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Main article: Drone

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An Intel drone fell on my head during a light show

02:30 | 19 September

It didn’t hurt. I thought someone dropped a small cardboard box on my head. It felt sharp and light. I was sitting on the floor, along the back of the crowd and then an Intel Shooting Star Mini drone dropped on my head.

Audi put on a massive show to reveal its first EV, the e-tron. The automaker went all out, put journalists, executives and car dealers on a three-story paddle boat and sent us on a two-hour journey across San Francisco Bay. I had a beer and two dumplings. We were headed to a long-vacated Ford manufacturing plant in Richmond, CA.

By the time we reached our destination, the sun had set and Audi was ready to begin. Suddenly, in front of the boat, Intel’s Shooting Star drones put on a show that ended with Audi’s trademark four ring logo. The show continued as music pounded inside the warehouse, and just before the reveal of the e-tron, Intel’s Shooting Star Minis celebrated the occasion with a light show a couple of feet above attendees’ heads.

That’s when one hit me.

Natalie Cheung, GM of Intel Drone Light Shows, told me they knew when one drone failed to land on its zone that one went rogue. According to Cheung, the Shooting Star Mini drones were designed with safety in mind.

“The drone frame is made of flexible plastics, has prop guards, and is very small,” she said. “The drone itself can fit in the palm of your hand. In addition to safety being built into the drone, we have systems and procedures in place to promote safety. For example, we have visual observers around the space watching the drones in flight and communicating with the pilot in real-time. We have built-in software to regulate the flight paths of the drones.”

After the crash, I assumed someone from Audi or Intel would be around to collect the lost drone, but no one did, and at the end of the show, I was unable to find someone who knew where I could find the Intel staff. I notified my Intel contacts first thing the following morning and provided a local address where they could get the drone. As of publication, the drone is still on my desk.

I have covered Intel’s Shooting Star program since its first public show at Disney World in 2016. It’s a fascinating program and one of the most impressive uses of drones I’ve seen. The outdoor shows, which have been used at The Super Bowl and Olympics, are breathtaking. Hundreds of drones take to the sky and perform a seemingly impossible dance and then return home. A sophisticated program designates the route of each drone and GPS ensures each is where it’s supposed to be and it’s controlled by just one person.

Intel launched an indoor version of the Shooting Star program at CES in 2018. The concept is the same, but these drones do not use GPS to determine their location. The result is something even more magical than the outside version because with the Shooting Star Minis, the drones are often directly above the viewers. It’s an incredible experience to watch drones dance several feet overhead. It feels slightly dangerous. That’s the draw.

And that poses a safety concern.

The drone that hit me is light and mostly plastic. It weighs very little and is about 6-inches by 4-inches. A cage surrounds the bottom of the rotors though not the top. If there’s a power button, I can’t find it. The full-size drones are made out of plastic and Styrofoam.

Safety has always been baked into the Shooting Star programs but I’m not sure the current protocols are enough.

I was seated on the floor along the back of the venue. Most of the attendees where standing, taking selfies with the performing drones. It was a lovely show.

When the drone came down on my head, it tumbled onto the floor and the rotors continued to spin. A member of the catering staff was walking behind the barrier I was sitting against, reached out and touched the spinning rotors. I’m sure she’s fine, but when her finger touched the spinning rotor, she jumped in surprise. At this point, seconds after it crashed, the drone was upside down, and like an upturned beetle, continued to operate for a few seconds until the rotors shut off.

To be clear, I was not hurt. And that’s not the point. Drone swarm technology is fascinating and could lead to incredible use cases. Swarms of drones could quickly and efficiently inspect industrial equipment and survey crops. And they make for great shows in outside venues. But are they ready to be used inside, above people’s heads? I’m already going bald. I don’t need help.

 


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African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

10:30 | 16 September

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

A drone revolution is coming to sub-Saharan Africa.

Countries across the continent are experimenting with this 21st century technology as a way to leapfrog decades of neglect of 20th century infrastructure.

