Dance, nature and humanitarian work: tech and art collide in drone film festival

In San Francisco, a once beacon of art — and now beacon of technology — the two fields have come together at the Flying Robot International Film Festival.

Thursday night’s film festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco’s Mission district showcased the best of the best videos. 153 videos were submitted to the festival, and 20 were selected for the final showcase.

These aren’t the thousands of 5 minute videos of someone’s backyard that you’ve seen too many of on YouTube. The entries screened at the festival were the best out there in both production and creativity.

The winner of the Cinematic Category, “Running Into the Air” is a scenic tour of Switzerland, but it’s set apart by a clever opening scene of what looks like someone running to take off for a flight over the country.   And the audience laughed hysterically at Bart Jansen’s cat copter, the video that made waves across the Internet after Bart Jansen turned his dead cat Orville into a taxidermy drone. That was, until the ostrich-copter came out, and the audience erupted.

The film festival showcased technological advancements too. Bay Area drone startup PRENAV showed precision technology in a video of laser party drones that spell out “Hello World.” Continue reading Dance, nature and humanitarian work: tech and art collide in drone film festival

First look at Parrot’s Bebop 2

Parrot today announced an update to its Bebop drone, the Bebop 2.

The $549 drone offers improvements to its predecessor, such as an improved 25-minute flight time over the original Bebop’s 15-minute flights.

Read more: my review of the original Parrot Bebop

The flight controllers also are faster and more precise, more stable in the wind, and come with better sensing and GPS.

“We try to make it as useful as a cellphone,” said Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux, who also is known as cofounder of the iconic red-soled designer shoe company, Christian Louboutin. “We try to put all the ideas you would find on a smartphone today, and we put that into a drone.”

Parrot_Bebop2_Lifestyle10

The drone itself is controlled by a smartphone (or tablet). Though, like the original Bebop, Parrot’s Bebop 2 does offer a Skycontroller (thoughts on that here).

With the expansion of the Bebop lineup, Parrot is positioning itself in a market of people looking for products cheaper than a DJI Phantom, but better quality than a toy. Five years ago, Parrot was the first to introduce a “real, ready-to-fly” drone to the consumer market with its $299 AR.Drone.

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It’s strength lies in its friendliness. The Bebop, which weighs in at about 1.1 pounds (half the weight of a Phantom) has charming rounded edges and almost soft propellers that likely would not cut Enrique Iglesias’ fingers should he try to grab it.

“We try to make it as non dangerous as possible,” Seydoux said. “It’s more safe than the competition because the drone’s safety (should it hit something) is linked to the weight.”

The drone has no gimbal and instead stabilizes video using its optical flow sensor technology.

The drone is expected to ship in time for Christmas.

“Air traffic control for drones” company Skyward brings top FAA drone guy on board

Jim Williams
Jim Williams

Portland-based Skyward, which is working to create an “air traffic control for drones” type platform, named Jim Williams, former manager of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office to its advisory board.

Williams, who retired from his post at the FAA in June of this year, was well-liked among the greater drone community, which has otherwise expressed frustration as the FAA continues to miss deadlines around regulating drones.

“There can be no doubt that Jim has moved the dialogue forward during his time at the UASIO and has shown he is willing to listen,” according to a post on SUAS news.

And it’s likely to mean good things for Skyward, which is trying to position itself as the platform for drone pilots to track airspace data needed for business, insurance or regulatory requirements, with eyes set on big name clients such as Google, Amazon and NASA.

Williams may be that hurdle in propelling Skyward to the forefront of discussion around drone traffic control.

“Jim’s experience across aviation agencies brings a new depth to our advisory board,” said Jonathan Evans, Skyward CEO, in a prepared statement. “His insight into the way the infrastructure of aviation works today and how drone integration will work moving forward is fundamental to providing the best information management solutions to our customers.”

Williams has an extensive background in both manned and unmanned aircraft, having led the engineering team in the FAA’s NextGen Organization before joining the UAS Integration Office in 2012. He also worked in the Atlanta Aircraft Certification Office, at Lockheed-Georgia Company and at NASA.

