AI Makes Drones Smart, Easy for Photographers

A certified drone pilot and artificial intelligence expert explain how technology innovations are making drones smarter, more capable and easier to fly.

Difficult-to-fly, remote control consumer drones from just a few years ago are being superseded by smart, autonomous aerial robots. Powered by cutting edge computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, these new drones can see, think and react to their owner automatically, and experts say this is making drones easier and safer for almost anyone to fly.

Drone innovation is skyrocketing as more sophisticated technologies are making drones smarter and increasingly capable, according to Kara Murphy, a photographer turned drone fanatic and a certified Part 107 pilot licensed to fly small unmanned aircraft (UAS) for commercial uses.

“As someone who started at the very beginning, drone technology has come a long way in a short period of time,” Murphy said.

Murphy, a contributing writer for Drone360 Magazine and a consultant for companies like DroneDeploy, is involved with the annual Flying Robot International Film Festival. She said drones are evolving to give people more control over flying as well as opening new photographic experiences.

A few years ago, battery life was only about six minutes at most. Today, drone batteries can last up to 30 minutes. She’s seeing more drones, like the new DJI Spark, that come equipped with built-in AI for facial recognition and object detection to avoid crashes. The technology allows drones to follow their owner like a welcome aerial paparazzi, avoid objects because they’re context aware and react to simple hand gestures.

“It’s easier to pilot and keep track of drones today,” said Murphy. “They’ve become almost idiot-proof.”

Smart Flying Drones

Spark, the first mini drone released this year by DJI, uses an array of cameras and sensors feeding into AI and deep learning algorithms running on a Movidius Myriad 2 vision processing unit (VPU).

This onboard vision system detects and avoids objects, generates 3D maps, establishes contextual awareness, and even recognizes a pilot’s face and reacts to hand gestures. The vision sensors fitted inside the underbelly of the drone detect and identify what’s below to assist with a safe landing, even on a pilot’s outstretched hand.

“I can signal it to take a selfie from the air, then wave it away or gesture for it to come back home,” said Murphy, describing some of the Spark’s AI-powered automation features.

“The fact that I don’t need a remote to control this drone is mind-blowing. It just shows how far drones have come in a matter of years.”

Murphy said collision or object avoidance, powered by computer vision and intelligent algorithms, is becoming more common in new drones, and it can be a drone lifesaver.

“It is supremely helpful, because sometimes you are flying in narrow spaces, and you’re not sure if you have enough room, so having these sensors is really key to avoid damaging collisions,” she said.

These capabilities make it easier to fly because pilots don’t have to stay glued to a remote control and screen, she said. It allows them to become aware of their surroundings and focus on capturing that perfect shot.

The compact Spark is built with technologies that were previously only available in larger, more expensive drones. In particular, it has chips and software designed specifically for bringing on-device AI to so-called “edge devices,” which includes almost anything that computes and connects to the internet.

Seeing Clearly

The Spark’s Movidius Myriad 2 VPU enables the drone to think, learn, and act quickly and simultaneously, according to Cormac Brick, director of embedded machine intelligence at Movidius, an Intel company.

While central processing units (CPUs) — the brains used in computers or computing devices — can perform a wide variety of workloads, Brick said the VPU is tailored for one very specific vision workload, so it has fast performance using low power.

Cormac Brick shows Spark drone
Cormac Brick points out how built-in AI makes mini drones ideal for getting the best shot.

“The VPU allows the drone to use both traditional geometric vision algorithms and deep learning algorithms so it can be spatially and contextually aware,” he said.

“It enables the device to recognize where it is, where you are, where your hand is, and plot a course to safely hover and then soft land into the palm of your hand.”

As soon as a Spark lifts off from a person’s hand, the cameras immediately look for recognizable features in the environment to build a digital map. All the while, the drone recognizes the user’s face, always keeping that person in frame.

Future of Intelligent Drones

Brick said the Spark indicates how AI is changing the drone market, and he sees the technology getting better all the time.

His team’s just-released Movidius Myriad X is the first VPU with a dedicated neural compute engine, which will allow device makers much more compute performance than what’s currently available. That means drones will become smarter, fly more safely and allow people to capture more footage fully autonomously.

