Here’s what Facebook wants to do with 1,200 more employees

Facebook is growing its head count by as much as 14 percent according to a new Reuters report. It has 1,200 open job listings on its website, mostly for virtual reality roles with Oculus Rift. It’s also hiring for its drones, data centers, and Atlas advertising efforts. None of the roles mentioned by Reuters support Facebook’s core business: Its social media application. Facebook is pulling a Google, expanding into new industries to protect itself.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg placed a sizeable bet that virtual reality will be the next big thing in mobile computing when he bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion in March last year. That’s exactly what he told media, explaining, “When you put on the goggles, it’s different from anything I have ever experienced in my life.” Oculus has stayed pretty quiet since coming under Facebook’s purview, but Reuters analysts suspect the big staff up in positions like logistics and global supply management mean the company is getting ready to launch to the public.

If you don’t follow the company closely, you might be confused at the positions Facebook is hiring for to support its drone technology development: Roles like thermal engineering and aircraft electronics. Remember Internet.org, Facebook’s big ambitious project to bring Internet connections to parts of the developing world? That’s what it hopes to use drones for, and it needs people with expertise in these areas to make that happen. If Internet.org succeeds it will ultimately benefit Facebook. Reliable, fast internet in more parts of the world — the two thirds of the population currently without Internet — likely means far more Facebook (and WhatsApp and Instagram) users.

In the last few years, Facebook has moved quickly and deftly into these new business endeavors, not content to rest on its cooling social media laurels. It has grown largely through acquisition, snapping up separate, independent companies and product like Oculus, Atlas Ad Server, WhatsApp, and Instagram, instead of trying to build them from scratch. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is investing in Facebook’s future stability and growth, a smart move given the fact that its core social product has faded in relevance with younger populations. Eventually teens grow up and become the new adults, slowly decreasing Facebook’s power over time.

It needed to diversify to ensure its future.

 

 

 

Pilot pressure explains FAA’s indecisiveness on drones

Drone policy in the U.S. is a mess: the Federal Aviation Administration is currently grounding commercial use of unmanned aircraft while letting any amateur imbecile — like this guy — fly freely. Meanwhile, the agency keeps missing deadlines to propose a plan for integrating drones into civilian skies.

The situation is a source of frustration to researchers, photographers and companies, which have been stuck twiddling their thumbs even as other countries leap ahead in developing new industries tied to unmanned aircraft. But if it’s any consolation, there’s now an explanation for the FAA’s arbitrary approach.

Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FAA is dragging its feet on drone rules large part due to pressure from commercial pilots whose job could be at risk from commercial competition:

Aerial surveyors, photographers and moviemaking pilots are increasingly losing business to robots that often can do their jobs faster, cheaper and better. That competition, paired with concerns about midair collisions with drones, has made commercial pilots some of the fiercest opponents to unmanned aircraft.

The Journal account also points to why, in the handful of cases where the FAA has granted an exemption to the ban on commercial drone use, it has imposed onerous conditions:

In many of those exemptions, the Air Line Pilots Association, the biggest U.S. pilots union, and the National Agricultural Aviation Association, a trade group for crop dusters, helped persuade the FAA to place tight restrictions on the drone flights, including requiring operators to have pilot licenses and to keep the devices within eyeshot.

To be fair, there are legitimate safety concerns associated with unmanned aircraft. But the FAA’s current approach, which gives free reign to hobbyists while stifling commercial opportunities, does nothing to address these.

The smarter way to go about this, according to experts I’ve cited before, is for the agency to create buffer zones in which drones can operate at low-altitudes and away from airports. This could involve designating new zone fly-zones to go with the existing ones shown on this FAA map (I’ve added the arrows that point to Class G space which is unregulated):

FAA Airspace

Meanwhile, the FAA could also follow the lead of drone-friendly France or that of Canada, where the federal aviation agency has been issuing thousands of permits to businesses that are incorporating drones into everything from real estate to farm surveillance to TV filming.

