At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it sometimes felt as if an army of drones had been released and was looking for something useful to do.
For the first time, the show floor included an area, called the Unmanned Systems Marketplace, set aside for unmanned aircraft and similar remote-controlled or autonomous products. Over a dozen companies exhibited there, many showing off multirotor gadgets that can fly with or without a human behind the controls.
The market for consumer-geared unmanned aircraft is still small, and it’s not quite clear what the devices will be used for. The companies making them seem to believe buyers will enjoy simply flying around taking videos, and will eventually invent new uses that increase their appeal.
One new drone buzzing around was FLYR1, a quad-rotor with a detachable high-definition camera. The aircraft is able to automatically follow you at a set distance by homing in on a unique pattern on your shirt. The camera will be able to stream what it records online via your smartphone, said Judy Garvey, a cofounder and chief operating officer of Trace Live Network, the California-based company behind the FLYR1.
Garvey said she expects the device to appeal initially to sports enthusiasts like skateboarders. Trace, which plans to have its quad-rotor robot out by the end of the year, expects to charge about $500 for both the copter and the detachable camera unit. The company said it also plans to sell other gadgets that the camera can attach to, such as a small car.
Another quad copter on display came from the University of Pennsylvania and had an off-the-shelf Android smartphone using specialized Qualcomm vison-processing software serving as its navigational brain. It also had an Android app to control it built by post-doctoral researcher Giuseppe Loianno. Though it’s currently just a research project, this suggests an inexpensive way to get sophisticated drones into more people’s hands, since so many of us already have smartphones.
Yash Mulgaonkar, a graduate student who designed the drone, hopes to offer the schematics and circuitry for the robot online, so people can download them and 3-D-print their own. That might be unrealistic for most people, but the number of 3-D printers on display at CES suggests the idea isn’t too far-fetched.
Drones also figured heavily into Intel’s CES presence. During a keynote speech on Tuesday evening, the chip maker’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, showed off several drones made by the German company Ascending Technologies. The drones used a depth-sensing camera from Intel to avoid obstacles while trying to find the shortest route from one point to another.
Krzanich shared the stage with Christoph Kohstall and Jelena Jovanovic, the creators of the Nixie, a tiny drone with flexible arms that is worn as a bulky bracelet but can take a selfie if you toss it in the air in front of you. Kohstall demonstrated this during the keynote; it worked, though the resulting image splashed across an onstage screen looked somewhat blurred and off-center. Nixie’s price and release date have yet to be announced.
Many expect that larger drones could soon routinely be used for all sorts of commercial purposes, from building inspections to security patrols. The Federal Aviation Administration, which has not yet issued rules regarding commercial use of unmanned aircraft (see “Air Traffic Control for Drones”), predicts that 7,500 of them will be in the skies by 2018. The agency is clearly taking notice of the growing consumer market, too.
At CES, the FAA had a booth near the Unmanned Vehicle Marketplace, and representatives handed out fliers to promote the “Know Before You Fly” campaign, announced late last year and promoted by the FAA and several groups devoted to unmanned aerial vehicles. The flier included tips such as “Do: fly your unmanned aircraft below 400 feet” and “Don’t: fly anything that weighs more than 55 lbs.”
Many drone pilots will also be subject to hardware constraints. Drone batteries tend not to last very long, especially in windy weather (Trace is hoping to get about 30 minutes out of the FLYR1, for instance), and most of the aircraft on show at CES couldn’t fly with more than a few pounds of carefully attached cargo.