Over the last two years, San Francisco-based startup Zipline launched a national UAV delivery program in East Africa; South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots; and Malawi even opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and its global partners. 

In Rwanda, the country’s government became one of the first adopters of performance-based regulations for all drones earlier this year. The country’s progressive UAV programs drew special attention from the White House and two U.S. Secretaries of Transportation.

Some experts believe Africa’s drone space could contribute to UAV development in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

“The fact that [global drone] companies can operate in Africa and showcase amazing use cases…is a big benefit,” said Lisa Ellsman, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.

Test in Africa

It’s clear that the UAV programs in Malawi and Rwanda are getting attention from international drone companies.

Opened in 2017, Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor has been accepting global applications. The program is managed by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with UNICEF.

The primary purpose is to test UAV’s for humanitarian purposes, but the program “was designed to provide a controlled platform for… governments…and other partners…to explore how UAV’s can help deliver services,” according to Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF’s drone lead in Malawi.

That decision to include the private sector opened the launch pads for commercial drones. Swedish firm GLOBEHE has tested using the corridor and reps from Chinese e-commerce company JD have toured the site. Other companies to test in Malawi’s corridor include Belgian UAV air traffic systems company Unifly and U.S. delivery drone manufacturer Vayu, according to Scheibenreif.

Though the government of Rwanda is most visible for its Zipline partnership, it shaping a national testing program for multiple drone actors. 

“We don’t want to limit ourselves with just one operator,” said Claudette Irere, Director General of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MiTEC).

“When we started with Zipline it was more of a pilot to see if this could work,” she said. “As we’ve gotten more interest and have grown the program…this gives us an opportunity to open up to other drone operators, and give space to our local UAV operators.”

Irere said Rwanda has been approached by 16 drone operators, “some of them big names”—but could not reveal them due to temporary NDAs. She also highlighted Charis UAS, a Rwandan drone company, that’s used the country’s test program, and is now operating commercially in and outside of Rwanda.

UAV Policy

Africa’s commercial drone history is largely compressed to a handful of projects and countries within the last 5-7 years. Several governments have jumped out ahead on UAV policy.

In 2016, South Africa passed drone legislation regulating the sector under the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. The guidelines set training requirements for commercial drone pilots to receive Remote Pilot Licenses (RPLs) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems. At the end of 2017 South Africa had registered 686 RPLs and 663 drone aircraft systems, according to a recent State of Drone Report.

Over the last year and a half Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives.  

In 2018, Rwanda extended its leadership role on drone policy when it adopted performance-based regulations for all drones—claiming to be the first country in the world to do so.

So what does this mean?

“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it,” said Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.

Lisa Ellsman, shared a similar interpretation.

“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds,’” she said.

This gives the drone operators flexibility to build drones around performance targets, vs. “prescriptively requiring a certain type of technology,” according to Ellsman.

Rwanda is still working out the implementation of its performance-based regulations, according to MiTEC’s Claudette Irere. They’ve entered a partnership with the World Economic Forum to further build out best practices. Rwanda will also soon release an online portal for global drone operators to apply to test there.

As for Rwanda being first to release performance-based regulations, that’s disputable. “Many States around the world have been developing and implementing performance-based regulations for unmanned aircraft,” said Leslie Cary, Program Manager for the International Civil Aviation Authority’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. “ICAO has not monitored all of these States to determine which was first,” she added.

Other governments have done bits and pieces of Rwanda’s drone policy, according to Timothy Reuter, the head of the civil drones project at the World Economic Forum. “But as currently written in Rwanda, it’s the broadest implementation of performance based regulations in the world.”

Commercial Use Cases

As the UAV programs across Africa mature, there are a handful of strong examples and several projects to watch.

With Zipline as the most robust and visible drone use case in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While the startup’s primary focus is delivery of critical medical supplies, execs repeatedly underscore that Zipline is a for-profit venture backed by $41 million in VC.

The San Francisco-based robotics company — that also manufactures its own UAVs — was one of the earliest drone partners of the government of Rwanda.

