DJI fixes bug that caused Inspire 1 drone crashes

DJI has issued a firmware update to owners of the brand new Inspire 1, a drone that caught the industry’s attention last year for its filming abilities and futuristic form. Some of the drones’ first users experienced fly aways and crashes, turning what might be an innocuous bug in any other product into a serious hazard. “It is a required update,” DJI director of aerial imaging Eric Cheng said. “When Inspire 1 owners connect their smart devices and power up, they will be informed, and given 3 days to perform the update before they are grounded.” Figuratively and literally.

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.

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