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How to Tell Truth from Fiction Before Buying a Drone

Updated on March 10, 2016

Drones in 2016 – Following and Dodging

2016 was without a doubt the tipping point for consumer drones, with many companies leaping into the market and established players announcing big new innovations at CES, the world’s biggest consumer electronics show.

What do people want from drones?

What is quickly becoming clear is that people want one thing more than any other from a drone, and that is obstacle avoidance. On top of that, they are looking for ways to fly more easily and follow themselves as they move.

Has anyone actually launched a drone with obstacle avoidance?

The answer, awkwardly, is yes and no. Back in 2015 DJI launched the Matrice 100, a developer drone that could be equipped with the company’s Guidance obstacle avoidance system. It was billed as the first commercially available obstacle avoidance drone but was never meant to reach the hands of consumers. In January 2016 at CES, Yuneec announced a collision avoiding that could automatically dodge obstacles in its path. It was even demoed at the event, but it is clear that this demo was less a genuine demo than a proof of concept. The demo Yuneec platform was bedecked with silver balls often used with a Vicon tracking system. This may have only served to simulate GPS signals but it could also have been the foundation of the demo. DJI’s newly announced Phantom 4 looks like it will be the first consumer drone to really be capable of obstacle avoidance through twin cameras and computer vision without gimmicks like the silver balls. It creates a three dimensional map of the area in front of it and its processors that will let it react automatically to that data to keep it out of trouble.

Yuneec's ability to show obstacle avoidance came through with the help of silver ball cheats
Yuneec's ability to show obstacle avoidance came through with the help of silver ball cheats

How are drones becoming easier to fly?

Everyone is working to make drones more intuitive to fly, and even making full flight automation possible through smart devices, remote controls and even gesture control. The battle for which of these options will dominate has yet to be won but the Phantom 4 looks like it is in with a fighting chance. Using computer vision it’s able to fly with a few taps, while its obstacle avoidance sensors keep anything untoward happening to it while it flies.

Who is offering Follow Me?
At this point every drone maker from 3DR to Yuneec to Zero Tech to DJI is offering follow me. What’s interesting is how following is done. 3DR and Yuneec use GPS signals of the person being tracked. This could be their phone or a dedicated bracelet transmitter. This is an easy to setup system, but can be accused of lacking the accuracy needed for a good follow me video.

Another solution is to use computer vision. This needs a lot of computing power so in the other solution is based on computer vision. Due to limitations in computing power of onboard devices, this usually means sending an image down to the ground for processing. This is the system that the Zero Tech Explorer uses. It’s a smart system that can track and frame an object but because it relies on transmitting the video, its effectiveness is reduced by video transmission bandwidth limitations that reduce image quality, and latency resulting from sending the data back and forth. It’s entirely possible that a fast moving object will have left the tracking zone by the time that the drone can react. As a side point, since tracking is remote control connection dependent, if the connection is broken the tracking will also cease.

Most promising so far appears to be the system used on the Phantom 4 which brings computer vision processing into the body of the Phantom itself so it does not suffer from the problems listed above. As long as there is enough light and a distinct subject the Phantom 4 should be able to follow easily. As a bonus, its obstacle sensors should keep it safe from random objects in its flight path.

Who is winning the drone battle so far?

At the moment, until other companies come out with real competition, it looks like DJI has the lead. Once the Phantom 4 hits the shelves we will see if its boasts hold water.


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