Zipline demonstration

The alliance also brought UPS and the UPS Foundation into the mix, who supports Zipline with financial and logistical support.

After several test rounds, Zipline went live with the program in October, becoming the world’s first national drone delivery program at scale.

“We’ve since completed over 6000 deliveries and logged 500,000 flight kilometers,” Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek told TechCrunch. “We’re planning to go live in Tanzania soon and talking to some other African countries.”  

In May Zipline was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.– to operate beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.    

In a non-delivery commercial use case, South Africa’s Rocketmine has built out a UAV survey business in 5 countries. The company looks to book $2 million in revenue in 2018 for its “aerial data solutions” services in mining, agriculture, forestry, and civil engineering.

“We have over 50 aircraft now, compared to 15 a couple years ago,” Rocketmine CEO Christopher Clark told TechCrunch. “We operate in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and moved into Mexico.”

Rocketmine doesn’t plan to enter delivery services, but is looking to expand into the surveillance and security market. “After the survey market that’s probably the biggest request we get from our customers,” said Clark.

More African use cases are likely to come from the Lake Victoria Challenge — a mission specific drone operator challenge set in Tanzania’s Mwanza testing corridor. WeRobotics has also opened FlyingLabs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Benin. And the government of Zambia is reportedly working with Sony’s Aerosense on a drone delivery pilot program.

Africa and Global UAV

With Europe, Asia, and the U.S. rapidly developing drone regulations and testing (or already operating) delivery programs (see JD.com in China), Africa may not take the sole position as the leader in global UAV development — but these pilot projects in the particularly challenging environments these geographies (and economies) represent will shape the development of the drone industry. 

The continent’s test programs — and Rwanda’s performance-based drone regulations in particular — could advance beyond visual line of sight UAV technology at a quicker pace. This could set the stage for faster development of automated drone fleets for remote internet access, commercial and medical delivery, and even give Africa a lead in testing flying autonomous taxis.

“With drones, Africa is willing to take more bold steps more quickly because the benefits are there and the countries have been willing to move in a more agile manner around regulation,” said the WEF’s Reuter.

“There’s an opportunity for Africa to maintain its leadership in this space,” he said. “But the countries need to be willing to take calculated risk to enable technology companies to deploy their solutions there.”

Reuter also underscored the potential for “drone companies that originate in Africa increasingly developing services.”

There’s a case to be made this is already happening with Zipline. Though founded in California, the startup honed its UAVs and delivery model in Rwanda.

“We’re absolutely leveraging our experience built in Africa as we now test through the UAS IPP program to deliver in the U.S.,” said Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek.

 


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New techniques teach drones to fly through small holes

16:15 | 12 September

Researchers at the University of Maryland are adapting the techniques used by birds and bugs to teach drones how to fly through small holes at high speeds. The drone requires only a few sensing shots to define the opening and lets a larger drone fly through an irregularly shaped hole with no training.

Nitin J. Sanket, Chahat Deep Singh, Kanishka Ganguly, Cornelia Fermüller, and Yiannis Aloimonos created the project, called GapFlyt, to teach drones using only simple, insect-like eyes.

The technique they used, called optical flow, creates a 3D model using a very simple, monocular camera. By marking features in each subsequent picture, the drone can tell the shape and depth of holes based on what changed in each photo. Things closer to the drone move more than things further away, allowing the drone to see the foreground vs. the background.

As you can see in the video below, the researchers have created a very messy environment in which to test their system. The Bebop 2 drone with an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 GPU on board flits around the hole like a bee and then buzzes right through at 2 meters per second, a solid speed. Further, the researchers confused the environment by making the far wall similar to the closer wall, proving that the technique can work in novel and messy situations.

The team at the University of Maryland’s Perception and Robotics Group reported that the drone was 85 percent accurate as it flew through various openings. It’s not quite as fast as Luke skirting Beggar’s Canyon back on Tatooine, but it’s an impressive start.

