March of the mini-drones

They're the ultimate in narcissism and they’re literally taking off. Meet the new drones that are in fact flying selfie sticks.

Mini Drone

Parrot Mini Drone. Source: Supplied

They're the ultimate in narcissism and they’re literally taking off. Meet the new drones that are in fact flying selfie sticks — loving, attentive toys programmed to snap photos and video of you from all directions.

Some fit the palm of your hand and fly indoors and overhead, taking social snaps at a party or family get together.

Bigger outdoor drones take overhead video of you skiing down a slope, surfing the waves and on a motorbike, trekking off-road.

One takeout from this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is that consumer drones are going beyond flying machines that you pilot manually. New autonomous drones can be preprogrammed; they take off to follow a set flight path or follow you, maintain a certain distance, height or nominated angle for the best snaps and video.

Meet Nixie

Detach and throw: The drone that hugs your arm

Meet Nixie, a tiny, wearable drone that attaches to your arm. To take a selfie, you detach and throw. Nixie will travel away from you, stop, turn around and take a snap before flying back to your arm.

The UK’s Torquing Group showed off another tiny device that it labelled an autonomous, intelligent swarming nano drone. It’s called ZANO and it’s big business, attracting $4.4 million in Kickstarter.com funding. The first deliveries are due in June.

ZANO costs about $300 and has several flying modes. Fly it manually by tilting your phone and tell it to hold a set position while you remotely take snaps, or choose “follow me” mode and watch it follow you at a set distance taking photos and video.

Torquing Group says ZANO has obstacle avoidance technology — it can sense if it’s strayed too far from your smart device. And if it runs low on battery it will return to you automatically.

Obstacle avoidance technology itself is rapidly developing, so hopefully there will soon be fewer cases of drones crashing into trees. As more fly drones begin to populate what will become progressively crowded overhead space, this technology will be a necessity.

Many uses, many headaches

Some drones have unusual applications. Germany’s railways has sought to use them to detect and identify graffiti vandals and taggers ruining its rail property. Mexico’s drug cartels have reportedly used drones to fly drugs across the US border for several years. They typically earn $2 million per flight in sales.

It’s unsurprising that one would eventually crash. It happened just this week when a drone carrying 2.7kg of methamphetamine came down in a shopping centre car park at Tijuana.

The increasingly diverse use of drones also is a problem for regulators. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority requires they must be flown less than 400 feet above the ground, during daylight conditions, inside uncontrolled airspace, and away from airports and people.

CASA this year however, is rewriting these older rules to address the huge increase in drones in Australia. Retailers estimate that at least 100 new drones come online each week.

It’s not just small drones that take flying selfies, larger outdoor drones such as AirDog and Hexo do it too. It’s early days in judging effectiveness, but the promise is for professional overhead filming previously only obtainable from a helicopter.

In the case of AirDog, a quadcopter, its operator dons a waterproof tracker so it can detect where they are and follow them. You preprogram the distance and orientation of the drone, for the stills and video you want. Unfortunately, with our current weaker Aussie dollar exchange rate, the AirDog costs $1500. And you’ll need to attach your own GoPro camera.

The six-bladed Hexo costs a tad less, and uses a smartphone Wi-Fi signal to track you. Again, it’s BYO GoPro and if you’re near water you’ll need to put your phone in a waterproof case. Again you pre-program the angle of shots, but this time the Hexo promises to properly frame you in every shot.

There are a myriad of other drones. For sheer smallness, there’s the Proto-X, a tiny quadcopter that’s just 45mm x 45mm and weighs 11g. You launch it from your fingertips and control it with a 2.4 Gigahertz radio transmitter that has bright LED lights. The Proto-X is so tiny it would be hard to see without lights.

Proto-X claims to be the world’s smallest quadcopter and costs around $50. It doesn’t have a camera and you must fly it manually. You’d be wise to fly it indoors or you risk losing it.

There’s also the new Micro Drone 3.0, slightly larger than Proto-X, but one of the first tiny drones to market. The first model debuted in 2010. The drone ­includes a camera and is highly manoeuvrable.

Small drones have recently become popular, thanks to Parrot’s minidrone rolling spider released at last year’s CES. The 55g drone has large plastic wheels that lets it run along the ground, walls and ceilings as well as fly. It has a vertically-oriented camera that captures low resolution images.

Choices and consequences

Not all drones are built with equal features. Go online and you’ll see a myriad of mini drones on eBay and Amazon costing less than $60. Consumers need to be aware of the different feature sets.

Drones can have a high or low resolution camera, or none. There’s varying battery life and recharge time. Some fly for less than six minutes, some such as the X6 quadcopter claim flight times of 20-40 minutes.

Some drones are easily damaged, others can survive collisions with walls. Some drones have on-board memory for storing vision, others stream to your phone, some do both.

There’s also the question of the controlling device. Some drones are operated by an RF controller, similar to a model aircraft controller. Others are controlled from a smartphone using Wi-Fi, and let you watch streamed vision from the drone on the smartphone screen.

There’s also bigger consumer drones such as the upcoming Parrot Bebop and Chinese manufacturer DJI’s Inspire One. They are a story on their own.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are mega drones built for industry and capable of carrying payloads of 9-10 kg. At CES, Shenzhen-based Harwar showed off drones designed for reconnaissance during bushfires, transporting emergency medicines, public security, monitoring road traffic, surveying and search and rescue.

As drone traffic multiplies, regulators will need to step in. More and more drones are a headache for regulators. In Australia, CASA could be forced to specify not only where drones fly, but at what height. Should drones crisscross the city delivering pizzas, books and other commercial goods be granted exclusive use of a certain airspace height? Will police or emergency services drone be granted special fast sky laneways?

These fast, affordable drones are with us now, so regulation will quickly become a legal imperative.

This post was first published in The Australian.