Shane Coughlan got hands-on experience in the kinds of problems faced by
disaster aid teams while helping with relief efforts after
Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident in 2011. That
experience was part of a discussion on open source technical measures to assist
efforts at LinuxCon Japan 2011, but it also led to a new project, OpenRelief, that was announced at
LinuxCon Japan 2012. The project is aimed at developing inexpensive—"disposable"—drone aircraft to assist relief teams in seeing over the
horizon to detect people, changes in terrain, smoke, radiation, and other
conditions in places that may be difficult or dangerous for on-the-ground
OpenRelief co-founders Coughlan, who is a consultant based in western
Japan, and Karl
who is UK based, came to Yokohama to
announce the project and to show off the prototype drone aircraft that
Lattimer built. The plane itself was an eye-catching prop for the talk,
but some of the most interesting parts of OpenRelief are on the inside:
open source software for route following, image acquisition and processing,
and so on. Much of that code comes from existing projects, with OpenRelief
integrating it into the airframe to create a mobile reconnaissance platform.
Problems and solutions
Gathering information on the state of various locales was one of the biggest
problems that Coughlan saw when bringing aid from western Japan
to areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami. There were locations that
had supplies and doctors, but didn't know where to take them. In addition,
sometimes aid arrived at locations that were already fully stocked and had
no more storage, so the aid had to return back to where it came from.
The situation was "like a big fog" covering the disaster zone, he said.
OpenRelief is trying to help penetrate that fog using technical measures.
It would act as a supplement to existing response mechanisms. The goal is
"for the responders on the ground to do their job more effectively",
Coughlan said, so they don't go where they aren't needed and do go where
they are. That was "quite a challenge" last year in responding to the
"So, obviously the solution is a robot airplane", he said with a chuckle.
More seriously, a robot airplane can help answer some of the questions that
are hard to get answers to like "can we get there?" or "do we need to go
there?". There were situations where a car couldn't get through to a
particular nearby location to assess the situation, but "an airplane could
have gone there to see".
Robot airplanes (or drones) have gotten a bad reputation in places like
Afghanistan, Coughlan said, but they can be "immensely useful". Unlike
those in various war zones, these airplanes are "full of love and peace".
They are intended to provide a low-cost solution for mapping and
The plane will be able to take off and land from a foot path,
fly a pre-programmed route, and gather various kinds of information
while traveling. Using on-board processing, it will be able to recognize
roads, people, and smoke. There are also a variety of sensors that can be
deployed to collect weather data, radiation levels, or other kinds of
environmental conditions which can relay data via the plane.
The plane and its capabilities are "not really news", Coughlan said, as the
technology has been available for some time. OpenRelief has just tied
together multiple off-the-shelf and open source pieces for its use case.
The technology is "phenomenal and astonishingly cheap". With that, he
turned things over to "someone who can build stuff", Lattimer that is, to
describe more of the technical details of the plane.
The guts of the plane
It took about a week to assemble one of the drones, Lattimer said, and few
more days to finish it. The airframe has a simple design that comes mostly
already constructed. It is made out of fiberglass and covered in plastic
vinyl. The first that he built was "a challenging project", but the second
was much easier.
The plane has an autopilot system, the Arduino-based ArduPilot,
which uses a combination of GPS, airflow monitors, and air pressure sensors
to fly the plane on pre-programmed flight plans. The flight plan can
contain up to 600 3D waypoints that can be reprogrammed in flight from the
Raspberry Pi main controller. It
takes off using a standard radio controller, then the autopilot is turned on
and the plane follows the flight plan.
The Raspberry Pi is "ideal" for an initial test computer, Lattimer said,
because of its low cost, but other, faster main CPUs are possible down the road.
The Raspberry Pi Another board used for testing (Samsung Orion Exynos) has a Mali graphics chip, which was reverse engineered by
his employer, Codethink, and can be used to do a variety of image
processing tasks. The main board runs Debian 6.0 ("Squeeze").
For imaging, the plane uses a CCD with a 170° fisheye lens that
provides five separate images. Those feed into the Open Source Computer Vision
(OpenCV) package on the Raspberry Pi for doing visual recognition of smoke,
people, and roads. There are also plans to do "structure from motion"
(SfM) processing to detect landscape changes (e.g. flooding, height
changes) but that is fairly processor intensive and will likely require
processing after the plane returns from its mission.
Lattimer also described a low-cost, ground-based
radiation sensor that can be dropped or placed in areas of interest to
relay its readings to the plane.
