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Main article: Drone

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DroneBase raises $12M in Series B funding, announces enterprise AR tool for drone pilots

15:41 | 15 February

If you have purchased a drone in the last year or two, there’s a high likelihood that it only emerges from your gadget closet a few times per year.

DroneBase is a startup that connects drone users with commercial missions so that they can keep the dust from settling on their flying funcopters while also honing their skills and getting paid in the process. People or businesses that are interested in getting drone footage of a property for, say, real estate or insurance purposes can use the startup to connect with a DJI drone pilot with the skills and equipment to get the video or images they need.

The LA-based startup has announced that it has closed a $12 million Series B funding round co-led by Upfront Ventures and Union Square Ventures. DJI, Hearst Ventures and Pritzker Group also participated in the round.

“This round marks DJI’s third investment in DroneBase through SkyFund, which demonstrates our confidence in their continued success in an industry that, while growing at a rapid pace, is just at the beginning of realizing its full potential,” DJI exec Jan Gasparic said in a statement.

In addition to announcing their latest round of funding, DroneBase is also showing off a new augmented reality enterprise tool that the company hopes will pro users get a birds-eye view of 3D models inside a world they’ve built. AirCraft Pro is in its earliest stages now where users are able to drop scaled blocks into the augmented world as they fly their drone around.

It’s a bit of a game-like environment right now, but the company hopes to use the technology to make imports of realistic CAD models into live drone video snap to their future real world locations.

“There’s unfortunately no ARKit for drones so we’ve had to build some decently sophisticated technology,” DroneBase co-founder and CEO Dan Burton told TechCrunch. “It’s a lot around syncing telemetry data with video data with geospatial data.”

The drone piloting service for DJI owners has also previously only been available to iOS devices but the company is now announcing that the app has arrived in the Google Play Store for Android users. The company has tens of thousands of DJI drone pilots using their app, who have now flown over 100,000 commercial drone missions across more than 60 countries.

 


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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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DJI institutes no-fly zones around sports arenas as the Olympics open in South Korea

18:54 | 7 February

The 2018 Winter Olympics officially kick off with Friday’s Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  The temptation to fly a shiny new drone over the action will no doubt be great for amateur filmmakers and photographers in the immediately area, but DJI’s working to put the kibosh on things by implementing a temporary no-fly zone around sports arenas in the country.

The flight restrictions will arrive as a part of an update to drone software, instituting restrictions or the duration of the games this month in the South Korean cities of Pyeongchang, Gangneung, Bongpyeong and Jeongseon. The size of the zone is determined by recommendations from aviation authorities.

The reasons for the restrictions are pretty clear — avoiding collision and other disruptions caused by flying too close to the action. “Safety is DJI’s top priority and we’ve always taken proactive steps to educate our customers to operate within the law and where appropriate, implement temporary no-fly zones during major events,” the company said in a statement. “We believe this feature will reduce the potential for drone operations that could inadvertently create safety or security concerns.”

This has become pretty standard practice for the company around various big events in recent years. In the past, DJI has implemented temporary restrictions around the Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France, both major party conventions ahead of the 2016 presidential election and the G7 Summit in Japan.

 


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Watch Ehang’s passenger drone take flight

00:50 | 6 February

Like many who attended CES 2016, we were taken with the Ehang 184. If nothing else, the passenger drone was a nice break from all of the smartphones and giant TVs. That said, the big quadcopter amounted to little more than a giant paper weight and some goofy composite videos.

Earlier today, however, the company showed off some pretty impressive video of the drone carrying actual humans. In a release tied to the field testing video, the company says it’s tested the drone with 40 passengers, including its CEO Huazhi Hu and Wang Dong, the deputy mayor of Guangzhou, China, where it performed the tests.

In all, the company has conducted “thousands of test flights” by its counts, in the four years or so its been in existence — but this footage represents some of the first clear evidence of the craft in action.

No word on when the company will actually make the product available. That will likely depend to some a fair degree on the regulation in the countries it plans to sell to. This time last year, Dubai announced plans to use to the craft as a taxi service, in an effort to help reduce congestion. Back then, it was optimistically shooting for “as early as [last] summer” for a roll out.

Of course, maximum caution is a good thing when it comes to getting into a tiny craft high above a city.  “Performing manned test flights enables us to demonstrate the safety and stability of our vehicles,” Hu says in the release. “What we’re doing isn’t an extreme sport, so the safety of each passenger always comes first.”

