Camera Drones That Follow You

These drones can carry a camera and follow you around

4 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Camera Drones That Follow You

I like drones. Drones are fun. But as with many robots, at some point you have to answer the question of, "Okay, that's cool, but what does it do?" We're not entirely convinced that drone delivery is going to be a thing, but one application that has actually managed to turn into a potentially viable product is the capability to follow someone around with a camera. In the space of about a week, three separate systems have shown up that promise to be able to act as autonomous aerial camerabots.

The first "follow me" drone isn't so much a drone; it's a combination of software and hardware from 3DRobotics. And it kind of wasn't announced this week either. But let's just run with it anyway, because it fits right in. DroidPlanner 2 is software designed to interface with drones and autopilot systems from 3DRobotics. It runs on your phone and includes (among many other things) a "FollowMe" mode where your 3DRobotics drone will track your phone and follow it:

[ 3DRobotics ]



The next two drones are complete systems designed from the ground up to autonomously follow you around with a camera. They're both on Kickstarter, and both of them have blown way past their funding goals, because let's face it, this is a very cool idea that has only recently seen practical execution on a consumer level. (And as we've said before, don't forget that Kickstarter is not a store where you buy things and get them delivered to you; you're helping to fund these projects, whose goal is designing, manufacturing, and delivering the drones to supporters, but as with any projects, there are risks and challenges, and projects often fail.)

The first drone we'll take a look at is called Hexo+:

On the smartphone side we have an intuitive interface for you to handle your drone easily, position it where you want in space and potentially (stretch goal!) wifi video live feed. This user interface is backed by trajectory anticipation algorithms that crunch data coming from the sensors on the drone and smartphone to predict the next, most likely position of the subject. This enables a quick, accurate tracking of the subject and is key in achieving great images. Finally, the smartphone and the drone communicate relative position to each other and data over the MAVLINK protocol, developed by the ETH in Zürich.
On the drone side of things, we have combined a drone that’s designed and optimised for aerial filming and action sports: robust construction, payload capacity and high speed and stability, thanks to the six tilted propellers. The onboard software is based on the 3D Robotics open-source code, and we optimised the MAVLINK implementation and the behavior of the drone to improve response time to commands sent from the mobile app. We also integrated over the air gimbal control to obtain the best possible camera angle based on the relative positions of the drone and the subject.

Having a hexacopter as a camera platform is nice, because you've got some redundancy in case of a motor or prop failure, and the tilted propellers (to keep the props out of the way of the camera) is a nice touch. A ready to fly edition with a GoPro mount will run you $679 on Kickstarter, which is really not that bad at all.

[ Hexo+ ]



Your other option is AirDog:

The highlight here is the remote that the drone uses for tracking:

The AirDog uses a unique dedicated tracker called “AirLeash” that guides and controls the AirDog in flight. Why did we invent a new device? Why not just use a smartphone app?
A year ago when we started developing the AirDog, we thought it would be a great idea to make AirDog follow a smartphone. We abandoned this idea really quickly.
Here’s why.
1. Smarphone's Poor Usability in Many Sports Have you ever tried to use your smartphone while surfing a huge wave? Yeah, the water might be a problem. How about using it while executing a cab 5 double grab? Those gloves would kind of get in the way. What about emergency situations, where terminating flight and landing the AirDog is important?
A smartphone was simply not an option if we wanted to maintain safety or efficiency.
2. Lack of Vital Sensors for Precise Auto-follow In testing, we discovered that average smartphone GPS accuracy in a horizontal plane is about 5-10 meters. The margin of error doubles when measuring altitude.
We realized that if we wanted a precise flight tracker, we needed extremely high level sensors. In addition, we would have to develop complicated sensor fusion algorithms to calculate and predict movement trajectory while keeping the camera aimed at rider all the time.
Technologically, no smartphone has such capabilities.
3. Limited WiFi and Bluetooth range Different smartphones have different ranges, but it was clear that anything beyond 30-50 meters was not possible. This can be problem when you’re surfing out in the ocean 350 meters from the drone, and want it to launch and come to you. Or, let’s say you’re riding downhill at 30 mph, and the drone just loses signal. You could potentially lose your drone forever! The stringent standards of AirDog required something with long range power.
As amazing as smartphones are, they simply can’t meet the high demands of many action sports. In true innovation style, we ditched our idea, went back to the drawing board, and created a solution.
The result is better than we hoped. It’s an easy-to-use, sturdy, reliable, long range wireless transmission and custom-developed tracker. It’s called AirLeash.

While it's bulky, and another thing to have to deal with, it seems like the AirLeash remote offers enough tangible benefits over a smartphone to be worth the hassle. A base model AirDog is $1200 on Kickstarter.

[ AirDog ]



As cool as these capabilities are, it's also important to keep the limitations of drones like these in mind. The Kickstarter videos show you best-case scenarios for operation: namely, wide open spaces far away from trees, power lines, or other things that are tall. There's no obstacle detection or avoidance going on with any of these systems, so if you end up leading your drone too close to a tree or a telephone pole, a collision could easily happen.

With caveats like obstacles, battery life, failsafe modes, and legality in mind, these are still very impressive capabilities for drones that are very affordable, and we're looking forward to seeing what creative uses (besides self-filming) people come up with.

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