If you were hoping to get some sweet drone footage of a NASCAR race in progress, you may find your quadcopter grounded unceremoniously by a mysterious force: DroneShield is bringing its anti-drone tech to NASCAR events at the Texas Motor Speedway.
The company makes a handful of products, all aimed at detecting and safely intercepting drones that are flying where they shouldn’t. That’s a growing problem, of course, and not just at airports or Area 51. A stray drone at a major sporting event could fall and interrupt the game, or strike someone, or at a race it may even cause a major accident.
Most recently it introduced a new version of its handheld “DroneGun,” which scrambles the UAV’s signal so that it has no choice but to safely put itself down, as these devices are generally programmed to do. You can’t buy one — technically, they’re illegal — but the police sure can.
Recently DroneShield’s tech was deployed at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and at the Olympics in PyeongChang, and now the company has announced that it was tapped by a number of Texas authorities for the protection of stock car races.
“We are proud to be able to assist a high-profile event like this,” said Oleg Vornik, DroneShield’s CEO, in an email announcing the news. “We also believe that this is significant for DroneShield in that this is the first known live operational use of all three of our key products – DroneSentinel, DroneSentry and DroneGun – by U.S. law enforcement.”
It’s a big get for a company that clearly saw an opportunity in the growing drone market (in combating it, really) and executed well on it.
The idea of a robot methodically hunting you down isn’t the most pleasant of concepts. A metal-bodied being zooming after you at up to 25 miles per hour with multiple eyes fixed on your location seems… out of your best interest.
The Skydio R1 drone seems friendly enough. though. I wouldn’t call it loving or cute by any means, but it really just wants to keep up with you and ensure it captures your great life moments with its big blue eye.
What makes the $2,499 Skydio R1 special is that it doesn’t need a pilot — it flies itself. The drone uses 12 of its 13 on-board cameras to rapidly map the environment around it, sensing obstacles and people as it quickly plans and readjusts its flight paths. That means you can launch the thing and go for a walk. You can launch the thing and explore nature. You can launch the thing and go biking and the R1 will follow you with ease, never losing sight of you as it tries to keep up with you and capture the perfect shots in 4K.
That was the company’s sell anyway; I got my hand on one a few weeks ago to test it myself and have been zipping it around the greater West coast annoying and impressing many with what I’ve come to the conclusion is clearly the smartest drone on the planet.
The R1 has a number of autonomous modes to track users as it zips around. Not only can the drone follow you, it also can predict your path and wander in front of you. It can orbit around you as you move or follow along from the side. You can do all this by just tapping a mode, launching the drone and moving along. There are options for manual controls if you desire, but the R1 eschews the bulky drone controller for a simple, single-handed control system on the Skydio app on your phone.
The app is incredibly simple and offers a wide range of tracking modes that are pretty breezy to swipe through. Setting the drone up for the first flight was as simple as connecting to the drone via password and gliding through a couple of minutes of instructional content in the app. You can launch it off the ground or from your hand; I opted for the hand launch most times, which powers up the propellers until it’s tugging away from you, flying out a couple of meters and fixing its eye on you.
Walking around and having it follow you is cool and all, but this thing shines when you’re on the move and it’s speeding to catch up with you. It’s honestly so incredible to fire up the R1 and run through a dense forest with it trailing you; same goes for a bike ride. It speaks to Skydio’s technology how few hiccups it had in the midst of extended sessions, though by extended session I mean around 15 minutes, as that was the average flight time I got from a single battery charge. The Frontier Edition R1 ships with a second battery, which was a godsend.
When it comes to capturing precise, buttery smooth footage, there’s no replacement for a skilled drone pilot. Even with a perfectly good gimbal, the movements of the R1 are often pretty sudden and lead to direction changes that look a bit weird on camera. Not every continuous shot you gather from the R1 will make the cut, but what’s crazy is that you literally don’t have to do anything. It just follows and records you, leaving you a lot of footage that you’ll be able to pare down in editing.