“In the future, you’ll be able to take a drone out of your pocket, throw it up in the air and let it fly around your backyard for the afternoon while you’re having a barbecue,” Brick said.

“An hour later, it could send your phone a 45-second video clip or the 10 best shots so you can share on social media.”

Building AI into drones is helping make them easier and safer to fly, but Brick said the technology has the potential to unlock all kinds of new automated camera and navigation capabilities.

Murphy believes that drone popularity will increase as drones become more autonomous and simpler to use in capturing life’s moments.

“This trend will continue as drones get easier and more fun for people to use,” Murphy said.

Charles Bombardier: drones are the future, not flying cars

Charles Bombardier, Canadian inventor and engineer, is the founder of Imaginactive, a non-profit dedicated to innovative ideas in vehicle design. Like his grandfather Joseph-Armand Bombardier, he has many great ideas that might change the transport industry as we know it. In this exclusive interview with AeroTime, Charles shares his insights about the future trends in aircraft design. 

What are your thoughts on current trends in aircraft design? What ideas should be tossed away and what concepts should be embraced on a wider scale?

I think that we are going in the right direction with lighter aircraft structures and more efficient engines (C-Series). The biggest problem we face is development cost. Companies take the risk to develop new technologies and that risk needs to be shared with the users and the countries that will benefit from them.

If we had the capital we could develop really high-tech airplanes but it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to develop them. Are the customers and the public ready to assign that much capital to airline travel? Maybe it should be invested in faster trains? That is one of the problems behind development. I think that in the future more alliances will be made between countries and companies to reduce the risk associated with R&D and marketing, and we will be able to work on bold projects like the ones proposed by NASA.

 In your concepts you seem to use many elements from animal biology. What inspires you most – nature or science fiction?

Real problems inspire me the most. Technology inspired me the most to solve those problems. If the technology uses biomimetic principles then I will feature it. Science fiction is inspiring too but it lacks credibility. I am willing to avoid going into detail to leave room for interpretation but I am not willing to say something like “this is a Transporter and it simply teleports you”.

My goal is to inspire people including tinkerers, designers, engineers and policy makers. I would like to build a positive view of our future and encourage the next generation to talk about the world they want to live in. By sharing my ideas openly I am also asking indirectly to consumers a primordial question: are you interested in this idea? If a concept gets lots of attention, it helps to convince investors to finance a prototype. In a way, it’s a step before crowdfunding.

 How many of your own concepts have been brought to life?

A scale model of the Nunavik arctic express was built; Iruka and Wingsurf were also built as prototypes (not by me). I know there are more but I don’t keep track of them, and some tinkerers or companies might prefer to keep their projects confidential. Once I publish a concept idea, it becomes out of my hands.

I would like to try the Sekonride at home; it’s a VR powersport simulator. It would be cool to explore new worlds with it.  In airports I would really like to use a system like the Escatek concept to save time. In Montreal, a driverless motorcycle like the Cyclotron would be handy to commute daily. Of course I have lots of other favorites; these are just the ones that come to mind.


After more than 20 years in development, roadable aircraft AeroMobil 3.0 is expected to enter the market in 2017. How optimistic are you about flying cars?

I think light eccentric drones is the way to the future of solo or tandem flying, flying cars are too heavy. I think people will start using shared cars and shared drones depending on what they need to accomplish. So it will be more efficient this way for everyone.

From your point of view, could solar power aircraft be used to power large passenger airplanes?

I don’t see that happening. A glider with very fragile wings achieved this but imagine the power required to carry 800 people with their luggage and the structure designed to carry them safely! Solar power is limited by the surface you can cover. I think electricity storage is the way to go, in the meantime maybe hydrogen could be exploited but it’s too expensive compared to jet fuel. Like I said, lighter aircraft and more efficient engines and aerodynamics is the way to go. At least in the short term.

Will hybrid airplanes (such as the Airlander 10) be entering the market any time soon?