 


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Impossible Aerospace raises $9.4M to sell drones stuffed with battery cells

01:40 | 11 September

Much like smartphone manufacturers, drone companies have been adding plenty of features over the past several years to devices while making only modest improvements to battery life. But while your phone may boast “all-day” usage, a lot of the top drones only register flight times between 20-35 minutes.

Impossible Aerospace is looking to change up that equation, at least when it comes to commercial drones, with a dense design that is basically all-battery. The company shared launch details of its US-1 drone today, and announced that it had closed a $9.4 million Series A from Bessemer Venture Partners, Eclipse Ventures and Airbus Ventures.

Its first product is a drone that can most-notably stay airborne for about 120 minutes in optimal flying conditions, with a 75km (over 46 miles) straight line range. It carry 2.9 pounds of payload, but that drops the total flight time to 78 minutes.

For commercial customers, the added flight time can dramatically free up use cases, changing the mindset of operation from mission-based to much more exploratory.

The company’s website has an almost comical X-ray diagram of the US-1’s battery makeup showcasing a design that just looks like a big “X” of battery cells. Around 70 percent of the 15 pound drone’s weight is lithium-ion batteries, the company tells me.

This is a design built for old school drone pilots, in order to achieve their lengthy flight time they had to ditch some additional components, the most controversial choice probably being the lack of any onboard obstacle avoidance sensors. “Every aircraft design is a compromise,” Impossible Aerospace CEO Spencer Gore told TechCrunch in an interview. “There’s nothing that’s harder than to figure out what features you will include for some users that hurts the performance for everybody else that’s not going to use them.”

Gore said that there were certain features that the startup knew it wanted to drill down with its first drone and that the company had an “exciting product roadmap” of designs that made some different choices.

The US-1 starts at $7,500 and will ship in Q4 of this year.

 


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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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Lockheed Martin teams up with drone racers to add AI

23:58 | 5 September

Lockheed Martin and the Drone Racing League are working together to make driverless drones much, much smarter. The project, aimed at bringing AI to commercial drone flyers, is “challenging teams to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technology that will enable an autonomous drone to race a pilot-operated drone – and win.”

The racers can win up to $2 million in prizes. Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Keoki Jackson announced the challenge at TechCrunch’s Disrupt event in San Francisco today.

“At Lockheed Martin, we are working to pioneer state-of-the-art, AI-enabled technologies that can help solve some of the world’s most complex challenges – from fighting wildfires and saving lives during natural disasters to exploring the farthest reaches of deep space,” said Jackson. “Now, we are inviting the next generation of AI innovators to join us with our AlphaPilot Innovation Challenge. Competitors will have an opportunity to define the future of autonomy and AI and help our world leverage these promising technologies to build a brighter future.”

Contestants will use NVIDIA’s Jetson platform to fly drones “without any pre-programming or human intervention” through a multi-dimensional race course. The contestants can win an extra $250,000 for creating an AI that outperforms a DRL human-piloted drone, a sort drone Turing test that could mean smarter drones for both amateur flyers and Lockheed’s own extensive drone programs.

Lockheed Martin is working with the Drone Racing League to bring the competitors in human-controlled drone racing into the AI future. The goal is to create a drone that flies as well – or better – than a human.

You can learn more here and the challenge opens in November.

 


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DJI Mavic 2 review

19:00 | 1 September

The Mavic Pro was a revelation. It wasn’t a perfect product, to be sure, but it represented a new paradigm for DJI and the consumer drone industry in general. It was compact, folding up into a nice, portable package, while still being portable enough to shove into a backpack.

It was also the beginning of a new line for the company, paving the way for the Mavic Air and Spark — both even more portable than their predecessor. In the two years since it was introduced, however, the company hasn’t touched the flagship product. That changed early this month, when the company revealed the Mavic 2 at an event in Brooklyn.

Even more so than the original, the Mavic 2 is focused on imagining. In fact, the camera is so central to the update that the company actually split the product into two SKUs — the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom. The front-facing camera is the only real distinction between the two devices.

