Piloting drones can be pretty damn hard. The traditional remote control format has been a mainstay since the beginning, but keeping an eye on a drone in flight while looking at a screen to see through the camera’s eyes can also create an ambidextrous nightmare for newbies. Two companies are hoping to make the whole process of controlling your own flying camera easier by allowing you to control it with a wave of your smartphone or smartwatch.
For the smartphone version, a group of former Google employees founded a start up called Skydio. The mission at Skydio is to allow anyone to use a smartphone to guide a drone through the sky as if the phone were a magic wand. Wired had the chance to test it out:
I raised my hand up and to the right. The small quadcopter drone buzzing a few yards in front of me followed. Then I waved my arm in a sweeping arc to the left. Again, the drone obeyed as cameras mounted on the aircraft recorded my moves.
To land, all I had to do was swipe down on the screen, the same gesture I use every day to view my notifications.
If that doesn’t seem like a big enough deal, Skydio’s larger ambition is to make drones that practically fly themselves. They envision cameras that recognize and avoid obstacles so you don’t make a fatal mistake and crash your very expensive toy. According to Wired:
The ultimate intention is to make drones as easy to fly as opening an app. If flying a drone becomes trivially easy—in other words, if it can be done by someone like me—then drones become accessible platforms for a broad range of endeavors. Instead of just flying over a construction site, for example, the drone can fly inside the unfinished building.
The smartwatch controller (seen in the video embed all the way up top) seems to be better than Skydio in some ways, and inferior in others. Sony developers have built the SmartWatch 2.0 accelerometer to work with another prototype called the SmartEyeglass. It functions similarly to Skydio with the magic wand movements. Sony explains:
The SmartWatch 2 accelerometer is used to provide control signals for flying the drone, and the display on the display is used for more control inputs (for example, swiping will trigger the mini-drone to do rolls in the air). On the SmartEyeglass prototype, flight information and live video from the camera on the drone are displayed.
So, this isn’t as big of a leap forward as Skydio because there aren’t plans for any obstacle detection and it seems like using swipe controls would be a pain in the ass on the watch. And to its detriment, we still have no idea if smartwatches will take off — but everybody has a smartphone. On the other hand, Sony has those sweet goggles that let you have virtual reality vision while piloting your drone. Plus Sony’s video is a let better. Seriously, Skydio just raised $3 million and that video is really bootleg.
For now, we’re gonna call it a draw. Until we get to use them, they’re just cool ideas. If the FAA ends up implementing the extremely restrictive guidelines for drone use that everyone fears, then we’ll all be the loser.