All posts by Sally French

Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi is helping drones fly without GPS

Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi wants to make it easier for drones to fly — even in areas where GPS isn’t reliable — places like street canyons, indoors, and even forests.

Shahbazi received her BSc degree in civil/surveying engineering in 2009, her MSc degree in geomatics/photogrammetry engineering in 2011, and then moved on to doing PhD research focused on the development of drones for 3D modeling at the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada. She is currently an assistant professor of geomatics engineering at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi
Courtesy of Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi

Drone Girl: You’ve done incredible work based on enabling drones to know their environment without the use of GPS. What does that entail?

Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi: I’m working on different types of sensors for autonomous navigation – those based on vision and those not based on vision. The ones not based on vision I cannot discuss because they are confidential! But the parts based on vision are more exciting.

They include laser scanning, which is a type of active sensing. Measurements are done from a type of instrument which sends laser beams to objects and calculates its range from them.

Then there are visual sensors. Cameras don’t measure depth, so what I’m working on is multi-view stereo. In the case of a drone, we set cameras on all sides so we have a 360-degree cover. It’s important to shoot the front, back, side and ground. And because of bird attacks and to be aware of other aircrafts, it’s important to have a view pointing up too!

DG: Bird attacks?! Is that an issue? Continue reading Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi is helping drones fly without GPS

Airdog’s new ADII is the new drone for action sports athletes

Airdog captured athletes’ imaginations with its initial Airdog drone that hit shelves in 2015. It marketed itself as a follow-me drone, able to track athletes whether they were surfing, skiing, biking, or even just walking — as long as they wore the tracking device.

Airdog today announced the drone’s successor, the ADII — yet another autonomous, follow-me drone. This time, it’s taking what the creator’s learned last time and making improvements — and at a lower price tag for consumers.

airdog adii

Most drones today depend on the user holding an RC transmitter and controlling its flights with the stick, but the ADII (and the original Airdog before it) is different. To fly the ADII drone, users wear a waterproof “AirLeash” tracking device that looks like a large watch. It has simple controls that allow the user to select various modes, including a “scenic mode”, which captures me in a selfie mode and then flies backwards, panning out to capture the broader landscape around me.

airdog adii airleash the drone girl
The Airleash

The ADII drone “follows you” based on a few different modes. There’s something called “adaptive follow mode,” which means that you can set the drone in front of you like a selfie, and if you turn, the drone will pull around to always remain positioned in front of you. There’s a circle mode so the drone will circle around you while following you for a more cinematic shot, and there’s a fixed follow mode which is like the traditional follow-me mode on most drones.

The ADII also comes with a new customizable flight path feature, which allows the drone to fly a pre-programmed flight path while still following you and keeping you framed in the shot. This feature could be used as a guaranteed obstacle avoidance, in situations where the user might traveling past trees or buildings and you want to ensure the drone doesn’t crash into it.

Unlike the drones that need to keep eyes on the person in order to “follow them,” this drone follows the flight path it was assigned, and detects the speed at which to fly based on the AirLeash, allowing the user to bike through trees or skateboard under a bridge and the drone won’t lose sight of the person — and won’t crash either.

Like its predecessor, this drone also folds up so it can tuck into a backpack. The Airdog ADII markets itself as the first auto-flying drone camera technology that lets you go hands-free, meaning that other drone cameras are still manually piloted with “follow-me” added as a feature to assist the pilot with capturing motion shots.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you; this drone won’t be coming with an RC transmitter to allow ultra-precise flight navigating over forests and oceans.the drone girl adii airdog

The ADII depends on a GoPro camera, sold separately,  meaning it could be a great product for someone who already has a GoPro — but could get costly for someone who would need to buy that too. GoPro’s Hero5 Black, which shoots 4K video and has an LCD so users can view their video on the camera, costs $399.

The ADII launches on Kickstarter July 11 and is expected to deliver to people who pre-order by August. The ADII will start on Kickstarter at $999, and the price will go up after the Kickstarter campaign is complete.


Amazon Prime Day 2017: the best drone deals, including Autel and Ehang

Amazon Prime Day 2017 has arrived, and there are some sweet deals on drones to be found. There are some of my favorites, including the Autel X-Star and the Yuneec Q500 4K, as well as some great deals on accessories like memory cards and a massive sale on DJI Phantom batteries.

The sale officially starts tomorrow, July 11, but deals started popping up tonight at 9 p.m. EST. The Amazon Prime Day event ends at 3 a.m. ET on July 12. Keep in mind that many of Amazon’s deals are flash sales, which means that deals on items listed on this post may be gone before you can get to them. No worries, the Drone Girl team will keep updating this piece all week!

To participate in Amazon Prime Day 2017, you do have to be an Amazon Prime Member. Though, if you aren’t quite sure if you want to be a member yet, you can still try out the free trial and partake in the deals. Sign up for a free trial here.

