Category Archives: News

Drones vs. driverless cars: A tale of two robotics policies

The following is an excerpt of a piece originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

When a 2-pound drone crashed on the White House lawn in January, the nation was thrown into drone hysteria.

That drone was a $1,000 model made by Chinese technology company DJI, but a basic camera-equipped drone can be had for $40—a fact not lost on those who pontificated about the crash. “It’s pretty worrisome if you’re in the Secret Service, you’re in law enforcement, a drone comes in and you don’t know if this is some 14-year-old kid who got a drone or if this is some al Qaeda sympathizer wanting to send a message,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said at the time.

The White House drone belonged not to a 14-year-old or terrorist, but to an off-duty government employee who reported the mishap to the Secret Service. The incident nevertheless illuminates the confusion that exists about drone laws—and how little the government has done to clarify it.

Some say the government should leave well enough alone, allowing drone-makers and operators to innovate. Others think a coming boom in consumer robotics technology — whether drones, driverless cars, or other devices yet to come—needs a comprehensive government response and, perhaps, even a “NASA for robots.”

“People thought they knew how [aviation] was regulated,” said MIT professor David Mindell, whose upcoming book “Our Robots, Ourselves” explores robots ranging from drones to Mars rovers. “Drones have thrown a monkey wrench into that.”

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The drone industry takes flight

President Obama, who wasn’t home during the White House crash, acknowledged issues with drone regulation after the incident: “I’ve actually asked the Federal Aviation Administration and a number of agencies to examine how we are managing this new technology, because the drone that landed in the White House, you buy in RadioShack,” he said.

Drone purchases have taken off at places ranging from Amazon to the Apple Store. 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson estimated in 2014 that half a million drones have been sold in the U.S. alone.

But while hobby use of drones is legal (with a few exceptions, such as flying in restricted airspace), the FAA has banned commercial drones. That means any 14-year-old can fly a drone, but any business cannot.

Businesses wanting to fly drones—from a local farmer to Amazon AMZN, +0.32%   or Google GOOG, -0.32%  —must apply to the FAA for a “certificate of exemption, ” a process businesses call needlessly complex. (One requirement is that the operator be a licensed airplane pilot.)

Congress asked the FAA to come up with rules governing commercial drone use in 2012, setting a Sept. 30, 2015, deadline. But the FAA will likely miss that mark: DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III said in 2014 that the FAA is “significantly behind schedule.” In an email, an FAA spokeswoman declined to say whether it would meet the deadline.

“We are working to finish our part of the rule-making by the end of this calendar year,” the spokeswoman wrote. “The FAA is committed to the safe integration of drones. Our first priority is the safety of people on airplanes and on the ground first while allowing safe, expanded use of drones.”

The FAA’s position is that “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University. But that, he says, is hampering innovation in the field.

“The entire mission of the FAA is to be highly precautionary and protective of airspace because they’re afraid of an accident,” said Thierer. “But there might be technologies not able to be tested that can solve those accidents.”MW-DU427_google_20150916172923_ZH

Driverless cars have followed a different path

Between White House drone crashes, misunderstandings of the practical purposes of drones, and fears that drones will spy on people, flying robots suffer from an image problem. But driving robots have been mostly welcomed or, at least, accepted as inevitable—both by the public and the agencies that regulate the cars—even though they’re not consumer-ready.

Departments of Motor Vehicles in several states and Washington, D.C., have laws that regulate operational permits for companies. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has essentially given the all-clear: Any car that has met NHTSA vehicle safety regulations and made it to market is still legal after being made driverless.

In the absence of federal laws, companies wanting to operate driverless cars in states where DMVs haven’t established rules just go ahead and do it. Google, for instance, runs driverless car tests in Texas, which doesn’t have regulations directed at them.

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Skysense charges drones with “portable landing pads” through Qualcomm investment

MW-DU755_skysen_20150921172945_ZHThis is an excerpt of a post originally written for MarketWatch.com.  Read the rest of this post here.

Murky FAA regulations could be limiting commercial adoption of drones, but the real challenge may be limited battery life.

That’s why Qualcomm Inc.’s QCOM, -0.97% investment in Skysense Inc. — a company building a charging infrastructure for drones — is a big deal.

To better understand how batteries can cap the use of drones, one has to get a sense of how the devices are used. Most drones have a flight time of about 15-25 minutes, which means typical enterprise usage like mapping a large field or inspecting a spread-out area — think a pipeline or oil rig — is impractical.

