Editors Note: This week IEEE Spectrum is covering CeBIT, the enormous information and communications technology show that takes place annually in Hanover, Germany. For up-to-the-second updates, you can follow our CeBIT Ninja, Stephen Cass, on Twitter (@stephencass), or catch daily highlights throughout the week here.
Once upon a time there was a very odd British television show called The Prisoner, which featured a secret agent repeatedly attempting to escape from a mysterious village. One of the biggest threats the agent faced was a giant balloon called Rover, which would pursue and subdue rule-breaking villagers. Now Rover has been brought to reality, albeit in a much more adorable version, thanks to the engineers at Aerotain and their Skye inflatable drone.
The Skye is a 3-meter-diameter controllable balloon that’s filled with helium for buoyancy. Dotted around the surface are propellers whose direction can be adjusted, spinning the balloon or moving it around as required. There’s also the option to add an internal projector to display moving images on the balloon’s skin. Skye has been used at events as a crowd-pleaser, but it can also be used a platform for aerial photography by adding cameras.
Aerotain was established in September 2015 as Skye grew out of the founders’ work on a masters degree project at ETH Zurich. Aerotain were showing off a—sadly firmly tethered—Skye at CeBIT and I spoke to Andreas Schaffner, one of the company’s founders about the drone and the company’s plans for its future. At the moment Skye is offered as part of a complete service: “We’ll design and manufacture the hull—it doesn’t have to be a sphere, it can be anything—then we’ll come to the event and fly the thing,” says Schaffner.
In large part this full-service approach comes from the fact that Skye is currently too tricky to fly by anyone but a trained operator. But Schaffner says that they are working on an much more autonomous version that can be operated independently by customers. This will likely use ultra-wide-band radio beacons to locate each Skye in three-dimensional space, and the price point is expected to be somewhere in the tens of thousand of U.S. dollars.
With fully charged batteries, the Skye can fly for two to three hours, and can work both outdoors and indoors. The height it can reach outdoors is largely limited by winds, so it typically stays within a maximum ceiling of 20 to 30 meters. The Skye can spin rapidly, making it suitable as platform for covering, say, racing events that follow a track. When moving from one place to another it has a top speed of about 15 to 20 kilometers per hour, but Schaffner says they are working to increase that in the next version as well. Hopefully it won’t get too fast: Rover was pretty scary after all.