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Will a hacked DJI save lives at sea?

A contest from a 3D print-on-demand service aims to find out.

search and rescue drone

Drones are becoming popular tools for first responders.

My wife and I are planning a weekend trip aboard my best friend's sailboat (he actually owns one-quarter of the sailboat), so this one seems especially relevant.

Shapeways, the 3D printing-on-demand service, is teaming up with DJI to turn the crazy popular Phantom 4 drone into a disaster response vehicle. If any first responders are reading, and if you get a distress ping near Catalina Island in a couple weeks and decide to send a drone, please make it a beer drone.

Jokes aside, drones have turned out to be incredible tools for disaster response and search and rescue teams. To date, robots have been used in 43 major disasters worldwide, according to data provided by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), and most of those bots are drones. It seems like a no-brainer. Unmanned systems can provide valuable reconnaissance and infiltrate dangerous or unfamiliar environments to speed up response times during floods or fires, scenarios where each passing minute has consequences for survivability. The technology already exists, and much of it is now available off-the-shelf.

The Phantom 4, for example, has an integrated camera and long flying range, which could make it a suitable search drone. Training would be minimal (the newest drones literally fly themselves in most cases), so integration into current emergency response crews would be simple.

DJI and Shapeways are asking tinkerers for ideas to soup up the Phantom. The challenge is to design some kind of 3D-printed accessory that attaches to a DJI Phantom 4 to make it more capable in the hands of first responders.

"Severe weather and rough waters are classic hallmarks of ocean rescue, complicating an already challenging rescue operation," according to organizers, stoking my deepest fears. "By adding 3D printed accessories that can improve the drone's visibility, carry payloads and land on water, first responders could cover more area, cutting response times while monitoring hard to navigate waters. More lives would be saved, and fewer first responders put at risk, all thanks to a 3D printed drone modification."

One winner will receive a DJI Phantom 4 Advanced Quadcopter ($1,499 value) and $1,000 in Shapeways printing credits. Three runners up will receive $500 each in Shapeways 3D printing credit. Deadline to enter is July 15, 2016. To submit your design to Shapeways, go here.