Giving drones real-time vision for obstacle avoidance is one of many new technology advancements pushing drone capabilities to new heights this year.
The 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was very much the year of the drone, evidenced by the wave of technology and design innovation going into these autonomous flying vehicles. Drones are becoming more accessible for consumers and more useful for industrial applications, filmmaking, transportation, disaster relief and spectacular sky choreography.
There are even drones that cast nets to capture other drones that are invasive or breaking the law.
The CES kickoff keynote by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich contained a mind-blowing video of a synchronized swarm of 100 drones dancing and blinking along to a live orchestra. The drones, called “spaxels” (space pixels), formed 3D animations in space perfectly choreographed to an accompanying live orchestra.
The Guinness Book of World Records recognized this accomplishment as the “Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously.”
Drone swarms have potential applications that go beyond entertainment, such as mapping, industrial inspections and construction.
Drone for Human Transportation
Chinese drone manufacturer EHang got quite a bit of attention for its new single-passenger, manned electric autonomous aerial vehicle, the EHang 184.
This multirotor is essentially a drone with a seat for a passenger. It has four arms and eight rotors. Two rotors are mounted above and below each other in a counter-rotational position on each arm. It flies autonomously after the passenger taps a destination into the tablet inside the EHang 184.
Although autonomous, the EHang 184 is technically not a drone because it’s designed to carry a human passenger. This is a novel idea, one which could become commonplace in the next few decades.
Parrot introduced the Disco, a fixed-wing 1080p camera drone that has a purported 45-minute flight time. That’s significantly more than standard multirotor camera drones. Fixed-wing camera drones are nothing new, but what’s new is the consumer-level, out-of-the-box-ready simplicity.
Due to their long flight time and range, fixed-wing drones are the tools of choice for many humanitarian applications. One example is wildlife conservation by the Air Shepherd Initiative.
Most drones run on battery power, so attention is turning toward fuel cells and battery recharging technology. At CES, Intelligent Energy showed their hydrogen fuel cell device, and Walkera showed their methanol-fuel range extender. Both units fit on drones to add more flight time to drones.
Smoothing Video Capture
3DR announced a software update enabling their Solo quadcopter more versatility for video capturing with new “Smart Shots” features.
Solo owners can now use Cable Cam to set multiple keyframes in 3D space, so the Solo captures exactly the right location. The Solo brings smoothness to its path around selected keyframes. It does this by calculating spline curves, which are used to plot points of movement.
Rather than flying in a straight line between two points, the Solo constructs a slightly curved path to connect the selected keyframe sequence. This is welcome improvement for filmmakers who use the 3DR platform.
Las Vegas-based Zappos hosted the XDC_2 Xtreme Drone Circuit, a neon Tron-like FPV drone race course at its downtown headquarters. It pushed drone competition experiences into the future.
The course, beautifully constructed and illuminated, takes first-person-view (FPV) drone racing to fantasy comic book levels. Last year, drone racing garnered a lot of interest and gave raise to corporate sponsored pilots and big cash purses.
Many drone race leagues now exist around the world. Expect to see this hobby hit mainstream critical mass sometime this year.
During Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote address, he demonstrated how the Typhoon H could navigate an obstacle course, avoiding trees as it followed a mountain bike rider. The ability to sense and avoid objects — and capture video in real time — has been the holy grail of drones for some time.
If Yuneec’s implementation delivers on its promises, this could be a real game changer, opening new possibilities for any industry that employs drones.
Reaching for More
What consumers will likely see in the near year are concerted efforts to push UAV innovation to new heights, from grassroots maker movements to industry competitions.
American automaker Ford and Chinese drone manufacturer DJI have teamed up for the launch of something they’re calling the DJI Developer Challenge.
The goal of this challenge is to develop a vehicle-based launch-and-control system for drones to be used by the United Nations for surveying inaccessible areas during times of natural disasters or other emergencies. The primary challenge is to land a drone on a moving vehicle.
The winner will walk away with $100,000. This has potentially far reaching implications, as drone video capture is are often the most efficient and quickest way to assess damage after an emergency disaster situation.
Drone innovation is accelerating at an astonishing pace, and from what was shown at CES 2016, the sky’s the limit. This innovation is allowing drones to change how people experience art, cinema and sports. It’s opening up new possibilities, such as using drones to improve transportation, farming and disaster relief.
While 2015 was the year drones really lifted off, 2016 will be the year drones stretch human imagination.
Photo of Yuneec Typhoon H with Intel RealSense at CES 2016 by Walden Kirsch.