Well, you caught me there! I’ve been so busy these last few months that I missed its maiden flight, so I will need to take a look at it and get back to you. Anyway the problem is not finding new ways to fly, it’s the risk associated with developing the technology. There is simply not enough risk takers to support the amount of capital required to develop a plane. So what we need to do is become creative on how we will finance future aircraft designs and think outside the traditional box.

Watch the video. URL:

Birds do it. Bees do it. Can drones do it?

UAVs could navigate autonomously without needing radar or GPS. Instead, they would have built-in vision systems inspired by the original drones: bees.

Nature can make our most advanced technology seem clunky and basic. Picture a drone attempting to navigate a pile of rubble during a search and rescue mission: it would likely bump in to a wall or two along the way, even if it were supervised by a human pilot.

In the same setting, an insect would gracefully swoop past obstacles in order to reach its destination. A research group at the University of Queensland, Australia, is studying the flying techniques of birds and bees in order to develop new navigation systems for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Engineers have spent years perfecting advanced sensors, radar, and GPS systems that help drones identify and reach their targets. Meanwhile, bees use multiple eyes, antennae, and tiny brains to travel to and from food sources miles away from their hives. “Birds, too, can perform incredible aerobatics and navigational feats,” lead researcher Mandyam Srinivasan said in a statement. “These animals are clearly using simple and elegant strategies, honed by thousands of years of evolution.”


The team behind the Walk Again Project wanted to teach paralyzed patients how to walk using robotic leg supports, but the results were much better than they expected.

The researchers are comparing the flight patterns of flying insects and birds using high-speed cameras and 3D reconstruction. They aim to uncover some secrets of the animals’ biology that can be replicated in drones. It was previously understood that the best way to fly was to gradually reduce speed when an upcoming obstacle was detected. Flying insects, for example, continuously adjust their speed based on optic flow, which is the apparent motion of the surrounding visual scenery.

Birds, on the other hand, fly at two basic speeds, cruising along quickly until they see an obstacle ahead. Then they abruptly switch to a slower pace that allows them to maneuver through tight spaces. A drone could adopt a similar technique, instantly slowing down when it identifies an obstacle in the flight path. Better yet, swarms of drones could use this new technique to travel together in a coordinated, intelligent effort.

Unfortunately, the most advanced vision system would be a bit excessive for today’s drones, which are only allowed to fly in limited situations and must remain within a pilot’s line of sight. It may take a while before commercial delivery drones are given enough freedom to take advantage of the latest technology , but until then, robotic birds and bees could be used for research, military, and rescue applications.

According to Srinivasan, “The biologically-inspired principles we uncover will foster a new generation of fully autonomous UAVs that do not rely on external help such as GPS or radar. These UAVs could be incredibly useful for applications like surveillance, rescue operations, defense, and planetary exploration.”

A Powerful Yet Tiny Engine Inches Closer to Powering EVs and Drones


Best ways so far to stop drones

Responding to the rapid rise of drones, a slew of startups, universities, and defense companies are pioneering technology to detect, deter, or destroy the tiny, remote-controlled flying objects.

BI_Graphics Drone hunters_anchor

Already, uninvited drones have found their way into some of the most sensitive areas in the world, including the grounds of the White House.

There are also a rising number of incidents of airline pilots reporting seeing drones too close for comfort.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to enact new regulations governing drones, but while there are some rules in place, there is very little existent technology to deal with drones that go where they shouldn’t.

Here are some of the best ideas so far.

Drone-catching drones

BI_Graphic Police drone with hanging net

Police in Japan already have an “anti-drone squad,” Popular Science reported, and their drone-stopping weapon of choice is in fact another drone.

The police-operated drone flies above its target carrying a framed net, tangling up the airborne delinquent and carrying it to safety.

This solution has a particular advantage: it allows police to retrieve the drone if it is carrying a dangerous object or substance.

A drone landed on the roof of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s home carrying a vial of radioactive sand from near the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, making the need to move a trespassing drone to a safe location apparent.

The drone’s pilot claimed the act was a protest of the Japanese government’s decision to reactivate its nuclear power stations after the incident.

After turning himself in to police, the man was sentenced to two years in prison.