Fair enough.

 


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DroneGun Tactical is a portable (but still illegal) drone scrambler

02:44 | 31 January

The only thing growing faster than the global drone population is the population of people thinking “how can I knock these annoying things out of the sky?” DroneShield offers a way to do just that, and now in a much more portable package, with the DroneGun Tactical — that is, if you’re an authorized government agent, which I doubt.

Over the last few years, the Australian company DroneShield has been showing off its DroneGun, essentially a high-powered antenna that blasts drones’ own antennas with a signal powerful enough that it drowns out the controller’s instructions. Many drones in such a situation treat this like a loss of signal, and attempt to make a safe landing or, if GPS isn’t also scrambled, return to a known location.

The problem with the DroneGun is that it’s really big, requiring a backpack with the batteries and other components in addition to the rifle-like gun itself.

The DroneGun Tactical, on the other hand, is merely large. It’s 56 inches long, 18 inches tall and 8 inches wide, weighing more than 30 pounds. But no pack!

I’m aware the pictures shown here are renders, but upon asking I was assured the device is in production. They already made the original, so I don’t doubt it.

DroneShield claims that the Tactical will drop drones more than a kilometer away (about half the distance of the original), though you’ll need to maintain line of sight; if the drone reestablishes signal with its controller, it might just take off again. You should get an hour or two of straight jamming, more than enough to take down a dozen UAVs. A GPS blocker add-on is also available, which makes it all the more sure that the rogue craft will simply descend instead of flying home.

I can certainly think of a few recent situations where I would have liked to bring an irresponsibly piloted drone down safely to give it a good stomp. But unfortunately ordinary folks like myself are strictly prohibited from getting their hands on one of these things.

The FCC hasn’t approved the device for use in the U.S., meaning it’s illegal to operate one unless you’re an authorized agent of the government; for example, someone testing it for the military. (The Tactical, in fact, was developed “following comprehensive international military end-user trials.”)

When I asked DroneShield’s CEO if these devices were likely to ever get FCC approval, he simply responded “no.” Well, at least he’s honest. You can learn more over at the company’s site.

Featured Image: DroneShield

 


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Taking DJI’s Mavic Air for a spin

21:46 | 24 January

Every inch of the Mavic Air is a testament to thoughtful engineering. Before handing off a review unit, a DJI rep takes us through the process of getting up and running. He flips open the smartphone docking arms from the bottom of the remote, revealing two hidden replacement joysticks nestled inside.

Getting the Air up and running feels a little like solving a 3D puzzle. The drone maker has crammed so much into so little space here, it’s a constant process of flipping, twisting, removing and inserting to get the thing operational. It’s all a very clever feat of industrial design and engineering, but none of it is particularly intuitive.

The Mavic Air might be the closest the company has come to a truly mainstream consumer drone, with the possible exception of last year’s Spark. That model certainly has the Air beat on the pricing front, at $399 to its $799, but the new quadcopter represents six additional months of software finessing in an attempt to bring to market the kind of device a first-time flier can get off the ground and not crash into anything or anyone.

But the process of getting us up and running involved a quick training before we were able to take the device out for a spin. It’s probably a good idea when taking a $799 to $999 system with four sets of spinning blades out into the world. That’s just sort of where we’re at with the devices now, inching toward true accessibility, step by step.

Gesture control is one of the most compelling features in the company’s Mavic/Spark line. DJI wowed the crowd when it showed them off in person at their latest event. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to control a drone with the flick of a wrist like some kind of nerdy Jedi Knight?

But like setting the drone up, it’s not particularly intuitive at first go, and you’ve got to get things just right for the Air to register you and flash its lights accordingly. I’m told this may have been the fault of the indoor lighting and the fact that there were multiple folks standing around, confusing the system’s facial recognition in the process.

Once everything is locked in, the effect is cool, and the system does seem to be more responsive than its predecessors. Even so, it’s best to take things nice and slow at first, because it’s tough to know just how the system will respond until you really get a hold on things.

It’s easy to see where DJI’s going with all of this. When some future generation of drone really enters the mainstream, these kinds of controls could truly come in handy. For the moment, however, it still feels like a bit of a novelty, and for any sort of serious shooting or exploration with the device, I much prefer to use the remote/smartphone combo.

