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Main article: Skydio

All topics: 7

Skydio announces autonomous drone developer platform, new $1,999 price point

16:02 | 6 September

Skydio launched their self-flying R1 drone a few months back, now the startup is launching a developer platform that will allow users to design and share their own skills for the device, potentially opening it up to a lot of new use cases.

Alongside the platform launch, Skydio has also shared that they sold out of the first run of $2,499 “Frontier Edition” drones and they’ll begin selling the drone at $1,999 albeit with a couple less accessories (but still offer everything a user needs to get airborne).

The new Skydio Autonomy Platform is basically focused on getting developers to move past the functionality that ships in the box with the R1 and to build custom solutions for different industry problems. That could be an inspection or security use case where the user wants to run a program to have the R1 fly itself to a number of points and capture a snapshot from each while having the intelligence to avoid obstacles in the way and prioritize the most efficient safe flight path.

I had a chance to demo the technology and look at how the platform could also be leveraged to suck in photogrammetry data and create a quick-and-dirty spatial map of where it had flown. A cool feature is that the company is shipping a Skydio simulator so even potential users of the device can get a peek at when a skill might look ahead of time with a lifelike virtual simulator of the R1that feeds off a 3D map and works inside a browser.

There are some definite hardware shortcomings that limit the possibilities of such a platform. The device runs off a WiFi connection to a user’s phone so it’s going to have to maintain a compatible distance like a few hundred feet or so. Like many other drones, you also have battery life to worry about. These hardware issues will prevent the R1 from becoming some sort of autonomous warehouse inspection bot, but there are still plenty of untapped capabilities for a self-flying drone that has the intelligence to adjust its own flight paths when necessary.

On the consumer side, the R1 is getting a couple of new 1-click skills that should make for some pretty cool shots. The company has also announced that they are partnering with camera rental company Omni to begin allowing people to rent an R1 if they’re based in the Bay Area or Portland.

 


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Execs from DJI, 3DR and Skydio to discuss drones at Disrupt F 2018

19:21 | 18 June

Just how big are drones? According to Gartner, industry revenue topped $6 billion last year and is on-track to hit $11.2 by 2020. Unmanned aerial vehicles are a huge industry with a broad swath of applications, from hobbyists to agriculture to the military.

At Disrupt SF in September, we’ll be bringing together executives from some of the biggest names in the industry, including enterprise drone software maker 3D Robotics, startup Skydio and the industry leader in commercial and consumer drones, DJI.

Chris Anderson is the CEO of 3DR, the creator of drone analytics enterprise software platform Site Scan. Prior to cofounding the company as a resource for drone hobbyists, Anderson was the long-time editor-in-chief of Wired. 3DR was an early entrant into the consumer drone space but recently left the market and started building software for commercial drone use.

Adam Bry is the found and CEO of Skydio, a Bay Area-based startup that has generated considerable excitement — and funding — with a drone that sports impressive motional tracking for action shots. Bry is a graduate of MIT’s CSAIL program, who previous worked on Google’s Project Wing fixed-wing drone program.

Arnaud Thiercelin is the head of US R&D for DJI. DJI overwhelming dominates making and selling drones and Thiercelin leads teams tasked with implementing technology for developers and enterprise.

We’re excited to have these industry leaders speak at Disrupt. There are countless opportunities in the drone space right now and these leaders are best positioned to discuss to the challenges facing founders entering the market.

Disrupt is September 5-7 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Get your tickets today.

 


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Skydio’s self-flying drone can now track down cars

16:00 | 30 May

Skydio‘s first major update to their crazy cool self-flying drone fixes its 13 eyes on a new object to follow at high speeds: cars.

The Bay Area startup has expanded following capabilities of its R1 drone beyond just humans, with cars now firmly within their sights. Now, you’ll still be limited by the devices 25mph so this won’t be shooting any Nascar races, but the self-flying drone will be able to track and follow vehicles as they move through challenging terrain that would be impossible to film previously without a skilled drone pilot.