Instead, the U.S. appears stuck in the worst of all worlds when it comes to drones:

Skydio raises $3M to build software for safer, smarter drones

Skydio came out of stealth today with plans to build a smarter navigation system for drones, plus a $3 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners.

Unlike most navigation systems that require a drone to have a GPS signal and dedicated human pilot, Skydio relies on computer vision to help drones see the world. A video on the Skydio website depicts drones flying around trees and through a parking lot, plus autonomously following people and being maneuvered by waving a mobile phone.

Skydio CEO Adam Bry wrote in a blog post:

A drone that’s aware of its surroundings is far easier to control, safer to operate, and more capable. Almost all the information a drone needs to be good at its job can be found in onboard video data; the challenge is extracting that information and making it useful for the task at hand. That challenge, and the incredible capabilities that are unlocked, are our focus.

For us this project is about harnessing the beauty and power of flight to make it “universally accessible and useful.”

Andreessen Horowitz general partner Chris Dixon wrote on his blog that Skydio is also poised to simplify drone programming to the point that it only takes a simple command.

“Smart drone operators will simply give high-level instructions like ‘map these fields’ or ‘film me while I’m skiing’ and the drone will carry out the mission,” Dixon wrote. “Safety and privacy regulations will be baked into the operating system and will always be the top priority.”

The Skydio team has roots at MIT, where two of its three co-founders worked on drone vision systems. They later went on to found the Project Wing delivery drone program at Google.

Andreessen Horowitz previously invested in another drone intelligence company: Airware. But Dixon doesn’t see the two companies as competitors.

“You can think of Airware as the operating system and Skydio as the most important app on top of the operating system,” Dixon wrote.

CNN to study newsroom drone use for the FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration has not been kind to businesses hoping to legally operate drones, but it is slowly allowing their use by select organizations. The newest OK went to CNN, which will help the FAA set a framework for drone use in newsgathering.

CNN was likely selected because it already has a drone program in place. It has been working with the Georgia Institute of Technology since June to explore the types of aerial filming that work for newsrooms, plus the safety challenges that arise.

CNN will test multiple professional-grade drones for the FAA. The administration will consider setting a range of rules for different drones.

CNN is the first news organization to receive the special go-ahead to fly drones. The FAA issued the first waiver in June to BP, and has since approved a handful of other organizations. The administration has a bumpy road ahead as it works through a series of lawsuits and public outcry over what entrepreneurs and hobbyists view as stiflingly strict rules.

Obstacle avoidance is the next big step for drones

Consumer drones have come a long way in just a few years, evolving from complex hobbyist models to consumer-ready quadcopters with increasingly smart cameras and controls. But they are still unable to autonomously avoid obstacles — an ability that would completely change the flying experience and make drone-based services much, much safer.

That is slowly changing through startups like DroneDeployAirware and Panoptes, and now Ascending Technologies, which made a big splash at this year’s CES.

A worker demonstrates the collision avoidance capability of an AscTec Firefly multi-copter drone with Intel RealSense cameras at CES on January 6, 2015.

A worker demonstrates the collision avoidance capability of an AscTec Firefly multi-copter drone with Intel RealSense cameras at CES on January 6, 2015.

AscTec, which makes professional-level drones, will begin shipping its “Firefly” drone with obstacle-detecting sensors later this year. It incorporate’s Intel’s RealSense 3D cameras, which Wired reported are smaller and lighter than other options.

Five years ago, it would have been impossible to build a setup like AscTec’s. Moderately sized drones are limited in their lifting power, and as much weight as possible needs to go to a drone’s battery and camera (or small parcel). There is also some serious artificial intelligence involved in drawing actionable intelligence from a sensing system. A drone not only needs to sense a wall, but also immediately respond to avoid it.

The FAA is still mulling what exactly drone regulations will look like in the U.S. But eventually collision-avoiding drones will play a strong role. No one wants the tacocopter delivery drone to spill its precious cargo, let alone crash into a person’s head.

ces-2015-3

 

This post was updated on January 10 to state that Intel, not IBM, makes the RealSense camera.

