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Is Spiri the Programmable Quadrotor You've Always Wanted?

A drone that runs ROS sounds great on Kickstarter, but it's almost too great

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Is Spiri the Programmable Quadrotor You've Always Wanted?

There's an autonomous, programmable drone on Kickstarter right now called Spiri. For under $600, you get a quadrotor that runs ROS and can autonomously execute flight commands so that you don't have to worry about all the tricky stuff like not crashing. It includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cameras, GPS, an accelerometer, a gyro, a magnetometer, temperature and pressure sensors, and a nifty 3D time-of-flight camera system. It's designed to be a platform that you can easily innovate on without having to deal with hardware.

Inside, Spiri features a 1 GHz dual core processor to run your programs, plus a secondary processor to keep Spiri from crashing when your code borks itself. The frame is made from carbon fiber, which may not withstand a close-range shotgun blast, but it should keep too much damage from happening if (when) you do end up crashing it. And if you didn't catch it the first time, it runs ROS! 

We really like the philosophy here, of creating a platform that doesn't do anything but is capable of doing anything that you teach it to do, sort of like a PR2 or a TurtleBot. Our only concern here is a concern that's common to many Kickstarter campaigns: we're seeing some lofty goals—and the usual over-the-top campaign video—without a lot of evidence that the goals can necessarily be met. For example, part of the point of Spiri is that it takes over all of the difficult flight things so that you don't have to worry about them when you program it. That's fantastic, but so far none of the videos seem to show Spiri in an autonomous stable hover, much less autonomously maneuvering. We'd love to see a video showing Spiri taking off, making altitude, speed, direction, and orientation changes, and then landing back on its charger, all by itself.

Of course, part of the point of Kickstarter is that companies like Pleiades need funding to help them reach the goals that they set for themselves, and the plan with Spiri is to continue developing flight primitives through next March. But as many disappointing Kickstarter projects have shown, hardware is hard. Technical hurdles, quality control oversights, unanticipated costs, fabrication delays—the number of things that can derail a project is huge. So clearly a flying robot project that involves both complex hardware and software will face many challenges. The Spiri creators say their drone will let you do some really cool things, but before you make a pledge for something that doesn't exist yet, make sure that you understand how difficult it's going to be.

Robotics needs a Spiri. I'd love to have one. I'm totally sold on the vision that Pleiades has for their robot as an open platform. And if you believe that this vision can be executed and delivered in the form of this Spiri right here, then go ahead and support the project. But remember: As Kickstarter itself put it, "Kickstarter is not a store," so if you want to get started flying drones, there are other options to consider (more on that in a future post).

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