Skydio launches R1 – an autonomous flying drone that takes obstacle avoidance to new heights

From Drone DJ:

The Skydio R1 drone has been years in the making but it is here now! Our sister site, Electrek, first wrote about it when one of the senior engineers left Tesla to join the then start-up drone company.

What makes the R1 drone unlike any other drone you’ve seen, is its advanced obstacle avoidance system, the Skydio Autonomy Engine. With 12 cameras, the R1 creates a 3D map of its surroundings and tries to predict the movements of its subject, i.e. a skier, runner, biker, up to 4 seconds into the future so that it can follow the subject while keeping it in the center of the frame and avoiding obstacles at the same time. Impossible you say? Wait until you watch the video below. This is obstacle avoidance at a whole new level. Sorry guys, but the bar has been raised with the R1 drone from Skydio.

The autonomous Skydio R1 drone – the next level

Skydio was founded by Adam Bry, Abe Bachrach, and Matt Donahoe, who met as grad students at MIT where they worked on a high-speed autonomous flight project before they started Project Wing at Google. They then moved on to found Skydio to create a fully autonomously flying drone, which is a big step up from obstacle avoidance, and it seems that they have succeeded.

Now, of course, most of us know obstacle-avoidance from DJI’s drones. Even though that system is quite good and has helped save many drones from hitting walls, trees, and whatnot, it is not quite autonomous flight.

DJI raised the bar recently with the introduction of FlightAutonomy 2.0 on the DJI Mavic Air. FlightAutonomy 2.0 uses the primary gimbal camera together with the forward, backward, and downward dual-vision sensors and downward infrared sensing system to create a 3D map of the drone’s surroundings. DJI calls this technology Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems (APAS). And to be honest, when we saw it in action on the Mavic Air during the DJI event we were impressed. When it was my turn to fly, the drone ‘sensed’ the obstacles and flew around and over them, while I kept flying forward in a straight line. Impressive for sure, but this is semi-autonomous flying at best.

Skydio raises the bar

Skydio takes avoiding obstacles to a whole new level. The shape of the aircraft reminds you of the Hover Camera Passport drone, although the R1 doesn’t fold up. It has 12 cameras integrated into the frame of the drone, allowing it to view its surroundings in all directions. The cameras work together and provide all the visual information to the 256-core Nvidia TX1 GPU, which is the same processor found in self-driving cars.

How does the R1 do it?

The first step in autonomous flight is for the drone to know where it is in the environment and how it is moving. This is made possible by a 3D image that is created of the drone’s surroundings, where high texture areas in the environment are used as markers. Through triangulation, it then becomes possible to calculate the drone’s position.

The next step in the processing is to build a 3D understanding of the world around the drone. To do that, the Skydio R1 computes stereo-depth maps of each pair of cameras, which get fused over time to create a dense 3D understanding of the surroundings.

According to co-founder Adam Bry, the drone then uses a combination of deep neural networks to recognize people around it. The drone knows what people look like and it creates a visual identifier for every person so that it can keep its focus on the right subject.

The drone’s motion planning system turns all this information into useable action. It balances avoiding obstacles, keeping the subject in view, recording video and forecasting how the drone should behave by predicting the subject’s motion up to 4 seconds into the future. The planning commands get turned into action in the physical world, into rotor speeds and gimbal actions. the result is simple as the drone moves in a very smooth way to capture amazing video.

Phonenews has posted some welcome (if true – we’re not so sure how legit this one is) information on upcoming iPod and iPhone AV cables.  Until now, Apple has made its users buy expensive, specially-chipped cables if they wanted iPods and iPhones to connect to TVs.  Because of this complication and cost, the cables haven’t sold very well. We also hear that the new Zune will have HD out.

Phonenews thinks that is about to change:

Apple will remedy this with a cable, which is known simply as the Apple AV Cable. The cable will function similar to the Xbox 360 Component AV Cable. The consolidated cable will support both component and composite output, allowing users to plug in to both HDTV and SDTV displays without the need for multiple cables.

The reason that Apple is doing this has been confirmed by PhoneNews.com. The next generation of iPhone and iPod touch will make broad and sweeping changes to HD display capacity on the devices. First, Apple will likely offer at least one version of the iPhone and one version of iPod touch with an even higher resolution screen, targeting both Microsoft’s Zune HD, as well as HTC’s Touch HD and Touch Pro2.

Currently the iPhone and iPod touch do not exceed 480i and 480p (respectively) in terms of video resolution. However, the next iPhone and iPod touch will enable full HD playback, with 720p and 1080i output modes.

Multiple options will be given to users to get HD video onto their TV, via iPhone and iPod. First, consumers will be able to store HD shows on their devices directly. However, considering the limits of flash storage, this is a time consuming process. Enter Bonjour. Apple will also provide the ability for users to plug their iPhone into their HDTV, and gateway onto a user’s Wi-Fi network, and access their entire iTunes library on their HDTV.

The end result is that a user can sit at their HDTV, using an Apple AV Dock and an Apple Remote, controlling their iPhone much as they do an Apple TV today. This ensures that a new iPhone owner will be able to purchase, for under $100, all the equipment needed to access (via the iPhone) all of their computer-stored HD content, on their HDTV.

A welcome and timely upgrade if true.  We aren’t so sure how well HD Video will stream over Wifi to the new iPhones.  They’ll also have to have some serious video muscle in them.  We’ll believe it when we see it.

