We first saw the AirDog drone back at CES in 2015. At the time, it was one of the first drones that offered the ability to automatically track you. It used an electronic leash packed with sensors to transmit highly accurate data about where the user was, and predicting where someone moving quickly, say on a skateboard, would be next. That put it ahead of units like the DJI Phantom and Inspire.
Fast-forward two years, however, and the market has change dramatically. Almost all drones now offer a way to track users. DJI drones also offer the ability to sense and avoid obstacles while flying autonomously. We’re also seeing increasingly complex and powerful drones in smaller and smaller sizes.
All that means it’s time for a refresh. The original AirDog drone was backed by a $1.3 million Kickstarter project, and today the Latvian company behind the product is launching a sequel. It’s raising money for the AirDog 2, a drone that keeps a lot of the features of the first unit, but modernizes it with a couple of important additions.
While a lot of drones now use a combination of GPS and computer vision for tracking, the AirDog 2 continues to rely on the battery-powered leash you wear around your wrist. That makes sense, given the target audience, which is mainly extreme sports enthusiasts. The leash is waterproof and allows for top-notch tracking while keeping both your hands free. And it won’t lose you if you happen to pass behind some trees or under a wave, a common problem when using tracking powered by computer vision.
The leash has a small LED screen, which is now backlit so it’s easier to see in bright sunlight. It also has a couple of buttons that allow you to do things like set waypoints, start and stop a run, change the mode, return to your home point, takeoff, and land. The leash is a great solution for extreme sports. If you’re mountain biking or waterskiing, you probably don’t want to rely on a big, bulky remote or a delicate smartphone for control.
The AirDog 2 has also added a sensor package to the belly of the drone that allows it to sense and avoid obstacles underneath it. That’s really important for a unit that is intended to film a lot of downhill sports, where altitude can change dramatically and obstacles like trees or poles may be at a very different height than the athlete and the ground. Finally, the AirDog 2 has added a three-axis gimbal, allowing it to deliver smoother footage.
The drone didn’t always keep me in frame
I spent a little time testing the AirDog while riding an electric bike. It’s great that the unit can track you even through dense cover, but in the final footage there were several times where I was at the very edge of the frame or out of the shot entirely. And remember, there is no remote control that might allow someone else to manually adjust the framing while the drone is following you.
Overall, I think the AirDog 2 is in a tough spot. Early backers on Kickstarter can get a unit for $995, but the retail price is $1,500, which is more expensive than the latest units from DJI or Yuneec. And while its wings fold up, it’s still much larger and heavier than a Phantom or Mavic, making it more challenging to bring on outdoor adventures. The AirDog 2 relies on a GoPro for its camera, and has added the ability to start and stop recording remotely. Beyond that, you can’t do much to tweak camera settings while you’re in flight, which is a major drawback.
The Airdog II is bigger and more expensive than DJI’s latest units
Right now DJI is far ahead of the competition in the consumer drone world, and its Chinese peer, Yuneec, appears to be angling for second place. Parrot is downsizing its drone division, 3D Robotics got out of the consumer business after its Solo drone flopped, and GoPro has struggled to make a dent with Karma. I’m hopeful that AirDog can find an audience among the extreme sports crowd, but given its relatively small size and the pace of innovation DJI is pushing, it’s hard to see how the company can hope to keep up long term.
Just a short time ago, AirDog was ahead of the pack when we saw it at CES 2015. That’s no longer the case. And while the AirDog 2 is promising some nice additions and upgrades over the original model to Kickstarter backers, in many ways it’s already behind what’s available to consumers in terms of price, portability, and autonomous features. Most importantly, it doesn’t come with a remote, so it can only be used for tracking shots, and only for tracking the person with the leash.
The bet, in essence, is that this unique approach, relying on a leash, will make AirDog II the unit of choice for outdoor athletes who want a hands-free experience that can handle challenging conditions. The first 250 units are set to ship to backers this August.