There are some things I don’t love. It’s too big for one; the company insists that it’s still small enough to fit in a backpack, but unless it’s a backpack that you could also load a 17-inch gaming laptop in, I kind of doubt that. The body feels light and substantial; but the rigidity of its outer frame and its overall size made me a little nervous at times that I was going to catastrophically break it, which was enough to make me consciously leave it at home when I was out on a snowboarding trip.
I’m also a little distraught by the company’s decision to make this purely Wi-Fi controlled over your phone connection, a decision that definitely helps you from losing it, but also kind of limits its core utility when it comes to tracking people who are not holding the phone. I sicced the drone on a friend of mine who was running around a neighborhood area but after he took off in a sprint, the R1 lost the signal and it came to a stop over a street where I was left trying to reconnect and move it to safety as cars zoomed by a few feet beneath it.
For $2,499, it’s not ridiculous to desire some features that also make this more of a general-purpose drone, as well; all of the propellers are there, so it doesn’t seem like it should be a coup to offer an add-on controller that extends the range from a few hundred feet as it currently is.
Not a complaint at all, but I am excited to see the functionality gains this gets from future software updates; namely I think it’d be really to fun to track a pet (it currently can only recognize humans). At one point when it was following me around in a park, it majorly freaked out a bunch of dogs, who promptly started chasing it — and by extension, me. The sadist in me kind of wanted to chase them back with the R1.
The R1 is a $2,499 product with a feature that makes it particularly attractive to the first-time drone user who definitely won’t spend that much money in the first place. In some ways this mismatch shows just how disruptive this tech could be, but in the short-term the targeted buyer of this drone is an extremely tight niche.
For the early adopter who just loves getting the new thing, you’ll be pleased that it actually works and isn’t another half-baked dream on the road to autonomy. If you’re a creator or vlogger who does a lot of solo trips in the great outdoors, this drone could definitely transform how you capture your trips and end up being a great buy — albeit a super pricey one.
The Defense Department’s research wing is serious about putting drones into action, not just one by one but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program is kicking off its second “sprint,” a period of solicitation and rapid prototyping of systems based around a central theme. This spring sprint is all about “autonomy.”
The idea is to collect lots of ideas on how new technology, be it sensors, software, or better propeller blades, can enhance the ability of drones to coordinate and operate as a collective.
Specifically, swarms of 50 will need to “isolate an urban objective” within half an hour or so by working together with each other and ground-based robot. That at least is the “operational backdrop” that should guide prospective entrants in their decision whether their tech is applicable.
So a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while practical for farmers, isn’t really something the Pentagon is interested in here. On the other hand, if you can sell that idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they might take a shine to it.
But you could also simply demonstrate how using a compact ground-based lidar system could improve swarm coordination at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you’ve designed a midair charging system that lets a swarm perk up flagging units without human intervention.
Those are pretty good ideas, actually — maybe I’ll run them by the program manager, Timothy Chung, when he’s on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley this May. Chung also oversees the Subterranean Challenge and plenty more at DARPA . He looks like he’s having a good time in the video explaining the ground rules of this new sprint:
You don’t have to actually have 50 drones to take part — there are simulators and other ways of demonstrating value. More information on the program and how to submit your work for consideration can be found at the FBO page.
Dozens of high-tech phone smugglers have been apprehended by Chinese police, who twigged to the scheme to send refurbished iPhones into the country from Hong Kong via drone — but not the way you might think.
China’s Legal Daily reported the news (and Reuters noted shortly after) following a police press conference; it’s apparently the first cross-border drone-based smuggling case, so likely of considerable interest.
Although the methods used by the smugglers aren’t described, a picture emerges from the details. Critically, in addition to the drones themselves, which look like DJI models with dark coverings, police collected some long wires — more than 600 feet long.
Small packages of 10 or so phones were sent one at a time, and it only took “seconds” to get them over the border. That pretty much rules out flying the drone up and over the border repeatedly — leaving aside that landing a drone in pitch darkness on the other side of a border fence (or across a body of water) would be difficult to do once or twice, let alone dozens of times, the method is also inefficient and risky.
