Not so long ago the word ‘drone’ was associated only with clandestine military operations and high-end filmmaking. However unmanned aerial vehicles have now become one of the fastest emerging sectors of the consumer tech industry.
Courtesy of an ever-improving range of fast-flying, highly functional quadcopters, a drone purchase has become a serious consideration for any self-respecting gadget fan. Great drones are finally entering the realms of affordability, while respectable entry-level models like the Parrott Mambo can be found for under £100.
“The democratisation of drones is becoming even more interesting this year,” said BT’s managing director of external innovation, Jean-Marc Frangos, in an interview with BT.com.
The latest drones can travel miles from the operator, shoot super-smooth 4K Ultra HD video and use GPS to travel to a pre-determined landmarks and return safely to the owner thanks to guidance tech and longer battery lives. They can even take selfies of the operator and combine with VR headsets to give drone pilots a bird’s eye view.
In the latest installment of our series on emerging technology, we look at the current the tech that’s turning us all into pilots.
While drones are becoming more affordable trends are also edging towards more portable UAVs. Drones like the 40mph DVI Mavic Pro and the GoPro Karma (35mph) fold down neatly into a backpack-friendly package. These are perfect for fans of the great outdoors who like to retire into the countryside to fly their drones.
“This year at the Consumer Electronics Show I saw a drone that folded down to the size of a book,” Frangos says.
“It was also as light as a book and even contained a camera. You could unfold it so the rotors come out and set it to fly at a certain altitude. It will follow you and take pictures of you, so it was sort of a flying selfie stick.”
The Mavic Pro can stay in the air for 27 minutes on a single charge (another recent advance). However, Go Pro’s entry into the market is significant given its history in helping people create brilliant, stable video without actually holding a camera. The Karma drone is built to pair with GoPro’s HERO cameras, specifically the new HERO 5 camera, which is capable of shooting 4K video.
You don’t need a licence to operate a recreational drone in the UK, which means most people don’t undergo any special training before buying one. This does mean that an expensive drone can quickly become a pile of scattered wreckage, and when drones are making the journey back to home base autonomously, that danger only multiplies.
To prevent this companies, like DJI have developed obstacle avoidance systems. DJI has FlightAutonomy, which can detect objects up to 49ft away and automatically bypass them, hover or brake as necessary. Most drone systems now offer a bird’s eye view through a dedicated controller or via a smartphone app, which can help keep the drone (and its user) out of trouble.
While they’re fun to fly and designed to shoot beautiful video footage from the air, drones aren’t exempt from the selfie phenomenon. In fact, some of the newest drones are designed specifically for following the user and taking self-portraits and videos.
DJI has its ActiveTrack technology, which will trace a subject, or fly alongside it. All you need to do is tell it whom to track. Sensors within the drone will ensure it maintains a constant distance from the ground at all times, perfect if you’re shooting while hiking in the mountains.
DJI’s tiny new Spark Drone, introduced in July 2017, might be one of the best selfie drones yet. It is controlled via smartphone, has facial recognition and will hover in place while you take a photo using gesture commands. You can even call it back and it’ll land in the palm of your hand.
There’s also a crossover into another emerging sector: virtual reality. The DJI Goggles, for example, enable drone pilots and their friends to see a first-person view from the drone’s camera and use their head movements to control the drone itself. Other drones, like the Micro Drone 3.0, offer this at more affordable prices.
The business case for drones
Beyond the consumer realm, it may well be business that pushes drones fully into the mainstream. Most notably, Amazon hopes to deliver packages with its Air Prime drones and has already begun trialing the technology to a few customers in Cambridge. Eventually it wants to get deliveries to customers within 30 minutes and recently patented a beehive-like structure where the drones could return for restocking.
In New Zealand, Domino’s is trialing pizza deliveries, and on a more serious note, Devon & Cornwall police now has a 24-hour drone unit at its disposal.
The interest from outside the consumer realm may help to loosen some of the legal limitations surrounding drones. In the UK the Civil Aviation Authority maintains that drones must always be kept in sight of their operators, undermining key features of drones like the Mavic Pro, which has a range of 4.3 miles. Drone operators must keep them below 400ft at all times and they must be 150ft (50m) away from people and property while flying.
Although these rules are designed to ensure safety, it does mean that schemes like Amazon’s may literally struggle to get off the ground.
Whether the ambitious commercial and public sector use cases for drones ever come to fruition remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: we’ll be seeing more and more unmanned aerial vehicles populating British skies in the years to come.
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