To combat that, Skysense created a “Droneport,” a hangar that allows drones to charge and wirelessly transfer data back to the operator. The Droneport is solar-powered and can be placed anywhere, such as in various locations around a field, to recharge any equipped drone through wires that make direct contact with the hangar.

With that technology, an operator could deploy a drone on a regular pre-programmed flight, and never touch it again. The drone would be programmed to land at the charging station and send back the data before its next flight.

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Thermal camera maker Flir is latest major company to bet on drones

MW-DU706_vue_dr_20150921110356_ZHThis is an excerpt of a story originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

Inspecting solar panels, fighting fires and helping farmers manage crops: these are all jobs that thermal imaging camera producer Flir Systems Inc. envisions could be done by drones — with the help of its new, professional-grade camera.

Oregon-based Flir is set to launch the new camera, called the Vue Pro, in November 2015. Like previous Flir cameras, the Vue Pro measures and records data, but it also allows users to see footage in real-time. And it’s made specifically to fit in the GoPro mount that many drones come equipped with, from the basic $499 DJI Phantom II all the way up to the $100,000+ Aeryon Scout. The Vue Pro will cost $1,999 and ships in November.


Drone operators have been using Flir products for some time, coming up with their own manual mounts: as far back as 2010, a U.S. Coast Guard used a Flir thermal imaging camera on one of its drones and discovered that a fishing boat was actually smuggling drugs.
But in the last 18 months, Flir recognized a shift as more drones targeted at a “prosumer” market and costing upward of $1,000 hit the marketplace.

“Drones have gotten into the hands of a lot more people,” said Flir VP Jeffrey Frank.

Frank says the $1,999 Vue Pro will allow many drone operators, including firefighters who want aerial images to seek out hot spots in burning buildings, or farmers looking to get aerial views of their crops to check for dehydration, to get by with just a basic drone, instead of a $25,000 enterprise drone.

“At the end of the day, the nature of the drone itself really needs to be good enough to get the job done,” he said. “Often something as simple as a DJI Phantom is perfectly adequate.”

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Drone plays pivotal, refreshing role in sci-fi film “Rotor DR1”

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 11.32.01 PMHollywood likes killer drones. Over the past two years, drones have killed mutants in “X-Men,” attacked the good guy in “Elysium,” served as weapons in “Iron Man 2” and struck down shopping malls in “American Ultra.”

But Chad Kapper, who rose to fame in the drone community as former director of beloved web series “Flite Test,” is creating a new archetype for the drone in Hollywood. A drone stars as the protagonist in the movie “Rotor DR1,” a film produced and directed by Kapper in partnership with Cinema Libre Studio. It is set to release on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on October 20, 2015.

The film “Rotor DR1” hinges on a post-apocalyptic world where most of the population has died because of a viral outbreak, and the world has fallen into a state of disrepair. But, one thing kept working — the drones — carrying out monotonous duties like inspections and vaccine deliveries. One of the drones, named DR1, befriends the main character Kitch (Christian Kapper), a teenage boy on a mission to find his father. Along the way, he meets up with an abandoned and charismatic teenager, Maya (Natalie Welch), fights off the antagonists trying to track him down, and enters a drone race in one of the film’s most exciting scenes.

The film went into production in July 2014 with a budget of about $350,000. Written by Steve Moses, Megan Ryberg, Scott Windhauser and Seth Yergin, the film is more intellect than action. Not to mention it is gorgeously shot – though not a surprise coming from the creator behind Flite Test. But the real joy in this film is watching a drone come to life and shaping the story beyond the cliche’d prop of the villain’s weapon. Continue reading Drone plays pivotal, refreshing role in sci-fi film “Rotor DR1”

Exclusive interview with CEO of Yuneec: the drone industry’s ‘dark horse’

This is an excerpt of a story originally written by Sally French for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

MW-DU007_yuneec_20150910220521_ZHIn the consumer drone industry, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI is king. But another company has suddenly emerged as a major competitor.

Weeks after announcing a $60 million funding round from Intel, Yuneec is set to announce its first professional quality drone aimed at aerial photographers. The $4,999 Tornado H920 will allow up to 42 minutes of flight time – nearly unheard of in the drone industry. The Tornado comes just months after Yuneec’s first foray into drones with the lower-priced Typhoon model aimed more at hobbyists.

Yuneec worked with Panasonic to create a camera specifically for the Tornado with 3x optical zoom, allowing pilots to control it from the ground.