We’ll be taking the drone off for a much more in-depth review in the near future. In the meantime, hide those birdhouses.

 


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PrecisionHawk raises $75M for its commercial drone analytics tech

16:14 | 24 January

Drones may still be having a tough time dispelling the notion that they’re just expensive toys when it comes to the consumer space, but in the world of commercial applications, the autonomous aircraft are having a much easier time proving their worth.

PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based startup, has closed a Series D round, nabbing $75M in new capital that will help it seize on what it believes will be a forthcoming boom in commercial drone technologies brought about by an increasingly friendly regulatory environment.

The round was led by Third Point Ventures. In addition to a laundry list of previous investors, the round brought on investments from new partners like Comcast Ventures, Senator Investor Group, Constellation Technology Ventures and Syngenta Ventures. The drone company has raised $104 million to date according to CrunchBase.

PrecisionHawk’s technology enables customers to gather aerial data and analytics so they can understand the environment that they’re surveying. The startup sells drone hardware, sensors and analytics packages to customers. Its customers include Monsanto, Exxon Mobil, the USAA and many others.

“We’ve become an end-to-end solution provider for customers that are looking to implement drone technologies,” CEO Michael Chasen told TechCrunch in an interview.

A major focus for the company has been agriculture, but it’s seeing a lot of growth in areas like energy and insurance as well as non-military government uses. Focus has been strongly centered on domestic growth, but with the new funding the company is also looking toward international markets further. The company highlighted a recent bit from Goldman Sachs Research which highlighted that the drone space’s fastest growth is set to come from businesses and civil governments who are expected to spend $13 billion on drones through 2020.

Chasen sees the round itself as a bit of validation for how bright the outlook has become for commercial drone applications.

“The fact that we were able to raise so much capital from a great series of investors… I think that’s showing how much of a focus and belief there is that this technology is really going to be something that isn’t just revolutionizing the drone industry, but that drones themselves–as the touch-all for industries like agriculture, construction, energy, insurance and government–can fundamentally change and improve the way that these companies do business,” Chasen said.

 


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DJI’s $799 ‘smartphone-size’ Mavic Air drone starts shipping January 28

18:13 | 23 January

DJI hasn’t done a great job keeping its drones under wraps. As with the last couple of devices, the Mavic Air leaked out just ahead of today’s official unveiling. The drone is more or less what we expected, falling somewhere between the Mavic Pro and Spark and rounding out the company’s current line of consumer-focused quadcopters.

DJI says it “went back to the drawing board” for the Air, which folds up small enough to fit into a pocket. In fact, it’s so portable that the company’s director of North America actually stuffed two of the “smartphone-size” drones into his vest pocked at today’s event.” It’s roughly half the size of the Pro and weighs around 41-percent of its predecessor. 

There’s a 4K camera on-board, mounted on-top of a three-axis gimbal. Stills are shot with a 12-megapixel on-board camera, capable of shooting in lowlight.HDR is also on-board here, bringing better shots in areas like landscapes with uneven light. The company’s added several photography software advancements to the system, including the ability to stitch together 32-megapixel camera shots. 

The gimbal, like the drone, has been designed from the ground, up. The system is actually recessed directly into the system, giving the drone an even smaller footprint. There’s also 8GB of internal storage on here, so users can save photos and videos without adding a microSD card.

The Air is also the first drone in the line released since GoPro’s unceremonious exit from the space. The company’s Karma offering was arguable the Mavic Pro’s most direct competitor. In fact, the product was born out of a partnership between GoPro and DJI that ultimately fell by the wayside.

So too did GoPro’s drone dreams late last year, due in part to a limited feature set at launch and the company’s inexperience building its own flying vehicles, which resulted in drones falling from the sky.

The Air features Active Track, a feature sorely lacking from the Karma, which lets the drone follow its subjects as they move, making it possible to shoot action videos without the aid of an additional crew. New Asteroid and Boomerang features, meanwhile, shoot programmed panorama-style shots with the push of a button.

The Mavic Pro got off to a bit of a rocky start, with a launch that was peppered by shipping delays. Ultimately, however, the product has proven a success for the drone giant, ultimately leading to the announcement of the palm-sized in May of last year. That device was the first of DJI’s to introduce gesture-based controls, with the company positioning the device as a sort of self-drone.

