Tuesday, February 19, 2013

World's most popular consumer drone gains autonomous flight

Since it was introduced in 2010, the AR.Drone has been a success among hobbyists, hackers, engineering students, drone journalists, activists, and aspiring UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) operators. Produced by the French wireless products manufacturer Parrot, this camera-enabled quadrotor can be controlled over WiFi via iOS or Android-enabled phones and tablets.

This has been the go-to item for many news organizations trying to understand the new world of UAS without a tremendous investment. The Sydney Herald recently used one to help bring context to their story about privacy concerns amidst the proliferation of "drones."

A news crew in Florida also tried using an AR.Drone to get a better view of a live event, but they were chased out of the sky by angry bees.

Since launch, it has sold over 300,000 units. That's ten times the number of UAS that the FAA anticipated would by flying in American airspace... by 2020.

A selling point of the RC aircraft from the beginning has been augmented reality dogfights with other AR.Drones, facilitated by on-board image recognition. Parrot recently unveiled another addition to the drone's list of AR abilities -- a GPS receiver.

Parrot's GPS accessory permits AR.Drone users to collect detailed flight data, visualize the location of the drone in 3D, and share that data with a community of users.

But perhaps most importantly, it's compatible with ground control software. Meaning the AR.Drone will now have the ability to fly autonomously, along a specified route of GPS coordinates.

Even with the new tech, the AR.Drone has many limitations. The current version is not terribly powerful, and is easily tossed around in light winds. While it has an HD camera, the camera has zero degrees of freedom and cannot pan, tilt, or zoom. The stock battery is fairly limited in terms of flight time.

More importantly, it did not have any sort of GPS guidance, which was fairly common on DIY-type drones at the same price point. But that's about to change.

This means the AR.Drone has come of age from "radio-controlled aerial camera," to a more mature technology, "aerial robot."

There likely will be some interesting new applications for the drone thanks to this development. Drone mapping comes to mind.

All that will depend on the release date, and price point, which Parrot hasn't yet announced.

A version of this story appeared on Veillance.me, the blog for the 2013 IEEE International Symposium on Technology And Society (ISTAS).