It’s a bit of confusing branding, perhaps — especially in a line that already contains several different models. More to to the point, it’s a bit disappointing after the initial round of rumors suggested that the company might be introducing a drone with a modular gimbal. Imagine the possibilities of swappable cameras for photography professions. That, sadly, will have to wait for a future update.

Beyond the camera, the update over its predecessor is fairly minimal given the two-year gap. In fact, I’d like to say upfront that this isn’t really enough to justify a purchase for those who own the first version — unless, of course, you’ve crashed it into one too many birdhouses. Of course, drones are not smartphones, and as such, they really shouldn’t be held to the same standards.

And really, just about all of the upgrades are welcome here. If there’s one nit to pick, it’s that the new Mavic is notably larger than the original. It’s a surprising move, given how essential size and portability are to the whole enterprise. This is due, in part, to the fact that the company has made some aesthetic changes in the name of making the thing more aerodynamic.

The upshot of that is faster speeds. The Mavic 2 is capable of traveling up to 44 miles an hour — pretty zippy for a mainstream consumer drone of its size. Of course, in order to support a heavier drone, you need a heavier battery, which in turn makes the whole thing heavier. You see where I’m going with this. The other downside: The new drone doesn’t work with the old one’s batteries.

Even so, the company’s managed to squeeze more life out of the thing, upping life from 28 to 31 minutes. Not a lot, sure, but when it comes to these devices, every minute counts. And given the fact that the last drown I flew was the 18-minute Mavic Air, that addition makes all the difference in the world. When you’re running low on juice, the app will notify you, loudly. If you want more time, the batteries are swappable, and the company has made it possible to purchase its Fly More Combo (two batteries, a multi-battery charger and extra propellers, among others) at any time for $319.

There are other tweaks here and there. Raked tips on the propellers and an adjusted motor means things run more quietly. You likely won’t notice a huge difference there, and it still sounds a bit like a lawnmower, but every little bit counts.

The on-board tracking and obstacle avoidance systems have been adjusted, as well. The latter is pretty impressive for the most part, coming to a stop in the air when it spots something in its path. I’m going to be honest, this is my favorite part of testing these things. I did, however, manage to nick a tree, once the drone was out of my line of sight, sending it spiraling to the ground below.

On the upshot, this was the ideal opportunity to test the tracking. I was able to find the drone pretty quickly using the app. Also, while there was a superficial scratch on the side of the drone, it was otherwise unscathed. I was able to get it back into the air quickly with no issues.

The cameras on the product are impressive, as promised. The Mavic 2 Pro is the first product from the company to sport a Hasselblad-branded camera since DJI bought a massive chunk of the legendary Swedish camera maker, though I suspect there’s going to be a lot more where that came from. The camera has a 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor like the one found on the Phantom 4 Pro. Frankly, the device makes that model somewhat redundant, though the company tells me it’s sticking around.

Unlike some of Hasselblad’s standalone cameras, there’s little lag in processing. And the pictures are great, as advertised. Our video producer Veanne described the output as “sharp” and “clear,” with an “epic” wide angle. This is a solid selection for those who want nice videos/still, without having to cart around a massive device.

The Zoom’s camera is a bit of a step down, but the 2x optical (24-48mm) and 2x digital zoom are able to simulate the effect of a 96mm lens. Honestly, that’s going to be a much more valuable tool for many videographers than the Hassleblad — particularly for those instances when it’s hard to get close in on an object for any number of reasons. At $1,249, the Zoom is also $200 less than the Pro. I’d lean pretty heavily in that direction if I were agonizing over which model to purchase.

There’s also the added bonus of Dolly Zoom, an extremely cool new mode that zooms into an object while the drone flies in the opposite direction, causing a disorienting effect similar to the one heavily used by Hitchcock in films like Vertigo.

The new drones also feature some cool new hyperlapse effects, as follows:

  • Free – pilots the drone manually while shooting a Hyperlapse video.
  • Circle – automatically flies the drone in a circular pattern around a subject you select to create a time-lapse video that captures the action.
  • Course Lock – keeps the camera fixed on shooting subject while the drone flies in a straight direction to create a unique perspective.
  • Waypoint – plans a complex flight path based on both altitude and GPS coordinates to capture complex shots.