MW-DU078_yuneec_20150911153202_ZHDJI, the world’s largest consumer drone maker, is also bringing new products to market that indicate it’s aiming to dominate on professional-grade drones. It announced Thursday two new cameras for the company’s Inspire 1 drone that will allow super high-resolution imagery and are geared toward the enterprise consumer. DJI is expected to exceed $1 billion in sales this year and raised a $75 million investment in May, valuing the business at $8 billion.

But Shan Phillips, CEO of the U.S. branch of Yuneec, isn’t concerned about the competition. “The industry is big enough that there’s room for more of us,” he said. “What we want to be is the feisty number two.”

His bigger concern? Just getting Yuneec’s name out there.

Few people have heard of Yuneec — even in the relatively insular world of drones — or know how to pronounce it for that matter. (For the record, “It’s like ‘unique,’ ” Phillips said.)

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DJi’s newest hot product isn’t actually a drone

The following article is an excerpt of a piece originally written by Sally French for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.MW-DU006_djicam_20150910210935_ZH (1)

The next step in the evolution of drones may not be about the actual vehicle; it may be more about the attached camera.

At least that’s what the latest news from the world’s largest drone manufacturer, DJI, indicates.

DJI on Thursday announced two new interchangeable-lens cameras designed for the company’s Inspire 1 professional model drone: the X5 ($4,499) and X5R ($7,999). Both prices include the camera and Inspire 1 drone.

The cameras make DJI’s Inspire 1 the first commercially available drone featuring a micro four thirds sensor, which will allow for much higher resolution imagery. Specifically, the larger sensor will allow aerial photographers the ability to capture up to 13 stops, making high-resolution 4K video in low-light environments possible.

The new cameras will mean a huge leap forward in image quality for those using drones for professional videography and for enterprise customers who require a drone to show thermal imaging or generate 3D maps.

“Big pixels are important because there’s more surface area to collect photons,” said Eric Cheng, DJI’s director of aerial imaging, during the announcement at InterDrone in Las Vegas. “That means you get higher dynamic range.”

The more advanced X5R model will record video to both a microSD card and a solid-state disk to record CinemaDNG (RAW) video, allowing for higher-quality video.

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Apple Store now sells DJI Phantom drones

This is an excerpt from a story originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

apple dji phantomIn addition to iPhones, iPads and iPods, you can now buy drones from the Apple Store. But they’re not iDrones just yet.

The Apple Store began selling Tuesday the ‘Phantom 3’ line of drones created by SZ DJI Technology Co., commonly known as DJI. DJI is the world’s top maker of consumer drones and is expected to exceed $1 billion in sales this year, compared with $130 million in 2013. The Chinese company raised a $75 million investment in May that valuing the business at $8 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Apple Inc. will sell the DJI Phantom 3 Professional Camera Drone for $1,259.95 online and in retail stores across the U.S. The machine shoots 4K video, can fly at a maximum altitude of 6,000 meters above sea level and has a 23 minute flight time. The tech giant also offers the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced Drone, which has a slightly lesser camera, for $999.95.

The drones aren’t unique to the Apple Store and have been sold for years on sites such as Amazon.com Inc. and B&H Photo. DJI released the first line of Phantoms in January 2013.

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Drone footage shows massive scale of Beirut protests

This is an excerpt from a story written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here.

MW-DS924_beirut_20150824154435_ZH (1)Thousands of people in Beirut gathered to protest a trash dispute that has led to giant garbage piles across the country.

The protests have been mostly coordinated by participants of the “You Stink” campaign, a group calling for answers to a crisis that began back in July when residents of a town hosting Lebanon’s largest landfill refused to allow garbage trucks to dump waste there, according to The Wall Street Journal. The protesters called for the government to find an alternative landfill site, but with no alternatives, garbage collection is at a standstill.

This weekend’s protests quickly turned ugly, as police fired water cannons and rubber bullets at the crowd. At least one protester died.

Drone footage shows the scale of the protest in the streets around Martyrs’ Square:

This isn’t the first time drones have been used to document protests.

“It’s a valuable tool — a way for reporters to get a perspective on the action and get a sense of the size of the protest,” said Faine Greenwood, an analyst at policy think tank New America, who studies the development of drones.

Aerial video of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests went viral in September 2014, showing shots of the crowd as it massed in the city’s business district. Months later, a drone showed footage of thousands of activists marching in Mexico City on November 20 demanding action from the government following the disappearances of 43 students in Mexico’s Guerrero state in September.

But there are also potential issues when using drones to cover protests, including safety reasons.

“You don’t want drones flying over people’s heads for no good reason other than just a gimmick,” Greenwood said.

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