Yuneec catches whale snot for science using drone rebranded as “snot bot”

Wayne Perryman, leader at the Cetacean Health and Life History Program, holds a hexacopter. Photo courtesy of Wayne Perryman.
Wayne Perryman, leader at the Cetacean Health and Life History Program, holds a hexacopter. Photo courtesy of Wayne Perryman.

To date, my favorite story about a use case for drones is hands down Wayne Perryman, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who built a contraption for drones that allowed it to capture data from when a whale blows out what is essentially snot. And that snot contains valuable information for researchers, including little bits of cells and hormones to see what it’s eating, if it’s male or female, or if it’s pregnant.

It’s noninvasive, and it’s hands down incredible. (Read my Q&A with Perryman here).

Today, major drone manufacturer Yuneec International announced a similar partnership with Ocean Alliance, which will use Yuneec’s drones to collect data from whales. To do the research, scientists attach a petri dish to drones flown into the cloud of spray exhaled by whales when they surface. The drones, which they call “snot bots” can gather data that tell scientists about the health and fitness of the whale, as well as allow scientists to retrieve the data without the whale even noticing.MW-DZ410_whales_20151116151102_NS
Current methods of collecting the data from whales involves firing a biopsy dart from a crossbow, which causes stress to the whales.

“Snot bots are designed to remove the potential harm caused to whales during the research process,” said Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance. “This is a lottery win for us as a company, the animals we study, and ultimately, humanity.”

I wrote about 5 other wild uses for drones over at MarketWatch.com. Check them out.
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Eric Cheng’s new book on drones is the definitive ‘Drone 101’ textbook

eric cheng aerial photography book cover
Courtesy Peachpit Press

What was my intro to the world of two-pound flying robots? A college class — all about drones.

The class was taught in the journalism department at the Missouri School of Journalism. And as most classes in most journalism departments go, there never really is a textbook. The mantra my alma mater’s journalism department constantly proclaims and proudly splashes upon all its brochures is “The Missouri Method,” or in plainspeak, it means “learning by doing.” I generally adhere to that doctrine of teaching journalism — that is until we start teaching drones.

Like the influx of people now getting a hold of drones with no prior RC knowledge, I learned the hard way — after my drones crashed into trees and hillsides. After a propeller popped off and it fell from the sky and plummeted into the field. After a longtime drone expert yelled at me for nonchalantly tossing a LiPo battery to the ground; I had no idea they were so volatile.

Drones may be uncharted territory, but it’s territory that needs badly to be charted

To the applause of many students, this class relieved us of having to fork over $200 on a textbook we might crack open just once. It instead was a series of trial and error and wondering what would happen in the next week of a nonexistent syllabus.

And by all means, the class was wonderful, an exciting chance to try and fail. But in reading Eric Cheng’s new book “Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones,”  ($18.77) I can only help but think this is exactly what I needed three years ago.

Cheng’s book perfectly outlines everything a beginner to drones needs to know, from safety to a basic overview of how the equipment works, to tips for better photography. I can only imagine how much less clueless I would have felt three years ago had Cheng’s book been in my library back then.

It is the first primer to cleanly and clearly chart the territory of drones for beginners.

If there is only one thing you read in this book, it’s chapter one, which discusses the basics of drone technology — including balancing propellers, sensors, and batteries. It’s much needed for someone looking to quickly get up to speed on the technical know-how of drones but wants to cut through the noise and misinformation online.

Courtesy Peachpit Press

The book also capitalizes on Cheng’s immense background in photography (he formerly served as Lytro’s Director of Photography, DJI’s Director of Aerial Imaging and is founder of underwater photography site Wetpixel.

The last chapter looks at some of the work of Cheng — as well as the work of other guest photographers including DJI’s Romeo Durscher — from shots flying over sharks to showing contrast of water color in oceans to looking at shapes in the ground from an aerial perspective. It’s inspiring — proof that aerial photography from an easily accessible copter like the Phantom isn’t just a fad for people with too much money to buy and photograph their property. It’s something capable of producing a growing genre of art. It’s an inspiring way to leave the reader: ‘you now know how this works, now do something fantastic with it!’