But really, the phones only need to clear the border obstacle. So here’s what you do:
Send the drone over once with all cable attached. Confederates on the other side attach the cable to a fixed point, say 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Drone flies back unraveling the cable, and lands some distance onto the Hong Kong side. Smugglers attach a package of 10 phones to the cable with a carabiner, and the drone flies straight up. When the cable reaches a certain tension, the package slides down the cable, clearing the fence. The drone descends, and you repeat.
I’ve created a highly professional diagram to illustrate this technique (feel free to reuse):
It’s not 100 percent to scale. The far side might have to be high enough that the cable doesn’t rest on the fence, if there is one, or not to drag in the water if that’s the case. Not sure about that part.
Anyway, it’s quite smart. You get horizontal transport basically for free, and the drone only has to do what it does best: go straight up. Two wires were found, and the police said up to 15,000 phones might be sent across in a night. Assuming 10 phones per trip, and say 20 seconds per flight, that works out to 1,800 phones per hour per drone, which sounds about right. Probably this kind of thing is underway at more than a few places around the world.
Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.
It may not look like much to the untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.
Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals and, of course, containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.
M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.
We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”
And because it’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.
“With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control — and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions,” said U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.
I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.
Cars of the future will be heavily reliant on their suite of sensors for proper functioning; vehicles today already pack a ton of cameras, ultrasound and radar arrays, but they mostly use these for non-core driver assistance and other features, and if they weren’t working, it wouldn’t be the end of the road because the human driver’s built-in sensors are the real fall-back.
That might not always be the case, and so Ford has filed for a new patent (via CNET) that could provide another kind of backup for onboard vehicle sensors. This is key because autonomous vehicles, and Level 5 vehicles in particular, won’t be able to fall back as easily or at all on human intervention. Ford’s patent gets around this by having a drone dock with a car whose sensors are failed or throwing errors, lending the vehicle its own onboard sensor suite as a failsafe substitute.
It’s actually a super-clever workaround that adds extravehicular redundancy to highly automated vehicles — kind of like an off-site backup for the sensory component of our future autonomous virtual drivers.
This system is, for the moment, just a patent application, which means it’s likely many steps removed from being something that you could actually see working in the real world. But there’s plenty of time for Ford to work out the kinks — truly mass market highly automated vehicles are likely at least a decade away, if not more.
There’s more than one way to get a drone out of the sky.
While many companies are looking to tech that digitally jam signals to land rogue drones, one startup is taking a more theatrical approach with a speedy drone that races at 2-3 times the speed of the fastest consumer options and takes down enemy drones that may not pop up on competitor’s systems.
Airspace Systems has built what it calls “kinetic capture” technologies, which currently consists of a ground-based system that identifies an offending unmanned aircraft, then launches its own drone to chase it down, fire a tethered net at it and carry it away.
Here’s a look the whole system in action.
In recent months, Airspace Systems has shifted attention from simply launching nets to building drone-focused autonomous systems that will allow their systems to track down other drones on their own. The company says that more than two-thirds of its 32 employees are currently working on technologies related to autonomous drone flight.
“We don’t rely on just one technology anymore, we really include machine vision, onboard radar, lidar — all of these different sensing technologies — to enable us to fly in a variety of environments and do this capture mission,” Airspace Systems COO Todd Komanetsky told TechCrunch.
As the company scales its ambitions, it’s raising more money as well. Airspace has closed a $20 million Series A funding round, TechCrunch has exclusively learned. The round was led by Singtel Innov8 with s28 Capital, Shasta Ventures and Granite Hill Capital Partners also participating. The startup has now raised $25 million to date.
The company’s announcement comes as it grows even clearer how large the market for these technologies could be.
Just last week, word emerged that the White House is going to be proposing that law enforcement gain the ability to track and disable civilian drones. As is the case with many facets of the tech industry, legislation has been slow to catch up with the rapidly advancing technologies of the drone industry. Airspace saw the writing on the wall for this one though and the company’s CEO Jaz Banga sits aboard the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee alongside representatives from companies like DJI, Amazon and Facebook.
“Demand for protecting stadiums, commercial buildings, power plants and, for that matter, any other public venues from potential drone threats is growing rapidly,” Singtel Innov8 managing director Jeff Karras said in a statement. “There are a number of important drone defense technologies flooding the market but there has not been one which integrates all the best capabilities under a single platform until the solutions developed by Airspace.”
