Friday, July 27, 2012

Maker of the AR Drone invests in GIS. Is cheap, commerical drone mapping on the way?

Many people's first introduction to commercial drones may have been the AR Drone by Parrot. Originally marketed as a futuristic RC toy you control via WiFi with an augmented reality iPhone AP, the AR Drone is a consumer-grade, $300 quadrotor with an HD Camera, the first of its kind that has been mass produced.

Parrot, the company that develops and manufactures the drone, have sold 300,000 ARs since 2010 (to put the number in perspective, the FAA estimates 1/10 that number of commercial drones will by flying in the national airspace alongside manned aircraft by 2020). It's also developed a user base that is constantly tweaking the drone and figuring out new uses.

Videographers have rigged the AR Drone with higher-end cameras and found ways to extend its range. Occupy activists have tried to hack them to broadcast live video of protests. They've also been tested as potential platforms to conduct drone journalism at The University of Nebraska's Drone Journalism Lab.

Yesterday, Pix4D, a company that specializes in making software that converts aerial shots from drones into 3D photomaps, announced that it would be receiving a $2.4 million investment from Parrot.

"With the fast technological advances in miniaturized autopilots and digital cameras, lightweight autonomous flying platforms are increasingly used to generate up-to-date and detailed environmental maps and geographical information data," Pix4D said in a press release. "Furthermore, recent changes to the regulatory framework for civilian drones will drive UAV adoption and help address the soaring demand for GIS data."

Christoph Strecha, CEO of Pix4D appeared in a recent video along with Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO of senseFly, who also received funding from Parrot. SenseFly produces the "Swinglet Cam," a micro drone system designed for photomapping missions.

In the video, Strecha said it would be "interesting" for his company to step into "To produce games, to produce augmented reality that can be done with quadrotors for the consumer market."

The investment from Parrot, who made quadrotors accessible to average consumer, begs the question as to whether the consumer electronics manufacturer will attempt to do with GIS photomapping what it did to commercial drones. Could a $300 drone mapping system be far off? Would journalists adopt such a device for their reporting? How about city planners, environmental researchers, and construction companies -- would they adopt it as well?

Pix4D hasn't responded yet to questions, but I will update if they do.

Joint video announcement by Pix4D and senseFly

A drone-generated photomap of Port Au Prince, Haiti, generated by Pix4D software.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Code of Ethics for Drone Journalists

Yesterday my colleague, Acton Gorton, sent me an email that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group representing defense, civil and commercial drone developers and operators, had released a “code of conduct” for the unmanned aircraft systems industry.

“This code is intended to provide our members, and those who design, test, and operate UAS for public and civil use, a set of guidelines and recommendations for safe, non‐intrusive operations,” the code reads. “Acceptance and adherence to this code will contribute to safety and professionalism and will accelerate public confidence in these systems.”

The code is broken into three sections, relating to “safety,” “professionalism,” and “respect.” The code is good as a framework for further discussion, but it’s not terribly specific as-is. For example, the safety portion of the code requires “crew fitness for flight operations,” but mentions no standards by which crew fitness should be judged. Likewise, it requires “Reliability, performance, and airworthiness to established standards,” but does not specify what those standards might be.

The AUVSI also is not the first to develop a code for UAS operations. That first likely belongs to RCAPA, the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association. The RCAPA has an extensive list of guidelines that cover drone construction, flight operations (including checks for control systems, and operations before, during and after flight), and even maintenance logs.

AUVSI likely is keeping broad definitions because it is trying to cover large swaths of the drone industry, which encompasses a wide variety of devices and goals, whereas RCAPA is mostly aiming to represent individual professionals and hobbyists who use drones specifically for aerial photography. But both are similar in that they are trying to safeguard the people who develop and operate drones.

When I launched in December, 2011, I had a purpose in mind: to become a hub for developing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism. Hoping to become the “Wiki of Drone Journalism,” I opened much of the website to professional colleagues who have an interest in the field. Registration is still opened to interested parties.

Since launching the site, my co-developer and I have built two fixed-wing drones, destroyed one of them in testing, and are cobbling together a multi-rotor journalism drone. But we’ve added very little to the site in terms of drone journalism ethics, and I hope to change that.

Some of the following is from previous posts on, and those form the basis of a code for drone journalists I am proposing. The most recent additions to the code involves a tiered approach to drone journalism ethics that borrows from the philosophy of Maslow’s pyramid.