About 40 minutes from the Las Vegas strip, in the middle of the desert, there lies a miniature airstrip abuzz with activity Wednesday to kick off CES 2017. The mini airstrip is the Eldorado Aerodrome Droneport in Boulder City, and will be the first commercial unmanned airport. Zipping through the sky were a handful of drones from manufacturers showing off their mastery of flight, from mini drones that could fit in your palm to a massive hexacopter that lifted a chainsaw 20 feet in the air.
Yes, someone hooked up a chainsaw to a drone and essentially created an airborne BattleBot. Aside from the impressive display of motor strength and cargo capacity from the larger multi-rotor copters, the finessed acts of aerial acrobatics proved to be the most captivating. Thanks to the professional Canadian drone racing team from UVify, a ready-to-fly drone manufacturer, we bore witness to some incredible FPV drone piloting.
Using FatShark Dominator FPV (first person view) goggles, team pilots sped around the airstrip with their Draco racing drones, navigating only by what the video feed transmitted to their goggles allows. This is hard enough when you have one drone in the open sky, but put four quadcopters in close proximity, using the PVC obstacles like slalom gates in a downhill course during sunset, and you see what a pro drone pilot is made of.
What is drone racing?
Drone racing has been rapidly growing in popularity over the past few years, and is emerging as one of the next-gen extreme sports. There is a stark contrast between the traditional off-the-shelf drones built for either hobbyists or photographers and serious racing drones, which is apparent from your first glance. Racing drones are lightweight, compact, and often stripped down when compared to their cruising counterparts. They feature a front-mounted, wide-angle camera designed to transmit a video feed to the pilot for visual control, and can reach speeds up to 100mph.
FPV drone piloting is an intense, rapid-pace thrill that keeps your heart pounding even as a spectator. To the uninitiated, it might be difficult to pick up on the different aspects of the sport, however they are there.
Freestyle drone piloting is an articulated dance where the pilot uses flips, barrel rolls, and loops to interact with the environment like someone would on a skateboard at a park. This style offers creative freedom with its fluid, unpredictable, and skillful maneuvering.
Drone racing itself is less focused on creativity and more weighted on pure competition. Speed, agility, and control are elements one finds in a competitive race.
If you doubt the legitimacy of drone racing as a sport, take a minute and watch the FPV video below, and you’ll be itching to jump on this adrenaline-packed experience.
Latest drone technology at CES
Back on the CES show floor, the latest advancements in drone technology are on display with big names like DJI and Yuneec, as well as some innovative up-and-comers. DJI showed off their flagship Phantom 4 Pro and Mavic Pro models, both released in late 2016, as well as their top-shelf cinematography equipment in the form of the Inspire 2 and Matrice 600 Pro for the professional user.
Yuneec brought out their compact and user-friendly Breeze 4K model as well as their incredible Typhoon H with Intel® RealSense™ technology, which has automatic obstacle avoidance and flight path recovery built in. Also on display from Yuneec were their three camera gimbal options for the Typhoon H with the CGO ET for thermal imaging, the CGO CI cinema lens, and the CGO 3+ addition to their lineup.
New to the drone market
Hovercamera showed off their Passport, which is a new drone that is designed with portability, ease of use, and functionality in mind. It is a bit larger than an actual passport, about the size of small paperback book when folded up, and consists of four propellers caged in movable wings. The unique style of the Passport also allows for quick swapping of batteries, and minimal weight.
The drone is controlled via mobile app, but one of the main features for the model is the “auto follow” feature. While not unique to this drone, the safety of enclosed propellers and a light frame are ideal for a “selfie drone,” which also features facial recognition and automatic picture capture via hand signals.
The 4K video and 13MP still photo capabilities are punching well above the weight class for this little drone, which has a price point of $599. The Hovercamera Passport isn’t what you would get with something like a DJI or Yuneec photography drone, but it's also not a toy hobby drone; it falls into a unique category of its own with some interesting features.
A drone for everyone
Aerial drones are incredibly popular, and remote controlled cars have been popular for decades; the one space that hasn’t been as successful is underwater vehicles. PowerVision debuted a solution to the void in the submersible drone market with their PowerRay, designed to be a submarine that helps you locate fish.
That’s right, GPS-style fish finders are out and robotic drones are in. Their design features a 4K camera, lights, a fish locator that can detect fish 40 meters out, as well as a bait arm to drop your line right in front of the fish. The PowerRay can dive up to 30 meters and has a battery life between 2-4 hours, giving you plenty of time to do some underwater recon. The PowerRay also has a VR headset, which allows for gesture control of the device by rotating left or right.
Beyond fishing, the submarine can be used for underwater photography and exploration from a boat, as the media/control tether limits the distance you can take the drone.
The future of drones
Drone technology is moving rapidly, and the applications are almost limitless. They have found their way into Hollywood, geographical imaging, agriculture, racing, and of course, the hobbyist market with deep penetration in only a few short years. We are likely to see smaller, more intuitive drones for the hobby market and greater advancements to improve accountability as more vehicles take flight in the near future.