It’s one thing to dispatch a drone when an accident happens to get an aerial overview of what’s happening on the ground, but you get far better situational awareness if you can use augmented reality (AR) to add the names of roads, the location of key personnel, cars and other assets to that view. That’s what Edgybees, a Santa Clara-based startup that current specializes in AR for drones, offers first responders. Its system has already been used by emergency teams during the Northern California wildfires and hurricane floods in Florida.
The company today announced that it has raised a $5.5 million seed funding round that includes Motorola Solutions Venture Capital, and Verizon Ventures, as well as 8VC, NFX, Aspect Ventures and Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd.
The company plans to use the new funding to bring its existing AR technology, which I recently saw in action during a drone demo with Israel’s volunteer first responder organization United Hatzalah in Jerusalem, to other platforms and to enter new verticals. These include defense, smart cities, automotive and broadcast media.
Last year, Edgybees also partnered with drone manufacturer DJI to use its AR systems to build a racing game. That’s not really the company’s focus these days, but it shows the power of the platform the team has built.
“What started as technology powering a racing game is now saving lives around the world,” co-founder and CEO Adam Kaplan writes in today’s announcement. “The overwhelming response by commercial and industrial drone users looking to leverage AR, and partner with us in the fields of fire, public safety, and search & rescue has been amazing, and we can’t wait to expand the next set of drone applications into new markets.”
Kaplan previously co-founded a number of companies, while his CTO Menashe Haskin was previously the head of Amazon’s Prime Air office in Israel.
If you have purchased a drone in the last year or two, there’s a high likelihood that it only emerges from your gadget closet a few times per year, if that. That probably doesn’t leave you feeling too great about your purchase, but it also leaves an expensive piece of professional equipment lying dormant that a lot of people could use.
DroneBase is a startup that connects drone users with commercial missions so that they can keep the dust from settling on their flying funcopters while also honing their skills and getting paid in the process. People or businesses that are interested in getting drone footage of a property for, say, real estate or insurance purposes, can use the startup to connect with a DJI drone pilot with the skills and equipment to get the video or images they need.
The LA-based startup has announced that it has closed a $12 million Series B funding round co-led by Upfront Ventures and Union Square Ventures. DJI, Hearst Ventures and Pritzker Group also participated in the round.
“This round marks DJI’s third investment in DroneBase through SkyFund, which demonstrates our confidence in their continued success in an industry that, while growing at a rapid pace, is just at the beginning of realizing its full potential,” DJI exec Jan Gasparic said in a statement.
In addition to announcing their latest round of funding, DroneBase is also showing off a new augmented reality enterprise tool that the company hopes will get pro users a birds-eye view of 3D models. AirCraft Pro is in its earliest stages now where users are able to drop scaled blocks into the augmented world as they fly their drone around.
It’s a bit of a game-like environment right now, but the company hopes to use the technology to make imports of realistic CAD models into live drone video snap to their future real world locations.
“There’s unfortunately no ARKit for drones so we’ve had to build some decently sophisticated technology,” DroneBase co-founder and CEO Dan Burton told TechCrunch. “It’s a lot around syncing telemetry data with video data with geospatial data.”
The drone piloting service for DJI owners has also previously only been available to iOS devices but the company is now announcing that the app has arrived in the Google Play Store for Android users. The company has tens of thousands of DJI drone pilots using their app, who have now flown over 100,000 commercial drone missions across more than 60 countries.
The 2018 Winter Olympics officially kick off with Friday’s Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The temptation to fly a shiny new drone over the action will no doubt be great for amateur filmmakers and photographers in the immediate area, but DJI’s working to put the kibosh on things by implementing a temporary no-fly zone around sports arenas in the country.
The flight restrictions will arrive as a part of an update to drone software, instituting restrictions or the duration of the games this month in the South Korean cities of Pyeongchang, Gangneung, Bongpyeong and Jeongseon. The size of the zone is determined by recommendations from aviation authorities.