Just don’t send this thing following after a self-driving car — unless you want the two to probably run away together and come back with a vengeance at a later date.

In our review of the R1 drone, we were struck by the strength of its core tech and excited by the promise offered by future software updates. Well, less than two months later, new functionality is already coming to the device with this big new update.

“With Skydio R1, cinematography becomes a software defined experience,” Skydio CEO Adam Bry said in a statement. “That means we can regularly introduce fundamentally new capabilities over time for all existing and future users.”

In addition to the new car mode, Skydio has also updated its Lead mode which aims to plot a user’s path before they take it and shoot footage accordingly. The company says that the new update will bring “more intelligent behavior” when it comes to navigating obstacles. New “quarter lead” and “quarter follow” modes also shift the perspective from only allowing straight-on or profile shots.

The Skydio R1 Frontier Edition goes for a decently pricey $2,499 and the new update goes live today .

 


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Skydio R1 review: a mesmerizing, super expensive self-flying drone

02:19 | 3 April

The idea of a robot methodically hunting you down isn’t the most pleasant of concepts. A metal-bodied being zooming after you at up to 25 miles per hour with multiple eyes fixed on your location seems… out of your best interest.

The Skydio R1 drone seems friendly enough though. I wouldn’t call it loving or cute by any means but it really just wants to keep up with you and ensure it captures your great life moments with its big blue eye.

What makes the $2,499 Skydio R1 special is that it doesn’t need a pilot, it flies itself. The drone uses 12 of its 13 onboard cameras to rapidly map the environment around it sensing obstacles and people as it quickly plans and readjusts its flight paths. That means you can launch the thing and go for a walk. You can launch the thing and explore nature. You can launch the thing and go biking and the R1 will follow you with ease, never losing sight of you as it tries to keep up with you and capture the perfect shots in 4K.

That was the company’s sell anyway, I got my hand on one a few weeks ago to test it myself and have been zipping it around the greater West coast annoying and impressing many with what I’ve come to the conclusion is clearly the smartest drone on the planet.

The R1 has a number of autonomous modes to track users as it zips around. Not only can the drone follow you, it can also predict your path and wander in front of you. It can orbit around you as you move or follow along you from the side. You can do all of this by just tapping a mode, launching the drone and moving along. There are options for manual controls if you desire, but the R1 eschews the bulky drone controller for a simple, single-handed control system on the Skydio app on your phone.

The app is incredibly simple and offer a wide range of tracking modes that are pretty breezy to swipe through. Setting the drone up for the first flight was as simple as connecting to the drone via password and gliding through a couple of minutes worth of instructional content in the app. You can launch it off the ground or from your hand, I opted for the hand launch most times which powers up the propellers until it’s tugging away from you, flying out a couple of meters and fixing its eye on you.

Walking around and having it follow you is cool and all, but this thing shines when you’re on the move and it’s speeding to catch up with you. It’s honestly so incredible to fire up the R1 and run through a dense forest with it trailing you, same goes for a bike ride. It speaks to Skydio’s technology how few hiccups it had in the midst of extended sessions, though by extended session I mean around 15 minutes as that was the average flight time I got from a single battery charge. The Frontier Edition R1 ships with a second battery which was a godsend.

When it comes to capturing precise, buttery smooth footage, there’s no replacement for a skilled drone pilot. Even with a perfectly good gimbal, the movements of the R1 are often pretty sudden and lead to direction changes that look a bit weird on camera. Not every continuous shot you gather from the R1 will make the cut but what’s crazy is that you literally don’t have to do anything. It just follows and records you leaving you a lot of footage that you’ll be able to pare down in editing.

There are some things I don’t love. It’s too big for one, the company insists that it’s still small enough to fit in a backpack, but unless it’s a backpack that you could also load a 17-inch gaming laptop in, I kind of doubt that. The body feels light and substantial but the rigidity of its outer frame and its overall size made me a little nervous at time that I was going to catastrophically break it which was enough to make me consciously leave it at home when I was out on a snowboarding trip.