We ran into some trouble in our own testing that ultimately resulting in our producer slicing open a finger on one of the Spark’s blades. The gesture controls were also hit or mess, making the product an interesting step toward a true consumer, but not really all the way there. Hopefully the Air will correct some of those issues with an admittedly first generation product.

The Spark’s gesture control system has been update here with the Smart Capture system. Pointing a palm at the Air will lift the drone off the ground and titling the hand will control it while it’s in flight. In a quick demo at today’s event, the system does appear to be more sophisticated than its predecessor, but we’ll see for sure when we test it in a less controlled environment.

When you’re ready to end a flight, you put your hands together to return it to home and point down to land it. The feature works at a range of up to 19 feet. Using a smartphone to control the system bumps that up to 262 feet, and adding the remote boosts that to an impressive 2.5 miles. In “Sport” mode, it’s capable of speeds up 42.5 miles per hour.

The drone is capable flying for up to 21 minutes on a charge, courtesy of a  There’s a USB-C port on board for recharging, a step up from its predecessors’ microUSB.  There are a bunch of new safety and tracking features jammed into the drone’s much smaller body, as well.

Position tracking has been been improved courtesy of seven on-board cameras that are capable of three-directional tracking. A new on-board ventilation system, meanwhile, pushes air through the drone’s body as it flies.

You’re also  getting improved obstacle avoidance over its predecessors (which admittedly that didn’t go great the first time we tried it out with the Pro). The new system is capable of operating in wind speeds of up to 22 miles per hour, according to the company. 

The Air starts at $799 — that’s somewhere between the $999 Pro and $399 Spark. There’s also a $999 combo pack that adds two additional batteries and propellers a charging hub and a travel bag. The new drone is up for pre-order starting today from DJI’s site. It’s set to start shipping next week, on January 28. It comes in white, black and red.

DJI calls the Mavic Pro is the “best selling drone of all-time,” and given the company’s dominate position in the market, there seems to be little reason to doubt the qualifiers here. Of course, while drone ownership has been on the rise, the devices haven’t managed to attain the sort of ubiquity the company dreams of for the product.

The Pro and Spark each represented an important step toward achieving that goal, through size, usability and pricing. The Air pushes the overall picture a bit farther and does appear to represent some key advances with regard to hardware. The product builds on many key advances made by its predecessors, executing them an even smaller footprint.

$799 is a good price point point for professional and even amateur photographers looking to up their game with another key tool in the arsenal. As for consumers, I’m excited to take the thing for a spin out in a field in the coming days to see what kind of advances the company has made to its Jedi-style gesture controls, and hopefully not mutilate our video producer’s hands in the process.

But even with an added focus on consumer-friendly controls, that $799 to $999 price point is still pretty lofty for what for most non-professionals will amount to an (admittedly cool) toy.

 


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Meet top startups from Alchemist Class 17

19:52 | 19 January

Yesterday Alchemist Accelerator, best known for working with enterprise startups, held its 17th demo day at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California. Twenty-four startups pitched ideas ranging from personalized genomics to hard tech spinouts from Stanford’s Linear Accelerator. 
Rather than expound upon all twenty-four I worked with Alchemist to bring you a top five list of startups that pitched. These startups received the most investor interest at the event and are all poised to do some interesting things in the near future.
Terbine : First Commercial Exchange for IoT Data. Team: – David Knight (2 IPOs, 2 Buyouts); Brian Enochson (AT&T, Time-Warner/HBO); Ben Grossmann (Academy Award for Visual Effects).
Most IoT startups are focusing on devices. Terbine is purely interested in the data. They are aiming to build a commercial exchange for the massive amounts of machine-generated data coming from all the IoT sensors. The team has built scalable transaction platforms in the past, including having authored HBO’s metadata protocol. The city of Las Vegas has already signed up to use their platform.
Deep Science AI : Human-In-The-Loop AI Platform for Active Threat Detection Inside of Retail Businesses and Public Spaces. Team: Sean Huver (PhD Physicist, veteran of DARPA projects), Sam Tkach (CS Columbia).
Human monitoring of security cameras in retail outlets is too expensive (and not a fun job). Deep Science thinks computers can do a better job, and for 1/10th the price. Retail outlets with poor security are targets of repeat attacks — gas stations with reputations for poor security enforcement will be robbed every 6 weeks. AI-assisted human enforcement may be the solution, and this team of a trio of engineers from Princeton, Columbia, and UCLA may have the tech to do it.
Quantum Insights : Stanford Linear Accelerator spinout that Finds Hidden Meaning in Complex Data Using Physics and Quantum Mechanics. Team : Marvin Weinstein (Physics, Stanford Faculty), Bernard Chen (VP/GM Scopely and KIXEYE, UCLA MBA).
The deepest tech of the bunch, Quantum Insights is a spinout of Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center, and includes a Nobel Laureate among its advisors. Using algorithms born out of fundamental research from physics and quantum mechanics, the company can get insight into complicated data sets that other methods can’t see. Big health tech companies like Biogen and Chan Zuckerberg’s Biohub have already signed up to use the tech to discover drugs. And the company has also been getting pinged by Fintech companies for big data applications as well.
Acuity.AI : Software Service that Uses Breakthrough AI-Technology to Enable Commerce through Video by Making Videos Shoppable. RaviKiran Gopalan (Product lead for 10+ yrs in High Tech., PhD in EE, Stanford GSB’17), Charles Han (AI and Computer Vision expert, Stanford MS in EE)
 
