You’ve seen interviews now with a number of speakers at the upcoming conference in Prague starting on Saturday. Here, we’ve got one more: Shane Coughlan on his Flying Drones!. And we have cool news: the sessions in the main room will be live-streamed so those of you who couldn’t make it still get to enjoy the event to some extend!
Video and streaming
The SUSE Video team is happy to announce that they have everything ready to make live streams and recordings available. The team will cover all talks in the rooms named Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Picard, and Riker (see the schedule). Talks in rooms Scotty and Data are next on the list, if we are enough volunteers to do so.
Live video streams
- plays on smartphones and everywhere with a flash-player:
Questions? Please contact #firstname.lastname@example.org or Jürgen Weigert.
Interview with Shane Coughlan
At the bootstrapping-awesome conference in Prague we’ll have Shane Coughlan present the OpenRelief project in the Future Media track. His talk explores how the OpenRelief team, inspired by challenges seen during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, is using Open Source Software and Open Hardware to create disaster relief tools. The first step is to develop a small drone that can take off from anywhere, recognize roads, people and smoke while also measuring weather and radiation. It can be built for less than 1,000 USD, and easily shares information with Open Source and proprietary disaster management systems. The goal is to gather critical information for relief workers on the ground, and contribute to getting aid where it is needed.
Helen South asked him a few questions about his project and why he does it.
Helping people with flying drones and open source
One of the goals of many open source contributors is to help other people, so naturally a project like Open Relief create a lot of excitement. Reading about drones and sensors, it’s easy to get the
impression that this is very much a hardware-oriented endeavor, practical, physical and hands-on. Shane Coughlan has a strong background in building business networks and promoting Free Software, so I asked how his skill set translated to this project. Of course, Shane was quick to point out that I’d got ‘the wrong end of the stick’.
“OpenRelief is a design project. In other words, it is a project consisting of individuals working together to frame a problem, design potential solutions, and share these designs with everyone who can make use of them. Some of the skills required are technical, especially around things like aviation, and some of the skills required are completely different. One example is the public relations side of outreach. The OpenRelief project has a diverse range of volunteers. No one is good at everything but everyone is good at something. As you said, I have a background in networking and promotion of technology.” So did this include hardware hacking, or was that a collaborator’s skill set? Shane was very enthusiastic about the collaborative nature of Open Relief. “I’m one cog in a much larger group, and we tend to complement each other’s abilities. There is a certain amount of adjustment and learning for everyone, but on the other hand it is also a very supportive environment. We get on well and we teach each other new things. Of course, I would be the first to admit that I am not an engineer. I’m just thankful to work with some great engineers.”
The ‘on the ground’ disaster work brings to mind tracked robotic vehicle projects that occasionally make the news (like this), and I wondered whether people working on those platforms would see a potential partnership, perhaps even offering expertise that Open Relief could leverage. Shane agreed that there was certainly some common ground. “All of these approaches and technologies share a lot of math and a lot of software. They tend to intermingle and complement each other, especially in the modern world of Open Source. OpenRelief is going to benefit from their work.” However, with the project still in its early days, it’s important to keep growth manageable. “ It’s just a matter of doing things step by step, and not trying to run in
every direction simultaneously. We are trying to solve a few starting problems in a few specific ways, and will branch out from there. We keep an eye on wider developments and make use of them where we can, but we are also aware that there are a limited number of balls that anyone can juggle without dropping stuff.” With hardware like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi and software like Debian, it seems like a very accessible project for programmers that want to get their hands dirty. But with quite specialized sensing and communication tasks, is there open source software support, or do
things need to be done from scratch? The good news is that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. “Virtually everything is pre-existing. It is surprising how much of the technology is not only available, but refined and tested. Anyone who can program or who can build electronic tools can get involved and contribute.” The key to the project, Shane explained, is in bringing all these components together and making them accessible. “Our challenge is more along the lines of integration. We have to make things work together, then we have to refine it and eventually aim for a situation where an emergency relief worker no longer needs specialized knowledge or training, and can intuitively operate these type of equipment. That’s a considerable challenge, part technical and part social. Innovative thinking is both required and welcomed. In other words, we have a low barrier of entry, but we are climbing a big mountain.”
Even in the final deployment of solutions, things can get tricky. With cameras, mapping and communication, security and legality is an issue for users and operators. Shane was reassuring that the project was cognizant of these issues, and keen to ensure that OpenRelief solutions were widely deployable. “Partly this means sticking with widely available technology, and partly this means being sensitive as we design or produce solutions. We want to make sure that where we are going broadly matches where the dialogue regarding drones and civil applications is going. I think it is worth stressing that this is not really a journey into the unknown. We have privacy laws and so on in every country, and details regarding drones or sensors will follow established processes. It’s more a matter of common sense and learning how to clearly explain what we are doing and why.”
By now I was beginning to see the project in a very different light. It’s easy to focus on the tangible assets, forgetting that these are really intermediary. Just as music is more than dots on the page or the fingers on the piano, OpenRelief is about much more than hardware and even software. Shane Coughlan is very clear on this. “ We need to be realistic for a very simple reason. OpenRelief is not a drone project or a sensor project. We are a project to provide tools that help responders in disaster relief fill in blanks and get to people more quickly and in a more effective manner.”
The OpenRelief project began as a response to problems that emerged during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, when as they note, it was “hard to see through the ‘fog’ of disaster” when attempting to map the area. Mapping a disaster area is a critical step in enabling rescuers to find and assist survivors and deliver medical aid. Workers in disaster zones need to be able to identify areas of potential risk and identifying which roads are passable and which are important to clear. Seen as a whole it can look like a big, complicated task but mobile technology and an inventive approach inspired a simple, effective solution. OpenRelief’s first goal is the development of a small drone – a remote controlled aircraft – that can take off from anywhere.
The drone is equipped with high resolution camera and a range of sensors, as well as on-board image-recognition software to facilitate identification of “situations and objects on the ground” – people, smoke, fire, roads. OpenRelief also note the capacity for customization for specific hazards, such as weather and radiation; no doubt portable VOC and gas detection could also be integrated. An important consideration for the project was to make their data compatible with the various software packages used by relief agencies, some of which are proprietary. Therefore they seek to create data output in as versatile and generic formats as possible.
Check out openrelief.org to learn more about the project and to get involved!
At the conference
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