resulting in a fall, or went out of control when it lost connection with the remote control transmitter. Such scenarios are generally preventable because they are usually a result of pilot error. Isolated incidents like this crash in Naivasha should not cast a negative impression over this fledgling technology, for these aircraft are robust when flown correctly

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and responsibly, and carry great potential for public good, especially in Africa.

Projects are currently underway which will capitalize on the ability of unmanned aerial vehicles, like hexacopters, to operate autonomously and help people in hard to reach locations. For example, the Matternet is a startup company that intends to establish networks of UAVs to deliver food, medical supplies and other essential goods to people who live in rural areas where roads become impassable

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during certain seasons, or where no roads exist at all. Similarly, the Flying Donkey Challenge aims to deploy, specifically in Africa, a network of UAVs each of which can haul 20 kilograms of goods over 50 kilometers in less than an hour.

'Flying object'

Multirotor aircraft, and their fixed wing airplane style counterparts, have much to offer search and rescue operations. In May of 2013 Canadian police saved a man’s life by using a UAV with an infrared camera to find him and his car after it rolled off the road in a rural area. An air ambulance had been called in to use a night vision system to conduct an aerial search but they had been unsuccessful in locating the driver.

During floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, a hexacopter, like the one that crashed in Naivasha, can quickly fly over large areas of land searching for survivors and expediting rescue efforts. Conservation efforts have also benefited greatly from the use of low-cost UAVs to monitor endangered animals like elephants and rhinos.

For agriculture, UAVs make it easier, cheaper and safer than ever before to capture aerial perspectives of crops and gather data on farm land. This technology can help farmers produce more food.

Due to their sophisticated onboard computers, multirotor aircraft are rapidly growing in popularity for entertainment and work purposes because they are highly capable and easy to fly. Packed

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with a GPS, compass and other sensors, human pilots are actually just giving the onboard autopilot system cues on how to fly. Remove your hands from the controls and the aircraft will hover in position waiting for an instruction.

These flight automation systems, when setup properly, make multirotors easy to fly while making them safer, if their failsafes are engaged correctly. It’s important to point out that the hexacopter that crashed in Naivasha used the open source Arducopter APM autopilot flight system. The APM software has safety features which the user can turn on or off based on their needs. For example, the autopilot can engage if the aircraft flies out of transmitter range, flying the multirotor back to the pilot. Or if the aircraft’s battery gets too low the autopilot can automatically land the multirotor, preventing a potentially dangers plummet to the ground.

The problem with the APM’s safety features is that the user must setup and test them to ensure they will perform as desired. The Arducopter quadcopter I have worked with did not come out of the box with the safety features turned on. Nor did it come with a system for monitoring battery levels. Such functionality had to be added and tuned by the user. And while I can’t be certain given the lack of information, it’s possible and likely that the user of the crashed hexacopter had not engaged or properly setup the APM’s safety features prior to flying.

This incident highlights the public safety issue surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and the need for hardcoded safety features in flight systems. Fortunately not all multirotor aircraft require the user to setup safety functionality. Proprietary flight systems like those found on DJI brand aircraft feature hardcoded low-power automatic landing and return-to-pilot safety features. When you open the box of a DJI multirotor aircraft and fly for the first time these safety settings are already setup and ready to leap into action.

Hardcoded and automatically engaged safety features, including a way for the pilot to monitor battery levels, should come standard with all UAV platforms and flight systems. This will prevent accidents caused by pilot error, like losing track of flight time and running out of battery in mid-air or losing control when flying beyond the range of the remote control transmitter. These types of problems account for many multirotor UAV failures, and if flight systems are prepared to address these failures out-of-the-box then there will be fewer crashes.

Although more information is needed to understand why the hexacopter fell in Naivasha, it’s very likely that the proper use of flight system safety features would have prevented the crash.