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Does this mean that you cannot fly the R1 yourself? No, you can still do that, but Skydio designed the drone to fly autonomously. Launch it and forget about it. It will fly, film and follow you for about 16 minutes before the batteries are depleted. The R1 can follow you, orbit you, film you in profile perspective or from high above. It can even fly in front of you, which probably will provide the most appealing video footage.

Bry did point out that there are situations where the drone might run into trouble. For instance, thin wires or branches may be difficult to spot. Glass surfaces or crowds of people are also situations that may confuse the drone. If the R1 cannot figure out what to do next, it will let you know on the controller.

Visually identifying objects is dependent on the color of the item, the background color and the speed of the drone. Also, moving objects such as a ball or frisbee are hard to detect. Bry does feel confident that the performance of the drone in these areas will improve over time.

Specifications

The Skydio R1 drone comes equipped with a 4K, 30fps gimbal stabilized camera (in addition to the 12 cameras used for autonomous flying) and can be flown straight from your smartphone. As an autonomously flying drone, there really is no need for a separate controller.

The R1 is made with aerospace materials, including lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber and it can be launched from any flat surface or from your hand. It has several different flying modes available: follow, lead, side, orbit and tripod. You can select these features on your phone. You can also tap to follow, adjust the angle of the shot or take full control and fly the drone yourself while keeping the obstacle avoidance activated.

Price and availability

Today, the Redwood City, California-based company Skydio launches the Frontier Edition of the R1 drone. You can order it online starting today and it will ship in the next few weeks. The drone comes with two batteries that provide 16 minutes of flight time each. It also has 64GB of internal storage for video footage. The price of the R1 drone is $2499.

Drone DJ’s take

As a snowboarder and kiteboarder myself, this is what I dream about when I think about drones. The ability of a drone to fly around you by itself and capture smooth video footage is simply amazing, and I am sure many people will agree.

We will have to wait until we have one of the R1’s in our own hands to see how well it actually works, but based on these videos it sure looks very impressive. As far as obstacle avoidance, the bar has been set. It will be interesting to see how other drone companies will respond to this. Of course, we are looking at DJI here as well.

$2499 is a high price to pay for a drone. However, if you compare that to the small film crew you would need to capture video footage as shown in Skydio’s videos, the drone is a steal. In short, it all depends on what you are planning to do with the drone and whether that justifies the two and a half thousand dollar price point.

I can’t wait to see this drone in action myself.

The Wall St. Journal had this one today:

Microsoft Corp. is taking an unusual approach with its new Windows 7 operating system: Customers buying many of the least-expensive laptops[netbooks] with the software are likely to be limited to running three applications at a time and miss out on other key features, or pay for an upgrade.

Holy Fail-Whale Batman!  Netbooks are the hottest item today in the Windows world, accounting for any and all growth in the PC sector.  By and large, they run Windows XP (which is actually not bad after using Vista for a few minutes).  According to the WSJ, Microsoft is only making $15 off of each copy of XP being put on those Netbooks.  This is largely because very capable, free Linux distributions are "good enough" and consumers are only willing to pay a few extra bucks for the Windows they are used to.  Windows only commands a $15 premium over free software on low end PCs.

Netbooks — compact laptops that can cost less than $300 — pose problems for Microsoft because it can’t charge computer makers as much for software used on the low-end systems as for standard desktops and laptops. The financial effects were felt in the quarter ended in December, when it contributed to an 8% decline in Windows revenue. Investors will be searching Microsoft’s quarterly financial results this Thursday for further signs of netbooks’ impact.

So, Microsoft will be screwed when they try to release Windows 7 on Netbooks.  If they charge anything more than $20, huge swaths of customers migrate to Linux.  If they charge less, they lose all kinds of revenue.  What can they do?  They are going to try to entice their customers to upgrade?

Microsoft is only letting its customers use three applications at a time and is using its patented "crippled by design" features to limit other areas of the operating system?  This isn’t going to fly well in our collective opinions.  Hell, we’ll take the seven year old Windows XP and be happy.

Here’s the scenario: You are working on three applications (Say Outlook, Word and Internet Explorer), but you want to edit something in Excel.  You try to open it and that paper clip thing comes up to tell you that you need to purchase an upgrade to unlock Windows for this functionality.  You proceed to throw the computer out the window?

What if you just want to open the calculator?!  Or an image viewer?  RSS reader?  Or an IM Client?  Or your Skype is ringing? 

Even if you do only need three applications most of the time, the mental anguish when trying to open that fourth in an emergancy or just even knowing in the back of your head that three is the limit is going to be painful for the Microsoft camp.  This isn’t going to be good.

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Adam Bry, CEO and co-founder of Redwood City drone maker Skydio, demonstrates the company’s first model, the R1, in John McLaren Park in San Francisco on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Photo: Benny Evangelista/The Chronicle

Note: To improve our website DroneDJ and bring you the latest news, we rely on income from our ads as well as affiliate programs. We would greatly appreciate it, if you would consider the offers of our advertisers or would buy your next drone or drone accessories through one of our partners such as DJI, Parrot, Yuneec or retailers such as Amazon, B&H, BestBuy or eBay. Thank you!

Note II: If you are in the market for the new DJI Mavic Air, check out this article with tips on where you can buy it.

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