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is developing a technology which can identify, jam, or even take control of a drone electronically.

The tech is impressive — the proposed system can identify and jam signal bands used by a drone. It can also take control using GPS spoofing or remote control classification, making it the real life equivalent of that famous sci-fi technology: the tractor beam.

It’s hard to gauge the cost of such an advanced system, but it will certainly be more expensive than a $59.95 drone from Walmart.

Dutch police are training hawks to grab drones

BI_Graphic Police hawk grabs drone

Not interested in reinventing the wheel, Dutch police are relying on an all-natural solution: birds of prey.

They’re training a variety of hawk and eagle species to intercept and grab drones in midair.

Why a variety? Police have yet to determine which type of raptor is best at the job, but early results are apparently promising.

The net gun.

BI_Graphic Skywall net gun

Or net bazooka, really.

British firm Openworks Engineering has developed the Skywall 100, which can fire a projectile containing a net designed to knock a drone out of the sky.

Check out this super serious video of the Skywall 100 in action.

Combining the net gun and the police drone:

BI_Graphic Drone with a net gun

A professor at Michigan Tech is developing a drone that uses a net launcher to snatch other drones out of mid air.

While the tech is still very much in the development stage, a recent demonstration video is impressive.

Or you can always do it the old fashioned way: with a shotgun and some good aim.

BI_Graphic Shooting a drone with a shotgun

A Kentucky man became a local celebrity of sorts after he was arrested for shooting down with a shotgun a drone hovering over his property.

William Merideth of Hillview, Kentucky believed the drone was spying on his 16 year old daughter while she sunbathed in their garden.

The drone’s operator claimed he was in fact taking pictures of a friend’s home.

But a Bullitt County judge later ruled that Merideth was in the right — and dismissed all charges.

While the case remained just a local curiosity, the judge’s decision to support Merideth’s right to protect his property and privacy is not exactly supported by current Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

The FAA, which technically controls the airspace in which the drone was flying, has not kept pace with the unprecedented challenges of drones.

The sharp-shooting Kentuckian is not alone: an Oklahoma man also shot down a drone that was registered with the FAA and being used to survey a construction site, and a man in New Jersey is currently facing up to ten years in prison after he shot down a drone over his property.

There’s even a new brand of shotgun shell being marketed for shooting down drones.

Move over drones: Here come Skype co-founders’ self-driving delivery robots

Starship’s delivery robots, which resemble stylish cooler boxes on six wheels, can autonomously roam pavements at a brisk walking speed of 4mph.

Delivery drones and the legislative and security issues surrounding them have caused plenty of debate recently.

But while several companies, notably Amazon and Google, are focused on cracking parcel delivery by air, it could be on the streets where robotic local deliveries will first take off — and as soon as this year.

“We realised it’s possible to do deliveries using a small land-based robot and it would be much simpler and safer than drones, for instance,” Starship Technologies CEO Ahti Heinla told ZDNet.

Starship is the Estonian venture of two former Skype co-founders, Heinla and Janus Friis, who revealed the prototype of their self-driving delivery robot in November.

The robots, which resemble stylish cooler boxes on six wheels, can autonomously roam pavements at a brisk walking speed of 4mph and deliver the equivalent of two full shopping bags of about 20lb (9.1kg) in less than 30 minutes.

Starship Technologies COO Allan Martinson and CEO Ahti Heinla: Robots can be 10 to 15 times cheaper than human-powered delivery.

Starship’s claim is to make local deliveries efficient, safe, low emission, and, crucially to the industry, as cheap as possible.

“[Local delivery] is a perfect example of an industry which can be disrupted using robotics,” Starship Technologies COO Allan Martinson says. “Robotics is already on a level where we can build these robots and technologically it will be cheap enough to do deliveries for the last three to four miles for less than £1 ($1.45). It’s 10 to 15 times cheaper than human-powered delivery.”

The battery-operated robots are built for short, local deliveries, such as groceries in residential neighbourhoods. Starship’s plan is to house the robots outside retail centres in ‘hubs’ built from shipping containers.