Unsurprisingly, those require several minutes to get good shots. Don’t try them once the battery warning starts beeping. The app will still attempt it and then emergency land the drone before completing.

Control is pretty similar to the other models. The controller works well with both Apple and Android handsets, though larger ones like the Galaxy Note 9 are a bit awkwardly large to slot in. While actually getting off the ground for the first time is a bit of a chore, flying is surprisingly intuitive, once you get the hang of the two different joysticks. All in all, it’s actually not a bad starter drone, if you can afford it.

With a starting price of $1,249, it’s not the cheapest on the market, but in terms of class, the Mavic products continue to be unmatched.

DJI Mavic 2 initial impressions. pic.twitter.com/MvNQLmysBL

— Brian Heater (@bheater)

 


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DJI’s Mavic 2 brings key camera upgrades to the folding drone

17:30 | 23 August

The Mavic Pro was a revelation. Introduced in 2016, the folding drone wasn’t perfect, but it helped usher in a new era of devices for DJI and the industry at large. The original Mavic helped make consumer drones more portable and accessible, and spurred a line that now includes the Mavic Air and Mavic Spark.

Two years later, the world’s largest drone manufacturer hit New York City to unveil the product’s successor. Like the original Pro, imaging is at the heart of the upgrade. In fact, the Mavic 2 is being positioned as two distinct devices — the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom, the on-board camera being the only real difference between the two.

It’s a confusing bit of branding, perhaps, for two products that amount to little more than different SKUs of the same device, but DJI wants to make it clear that the camera’s the thing here. Understandably so — photographers and videographers have long been a core demographic for the company. And more to the point, really, beyond camera upgrades, the Mavic 2 doesn’t represent a huge upgrade over its predecessor.

The company called the products “our most technologically advanced drones” at a press unveiling in New York City this morning. A few of the camera features have been upgraded across the board, including the addition of enhanced dynamic range, for better shots in mixed lighting settings.

The Mavic 2 Pro is, as the name implies, the pricier of the two models. It’s the first DJI device to bask in the fruit of the drone-maker’s 2017 acquisition of Hasselblad. The camera is much larger than the one on the Zoom, bringing with it improved image quality over its predecessor.

The camera captures 20 megapixel shots and uses Hasselblad’s proprietary Natural Color Solution (HNCS) tech to get more accurate color reproduction. The aperture is adjustable as well, giving shooters between f/2.8-f/11 for various lighting conditions.

The Mavic 2 Zoom, meanwhile, is pretty much what it sounds like. The big focus here is the 2x optical (24-48mm) and 2x digital zoom, which combine to simulate the effects of a 96mm lens. The 12-megapixel camera also uses a new “Super Resolution” feature that stitches nine zoomed-in photos for a super high-res 48-megapixel shot, a feature targeted at landscape photography.

Zoom is a solid addition here, given how difficult it can be to try to get a drone close to a subject, for any number of reasons.

There’s also the very cool Dolly Zoom shot mode. This one might be my favorite of the bunch, though while we had the opportunity to fly the new drone atop a Manhattan rooftop, we didn’t have the clearance to try out the new feature, which requires the kind of room that we just weren’t zoned for. The new addition zooms in on an object while the drone flies in the opposite direction, creating a disorienting shot familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Hitchcock film.

There are a number of other additional preprogrammed Hyperlapse shots on-board, as well. I’ll defer to DJI’s description of those:

  • Free – pilots the drone manually while shooting a Hyperlapse video.
  • Circle – automatically flies the drone in a circular pattern around a subject you select to create a timelapse video that captures the action.
  • Course Lock – keeps the camera fixed on shooting subject while the drone flies in a straight direction to create a unique perspective.
  • Waypoint – plans a complex flight path based on both altitude and GPS coordinates to capture complex shots.

