With DJI’s high profile release of the new Phantom 4 and the eagerly awaited GoPro Karma expected towards the end of the year, it’s an exciting time to be a drone enthusiast. We’ve already seen the Phantom 4’s collision avoidance system in action, and although fallible, it’s certainly miles ahead of almost everything else available on the consumer market at the moment. The GoPro Karma is still shrouded in mystery, but it wouldn’t be ridiculous to expect similar levels of collision avoidance innovation – especially from a company that primarily designs cameras for active and extreme photography.
But amongst all the hype one company has been quietly working on a drone and some pretty sophisticated autonomous flight and collision avoidance. Back in January 2015 we reported that Skydio, a startup formed by a trio of MIT grads – two of which co-founded Google’s Project Wing delivery drone system – had received $3 million in finding from venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners. After a year of steady progression, development and prototype testing, the company has just raised another $25 million.
Despite the huge investment, the Skydio website remains understated. Aside from a few Youtube videos and speaking events, exactly what they are working on is being kept under wraps. But there is evidently plenty of expertise and thought going in to a project which could have a big impact on the industry.
A lot of money is being poured into this project, and if you take a closer look it’s easy to see why. First up is the team. The original trio mentioned above concluded their time at MIT with research which led to a demonstration of a fixed-wing drone autonomously flying through an underground parking garage. Former project leads from Apple and Tesla have since joined, and Skydio CEO Adam Bry has said that, “as a company we are still [in the] early [stages], but I would happily bet on this group of people over pretty much any other out there in the world to make something special happen.”
Second is the successful, but secretive testing. CEO Adam Bry showed several clips in a talk at CMU Robotics last month, and although he didn’t explicitly reference any features of the Skydio drone, it was quickly clear that this is a project where no stone has been left upturned in the search for true autonomous flight and a drone which does more than just avoids crashing into walls. The video below shows a prototype of the Skydio drone in action, and although Bry has stated that it’s far from what the finished drone will look like, the manoeuvres speak for themselves.
So how does what the team at Skydio are working on compare with say, the Phantom 4’s collision avoidance technology? Speaking with engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum, Bry stated that Skydio isn’t just avoiding obstacles, it’s “using all of the available information from the environment to make intelligent decisions to get smooth, intelligent behavior—similar to what an expert pilot would do.”
The goal here is clearly for a drone to fly autonomously just as well as a highly qualified pilot. The hardware and software under development allows the Skydio drone to see the world just as a pilot would and continuously path-plan around obstacles with the kind of grace that isn’t readily associated with robots. Essentially, it’s the difference between detecting and avoiding obstacles (not flying straight into a wall) and mapping surroundings in real-time, navigating obstacles and path planning to capture the best footage possible.
Bry said “Part of what makes this exciting is the long runway of stuff to be built and the new products and use-cases that will open up as the technology matures. Ultimately, all the information a drone needs to be good at its job is in the images. The challenge is extracting it and using it. Full scene understanding, deeper context awareness, learning based on user data and feedback, will all unlock more powerful autonomy. I think the ultimate test will be how these products perform in customer’s hands—our goal is to provide a trustworthy and magical experience.”
So, amongst all the mystery, is there a clear date when we can expect to be able to get our hands on a Skydio drone? Bry said, “We’re not announcing when we’re gonna announce it. We’re on a startup-type time horizon, so it’s not going to be years”.