Delivery by drone: French postal video shows it can be done

Amazon and Google may have some catching up to do. It turns out the mail service of France, La Poste, has already successfully field-tested a service that can fly a package to a remote area, drop it off and return home.

As the video below shows, the service dubbed Géodrone involves a small drone with six rotors that can deliver a 9-pound (4 kg) package up to 12 miles (20 km) away. A postal worker loads the package onto the drone, which then unloads it automatically at the recipient’s address and flies off:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jX6YCbn2xcM?rel=0]

News reports say from France say the test took place near the town of Pourrières, which is in the southern region of Provence. La Poste has not specified when the service will be in full swing, but suggested that it anticipates using Géodrone to provide service to residents in remote mountainous and maritime regions.

The Géodrone project represents another impressive achievement for France’s emerging unmanned aircraft industry. Earlier this year, drone enthusiasts in the Alps conducted a Star Wars-style pod race in a French forest with the permission of the local government. Meanwhile, a researcher in Holland has showed how an ambulance drone can deliver a defibrillator to a heart attack victim in under two minutes.

Such experiments stand in marked contrast to what is occurring in the United States, where a dysfunctional rule-making process at the Federal Aviation Administration has brought drone deployment to a virtual stand-still, even as American companies are clamoring to use them for business purposes. The U.S. approach also differs markedly from Canada, where authorities have issued hundreds of permits to use drones in everything from farming to real estate to TV production.

The FAA has claimed that go-slow approach is essential to ensure the safety of civilian airspace. Critics, however, have suggested the agency has been needlessly reactionary. One alternative proposed by drone lawyer Brendan Schulman is for the FAA to issue special “micro drone” regulations that would let qualified people use drones below 400 feet and away from airports.

Iris+ review: A feature-rich drone that’s still simple to fly

I’m an anxious drone flyer. Even in San Francisco’s biggest fields, there are always other people and buildings that make me constantly evaluate the safety of my flight.

But I finally found my zen space with the 3D Robotics Iris+ quadcopter. The drone always performed exactly how I asked, and within a few minutes of my first flight I knew that I could trust it. With that kind of reliability came newfound courage. I felt comfortable flying the Iris+ in more daring (and thus more dramatic) locations, resulting in better footage.

What’s an Iris+?

Let’s start with the basics. The Iris+ is a quadcopter made by Berkeley-based 3D Robotics, which for the most part offers drones for professional applications like 3D mapping. The Iris+ is its flagship consumer drone. It starts at $750 for just the drone; the version I flew included a GoPro, GoPro camera stabilizer (also known as a gimbal), extra battery and roller case, bumping the price up to $1,680.

The Iris+ controller.

The Iris+ controller.

The controls for the Iris+ are exactly the same as any other popular consumer drone; one controller sends the quadcopter up or down and turns it in a circle. The other flies it forward, back or side to side. There are a lot more intimidating looking knobs on the controller, but you can get by with just those two. If you know how to use an Xbox, you know how to fly the Iris+ (or, if you are me, your drone will teach you how to work an Xbox).

My trust in the Iris+ came from its stability. It uses GPS to lock onto its location and hold it until you direct it to go elsewhere, which means that even if it is 60 feet in the air and being buffeted by winds, it’s not going to drift farther and farther away. It stays put.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ih4Z-E6kd8&w=560&h=315]

It also finds that GPS lock with no input from the pilot. You just turn it on and wait a minute or two for the light to turn green. That’s a big improvement over DJI’s line of drones, which require you to do a funny little dance before most flights.

So here’s where it gets really fun. The Iris+ can fly autonomously. I ended almost every flight with the Iris+’s automatic return to home function, which is initiated by just flipping a switch on the controller.

You can also program a flight path on an app and then send the drone on its way. Or you can trigger “Follow Me” mode and the Iris+ will follow you from a set distance while the camera takes a smooth shot that always centers on you. Autonomous flights and Follow Me both rely on setup from an Android device. It requires a moderate level of technical knowledge, but both worked every time for me.