I’m also a little distraught by the company’s decision to make this purely Wi-fi controlled over your phone connection, a decision that definitely helps you from losing it, but also kind of limits its core utility when it comes to tracking people who are not holding the phone. I sicced the drone on a friend of mine who was running around a neighborhood area but after he took off in a sprint, the R1 lost signal and it came to a stop over a street where I was left trying to reconnect and move it to safety as cars zoomed by a few feet beneath it.

For $2,499, it’s not ridiculous to desire some features that also make this more of a general purpose drone as well, all of the propellers are there so it doesn’t seem like it should be a coup to offer an add-on controller that extends the range from a few hundred feet as it currently is.

Not a complaint at all, but I am excited to see the functionality gains this gets from future software updates, namely I think it’d be really to fun to track a pet (it currently can only recognize humans). At one point when it was following me around in a park, it majorly freaked out a bunch of dogs who promptly started chasing it — and by extension me. The sadist in me kind of wanted to chase them back with the R1.

The R1 is a $2,499 product with a feature that makes it particularly attractive to the first-time drone user who definitely won’t spend that much money in the first place. In some ways this mismatch shows just how disruptive this tech could be, but in the short-term the targeted buyer of this drone is an extremely tight niche.

For the early adopter who just loves getting the new thing, you’ll be pleased that it actually works and isn’t another half-baked dream on the road to autonomy. If you’re a creator or vlogger who does a lot of solo trips in the great outdoors, this drone could definitely transform how you capture your trips and end up being a great buy — albeit a super pricey one.

 


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Skydio’s $2499 ‘self-flying’ drone knows where you are and where you’re going

17:02 | 13 February

A four-year-old autonomous drone startup founded by MIT researchers and backed by Silicon Valley’s top investors is finally ready to show off what it’s been building over the last several years.

Today, Skydio is showcasing the R1, a drone that boasts what the startup calls “self-flying” capabilities. What this means is that the drone is capable of locking-on to an individual and following them while shooting video and avoiding obstacles. This doesn’t mean that it can avoid a tree or two while flying through an otherwise open field, the drone can track you while navigating itself through a dense forest or urban environments like a warehouse.

I had a chance to see these capabilities in action while running through Jefferson Square Park in San Francisco with the R1 hot on my tail. The drone is alarmingly impressive but there’s something a little unsettling about having an autonomous drone track you down on its own while it avoids tree branches to keep you in its gaze. My dystopian subconscious was more than likely fueled in part by binging Netflix’s Altered Carbon last weekend, but when I wasn’t thinking about getting hunted by the R1, I was marveling at just how capable it was at navigating the world with its 13 onboard cameras as guides.

The process of diving into its self-flying capabilities is dead simple.  After opening the app, you see the drones point-of-view via its 4K 30fps camera, from there you can tap on yourself or another person (even while in a group) and the R1 will identify characteristics about that human shape, be it general appearance, color or size, and begin following. The idea is that you could launch the drone, lock onto yourself, and ski down a mountain while the R1 tracked you to the bottom while capturing 4K footage.

It can travel at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour while maintaining its autonomous bearings, and the battery life is 16 minutes on a charge.

Skydio is hardly the first consumer drone to adopt computer vision-based technologies to enable easier flying, but while DJI and others have used this tech to primarily tackle object avoidance, Skydio has been working to see how the drone can fly itself and track objects. The startup is utilizing many of the same technologies that autonomous car companies have been exploring. The R1’s brain is a 256-core Nvidia TX1 processor, a several-hundred-dollar component already being used in a number of self-driving vehicles.

The R1 has a number of flying modes that frame what kind of footage it’s able to capture. The default “follow” mode acts it would suggest, while “side,” “orbit” and “lead” attempt to capture video while maintaining a certain vantage point that can also predict your movement based on your current trajectory. The drone also has some interesting modes like “stadium” which is designed for the specific scenario of capturing field sports. Among all of the specialized modes, the app can also be flown manually (with one hand!) while using the phone app for iOS or Android.

