Saturday, December 20, 2014

Drone's eye view

I recently watched a tourism advertisement for Pisa and the short video featured a beautiful leaning tower of Pisa shot from the air.  The Piazza Del Duomo, Cattedrale di Pisa and the well manicured grounds looked fantastic.  The aerial video was also shot on a beautiful sunny day which enhanced the beauty of the location.  I was bowled over by the visuals, and wondered how I was not enamored by the sights when I actually visited Pisa this summer.  I went over my pictures and videos and they were all different because they were either shot at eye level or below.  Whereas, the promo video and photos were all shot from an airborne camera.

The same can be said of any tourist attraction.  They all look fabulous from the air or any vantage that we cannot easily achieve as tourists.  Look at the picture of the Status of Liberty from the air.  Compare that to the eye level shot that we all take.  Imagine capturing yourself peering through the crown of the Liberty from this angle.  Wouldn't that be wonderful?

With the advent of drones, this is all possible.  Camera equipped drones allow us this new perspective when shooting still or video images.

Imagine shooting selfies and shooting yourself in Hollywood style aerial videos while you roam and sight see your favorite tourist spots or while you enjoy your favorite adventure sport.  It can be made possible with the latest generation of camera equipped drones.

Today, you can walk into a city like New York, San Francisco or Paris and rent yourself a bike or a Segway.  Likewise, what if you could rent a drone and shoot aerial imagery or shoot yourself from a different perspective.  In the past this would have meant that you needed to fly an aircraft (either a plane or a chopper) to capture these unique perspectives.  Even if you did that, you wouldn't be in the frame since you are flying.  So, renting and piloting a drone would make this possible.

But, there are problems with this approach.  What if several tourists want to rent drones at the same time?  What if they don't know how to fly a drone?  What if the drones get lost?  What if the drones slam into obstacles or other people?

So, renting drones to drone-illiterate people is not feasible.  There needs to be technology improvements in drones to make this possible.  The drones should be auto-pilot capable.  Given a flight path, the drones should just fly in those predefined paths.  In order to make it interesting, the drones should also be capable of tracking the camera towards a target, be it the sight (like Statue of Liberty) or a person (tourist renter or adventurer).  It will be cool if a drone can fly around in a predefined path and whenever it points the camera at you, it pings you through a buzz of your cellphone.  The phone can tell the drone where you are, as well as double as an indicator to you that the drone camera is looking at you.  This will give you an opportunity to wave at the camera or do something deliberate.

For this idea to be feasible, drones also need the ability to detect as well as avoid each other.  They could create a field around themselves and sense each other and make sure they don't collide.   The other big problem is the battery life.  Most of the small drones have a short battery life of less than 10 - 15 minutes.  This would mean that the drones should also be capable of docking and recharging themselves or even better, swapping their battery automatically.  Once we have these technical capabilities, it will be much easier to build a business case around them.

Now, with the FAA looking into the usage of drones and putting restrictions on commercial usage, there needs to be an exception for pre-programmed drones since they are no longer operator controlled. 

Image courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

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