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HKU codevelops automated laser-scanning ‘hunter drone’

Image Credits: HKU, Press Release

The world of science fiction is heavily populated with mentions of machine-intelligent hunter drones and, now, reality can emulate this.

These drones have become science fact with the new HKU-codeveloped autonomous ‘hunter drone’ designed to seek out targets at night using a scanning laser.

The technique used by the drone, called Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF), was co-developed at HKU and has been highly successful in palaeontology, making fossil bones glow and revealing otherwise invisible details like skin and cartilage.

The application of LSF to an aerial system is possible because of the laser’s ability to project over great distances with little loss in power.

The HKU Research Assistant Professor (Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory, Division of Earth & Planetary Science and Department of Earth Sciences) and his colleague from the Foundation for Scientific Advancement made this a reality by developing a fully autonomous LSF drone system.

“Nicknamed ‘Laser Raptor’, this system is designed to more efficiently seek out fossils exposed on the surface in the field”.

Loaded with pre-programmed flight paths during the day, this prototype was launched at night in the Badlands of Arizona and Wyoming, USA to search for fossils.

Laser Raptor flies rapidly to search locations using its onboard navigation and then descends and maintains an altitude of 4 metres above ground so it can ‘mow the lawn’ in search of glowing targets as small as a thumbnail.

After each “mission” is complete, a video of the laser scan is processed to find hot spots that are investigated the next day, leading to the recovery of new fossil specimens.

Fluorescence is extremely sensitive to differences in mineral composition. Although Laser Raptor was designed to locate fossils, it is ready to seek out a whole range of fluorescent targets including minerals; for example, to study rare and unusual geology or in search of mining materials like gemstones, certain organisms like scorpions, shellfish and cyanobacteria, and even archaeological artefacts and structures.

Asked about plans, the expert of the Foundation for Scientific Advancement stated that as members of HKU’s Laboratory of Space Research, the team is currently working to develop LSF applications for the study of geologic landscapes beyond Earth.

Behind the HKU co-developed LSF tech

Until recently, it had been hard to get an accurate idea of the shape of a dinosaur from its fossilised remains, as only their bones are usually preserved, a press release from March 2017 notes.

Dr Michael Pittman from the Department of Earth Sciences at HKU along with collaborators reconstructed the first highly detailed body outline of a feathered dinosaur based on high-definition images of its preserved soft tissues using a new technique.

It was noted that Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF) uses high-power lasers that make unseen soft tissues preserved alongside the bones, literally “glow in the dark” by fluorescence.

The technique scans the fossils with a violet laser in a dark room. The laser “excites” the few skin atoms left in the matrix making them glow, to reveal what the shape of the dinosaur actually looked like.

The reconstructed dinosaur enabled via LSF tech. Soure: HKU, Press Release

In 2017, the team had already examined over 200 specimens of the feathered bird-like dinosaur Anchiornis to find the dozen with special preservation. The quantitative reconstruction shows the contours of the wings, legs and even perfectly preserved foot scales, providing new details that illuminate the origin of birds.

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