Autonomous Drones Can Now Follow and Film Your next Adventure

It’s amazing how quickly different gadgets are combined in new and unique ways to produce moving images. Cheap and rugged action cameras now let us film from any imaginable mounting point, even from the backs of eagles and pelicans! At the same time, the drone sector has literally boomed with a very vibrant DIY scene filled with new ideas for longer flights, better control, and improved software and sensors. Autonomous filming drones don’t only combine action cameras, drones, smartphones and GPS, but have gone a step further to become automatic flying devices that can shoot video without any manual input.

Whereas in the past, such an activity typically required two operators for drone and camera control, it is now possible to pre-program the drone with certain rules and film your activity with absolutely no external help. Competition for market dominance will be tough, we already have two fresh products, both already extremely successful on Kickstarter already:

  1. The Hexo+ that costs $499 (now $599) that follows your smartphone and its GPS coordinates.
  2. The AirDog initially cost $995 but now requires a pledge of at least $1195, also uses GPS to follow a specialized beacon worn by the target.

Autonomous filming drones are certainly not a completely new thing. The DIY crowd has already improvised with impressive custom software and hardware for many pre-existing on the market drone packages, expanding their potential. Much like DJI has done for normal drones, however, both Hexo+ and AirDog have taken a lucrative idea and constructed user friendly systems that can be used out of the box without any prior specialized knowledge and added the auto-follow features.

Whats the Difference?

HEXO+ HexocopterHexo+ is a hexacopter (6 rotors), while the AirDog is a quadcopter (4 rotors); other than that, their specs are pretty close. They both have a maximum flying time of 15 minutes, a maximum speed in the 40-45 mph (64-70 kph) range, use a 2-axis gyro-stabilized gimbal for video stabilization for use with GoPro cameras. They are programmed via smartphone apps and do not require any discrete control unit that you have to use while flying. Both also seem to be quite small and lightweight, with an emphasis on ease-of-use and portability.

AirDog QuadrocopterAirDog states that its beacon offers a better GPS signal, something that has to be confirmed in practice. If we were hard pressed to spot any differences, it would be in the programming before the flight. Both devices have parameters concerning the distance from the subject, however AirDog seems to offer more comprehensive flight and filming behavior with six options that cover an auto-follow mode, a relative position mode, a follow-track mode, a hover and aim mode, a circle mode and a look-down mode. UPDATED: HEXO+ just announced it will add a “director mode” where you can choose for the drone to do certain shots at certain times. They added this feature due to funding hitting a stretch goal of $500K. Read more on their Kickstarter.

Unfortunately, they both also have one slightly serious downfall to their software, and that is the lack of obstacle avoidance. Both units at this time do not have any software or cameras onboard that will sense objects around them, and therefore will crash into trees, mountains, poles, buildings, electric lines, cars, and people if you do not program them correctly. For the most part, you will just need to be aware of your surroundings and know how to set your drone to follow you in a safe manner. This usually means by using it in big open areas, or at great heights where obstacles are not present.

At the time of writing, Hexo+ has raised three times more funds than the AirDog, a fact possibly because the Hexo+ is roughly half the AirDog’s price tag.

Prices do not include the GoPro cameras needed to capture the footage, but overall the complete system is relatively affordable and surprisingly attractive for action and adventure sports fans. The 15 minute drone operation time will undoubtedly be a limitation relative to the many filming hours offered by sports cameras; however, the aerial footage is going to definitely catapult sports camera footage from nice – to extremely interesting. Action cameras will still continue to do the bulk of the filming in the sports category, with the drone reserved for the most radical action moments.

So who is going to buy these drones?

I think the answer of customer type has been given on Kickstarter, and the massive amounts of support already shown in the product. At this time, both drones are funded mostly by people in action sports that are already well trained to action cameras and are looking for new angles.

But, with all that said, before fully autonomous drones take the place they deserve, they have to address the serious issue of safety. For example, a drone would have serious trouble following a cyclist in the woods or near tall buildings and power lines. For now, common sense is highly advisable before technical solutions offer reliable obstacle detection (which both systems do not intend launching with at this time).

The frontier of what one can do with affordable filming equipment has been extended by yet another radical step. Systems that cost many thousands of dollars only a few years back, are now in the hands of amateur and professionals, and it’s certain that the development of filmmaking is a very exciting area to be in right now.

© 2014, Dimitrios Matsoulis. All rights reserved.

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