Zero Zero’s Camera Drone Could Be a Robot Command Center in the Future

Startup Zero Zero Robotics just took the wraps off its eye in the sky, the Hover Camera. The company hasn’t set a price but expects the lightweight drone (it weighs in at 240 grams) to cost under US $600.

The flying camera is a relatively new type of gadget. It all started about a year ago, when startup Lily Camera came out of stealth with its $500 to $1000 camera drone and argued that it wasn’t so much a drone as a simple-to-use flying camera. This March, drone-maker DJI introduced the Phantom 4, with autonomous flying and tracking features that essentially make it that company’s first flying camera at $1400.

Flying cameras are drones designed for use by consumers that don’t want to learn how to fly a drone; they just want to take pictures. The cameras have tracking capabilities so they can keep a subject in sight, and can autonomously hover or circle, as well as take off and land on command without the user having to control the ascent or descent precisely.

People are betting big on these companies. Lily, with founders out of UC Berkeley, has $15 million in funding and $34 million in preorders. Zero Zero, with founders out of Stanford, has $25 million in funding.

One—or perhaps more—of these gadgets will catch on. In a few weeks, I’ll be attending my son’s high school graduation in Silicon Valley, with, I’m sure, my view obscured by parents using pads and phones and selfie-sticks to record the moment. By next spring, I’m betting at least a few of the selfie-sticks and tripods are going to be replaced by camera drones. I’m not sure if that’s going to be more or less annoying.

“It has two cameras. The front viewing camera is a 13-megapixel camera that records video, but also has Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM), an algorithm that allows it to determine where it is. It also has a down-facing video camera, running an algorithm called optical flow, that looks at ground at 60 frames per second, so the Hover knows when it moves and can correct itself. These visual sensors are giving inputs of actual position and speed, meanwhile, the accelerometer and gyroscope gives relative position. All these signals are fed into the flight control algorithm, so when I throw it up in air, it can just hover there.

“When I want it to follow me around, it is using facial and body recognition to follow me and make sure I’m in the frame. It can follow anybody I choose. In the final version, though not just yet, it will do a 360 scan around itself and pull out all the faces, they pop up on my phone, then I can choose which person to follow automatically. Or I can control it manually with swipes and other gestures.

“This approach differs from the Lily Camera and the Phantom 4. Lily does most of its tracking with GPS, so you have to wear a device on your wrist.

“The Phantom 4 is running a lot of visual computation, but it relies on motion tracking, that lets it follow a car, say. We are running body and face recognition.”

Zero Zero has 1000 preproduction models built; it’s using some for its own testing, but plans to give 200 out to beta testers, that it will select from applicants who commit to a purchase of a production unit down the line. It expects to ramp up production and start taking preorders in the summer, with the drones widely distributed by the 2016 holiday season.