These features definitely contribute to an ease of use that would make the R1 ideal for drone novices, and yet the product’s $2499 price point suggests a different audience. “It’s clearly not a mainstream price point,” Skydio CEO Adam Bry told TechCrunch. Right now, Skydio is looking to find an audience of users who are attracted to the idea of shooting footage without needing a separate pilot.

“We’re very much a technology company that has this core tech,” Bry said. “But there’s a clear path for using the core tech in a number of other areas.”

Alongside the product announcement, Skydio also revealed that it’s recently closed a $42 million Series B round of funding led by IVP and Playground Global. Other notable investors in the round include Nvidia, Accel, Andreessen Horowitz and Kevin Durant. With this round, the company has raised about $70 million to date.

 


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Are drones actually a sector or just another layer in the enterprise SaaS stack?

04:00 | 16 September

Michael Berolzheimer Crunch Network Contributor

Michael Berolzheimer is a partner at Bee Partners.

How to join the network
Garrett Goldberg Crunch Network Contributor

Garrett Goldberg is a partner at Bee Partners.

How to join the network

The world is abuzz — the past several years have been an exciting time for drones. From videos of drones flying cool missions inside R&D labs to marketing shots like Amazon’s Prime Air, drones have gained the attention of consumers, enterprises and governments.

Their ability to shoot remarkable photography and capture data, and potentially violate privacy and property rights, has led to a flurry of opinions, regulations and oversight. As a result, the landscape has become very cloudy, and we are increasingly asking ourselves if drones are actually a “sector” or yet another layer in the Enterprise SaaS stack?

Hardware and software services have dominated drone investing to date — AngelList cites $1.9 billion. Infrastructure technology and investment have lagged, yet will be essential to support more advanced service providers and to enable true autonomous delivery over longer ranges to the consumer. This is creating a refreshed demand on the innovator side as early entrepreneurs (appropriately) jumped straight to providing enterprise and consumer solutions as the industry exploded.

This, then, left a gap on the front end of the technology innovation curve that we believe now requires a Drone 2.0 refresh — technology building that will continue to support the key solution providers in expanding areas and thus perpetuate the cycle. We are seeing this with emerging enabling technology companies such as Iris Automation, PreNav and Dronesmith, among others, and believe there is room to run. Technical solutions around fleet management, smart routing, sensors and other technology aspects of the flying robots will take center stage again.

To date, the majority of enterprise drone investment opportunities have been focused around a key solution provider. These opportunities often look like consulting practices that leverage a drone to sell a specific service to an enterprise, and are meaningful solutions for many industries, including construction, mining, insurance, forestry, police and government, among others.

Indeed, each business has a viable place in both the drone “stack” and the targeted business vertical. However, the landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented and crowded, and thus difficult to see where outsized value lies for investors in order to achieve venture scale returns.

As such, we assess the drone sector through the lens of a hub and spoke model. At the center is the key solution provider, whose size is variable due to various factors. Many of the supporting functions are outsourced to vertical specialists, and connected (and disconnected) to each other at various times… akin to a living ecosystem.

Enterprise successes — the stack and platform effects

The enterprise successes so far have largely benefited from first-mover advantage, and now face increasing competition from new entrants providing incrementally better solutions at slightly lower prices. We expect that solution providers will now defend their early customers through expanding their value propositions and outsourcing non-critical drone functions, including hardware, to the lowest bidder.

Technologies or business models need a place in the stack. Hardware and software startups have grabbed market share as the drone stack has emerged. It is important to note, as certain players broaden their reach up and down the drone stack, a true technological or business breakthrough must provide a step-function improvement over the status quo. An increasing number of these solutions are being absorbed by adjacent players, as developing it themselves is trivial. Deeper tech is harder to plug-and-play, due to the tight integration required, than the component companies will indicate to a prospective investor.