He built the sensor inside of a treacle tin (for those lacking the
UK context, it is a can that held a syrup not entirely unlike molasses).
The sensor employs an ionization chamber that measures relative ionizing
rather than absolute radiation levels like a Geiger counter would do. It
uses a Nanode controller, which is an
open hardware device with a long-range, low-power radio to communicate with
the plane. Other types of sensors (for chemicals or weather conditions)
could also be built using the Nanode.
There is a need to tie the robot and sensors together, Coughlan said, and
that is where "mission control" comes into play. Most of the technology to
do that already exists, so OpenRelief has just integrated those pieces onto
a laptop that runs Debian, Ubuntu, or Windows. For example, the autopilot has a
sophisticated mission planning application that is written for .NET, but
can be run with Mono on Linux.
The output from the mission control system is formatted to be compatible
with existing disaster relief packages (e.g. Sahana Eden). The information
gathered can be processed into geographic information system (GIS) formats
that can be directly integrated into the maps used by those applications.
Rather than trying to reinvent the disaster relief application wheel,
OpenRelief is adding new capabilities to the existing systems, Coughlan
That is one of the keys to the OpenRelief plan: integrating mostly
available open hardware and software into the existing systems so that the
drones can be put to work in the near future. The system uses OpenStreetMap data
for its maps and can even contribute updates to that map repository for
things that have changed. "Working alongside existing processes is
critical", Coughlan said. During last year's discussions there was talk of
redoing much of the disaster relief infrastructure, but that is not the
route that the project took; "we just want to fit in with what's there".
The project started, at least conceptually, at the disaster relief panel in
2011. After thinking about airframes, autopilots, people recognition, and
the like for a bit, development started in January. The team will be testing and refining the prototype with the hope
of being production-ready in December.
The equipment is relatively inexpensive, with a retail bill of materials (BoM)
for the prototype at around $750. Getting it into any kind of
manufacturing process will make it "ridiculously cheap", he said. The
target for the final BoM is $1000 which may include a more powerful main
CPU (perhaps Tegra-based) and additional capabilities.
The team is around 25 people currently, consisting of a variety of
specialties including engineers, makers, political scientists,
mathematicians, and more. The team started out with "crazy ideas", but
"those ideas turn out to not be crazy at all", Coughlan said. There is
still lots of work
to be done, but "it is doable" and the project is looking for help to get
it done. The project is hoping to find people to donate time to develop,
test, and improve the hardware, but it is looking beyond that as well.
OpenRelief is "kicking off with an ecosystem", he said. Coughlan's company
Opendawn along with Codethink and Nanode have all made donations of hardware and
time. But there are also a lot of individuals involved. "We want you to
join our ecosystem". The project is looking for "your brains, not
necessarily your money" (though he admitted it wouldn't turn down
The ecosystem needs technologists as well as professional and volunteer
relief workers to help refine and test the platform, and to help recognize
the problems that need to be solved. In addition, there is a need for
commercial enterprises to "make buckets of money" by building and selling
the drones. The project's focus is to help save lives, but the platform
could easily be repurposed for other uses, including for farmers or local
governments. While it won't be useful "for anything naughty", Coughlan
said, because it is a very visible and slow plane that won't be stealthy,
there is a need for this kind of technology for various uses all over the
He invited everyone to check out the web site (which has been translated
from English into several Asian languages), mailing lists, and various
social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest) for more information. The
[PDF] from the talk also give more technical details for those
interested. Much of the code (with more coming) is on Gitorius and
schematics are available at
So far, the plane has only been flown in radio-controlled mode, at least
partly because of regulations in Japan. Lattimer hopes to test with the
autopilot sometime in the next month in a free-fly zone in the UK.
Regulations on autonomous aircraft vary, but will be a challenge for some
time, Coughlan said. He is hopeful that the disaster relief use
case, as well as the very limited threat posed by a 3kg aircraft, will help
change those regulations, though it will take time.
OpenRelief is an interesting project that combines a certain "geek appeal"
with a useful function for reconnaissance in a disaster area. One can
certainly imagine low-cost drone aircraft being employed in a variety of
situations, but one that can potentially save lives by getting aid where it
is needed most is more interesting still. By supplementing existing
disaster relief systems—rather than trying to supplant them—OpenRelief's drones could be a nice addition to
the disaster relief toolkit. One gets the sense that the drone is just the
start, however, so it will be interesting to see what else the project
comes up with down the road.
[ The author would like to thank the Linux Foundation for assistance with
his travel to Yokohama. ]
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