Here are the best Amazon Prime Day 2017 drone deals:
autel camera modules

Autel’s X-Star 4K: The Autel X-Star is one of my favorite prosumer level drones out there on the market, and it’s never been so cheap. The drone, which is priced on Amazon for $747.95 is an additional 20% off for Prime members, putting it at $598. That’s including the camera and controller. Personally, this is my top pick for Amazon Prime Day drone deals.

Check out my review of the X-Star 4K here.

*Update* it appears this deal is already gone!

Yuneec’s Q500 4K: This refurbished version of the Q500 4K is also an excellent deal at $499. The Q500, though a little old now, was my favorite drone on the market at the time it was released. It was $1,299 at the time, and normally $679 on Amazon today. But with Prime, it’s coming in at $499. That’s the same price as DJI’s Spark, but with a way better camera and much more stability in wind.

Check out my review of the Yuneec Q500 4K here.

*Update* it appears this deal is already gone!
ghostdrone 2.0 review

Ehang’s Ghostdrone 2.0: The Ehang Ghostdrone 2.0, normally $399, is just $260. The Ghostdrone bills itself as “the easiest-to-fly drone in the world” and requires an Android or iOS device and a small device called a G-Box to fly. It is not controlled by the traditional RC transmitter that drone pilots are used to. The drone has a price reduction of $326.31, and Amazon Prime members get an additional 20% off.

Checkout my review of the Ehang Ghostdrone 2.0 VR here.

U818A drone: For beginner pilots or someone who isn’t sure they want to commit more than $100 to the drone industry just yet, the U818A is the perfect starter drone. It comes with an RC controller, a camera and an app that allows your smartphone to show in real-time what the drone sees.

I reviewed it in Spring 2016 when I thought it was an excellent deal for $127. The price has since been knocked down to$89.95, but Prime members can get it on Amazon Prime Day 2017 for just $65.99.

Checkout my review of the U818A drone here.

Over on the accessory front, there are some sweet deals too.

SanDisk Memory Cards: SanDisk’s Ultra 64GB microSDXC UHS-I Card is normally $39.99, but Prime members can get it today for just $17.99. It has a whopping 64 gigs, but you are going to want that much room to ensure you never run out of space before your next drone flight. And you can never have too many memory cards.

AAA Batteries: I like to train new pilots on toy drones, which means I burn through lots and lots of batteries. Amazon’s $20.99 100-pack of batteries is now just $15.69, though personally I’m a fan of rechargeable batteries. These ones by EBL are normally $49.99 and on sale for just $16.99.

DJI Phantom 3 and 4K drone batteries: Need a spare battery for your DJI Phantom 3 or 4K? Powerextra is a third-party brand that makes batteries for the DJI Phantom 3 SE, Professional, Phantom 3 Advanced, Phantom 3 Standard, and DJI 4K drones. The battery is normally $70.99, but on sale to Prime members for just $51.99.

For comparison, a regular Phantom 3 battery from DJI is going to cost a whopping $149.

Happy shopping, and let me know about your favorite Amazon Prime Day deals in the comments below!

How to get that drone registration refund if you signed up with the FAA

Did you pay the $5 fee to register your drone with the Federal Aviation Administration? Hobby drone pilots can now claim that drone registration refund.

Hobby drone pilots, meaning those “operating exclusively in compliance with section 336” can delete their registration and receive a refund of their registration fee, by filling out this registration deletion and self-certification form and mailing it to the FAA at the address designated on the form.

“The FAA continues to encourage voluntary registration for all owners of small unmanned aircraft,” according to an FAA news release.

The FAA’s requirement that hobby drone users register their devices was struck down in an appeals court in May of 2017.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of John Taylor, a drone hobbyist who had challenged the legality of the FAA’s drone-registration program.

The program, which was instituted in December 2015, required hobby drone owners to register through an FAA website for a $5 fee. Drone hobbyists were then issued a unique identification, which they were required to mark on their drones. Within the first month, nearly 300,000 drone owners had registered.

The FAA did allow a brief period where users could register and the fee would be waived. Of course, people who registered during that period cannot claim an additional $5 refund.

When the court struck down the FAA’s registration rule, it referenced the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama. That rule stated that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”

Only 1 in 20 Americans say they would feel safe riding a passenger drone

Remember that publicity stunt back in February when Dubai’s transportation agency chief said that human-ferrying drones would begin transporting people across the city in July?

  1. It is in fact July and those flights haven’t happened yet beyond ongoing tests (though there are still a couple weeks to go). And…
  2. Most people don’t actually want to ride in one anyway.

Research site YouGov conducted a study of American adults and found that only 1 in 20 people said they would feel safe riding in a passenger drone.

