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Main article: Drone

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 402

Parrot responds to the Mavic Air with its own folding drone

22:14 | 6 June

This morning, Parrot unveiled the Anafi, a new drone clearly targeted at DJI’s Mavic line. According to the French company, the new portable UAV is the product of two years of development and a “wish list of user feedback and a biomimetic design inspired by insects.”

Like the Mavic, the 0.7-pound drone is foldable, for maximum portability, so photographers can stash it away along with the rest of their equipment for travel — or just keep it in a jacket pocket. There’s a 4K HDR camera on-board, and a 21-megapixel still unit mounted on a gimbal.

Parrot estimates battery life at 25 minutes — which is pretty solid, as far as this class of drone is concerned. It also can be swapped out with additional batteries, which run $99 a pop. The company also claims the drone is the quietest in its class. It’s not silent, of course, but that buzzing lawn mower sound has been reduced by about a third compared to earlier models from the company.

The drone has a controller that plugs into an iPhone or Android device, for touchscreen visualizations via the FreeFlight 6 app. And like the Mavic line, it features a number of different control modes focused on capturing different camera content, including an option for following a subject and, yes, a selfie mode.

The price certainly seems right here. At $699, it’s $100 less than the Mavic Air. Though, at first glance, it appears as though it might not be as advanced as DJI’s latest stab at creating a truly mainstream drone. The Anafi is due out July 1 through Parrot, Amazon and “select retailers.”

 


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UK puts legal limits on drone flight heights and airport no-fly zones

13:48 | 31 May

The UK has announced new stop-gap laws for drone operators restricting how high they can fly their craft — 400ft — and prohibiting the devices from being flown within 1km of an airport boundary. The measures will come into effect on July 30.

The government says the new rules are intended to enhance safety, including the safety of passengers of aircraft — given a year-on-year increase in reports of drone incidents involving aircraft. It says there were 93 such incidents reported in the country last year, up from 71 the year before.

And while the UK’s existing Drone Code (which was issued in 2016) already warns operators to restrict drone flights to 400ft — and to stay “well away” from airports and aircraft — those measures are now being baked into law, via an amendment to the 2016 Air Navigation Order (ahead of a full drone bill which was promised for Spring but still hasn’t materialized yet).

UK drone users who flout the new height and airport boundary restrictions face being charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft — which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Additional measures are also being legislated for, as announced last summer — with a requirement for owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the Civil Aviation Authority and for drone pilots to take an online safety test.

Users who fail to register or sit the competency tests could face fines of up to £1,000. Though those requirements will come into force later, on November 30 2019.

Commenting in a statement, aviation minister Baroness Sugg said: “We are seeing fast growth in the numbers of drones being used, both commercially and for fun. Whilst we want this industry to innovate and grow, we need to protect planes, helicopters and their passengers from the increasing numbers of drones in our skies. These new laws will help ensure drones are used safely and responsibly.”

In a supporting statement, Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick Airport’s COO, added: “We welcome the clarity that today’s announcement provides as it leaves no doubt that anyone flying a drone must stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields. Drones open up some exciting possibilities but must be used responsibly. These clear regulations, combined with new surveillance technology, will help the police apprehend and prosecute anyone endangering the traveling public.”

Last fall the UK government also announced it plans to legislate to give police more powers to ground drones to prevent unsafe or criminal usage — measures it also said it would include in the forthcoming drone bill.

 


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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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Ran Krauss and Yariv Bash, leaders at two of Israel’s hottest drone startups, are joining us in Tel Aviv

10:30 | 8 May

Yariv Bash, the chief executive of drone delivery startup Flytrex, wants to make drone delivery “as easy as using your iPhone“.

Flytrex chief executive Yariv Bash

Meanwhile, Ran Krauss, the CEO of Airobotics, has helped his startup raise over $70 million for its mission to  bring the autonomous revolution to the drone industry.

Both men are leading two Israeli companies at the forefront of innovation in drone technologies and both will be onstage with us in Tel Aviv for our inaugural event in “startup nation”.