Platform effect. Not only must a solution provider provide a core solution or service, it must solidify its place in the drone tech stack. This requires other technology (hardware, middleware and software providers) to build on all sides of the solution, and a structure where each additional client brings more value to the platform.

Businesses that truly enable delivery or sharpen data collection and sensing will win mindshare.

For example, Dronesmith’s sensor management platform also allows for developers to continually develop and deploy sensing applications useful to customers. Skyward has become a resource for enterprises and service contractors to manage and expand their drone operations. Iris Automation, Skydio and others are tackling the biggest challenge facing the industrial drone industry: autonomous flight beyond the line of sight. It is an industry-wide belief that industrial drones cannot take off unless they become truly autonomous, requiring situational awareness and collision avoidance technology, the latter of which Iris offers.

As the industry evolves, the key solution providers holding technological and business advantage will succeed, especially those showing platform effects. They will continually strengthen their core position and outsource the commoditized aspects of drone technology (hardware) or business (drone connectivity). Skycatch built out many of these parts as the industry sprouted, and is now servicing the largest elements of the hub as the industry has matured around industrial applications. In the future, they will use multiple vendors to support their customers’ use cases.

Applications of the hub and spoke

The workplace is clearly evolving as drones fly into the mainstream and onto the job site. Humans are pushed further up the knowledge economy chain, making our time more efficient and lives safer. We are seeing the biggest potential impacts in mining exploration (dropping prices by 10x), agricultural surveying (increasing crop yield by 40 percent-plus), geographical mapping, building and insurance inspection, package delivery, search and rescue efforts and forestry inspection. The effectiveness of drones in these industries establishes their placement in the stack and promotes network effects and technology innovation.

Drones hold promise to be a truly enabling technology supporting a variety of crucial global industries.

Businesses that truly enable delivery or sharpen data collection and sensing will win mindshare and investment as industry players increasingly include them in budgets and workflows. PreNav is addressing fundamental changes in localization and computer vision. Zipline and Vayu are delivering on the promise of drones in rural areas. Infrastructure companies will also emerge in the next wave, enabling constant connectivity, sense and avoid or routed delivery. Marketplaces around contract work, images or other data will also expand the reach of this enabling technology.

Conclusion

Drones hold promise to be a truly enabling technology supporting a variety of crucial global industries. The drone-first solutions to problems both known and to be discovered are foundationally solid, efficient and effective. The supporting web of hardware, middleware and software is now substantially robust enough to provide significant value to certain enterprises.

Related Articles

Keeping track of warehouse inventories with an army of fully autonomous drones Chipotle to test burrito delivery by drone with Project Wing at Virginia Tech What's next for the U.S. drone market?

As enterprise investors, we consider the broader business opportunity where drones and the technology drive change within large organizations, and aim to observe the drone “sector” though a wider lens. As with any enterprise investment, we embrace the specific problem a company is solving, who is going to pay for it and why it is the most effective solution.

We, alongside entrepreneurs, must be certain we are saving companies both time and money. We must vow to think beyond “drones” and study the business problems and drone-specific solutions required to solve them. Having the discipline to build and support these companies is extremely difficult, but a better, safer and more efficient workplace will surely be the result.

Featured Image: Dan Bruins

 


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Skydio Makes Drones Smart So Pilots Can Be Dumb With $3M From Andreessen

19:10 | 15 January

“In five years, the notion of a drone crashing will be a weird, foreign thing” says Adam Bry, co-founder of drone auto-pilot startup Skydio and founding member of Google’s Project Wing drone delivery project. Skydio connects a drone’s cameras to its flight computer so it can avoid obstacles and maneuver on its own without GPS.

Today Skydio announced it’s raised a $3 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by Accel Partners to start assembling custom hardware and move toward getting its technology to market.

