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Personal Technology
The Drones On Autopilot That Follow You (Usually)
From the Wall Street Journal of Wed, 24 Dec 2014 00:15:25 EST

Drones with cameras can bring a stunning aerial dimension to our photos. But pilots of these increasingly popular mini-copters have an unfortunate tendency to crash into things. I myself have flown them into trees, houses…and a friend.

So what if we could remove some of what makes personal drones dangerous—human error?

A new generation like the 3D Robotics Iris+ and the Ehang Ghost can do much more of the flying themselves. They’ve supplemented (or in some cases, replaced) confusing joystick controls with apps that tell them to take off, follow flight paths and land autonomously. And their coolest trick: They can just follow you around, keeping a camera trained on you like floating paparazzi.

Putting my flight casualties behind me, I took these two autopilot drones into a field to see what they could do. They quickly transformed me from a novice pilot to a good one—though learning to trust a machine to fly itself was a white-knuckle experience of its own.

None of the drones I’ve tried is simple or fail-proof. They still require the commitment and experience of a hobbyist. But they provide a glimpse of how drones might soon become a bigger part of our photography culture, the ultimate selfie machines.

There’s a long list of concerns about drones, from short battery life to the potential for privacy invasion. In the short term, I worry most about crashes. We don’t want these flying lawn mowers to buzz by people or drop from the sky. Earlier in December a drone “Mobile Mistletoe” stunt sliced someone’s face when it careened out of control.

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering rules that would require pilots of commercial drones to have a license, but that wouldn’t apply to consumers. Rather than take on the risk, some cities—and all U.S. national parks—have banned even recreational flight.

Autopilot drones go beyond turning your phone into a joystick. Both the Iris+ and Ghost can be commanded via app to fly to specific coordinates. You program the flight path with your finger on the screen. An external antenna, which comes with both models, sends the flight instructions from your phone to the drone.

The Iris+, which sells for $750 without a camera or $210 stabilizing gimbal, has the most sophisticated software. In its DroidPlanner app, available on Android only, you draw on a map the path you want the drone to fly—like around your property or along the beach. When you press launch, off it goes on its own.

The app can also suggest other maneuvers, like having the drone circle a building while keeping its camera trained on it. That’s a very tricky move to accomplish with joystick controls. With one tap, you can take an automatic “dronie,” where the camera sweeps away for a dramatic video selfie that will make all your friends jealous. Both of the drones I reviewed are designed to work best with a GoPro , but you could add a different camera.

Ghost, which sells for $375 on its own or $599 with a camera gimbal, offers a streamlined take on these kinds of controls. With its app, also only for Android, it can automatically take off and land, as well as hover and go to the spot on a map that you tap with your finger.

And then there’s Follow Me mode. The drone apps track the location of your phone, and instruct your flying friend to follow along as you move. (And to all you twisted people: No, you can’t tell it to follow someone else.)

For now, Ghost’s Follow Me controls are limited to just above your head at whatever height you choose. Iris+ lets you tell it how far away to fly, and whether the drone should try to follow ahead of the path you’re traveling or to repeatedly orbit around you.

The prototype Ghost I tested sometimes failed to follow, instead just hovering in place. The company says new hardware it plans to ship to customers will improve responsiveness.

Testing this while running in a field was surreal: The drones tailed me like alien spy probes. Except you’d never miss these drones—they sound like a swarm of angry bees and neither can last more than about 20 minutes on a battery charge.

Still, imagine if you could have a drone levitate just above your car so you could see what traffic looked like up ahead, or follow along and film you while you kayak.

There are other intelligence problems to overcome first. Neither autonomous drone can sense or avoid obstacles that might get in its way. So if something—or, egad, someone—moves into its path after the flight plan goes into effect, you could be in trouble.

The Follow Me function adds another stress: Every once in a while, both drones would just go rogue, a phenomenon the drone industry calls flyaways. The problem is actually with the GPS on the phone that’s commanding the drone—phones aren’t great at sensing location consistently. When they got my location wrong, the drone would go on a wild-goose chase without any real ability to avoid danger on its journey. (The Return Home button still worked as expected. Regardless, I would never fly either of these in crowded areas.)

Autonomous software was certainly helping me fly, but also made flying scarier. What if the map is out of date? What if I programmed the drones wrong? I kept one hand hovering over the Return Home button at all times.

On an Iris+ flying lesson with 3DR design director Jason Short, I asked if letting drones fly themselves was really a good idea. “This drone is far more likely to come back safely than a manually controlled drone,” he said. A bit later, he switched back into manual controls—and soon crashed our Iris+ into a pole. One of its arms broke off. The crash was an accident, but it made his point.

For now, he acknowledged, even autonomous drones take time to master, and are for people who want to make flying a hobby. But it’s clear from the first batch that, soon enough, they may be right for a broader swath of photographers who just want a camera that can find its own way in the sky.

—Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at or on
Twitter @geoffreyfowler

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