The reasons for the restrictions are pretty clear — avoiding collision and other disruptions caused by flying too close to the action. “Safety is DJI’s top priority and we’ve always taken proactive steps to educate our customers to operate within the law and where appropriate, implement temporary no-fly zones during major events,” the company said in a statement. “We believe this feature will reduce the potential for drone operations that could inadvertently create safety or security concerns.”
This has become pretty standard practice for the company around various big events in recent years. In the past, DJI has implemented temporary restrictions around the Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France, both major party conventions ahead of the 2016 presidential election and the G7 Summit in Japan.
The only thing growing faster than the global drone population is the population of people thinking “how can I knock these annoying things out of the sky?” DroneShield offers a way to do just that, and now in a much more portable package, with the DroneGun Tactical — that is, if you’re an authorized government agent, which I doubt.
Over the last few years, the Australian company DroneShield has been showing off its DroneGun, essentially a high-powered antenna that blasts drones’ own antennas with a signal powerful enough that it drowns out the controller’s instructions. Many drones in such a situation treat this like a loss of signal, and attempt to make a safe landing or, if GPS isn’t also scrambled, return to a known location.
The problem with the DroneGun is that it’s really big, requiring a backpack with the batteries and other components in addition to the rifle-like gun itself.
I’m aware the pictures shown here are renders, but upon asking I was assured the device is in production. They already made the original, so I don’t doubt it.
DroneShield claims that the Tactical will drop drones more than a kilometer away (about half the distance of the original), though you’ll need to maintain line of sight; if the drone reestablishes signal with its controller, it might just take off again. You should get an hour or two of straight jamming, more than enough to take down a dozen UAVs. A GPS blocker add-on is also available, which makes it all the more sure that the rogue craft will simply descend instead of flying home.
I can certainly think of a few recent situations where I would have liked to bring an irresponsibly piloted drone down safely to give it a good stomp. But unfortunately ordinary folks like myself are strictly prohibited from getting their hands on one of these things.
The FCC hasn’t approved the device for use in the U.S., meaning it’s illegal to operate one unless you’re an authorized agent of the government; for example, someone testing it for the military. (The Tactical, in fact, was developed “following comprehensive international military end-user trials.”)
When I asked DroneShield’s CEO if these devices were likely to ever get FCC approval, he simply responded “no.” Well, at least he’s honest. You can learn more over at the company’s site.
Drones may still be having a tough time dispelling the notion that they’re just expensive toys when it comes to the consumer space, but in the world of commercial applications, the autonomous aircraft are having a much easier time proving their worth.
PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based startup, has closed a Series D round, nabbing $75M in new capital that will help it seize on what it believes will be a forthcoming boom in commercial drone technologies brought about by an increasingly friendly regulatory environment.
The round was led by Third Point Ventures. In addition to a laundry list of previous investors, the round brought on investments from new partners like Comcast Ventures, Senator Investor Group, Constellation Technology Ventures and Syngenta Ventures. The drone company has raised $104 million to date according to CrunchBase.
PrecisionHawk’s technology enables customers to gather aerial data and analytics so they can understand the environment that they’re surveying. The startup sells drone hardware, sensors and analytics packages to customers. Its customers include Monsanto, Exxon Mobil, the USAA and many others.
“We’ve become an end-to-end solution provider for customers that are looking to implement drone technologies,” CEO Michael Chasen told TechCrunch in an interview.
A major focus for the company has been agriculture, but it’s seeing a lot of growth in areas like energy and insurance as well as non-military government uses. Focus has been strongly centered on domestic growth, but with the new funding the company is also looking toward international markets further. The company highlighted a recent bit from Goldman Sachs Research which highlighted that the drone space’s fastest growth is set to come from businesses and civil governments who are expected to spend $13 billion on drones through 2020.
Chasen sees the round itself as a bit of validation for how bright the outlook has become for commercial drone applications.
“The fact that we were able to raise so much capital from a great series of investors… I think that’s showing how much of a focus and belief there is that this technology is really going to be something that isn’t just revolutionizing the drone industry, but that drones themselves–as the touch-all for industries like agriculture, construction, energy, insurance and government–can fundamentally change and improve the way that these companies do business,” Chasen said.