To demo its auto-pilot system, it’s built a drone “magic wand” that lets you direct a drone by simply pointing your phone where you want it go. That means you don’t need the traditional, clunky dual joystick drone controller. Here’s a quick demo video of Skydio’s drone magic wand in action:

“I grew up flying radio controlled airplanes” Bry, Skydio’s CEO, tells me on a sunny day out on San Francisco’s waterside Embarcadero. “I took it too seriously and won a couple of national championships in high school. Not the most popular hobby as a teenager.”

But Bry nerding out in the skies brought the team together. It delivered him to MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence where he met future Skydio CTO Abe Bachrach.

The startup’s CXO Matt Donahoe was more into film and gaming, but recalls working at MIT’s media lab when he became fascinated by Bry whirling drones around outside. “I said ‘putting a camera on a drone is going to be really powerful'” Donahoe tells me. “Putting cameras on tripods is a pain. I think drones are going to be the most incredible creative tools we’ve seen in a long time.”

Bry’s Master’s thesis was a fixed-wing drone that could fly 25mph around a tight parking garage (video below), and this GPS-denied flight technology would become the basis of Skydio. Him and Bachrach stayed in touch with Donahoe as he worked at gaming startups while they founded Project Wing at Google[x]. Building drones that could deliver disaster relief supplies primed Bry and Bachrach to strike out on their own and form Skydio.

Ditch The Joysticks

Dual joystick drone controllers today are like the Command Prompt interfaces for old computers: you have to be an expert to get any value out of them, limiting their accessibility. Yet CES this year proved that drones are going mainstream. The Skydio team wanted to build a way for anyone to fly drones, and that means taking responsibility for maneuvering off the user and putting it on the propellered-shoulders of the drones themselves.

Most unmanned aerial vehicles need GPS to know where they are. That can lead to some hilarious malfunctions, like when a bug resets a drone’s intended location to 0° latitude, 0° longitude, sending it hurdling towards Africa. The reliance on GPS seems silly, though, considering drones are now equipped with high-grade video cameras.

So Skydio set out to forge a “drone visual cortex” that takes the feed from the cameras and runs it through their computer vision algorithms that detect placement or obstacles in 2D and converts the image to a 3D map of the drone’s surroundings. This map and navigation instructions are then passed to the drone’s flight computer.

At a basic level, this keeps drones from crashing. They can see a nearby tree or the ground, and know not to run into them even if a human tells them to. But Bry says it’s the ability to unlock new interface options that really gets him excited about Skydio. They can replace the Command Prompt with a Graphic User Interface.

One example is the magic wand. A second is an auto-follow program that lets the drone pilot itself while keeping you in its camera frame. You could simply mark a location on your phone and have the drone do a reconnaissance run, automatically planning a route that will capture every inch of the target zone on camera as shown in the image above. Or you could line up a drone camera angle by watching on your phone screen, swiping or pinching to adjust the perspective as the drone maneuvers to get your desired shot.

Here’s a demo reel of what Skydio-equipped drones can do:

Skydio is still in the prototype phase, hacking together off-the-shelf materials. The new $3 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Accel, and a squad of secret angels will fund the purchase of custom hardware for Skydio’s visual cortex, plus hiring computer vision geniuses. After a year, the company is still just the three founders.

“We’re not going to make the whole drone” says Bry. But the team does need to build more computational power into drones so they can do the computer vision processing locally rather than sending it somewhere else. Still, Donahoe jokes “We’re much closer physically to cloud computing.”

Eventually, Skydio expects to partner with drone manufacturers to get its technology in the air. It could work with fellow Andreessen-backed startup Airware, which makes a drone operating system and flight computer that can be programmed for commercial missions. Bry admits top drone makers like DJI and Parrot could get more serious about computer vision auto-pilot. But the bigger threat is beating science to make the technology work.

Skydio doesn’t have a concrete release date for its system, but is pushing to get software out the door this year. Drones are still widely banned from commercial use by the FAA but new regulations could soon give them limited airspace. Silicon Valley’s investors clearly want to be waiting in the wings.

Donahoe concludes “Between drones and VR, the future’s definitely going to be sweet.”

 


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