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Main article: Skydio

All topics: 3

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.

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Garrett Goldberg Crunch Network Contributor

Garrett Goldberg is a partner at Bee Partners.

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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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