DJI Mavic 2

DJI’s done a solid job of creating these sort of single touch features that make you look like a much more competent photographer than you actually are.

The cameras aren’t swappable — that’s why DJI opted to go with two distinct SKUs on this one. It’s a bit of a bummer for photogs, but a modular camera system is certainly the kind of thing that could make sense for future upgrades.

The drone’s body has been tweaked to make it more aerodynamic. DJI says the new design reduces body drag by up to 19 percent, which helps the drone achieve speeds of up to 44 miles per hour. Making the drone larger is a bit of a surprising choice, given how key portability is to the line, though obviously DJI has even more portable choices on the market now for those who prioritize size over everything else.

The propellers have a raked design on the wing tips, designed to help cut down on air drag and reduce sound. The drone is a bit quieter than the first Mavic, though you’re still not going to be able to sneak up on anyone with the thing.

The battery has been increased ever so slightly, as well, in part to compensate for the newer, larger size. Now the drone is capable of flying up to 31 minutes on a charge. That’s not a huge boost from its predecessor’s 28 minutes, but when it comes to keeping a drone in the air, well, you take what you can get.

Obstacle avoidance has been beefed up here — definitely a good thing, given our past track record with Mavics. So too has the Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS), helping the drone fly around obstacles rather than simply stopping to avoid collisions. There also are lights on the bottom of the drone to help improve landings in low light.

ActiveTrack, meanwhile, now utilizes three on-board front facing cameras to create a 3D map of its subject, in order to better follow along.

We had the opportunity to fly the drone around a bit on a Manhattan. I wouldn’t recommend flying on a city rooftop for first times, but the drone handled fairly well and was pretty responsive to the included controller. I’ve flown a few other models in the Mavic line and found the handling to be more or less on-par, while a loud alarm sounded every time it came within several feet of an obstacle. Better safe than sorry.

We’ll be able to say a bit more when we’re able to spend a bit more hands-on time with the product, which should be in the very near future.

The 2 Pro and 2 Zoom run $1,499 and $1,199, respectively. There’s also the standard DJI Fly More kit, which includes a bunch of extras, like two batteries, a multi-battery charging hub, extra propellers and a bag to carry all of that around.

The drones are available starting today through DJI.

Oh, and for those who love to anthropomorphize their devices, here’s an image of the Zoom and Pro, gasping and screaming, apparently witness something horrific happening, just out of frame:

 


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YC-backed Sterblue aims to enable smarter drone inspections

21:57 | 17 August

As government regulation for commercial drone usage seems to be trending in a very positive direction for the companies involved, there is an ever-growing opportunity for drone startups to utilize artificial intelligence to deliver insights without requiring much human efforts.

Sterblue, a French drone software startup that is launching out of Y Combinator’s latest class of companies, is aiming to get off-the-shelf drones inspecting large outdoor structures up close with automated insights that identify anomalies that need a second look.

The startup’s software is specifically focused on enabling drones to easily inspect large power lines or wind turbines with simple automated trajectories that can get a job done much quicker and with less room for human error. The software also allows the drones to get much closer to the large structures that they are scanning so that the scanned images are as high quality as possible.

Compared to navigating a tight urban environment, Sterblue has the benefit of there being very few airborne anomalies around these structures so autonomously flying along certain flight paths is as easy as having a CAD structure available and enough wiggle room to correct for things like wind conditions.

Operators basically just have to connect their drones to the Sterblue cloud platform where they can upload photos and view 3D models of the structures they have scanned while letting the startup’s neural net identify look for any issues that need further attention. All and all, Sterblue says that their software can let drones get within 3 meters of power lines and and wind turbines which allow their AI systems to easily detect anomalies from the photos that are being taken. Sterblue says their system can detect defects as small as 1 millimeter in size.

The startup was initially working on their own custom drone hardware but decided that their efforts were best spent supporting off-the-shelf devices from companies like DJI with their software solution sitting on top. The founding team is comprised of former Airbus employees that are focusing early efforts on utility companies with some of the first customers based in Europe, Africa and Asia.