The Iris+ just before takeoff.

The Iris+ just before takeoff.

My one complaint about the Iris+ is its flimsiness. That’s an asset in some areas — its legs and propellers, for example, which are made cheaply so they can be replaced cheaply. But the plastic cap that holds the battery in also felt flimsy, and was annoying to close. It’s a small problem, but one that comes up repeatedly as you have to unplug the battery to turn the drone off.

The GoPro Hero4 and Tarot T-2D gimbal

I had never worked with the GoPro Hero4 camera before the Iris+. Wow, did it pull its weight. Even on some very gloomy days it pulled out great HD video.

A screenshot of a video taken with the Iris+.

A screenshot of a video taken with the Iris+.

The GoPro app, as usual, was a bit useless. It lost its Wi-Fi connection with the Hero4 as soon as the drone flew more than 50 feet away. Reconnecting was a pain.

The Tarot T-2D gimbal was the best I’ve tried. Even with my jerky flying, my videos turned out perfectly smooth. It was easy to control the gimbal’s tilt from the Iris+’s controller.

I did not like removing the GoPro from the gimbal every time it needed a charge. It’s screwed in, so expect to spend five minutes attaching and detaching the camera each time.

The Tarot T-2D gimbal provided smooth video every time.

The Tarot T-2D gimbal provided smooth video every time.

The gimbal, GoPro and Iris+’s performances combined to create great video made even better by the confidence the drone brought me. I’m eager to fly it in even more challenging locations in San Francisco.

Disclosure: 3D Robotics is backed by True Ventures and Shea Ventures, venture capital firms that are an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.

For the drone fleet conductor comes PixiePath

Companies delivering packages or farms mapping acres and acres of fields might not want to stop at one drone. A fleet can get things done faster. But how do you keep them safe and effective while working as a group?

PixiePath, a drone software startup that launched today, thinks it has a solution: the cloud. Its software handles drone movement in real time, and it’s all browser-based so it can be accessed from any connected device. It also helps pilots monitor their drones’ battery levels, locations and tasks.

There are, of course, already ways to pilot groups of drones and monitor their vitals. But they tend to involve complex programming and the establishment of local networks. Moving data management into the cloud can also help turn around results faster because of the extra computing power that suddenly becomes available.

PixiePath is a product of serial entrepreneur Bryan Field-Elliot, who previously founded Ping Identity. Ping Identity dealt with secure access to the cloud, which is very relevant to the security-conscious drone industry.

Field-Elliot and his team will face some serious competition.  Laboratories have been working with drone swarms for years, and startups like DroneDeploy and Airware are already delving into the safe management of large groups of drones.

Drones have a lot to gain from the field of swarm robotics, which allows relatively simple devices to accomplish complex tasks. For example, in a rescue situation, a swarm of drones could quickly search a very large area. If one or more go down, the rest can regroup and continue their mission without much of an impact.

PixiePath’s system would have some weaknesses in a disaster, when the cloud could easily become inaccessible. But for everyday exercises like mapping and photography it could be a welcome tool.

Mistletoe-bearing restaurant drone draws blood

Last month we wondered about what could possibly go wrong with TGI Friday’s plan to fly mistletoe-bearing drones over customers in some  restaurants. Now we know.

A photographer for a Brooklyn newspaper is apparently an early casualty, saying the drone blade clipped her nose during a photo shoot at TGIF’s Sheepshead Bay location, according to this report.

A TGIF spokeswoman downplayed safety concerns, telling the paper that the drones will remain beyond the reach of diners. In this case, the drone operator said he was maneuvering the craft to land on the photographer’s arm with her permission but she flinched as it got close.

The restaurant chain tried out the drones in some of its UK locations before bringing them stateside for this holiday promotion.

FAA regulations govern the use of drones in the outdoors, but I would assume their operation inside a business establishment would be subject to workplace safety rules and regulations. Or, private lawsuits.

Mistletoe Drone at TGI Fridays.