You'd think that nobody really wants to be spied on by drones. In fact, there is one group of people who desperately want to be seen by drones. Or, really, seen by anybody, human or robot or whatever. And those are the people who are hopelessly lost.
Even in our relentlessly connected world, it's still alarminglyeasyto end upin asituation where you have no idea where you are, and more importantly, even less of an idea how to get somewhere where you would know where you are. And it's not like realizing that you're lost does you any good: the key is for someone else to realize the same thing, and then do something useful about it. This is where the drones can help, but humans need to pitch in as well.
AeroSee is a project from UCLan (which I'm sure I don't need to remind you is the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K.) in partnership with Patterdale Mountain Rescue, from the Ullswater area in the North of the Lake District. I don't know where any of these places are, but my best guess is that there are mountains and lakes and districts, all of which are notorious lost-human magnets. Patterdale Mountain Rescue's job is to go find people who've been lost, but they've got a lot of ground to cover (all of Patterdale Mountain, for heaven's sake), why is why they're experimenting with using swarms of drones as spotter aircraft.
Writing vision algorithms to reliably teach a drone to recognize a human in rough terrain is brain-searingly difficult, so the AeroSee project is instead relying on real brains. Your brains. AeroSee's UAVs will fly around snapping lots of pictures and sending them back to a ground station, which in turn sends them off to be analyzed by a crowd of "Search Agents" like you on your computer or smartphone. If you see something, you can tag the image, and a member of the rescue team will go check it out.
Search and rescue is serious business, but to get people to participate, AeroSee plays a little bit like a game, complete with leader boards for those who check out the most images. Ending up at the top will earn you a ridiculously expensive pair of hand-made sunglasses. The first simulated mission kicks off today at 7:30 a.m. ET, and if you're awake, you can sign up to participate at the link below.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.