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Drones are getting better faster than anyone expected

Some help from the titans of the semiconductor industry has lead to critical breakthroughs

For the past few years, one of the most exciting class of gadgets on display at CES has been drones. But the basic rules of what a drone was, and what it did, were stable. They got cheaper, lighter, and easier to use even as they became more powerful. But it was still a flying craft with a camera that required a pilot to operate. It was exciting that flying, a hobby which once took a lot of effort and skill, was suddenly available to anyone. Even old, non-technical folks like Martha Stewart were smitten. But if there is one thing social media, smartphones, and selfie sticks have taught us, it’s that most people prefer to be in front of the camera.This year, the big feature drone companies were pushing at CES were units that could fly themselves, acting as your personal cinematographer in the sky. Units like the Airdog, Hexo+, Zano, Trace, and Ghost all touted their “follow me” feature, where the drone locks onto you and flies anywhere you go. We saw hours of beautiful slow motion footage of extreme athletes capturing themselves in action. And while not everyone spends their days shredding down a mountain, normal people were offered the ability to launch a drone that shoots an amazing 360-degree selfie. Who wouldn’t want that?

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However, all of this "follow me" tech is pretty limited in where it can actually be used, because most drones still lack a critical feature needed for autonomous flight: reliable "sense and avoid" technology that can see what’s around and use that data to make smart decisions about how to avoid accidents in real time. Airdog and Zano claim to have that technology already working in the lab, if not out in the real world yet. But so far it’s just big claims and vaporware. Luckily, there was one amazing and tangible breakthrough this year, and it came from an unexpected source: Intel.Follow mode is cool but very limited on its own

At its keynote this year, Intel showed off drones that could fly themselves through a forest, navigating around trees. Onstage, they reacted to people who moved towards them, dodging to avoid a collision. It was powerful sense-and-avoid technology, and it was powered by Intel’s RealSense, a system of camera hardware and software originally developed to allow people to control their computer without having to physically touch their mouse or keyboard. "This is a good example of technology being extended beyond its original intent," said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. "Once we had that developed, we learned we could push that into drones."

Intel partnered with Ascending Technologies, a German company that makes industrial and research grade drones. They took an AscTec Firefly and used lightweight carbon fiber mounts to attach six RealSense cameras on top for 360-degree coverage. Ascending built a custom PCI-express interface board and used a tiny, lightweight quad-core Intel Atom processor to crunch the data. It ran an algorithmic chain, processing depth information from six cameras, performing real-time sensor data fusion and state estimation, near-field obstacle avoidance, and path planning navigation. With RealSense talking to the AscTec Trinity autopilot system, something remarkable happened.

asctec firefly realsense

Krzanich said Intel is making the RealSense SDK available to developers now, and expects to start selling the hardware sometime later this year. As this and competing technologies come to market, powerful sense and avoid will quickly proliferate across the industry. "The good news from CES 2015 is that the semiconductor giants are throwing billions of dollars of research and [production] capacity at problems we, the drone industry, need solved," said Chris Anderson, the CEO of 3D-Robotics. "So between Qualcomm’s work on real-time vision built into their Snapdragon program and Intel’s work on RealSense vision, which is a standalone chip, those things are now going to be driving next year’s drones, and they are going to be available at a cost and speed that we, the drone industry, could never have done on our own."

Rapid progress in sense and avoid isn’t just great news because it will open up many amazing new abilities for both commercial and consumer drones. It’s critical because the industry, at least in the US, is in danger of being regulated to death. As someone who has fallen in love with drones, CES made me feel both excited and terrified at the same time. The drone industry today, at least in the US, is balanced on a knife’s edge. Every year brings units that are cheaper, more powerful, and more autonomous. It has the potential to be the next multi-billion dollar tech industry, akin to PCs and smartphones: a ubiquitous gadget that becomes part of our daily life and pop culture.

The FAA could totally derail the drone industry's momentum

But new FAA regulations, mandated by Congress for 2015, could also derail the industry in a big way. Reports on the agency’s plans have signaled they may make it much tougher for civilians to own and fly drones. And in the absence of federal rules, local governments are considering basically banning them entirely. Reliable sense-and-avoid technology that regulators can rally behind as a safety standard is what the industry needs to ensure its continued expansion. Last year that seemed like a long shot. Now it seems like brilliant technology has put it well within our reach.