Snorkelers converge on two whale sharks at the aggregation off of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Courtesy Peachpit Press

There are a growing number of books geared toward beginners in drones, but without a doubt, Cheng’s is the first I would recommend. It tells me everything a beginner needs to know to fly legally, safely and not look like a completely novice with no idea what they’re talking about. Yet it is short enough to hold my attention by giving me what I need to know without drowning me in technical jargon.

Buy it on Amazon.com for $18.77.

It’s a must-read for anyone who owns a Phantom or other consumer-level drone — if only it could have been a must-read when I was a journalism student studying drones.

When it comes to commercial drones, appearances don’t really matter, study finds

MW-DZ124_drone__20151111132649_ZHThe following is an excerpt of a story originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire story here. 

Looks don’t matter – at least, not if you’re talking about a drone.

A study out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas found that the design of a drone doesn’t actually impact people’s perceptions of drones.

The study asked 647 people in the U.S. to rate their perception of drones that they saw in pictures, manipulated across four factors – color, propeller blades, legs and propeller safety guards.
What the researchers found was “completely surprising.”

“People’s perception is that a drone is a drone is a drone,” said Joel Lieberman, professor and chair of the UNLV criminal Justice Department and co-author on the study. “It doesn’t matter so much how it looks” — which runs counter to a common design assumption that appearance can dramatically affect how consumers feel about a product.

Lieberman got the idea for the study partially after watching the Audi commercial where hundreds of ominous black drones with eight blades descend upon a parking lot, a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

“UAVs in that case look pretty scary,” he said. “If it’s really simple with a bright friendly color, would people be more receptive to it?”

Study participants were asked to self-asses their moods when looking at drones of various colors (white, black and orange) or with various numbers of blades (four, six, or eight).

Researchers went in with the assumption that a white drone with rounded edges, such as a DJI Phantom, would be received better than a drone with multiple blades and sharp, pointy legs. The wildly popular DJI drones are expected to exceed $1 billion in sales this year, but it may not be the drone’s approachable looks that are driving sales, the study indicates.

The study found that people ranked their mood with the same score for each photo, whether the drone in the photo resembled a spindly, black spider or a soft, white cloud.

More important than aesthetic to shaping drone acceptance is function, the study found. Participants were more inclined to rate their acceptance of drones higher or lower based on what type of function the drone had, rather than what it looked like.

But that’s not to say drone makers aren’t meticulous about the effort they put into designing drones and, as some point out, form and function go hand in hand.

“We don’t want our vehicles to look like camera drones that can spy or invade privacy,” said Marc Shillum, an Advisory Board Member and Design Chair at Matternet, a company that builds delivery drones with a focus on medical supplies. “This is essential medical, diagnostic samples we’re delivering.”

The design of Matternet’s drone is intended to convey that it’s going somewhere important, particularly in conflict zones that need medical supplies quickly.

Read the rest of this story here.

Parrot and PowerUp launch Kickstarter for paper airplane drone

PowerUpFPV5Who needs carbon fiber when you have paper?

French drone maker Parrot, maker of the popular Bebop drone, and PowerUp Toys today launched a new Kickstarter for the world’s first paper airplane drone with a live-streaming camera on it.

Yes, a paper airplane drone — and it’s being made through Kickstarter with a funding goal of $100,000.

The Tel Aviv-based company PowerUp Toys is not new to the remote-controlled paper space. The company’s $49.99 smartphone controlled paper airplane allows flyers to control the motor’s power for descending or ascending during flight; and the rudder for changing direction. That raised $1.2 million in a Kickstarter campaign. The company also previously made a paper motor boat.

PowerUpFPV13But their latest product creates a first-person-viewing (FPV) experience via paper drone, letting  people experience what it’s like to sit in the cockpit of a paper airplane, directly on their smartphone, or using a Google Cardboard headset.

“As a pilot, I wanted to give people the same feeling of sitting in the cockpit and being the controls with the simplicity of paper airplanes,” said Shai Goitein, CEO of PowerUp Toys. “With a live video experience straight to your cell phone or VR headset, you can control the plane with movements of your head, giving you the sense that you are flying through the air, riding your paper airplane.”

PowerUp is partnering with Parrot, which provides the wifi video stream for the PC Boards. The partnership began when Goitein met Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux a year ago at CES, a PowerUp spokesperson said.