Only a quarter of U.S. adults have heard about passenger drones to being with. But after having the concept of passenger drones explained to them, 54% of consumers said they’d feel unsafe riding in one, and only one in 20 people said they’d feel safe.

YouGov passenger drone study
Courtesy of YouGov

And what about owning your own drone? 25% of consumers said they would never be interested in purchasing a passenger drone. 62% said they might be in the future, while 4% said they want one as soon as possible, according to the study. Continue reading Only 1 in 20 Americans say they would feel safe riding a passenger drone

Here are the best drone photos of 2017, according to Dronestagram

Dronestagram just announced the winners of its fourth annual drone photo contest in partnership with National Geographic, and the images are more stunning than ever.

There were three photo categories: nature, urban and people, and the contest received thousands of entries from professional and amateur photographers around the world. The contest also announced a bonus round of winners in what they dubbed the “creative category.”

See the winners from the 2016 Dronestagram Photography Contest here.

Judges included National Geographic Deputy Director Patrick Witty and Photo editor Jeff Heimsath.

The winners played with shadows, like in Luke MaximoBell’s “Two Moo,” and played with light and color in Alexeygo’s “Dawn on Mercury Tower.” My personal favorite? “Waterlily” by helios1412.

Here were the winners of the contest (all images are courtesy of the entrants via Dronestagram):

Dronestagram contest winners: Nature Category

1st Prize: Provence, summer trim by jcourtial

2nd Prize: Infinite Road to Transylvania by Calin Stan

3rd Prize: Ice formation by Florian Continue reading Here are the best drone photos of 2017, according to Dronestagram

DJI’s Phantom 4 Advanced has never been so cheap

The formerly $1,349 DJI Phantom 4 Advanced is now on sale for $1,199.

The DJI Phantom 4 Advanced was launched in April 2017 as an upgrade to the Phantom 4 drone, improving on its predecessor’s camera with a 1-inch, 20-megapixel sensor and a mechanical shutter lens. It shoots 4K video at 60 frames per second with a video processor supporting H.264 4K videos at 60fps or H.265 4K at 30fps, both with a 100Mbps bitrate.

The Phantom 4 was one of DJI’s most revolutionary drones when it was announced; it was the first consumer drone to offer sense and avoid technology. If the drone sensed and object in front of it — be it a building or a human — it would simply hover in place and not move forward. If it could detect a way to autonomously navigate around the object, it could also do that.

But since it only had a sensor on the front side, DJI also started manufacturing the Phantom 4 Pro, announced in November 2016, which improved on that by providing obstacle sensors on five sides. DJI discontinued its original Phantom 4 in April of 2017.

phantom 4 advanced
Drone Girl Sally French shows off the Phantom 4 to a curious young pilot in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The sale price puts the Phantom 4 Advanced now at $200 more than the darling of DJI’s lineup, the Mavic Pro. So why get a Phantom 4 Advanced vs. the Mavic Pro?

The short answer: the camera.

With the Phantom 4 Advanced, you’re looking at a sensor with 20M effective pixels, vs. 12.35M for the Mavic Pro.

The maximum ISO on the P4 Advanced in manual mode for video is 6400 vs. 3200 for the Mavic, and 12,800 for photos on the P4 Advanced and 1600 for the Mavic. That means you’ll be able to get shots later in the evening and even at night with the P4 Advanced. Shooting a sunset shot with the Mavic may come out looking grainy.

Behind that, the P4 offers better flight time (30 minutes vs. the Mavic’s 27), a more stable drone in the window, etc.

Photographers looking for a deal may want to jump on this one now.

DJI ranks No. 25 on MIT Tech Review’s “50 Smartest Companies of 2017” list

When it comes to a ranking of the smartest companies in the world, DJI outperforms Microsoft, Tesla, IBM, General Electric and a multitude of other tech giants.

The MIT Technology Review released its list of the “50 Smartest Companies of 2017” and dronemaker DJI comes in at No. 25. That puts it two spots behind social networking giant Facebook, and one spot behind online learning course Udacity.

This is the first year that DJI has held a spot on the annual ‘smart companies’ list from the MIT Tech Review. The privately held drone company based in Shenzhen, China has a valuation of about $10 billion.

“DJI continues to lead the consumer drone market by making smaller, more capable aircraft at lower cost,” according to the MIT Technology Review. “Its $999 Mavic Pro drone boasts advanced flight features like obstacle avoidance and can be transported in a backpack thanks to folding arms and propellers. The company’s latest drone, the $499 Spark, fits in the palm of a hand, weighs less than a soda can, and can be controlled with hand gestures. ”

DJI saw an estimated $1.4 billion in sales in 2016 and expects revenue to exceed $1 billion in 2017. Continue reading DJI ranks No. 25 on MIT Tech Review’s “50 Smartest Companies of 2017” list