When an order is received, the robot sets off towards its destination. The recipient can follow its location through a mobile app, which is also used to unlock the cargo on arrival.

Heinla describes Starship’s approach as a “fast track to self-driving cars”. A small delivery robot slowly driving on a pavement only needs to see 5m to 10m around itself which, according to Heinla, can be done with a lower-cost technology than that required by self-driving cars.

Furthermore, while Starship says the robots move autonomously 99 percent of the time, they are overseen by human operators to ensure safety. The robots use built-in GPS, several cameras, and computer vision as well as proprietary mapping and obstacle-avoidance software to navigate the route. When faced with a difficult situation, the robot can use mobile internet to alert the operator, who then remotely takes control.

Starship’s proposition will be put to test early this year when the startup’s first pilot trials are scheduled to take place in parts of Greenwich in London. Heinla admits the robots are not completely ready for scaling yet, but lessons from the first pilots will be taken to expand testing elsewhere in Europe and the US.

Starship aims to set up the company’s first full-time delivery service during the second half of 2016 and start commercial expansion in 2017.

The battery-operated robots are built for short, local deliveries, such as groceries in residential neighbourhoods.

But while Starship claims to offer the most advanced option currently available, and its team has grown to over 30 members, it is not the only company to have noticed the opportunities in ground deliveries.

Since April 2015, Lithuanian startup Sidewalk has been developing its own four-wheeled delivery robot based on a similar concept of stationing semi-autonomous robots outside retail centres.

It remains early days for the company but it has already built two prototypes, one in partnership with the logistics giant DHL, and is in discussions to test its robot in Vilnius next year.

Sidewalk CTO and founder Mangirdas Skripka sees competition as a good thing, as it helps to drive legislation in a positive direction for self-driving vehicles.

Both Skripka and Martinson note that delivery robots currently operate in something of a legislative grey area as, unlike self-driving cars and drones, they move slowly, do not drive on roads, or occupy airspace.

“Many countries are discussing banning [drones] or allowing them only with certain limitations, but there is not much discussion about sidewalks and movement on sidewalks,” Skripka says.

While drones have the potential to offer more direct deliveries because ground robots cannot operate on busy sidewalks or access apartment buildings, Heinla sees their capacity to carry larger cargo, with greater reliability and safety, as benefits over drones.

Furthermore, the first commercial applications of delivery robots could be seen as early as this year, while there is currently no timeline for the likes of Amazon’s drone delivery project Prime Air.

Heinla adds that where airborne drones have caused negative reactions from people worried about privacy issues, most people don’t have any kind of emotional response to delivery robots on pavements. This finding is based on evidence from test-driving the Starship robot for 150km in five cities: Boston, Dublin, London, New York, and San Francisco.

“We have met around 7,000 people in the process and not a single person has voiced any negative emotion. Maybe the most surprising thing has been that 90 percent haven’t expressed any emotion at all,” says Martinson.

These attitudes could change if sidewalks were crawling with delivery robots. But one thing is for sure: robotics, both on the ground and in the air, represents the future of local deliveries.

​Droning on forever? Boeing patents UAV that could fly indefinitely, recharge in mid-air — RT News

Still from YouTube video/PatentYogi

As drone technology continues to advance, Boeing has raised the bar even higher. The aerospace giant has received a patent for a UAV that could fly forever – recharging in mid-air via a tether attached to the ground.

The patent – filed in March 2013 and approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office last week – could revolutionize unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as we know them, foregoing the need to refuel or recharge on land.

According to the patent, the electrically-powered drone would have a retractable tether cable that would connect to a power source. When the drone was fully charged, it would automatically fly off to continue its task, and another UAV could then take its place at the charging station.

The drone could be connected to a number of sources, including land- and sea-based power supplies. It could even be connected to moving vehicles, allowing the drone to fly while charging.

The concept could be extremely beneficial for drone delivery services, or for those which need to stay airborne for an extended time due to long-term experiments, monitoring or travel, GeekWire reported. It could also completely do away with landing gear, which can be heavy and burdensome for drones.


Boeing has so far given no indication on whether it actually plans to build the drones.