Bash’s Flytrex claims that it was the first in the world to deploy a fully operational, regulatory approved drone delivery service. Before he began working on the drone business, he led the non-profit Lunar X-Prize entrant SpaceIL.

Airobotics chief executive Ran Krauss

Since leaving Ben Gurion University, Krauss has founded four companies including Airobotics. Bladeworx was a provider of aerial photography, imaging and processing for unmanned drones, while ParaZero looked at improving automated parachute deployment.

His first company, WiSec, provided information for opening Israel’s network of shelters in case of a bomb attack.

Early bird tickets are still on sale so don’t miss out on the chance to hear Krauss and Bash discuss what comes next for commercial drones.

TechCrunch will focus on these types of technologies and beyond, all of which are compounding to change the mobility industry as we know it. Reserve your seat on our website now.

Aside from signature TechCrunch programming, our inaugural conference in Tel Aviv will feature a robust exhibition area where the cream of the startup crop will demo their products. If you’re an early stage startup and you want to get in front of the best of Tel Aviv’s startup community, you should grab an exhibitor table for just 1700 ILS directly on our website.

 


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Microsoft and DJI team up to bring smarter drones to the enterprise

18:30 | 7 May

At the Microsoft Build developer conference today, Microsoft and Chinese drone manufacturer DJI announced a new partnership that aims to bring more of Microsoft’s machine learning smarts to commercial drones. Given Microsoft’s current focus on bringing intelligence to the edge, this is almost a logical partnership, given that drones are essentially semi-autonomous edge computing devices.

DJI also today announced that Azure is now its preferred cloud computing partner and that it will use the platform to analyze video data, for example. The two companies also plan to offer new commercial drone solutions using Azure IoT Edge and related AI technologies for verticals like agriculture, construction and public safety. Indeed, the companies are already working together on Microsoft’s FarmBeats solution, an AI and IoT platform for farmers.

As part of this partnership, DJI is launching a software development kit (SDK) for Windows that will allow Windows developers to build native apps to control DJI drones. Using the SDK, developers can also integrate third-party tools for managing payloads or accessing sensors and robotics components on their drones. DJI already offers a Windows-based ground station.

“DJI is excited to form this unique partnership with Microsoft to bring the power of DJI aerial platforms to the Microsoft developer ecosystem,” said Roger Luo, DJI president, in today’s announcement. “Using our new SDK, Windows developers will soon be able to employ drones, AI and machine learning technologies to create intelligent flying robots that will save businesses time and money and help make drone technology a mainstay in the workplace.”

Interestingly, Microsoft also stresses that this partnership gives DJI access to its Azure IP Advantage program. “For Microsoft, the partnership is an example of the important role IP plays in ensuring a healthy and vibrant technology ecosystem and builds upon existing partnerships in emerging sectors such as connected cars and personal wearables,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

 


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DroneShield is keeping hostile UAVs away from NASCAR events

03:36 | 12 April

If you were hoping to get some sweet drone footage of a NASCAR race in progress, you may find your quadcopter grounded unceremoniously by a mysterious force: DroneShield is bringing its anti-drone tech to NASCAR events at the Texas Motor Speedway.

The company makes a handful of products, all aimed at detecting and safely intercepting drones that are flying where they shouldn’t. That’s a growing problem, of course, and not just at airports or Area 51. A stray drone at a major sporting event could fall and interrupt the game, or strike someone, or at a race it may even cause a major accident.

Most recently it introduced new version of its handheld “DroneGun,” which scrambles the UAV’s signal so that it has no choice but to safely put itself down, as these devices are generally programmed to do. You can’t buy one — technically, they’re illegal — but the police sure can.

Recently DroneShield’s tech was deployed at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, and now the company has announced that it was tapped by a number of Texas authorities for the protection of stock car races.

