We predicted this would happen, but it’s remarkable just how far the technology’s come in 12 months. The brisk pace of development has made it all but possible for your local coffee shop to deliver a latte to your third-floor windowsill. It may sound like science fiction (not to mention a questionable business model), but consider that Amazon and Google are talking about making deliveries by drone. As long as everyone follows the government’s rules about no-fly zones and signs up for the new federal drone registry, there’s little stopping anyone else from doing the same.
Some of the cool developments making this possible include waypoint and point-of-interest based navigation from DJI, which lets pilots program a flight path with a few finger taps on a touchscreen. Manufacturers like Yuneec and3DR have a “follow me” software feature that lets you wander around freely while a drone buzzes 350 feet above you, recording your every move.
Oh yes, there’s still a good chance of a n00b crashing into you, but everyone’s working on their anti-collision software to prevent mid-air collisions. Software that automates flight paths also is improving. We haven’t reached the point where drones don’t need a carbon-based lifeform at the controls, but the machines are making easier for even the biggest klutz to take to the air. Still, it helps to remember this technology was used only by the military a few years ago. At this rate, fully autonomous drones can’t be too far off.
That’s great news for professionals working with drones. Frank Kivo, a videographer with Concierge Auctions, which frequently uses drones to create epic aerial photos and videos of real estate, tells WIRED “these automated and new system implementations are extremely helpful and useful, depending on the industry you’re working in.” Kivo’s work sometimes involves filming large parcels of land, and he can automate his drone’s flight path by programing waypoints ahead of time, mapping the route the drone will fly. Waypoints can help with large surveying applications such scouting oil rig locations, search and rescue efforts, and data retrieval like collecting readings from an environmental sensor.
Others are less sold on the automation, and think you’ll always want to keep an eye on your eye in the sky. “Nothing is ever going to be able to tell you what things looks like when you’re up there,” says Mike Lord of the photography company Barrelman Productions. “So you don’t know what the interesting shot is going to be until you’re actually flying.”
The key, says Frank Kivo, is knowing when to let the drone do its thing, and when to step in to take control. “The one downside of an automation system is you cannot teach it emotion. There is no way to teach a waypoint system to capture the beautiful sun flares that come into the camera for that split second.”
Mike Lord praised some of DJI’s new automated systems for striking the right balance between automating and leaving the pilot in control. The “Course lock” feature holds the Phantom’s current flight path, enabling the pilot to spin the nose from side to side to capture fly-bys. DJI’s “Point-of-interest” feature lets the pilot mark a spot on a map and tell the drone to fly around the spot in a circle, all the while keeping the nose aimed at the center in order to slurp up smooth, uninterrupted video of the subject. Lord says this makes it easy to “fly up and away while circling and shooting photos, which previously would have required a second person to do well.”
Don’t Crash Into Me, Bro
Many pilots are most enthusiastic about the development of software that helps drones steer clear of hazards.
“I can’t stress enough how much avoidance detection is a huge plus,” says Kivo, who used the collision avoidance system in Monster-X’s heavyweight drone while flying in the Bahamas, where palm trees could have put his expensive rig in danger. “With a tropical storm forming, we were constantly getting blown around and with a common consumer drone, we would have lost it, I’m sure.”
While the delivery drones of tomorrow surely will be at least somewhat automated, the consumer drones the rest of you buy will continue relying largely on your own skill. That’s by design: flying them is a big part of the appeal. It’s fun! It requires some practice, and collision detection systems ease the learning curve. But flying a drone is a hoot, and automating everything about it misses the point. The technology should hone the pilot’s skill, not render it irrelevant. “I don’t want to just send a robot up in the sky,” Lord says.