Acuity wants to make videos shoppable. Although this idea has been around for a while, no one has pulled it off yet. Acuity believes it’s because the AI has only now become good enough to pull it off. And this duo founding team — including a Stanford-educated Disney engineer and an engineering doctorate from Qualcomm — may have the technical chops to do it. Chubbies is an early customer and has seen a 35% lift is shoppers adding items to their carts using Acuity’s tech.
Zenith Aerospace : 24/7 Live Earth Monitoring by Solar Unmanned Aircraft Of Perpertual Flight. – Raphael Nardari (Airbus,Cytec,Researcher at Stanford, Experts in Aircraft Strucutre and Advanced Battery), Yitao Zhuang (Intuitive Surgical, Phd In Mech. Eng. at Stanford), Felix Crevier (L3 Tech, MS in Aero/Astro at Stanford).
Zenith Aerospace is developing a 24/7 real-time earth monitoring solution by building a new solar-powered aircraft capable of perpetual flight. Current commercial earth imaging solution using satellites offer a few minutes of observation across a periods of days or weeks. But narrow windows of observation don’t cut it for agencies that need continuous observation — e.g. the FBI or the police. Zenith thinks they have a better and more sustainable solution. The founders built their novel aircraft after stints as Stanford grad students in Mechanical Engineering and Material Science.
Safeskies Systems : Making Commercial Drones Safer. Jesse Williams (Navy Veteran, Caltech, Northrop Grumman, Military UAV Expert); Ryan Mangroo (SW Veteran, NYU Tandon, Designed & Coded ServiceNow Cloud Upgrade System)
The big bottleneck for widespread drone adoption is regulation. Operators of large commercial drones are required by the FAA to prove that their drones won’t fall out of the sky, causing property damage, personal injury, or catastrophic incidents like hitting an airplane. Current approaches to drone safety rely on antiquated parachutes that are too bulky (up to 40% of a drone’s weight) and take too long to deploy (up to 2 seconds). Safeskies is led by a Caltech engineer and military veteran who is using a system more akin to what airbag system’s use to build a solution that deploys in 100 milliseconds, and weighs 30% less than alternatives.

 


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Drone comes to the rescue of two swimmers in Australia

17:43 | 18 January

One day, they may yet turn against us, but for now, they’re still our allies: A drone rescued two teenage swimmers in distress off the course of New South Wales in Australia, according to a new report. The drone spotted two teenagers in trouble around a half-a-mile out from shore, and then dropped a flotation device it carries for the purpose to give them something to hang on to (via Verge).

This drone was actually not supposed to be saving anyone just yet – it was engaged in a pilot project to test its viability. But the Sydney Morning Herald reports that when a call came through about the swimmers in trouble, the drone happened to be in the Ari and nearby, positioned well to respond.

The drone’s pilot, a decorated veteran lifeguard for New South Wales, was able to Gert out to the swimmers’ position, and drop the pod in a minute or two, which is at least a few minutes less than it would’ve taken to respond directly with actual flesh and blood lifeguards.

This training exercise was designed to get lifeguard staff familiar with the so-called “Little Ripper” drone, which is part of a government plan to help mitigate the risk of shark attacks. Its ability to save the swimmers was an accident, but a lucky accident that definitely helps prove its viability as part of the $16 million government program.

Also, it’s a reminder that sometimes, drones are actually good.

 


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