DroneShield’s systems in place in PyeongChang

“We are proud to be able to assist a high-profile event like this,” said Oleg Vornik, DroneShield’s CEO, in an email announcing the news. “We also believe that this is significant for DroneShield in that this is the first known live operational use of all three of our key products – DroneSentinel, DroneSentry and DroneGun – by U.S. law enforcement.”

It’s a big get for a company that clearly saw an opportunity in the growing drone market (in combating it, really) and executed well on it.

 


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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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DARPA wants new ideas for autonomous drone swarms

20:18 | 1 April

The Defense Department’s research wing is serious about putting drones into action, not just one by one but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program is kicking off its second “sprint,” a period of solicitation and rapid prototyping of systems based around a central theme. This spring sprint is all about “autonomy.”

The idea is to collect lots of ideas on how new technology, be it sensors, software, or better propeller blades, can enhance the ability of drones to coordinate and operate as a collective.

Specifically, swarms of 50 will need to “isolate an urban objective” within half an hour or so by working together with each other and ground-based robot. That at least is the “operational backdrop” that should guide prospective entrants in their decision whether their tech is applicable.

So a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while practical for farmers, isn’t really something the Pentagon is interested in here. On the other hand, if you can sell that idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they might take a shine to it.

But you could also simply demonstrate how using a compact ground-based lidar system could improve swarm coordination at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you’ve designed a midair charging system that lets a swarm perk up flagging units without human intervention.

Those are pretty good ideas, actually — maybe I’ll run them by the program manager, Timothy Chung, when he’s on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley this May. Chung also oversees the Subterranean Challenge and plenty more at DARPA . He looks like he’s having a good time in the video explaining the ground rules of this new sprint:

You don’t have to actually have 50 drones to take part — there are simulators and other ways of demonstrating value. More information on the program and how to submit your work for consideration can be found at the FBO page.

 


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Chinese police foil drone-flying phone smugglers at Hong Kong border

02:05 | 31 March

Dozens of high-tech phone smugglers have been apprehended by Chinese police, who caught onto their scheme to send refurbished iPhones into the country from Hong Kong via drone — but not the way you might think.

China’s Legal Daily reported the news (and Reuters noted shortly after) following a police press conference; it’s apparently the first cross-border drone-based smuggling case, so likely of considerable interest.

Although the methods used by the smugglers aren’t described, a picture emerges from the details. Critically, in addition to the drones themselves, which look like DJI models with dark coverings, police collected some long wires — more than 600 feet long.

Small packages of 10 or so phones were sent one at a time, and it only took “seconds” to get them over the border. That pretty much rules out flying the drone up and over the border repeatedly — leaving aside that landing a drone in pitch darkness on the other side of a border fence (or across a body of water) would be difficult to do once or twice, let alone dozens of times, the method is also inefficient and and risky.

But really, the phones only need to clear the border obstacle. So here’s what you do:

Send the drone over once with all cable attached. Confederates on the other side attach the cable to a fixed point, say 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Drone flies back unraveling the cable, and lands some distance onto the Hong Kong side. Smugglers attach a package of 10 phones to the cable with a carabiner, and the drone flies straight up. When the cable reaches a certain tension, the package slides down the cable, clearing the fence. The drone descends, and you repeat.

I’ve created a highly professional diagram to illustrate this technique (feel free to reuse):

It’s not 100 percent to scale. The far side might have to be high enough that the cable doesn’t rest on the fence, if there is one, or not to drag in the water if that’s the case. Not sure about that part.

Anyway, it’s quite smart. You get horizontal transport basically for free, and the drone only has to do what it does best: go straight up. Two wires were found, and the police said up to 15,000 phones might be sent across in a night. Assuming 10 phones per trip, and say 20 seconds per flight, that works out to 1,800 phones per hour per drone, which sounds about right. Probably this kind of thing is underway at more than a few places around the world.

 


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University of Michigan opens up its M-Air UAV testing facility to students

02:54 | 30 March

Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened up its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.

It may not look like much to the untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.

Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals, and of course containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.

M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.

We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”

And because it’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.

“With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control—and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions,” said U-M arospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.

I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.

 


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