CES 2015 garnered more buzz than any previous show in its 48-year history. Not just because of the record number of attendees (estimated at just under 200,000) but because, for the first time, there was an area dedicated to drones.
Both established and new drone manufacturers were showing off (and, in some cases, flying) their latest models, making the unmanned systems area of the Las Vegas Convention Center a must see for all who were in attendance.
Many of the UAVs on display demonstrated some well known functions and applications, such as ‘Follow Me‘ and autonomous takeoff/landing, but there were some exciting new developments on display that indicate just how advanced drone technology is becoming. Developments like…
Along with ‘drones,’ ‘self driving cars,’ and ‘3D printing,’ ‘4K’ was one of the buzzwords of CES 2015. And for good reason. When you see that many pixels on an 85″ TV, it’s easy to understand why 4K is going to kick standard high definition back to the technological stone age (circa 2006).
Drones are already in the process of enjoying the benefits of 4K cameras. Already you can strap a GoPro Hero4 to a UAV to capture 4K pictures and video, but UAV manufacturers focused on the aerial photography space are introducing out-of-the-box 4K platforms.
Yuneec will introduce a 4K camera for its recently released Q500 drone later this year. In fact, nearly every industrial-sized drone at CES was compatible with a gimbal for 4K cameras.
So your high-def aerial videos are about to become even higher-def.
Ditching the Controller
I’ve said it before: The end game for drone technology is the creation of an autonomous flying tool. People will adopt drones not because they want to fly, but because they want what a drone can yield (i.e. pictures).
CES made it abundantly clear that UAV manufacturers understand this and, as a result, are doing away with traditional control schemes. In some cases, some of 2015’s most important new drones won’t ship with a controller.
The Hexo+ UAV is one such model. It is a camera first and a drone second. You don’t steer it in the traditional sense – instead, you use a simple app on your smartphone to tell the camera what kind of shot you are trying to take.
Similarly, Spiri by Pleiades uses a mobile app with totally customizable commands to plan an autonomous flight from takeoff to landing.
The Ghost Drone by eHang will also ship without a controller unless you specifically ask (and pay) for one.
“For some diehard drone fans it’s like a stick shift. They want to have all the control,” said eHang’s Jessie Jing Lu. “But we want to get away from all that. We want to take the human limitations out of flying.”
Users fly the Ghost Drone by setting GPS waypoints on a map on their mobile device.
Some manufacturers, like Hubsan and Yuneec, introduced a hybrid solution by packaging their ORA and Q500 (respectively) with a traditional RC controller with an embedded touch screen minicomputer running Android.
The number of drones we will see at future CESs is inversely proportional to the number of drone controllers we will see.
Any drone pilot or manufacturer will tell you one of the most frustrating limitations of UAV technology is the fact that flight time is severely constrained by battery life. While we wait for someone to develop a new form of rechargeable energy, the drones at CES 2015 demonstrated both incremental increases in single charge flight times and creative workarounds.
Where the average flight time for a Phantom-sized drone has traditionally been stuck between 15- 20 minutes, new models from MaxAero and Hubsan are claiming to get up to 30 minutes.
Industrial sized drones such as eHang’s Skyway and Harwar’s Ace UAV systems are sporting lighter frames that can carry two batteries, thereby doubling flight times up to an hour.
Sense and Avoid
While pilots and manufacturers are grumbling over battery life, regulators are grumbling about drones crashing into planes/people/other drones.
Fortunately for those regulators, some of the drones on display at CES were showcasing some primitive sense and avoid solutions.
The eXom from senseFly has five navigation sensors on its body that use sonar to detect its surroundings and correct its flight path to avoid walls/trees/people.
The AirDog is another ‘follow me’ drone that addresses obstacle avoidance by allowing the user to draw out no-fly zones on a mobile app before takeoff. This way the AirDog can still follow you while you are biking through the mountains, but it won’t fly through the woods unless the you allow it.
MaxAero demonstrated synchronized flying on the CES floor. Using simulated GPS connectivity indoors, engineers launched three drones in unison and they didn’t collide because each drone knew the location of the others via a real-time GPS feed.
eHang mentioned sense and avoid research going on in their R&D department in the form of both sonar and artificial intelligence. (And with a recent $10 million investment from GVV capital, we should see something from eHang soon.)
And Now We Wait
The drones at CES 2015 began to indicate a more broad vision for what a drone can be. Drones have the capacity to be more than just flying cameras; they can be flying computers.
They may not be mainstream yet but, as a very savvy (and really really really ridiculously good looking) pundit told the Associated Press, “People have been saying the drones are coming, but the fact that there is a dedicated area of CES for drones means they’re not coming. They’re here.”
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com