 


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Analysis backs claim drones were used to attack Venezuela’s president

13:48 | 8 August

Analysis of open source information carried out by the investigative website Bellingcat suggests drones that had been repurposed as flying bombs were indeed used in an attack on the president of Venezuela at the weekend.

The Venezuelan government claimed three days ago that an attempt had been made to assassination president Maduro using two drones loaded with explosives. The president had been giving a speech at the time which was being broadcast live on television when the incident occurred.

Initial video from a state-owned television network showed the reaction of Maduro, those around him and a parade of soldiers at the event to what appeared to be two blasts somewhere off camera. But the footage did not include shots of any drones or explosions.

News organization AP also reported that firefighters at scene had shed doubt on the drone attack claim — suggesting there had instead been a gas explosion in a nearby flat.

Since then more footage has emerged, including videos purporting to show a drone exploding and a

alongside a building.

Vídeo prueba del segundo drone que exploto en el aire sin causar daños colaterales

Vídeo cortesía pic.twitter.com/ipWR2sbYvW

— Caracas News 24  (@CaracasNews24)

Bellingcat has carried out an analysis of publicly available information related to the attack, including syncing timings of the state broadcast of Maduro’s speech, and using frame-by-frame analysis combined with photos and satellite imagery of Caracus to try to pinpoint locations of additional footage that has emerged to determine whether the drone attack claim stands up.

The Venezuelan government has claimed the drones used were DJI Matrice 600s, each carrying approximately 1kg of C4 plastic explosive and, when detonated, capable of causing damage at a radius of around 50 meters.

DJI Matrice 600 drones are a commercial model, normally used for industrial work — with a U.S. price tag of around $5,000 apiece, suggesting the attack could have cost little over $10k to carry out — with 1kg of plastic explosive available commercially (for demolition purposes) at a cost of around $30.

Bellingcat says its analysis supports the government’s claim that the drone model used was a DJI Matrice 600, noting that the drones involved in the event each had six rotors. It also points to a photo of drone wreckage which appears to show the distinctive silver rotor tip of the model, although it also notes the drones appear to have had their legs removed.

Venezuela’s interior minister, Nestor Reverol, also claimed the government thwarted the attack using “special techniques and [radio] signal inhibitors”, which “disoriented” the drone that detonated closest to the presidential stand — a capability Bellingcat notes the Venezuelan security services are reported to have.

The second drone was said by Reverol to have “lost control” and crashed into a nearby building.

Bellingcat says it is possible to geolocate the video of the falling drone to the same location as the fire in the apartment that firefighters had claimed was caused by a gas canister explosion. It adds that images taken of this location during the fire show a hole in the wall of the apartment in the vicinity of where the drone would have crashed.

“It is a very likely possibility that the downed drone subsequently detonated, creating the hole in the wall of this apartment, igniting a fire, and causing the sound of the second explosion which can be heard in Video 2 [of the state TV broadcast of Maduro’s speech],” it further suggests.

Here’s its conclusion:

From the open sources of information available, it appears that an attack took place using two DBIEDs while Maduro was giving a speech. Both the drones appear visually similar to DJI Matrice 600s, with at least one displaying features that are consistent with this model. These drones appear to have been loaded with explosive and flown towards the parade.

The first drone detonated somewhere above or near the parade, the most likely cause of the casualties announced by the Venezuelan government and 

 on social media. The second drone crashed and exploded approximately 14 seconds later and 400 meters away from the stage, and is the most likely cause of the fire which the Venezuelan firefighters described.

It also considers the claim of attribution by a group on social media, calling itself “Soldados de Franelas” (aka ‘T-Shirt Soldiers’ — a reference to a technique used by protestors wrapping a t-shirt around their head to cover their face and protect their identity), suggesting it’s not clear from the group’s

that they are “unequivocally claiming responsibility for the event”, owing to use of passive language, and to a claim that the drones were shot down by government snipers — which it says “does not appear to be supported by the open source information available”.

 


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