An increasing number of companies are currently testing drones, indicating that widespread usage could be just around the corner.

As was reported last week, NASA and Verizon are investing in new technology that would use already existing cell phone towers to monitor civilian and commercial drones.

In April, Amazon was granted the authority totest delivery drones in the US. The e-commerce giant hopes to revolutionize delivery services with the technology. That same month, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the testing of UAVs by three insurance giants: AIG, State Farm and USAA.

The FAA has already come under fire for its alleged lack of privacy protections in its initial set of drone regulations. In April, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a suit against the agency, asking a federal appeals court to review its decision.

At present, the FAA prohibits commercial drone operators from flying drones beyond their line of sight, and restricts their use to daylight hours. Drones must weight a maximum of 55 pounds, stay below 500 feet in the air, and fly less than 100 miles per hour. A drone operator must also pass an aeronautics test.

Ex-NASA engineer wants to use drones to plant a billion trees a year

The U.S. military has been using drones for years. Now, a new company called BioCarbon Engineering plans to use UAVs to wage war, too… against deforestation.

CEO Lauren Fletcher is a former NASA engineer, and he and his team are shooting (quite literally) for a billion trees a year. They’re working with drone experts at VulcanUAV, who don’t build dainty little flying machines that let you spy on your neighbors. They build muscular machines that can carry payloads up to 8 kilograms — perfect for the kind of work BioCarbon has planned.

Their planting system is a bit like a drone-mounted paintball gun. A pressurized air canister provides the force required to fire “rounds” into the ground. Instead of paintballs, the drones will shoot biodegradable, spherical pods which contain pre-germinated seeds and a nutrient-rich gel. Apart from serving up a nutritional boost to the seeds, the gel also provides a bit of protection during impact.

Before BioCarbon’s UAVs are sent out on a reforestation run, another set of drones head to the drop zone to do a bit of scouting. They produce detailed 3D maps of the area, which helps the team figure out where to send the planting drones and maximizes success rates.

BioCarbon’s drone fleet has some major advantages over traditional re-planting methods. For one thing, it’s cheaper than paying van loads of university students to manually plant trees while listening to Phish MP3s. It’s also more efficient than aerial drops, where there’s no guarantee that the seeds will actually germinate and take root.

Drones set for $1bn market by 2018, predicts economist .

Far from being the latest fad, the popularity of drones is set to keep rising, with about 100 types debuting in 2015 alone

flying a drone

Jon McBride, who designs and builds drones with Digital Defense Surveillance, flies a training drone.

Drones; they’re everywhere. They’re used in military operations; to shoot pornfilms; to take beautiful photographs. They form the basis of think pieces and breathless reviews of consumer models, available to buy from as little as £90.

And according to theUS Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), an umbrella group which connects 2,000 tech companies, they are here to stay – a developing global market that will be worth an estimated $1bn by 2018.

That’s an increase on the prediction for 2015, which is a market estimate of $130m, and 425,000 units sold.

CEA’s chief economist, Shawn DuBravac, speaking at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, said around 100 different types of drone could debut this year.

The boom in consumer owned toy drones has led to discussions around legislation around the devices. In America, the Federal Aviation Administration is alreadyconsidering tightening laws to limit commercial drone use.

Dubravac also spoke about other potential directions for tech in the coming year.

“We are shifting from what something we could do technologically to what is technologically meaningful,” he said in a preliminary press briefing.

Other predictions for 2015 include: an increase in virtual reality products, a widening of Netflix’s output and the expansion of 3D printing.

Google Reveals ‘Project Wing,’ Its Two-Year Effort to Build Delivery Drones.

Google X, the tech giant’s “moonshot” lab, has spent the last two years building an aerial drone that can deliver goods across the country. The company calls the effort Project Wing.

Engineers laying out the drones for testing, in Australia.

Revealed today in a story from The Atlantic, the project is reminiscent of work underway at Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos revealed the retailer’s drone ambitions this past holiday shopping season during an appearance on the popular TV news magazine 60 Minutes.

“Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving things around—including options that are faster, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally sensitive than the way we do things today,” a Google spokesperson said in an email to WIRED.