The Autonomous Selfie Drone Is Here. Is Society Ready for It?

Technology

It’s 2035, the Second American Civil War has been won by the other side, and you find yourself in a heap of trouble with Attorney General Logan Paul. (The future is very troubling.) He has dispatched an all-seeing eye-in-the-sky to tail you, an agile flying machine equipped with 13 cameras and a top speed of 25 miles per hour.

The drone knows your face, your gait and your clothing. It hovers persistently behind your back, moving when you move, stopping when you stop, resisting every effort to shake it. You run into the woods, but you still can’t lose it.

So now what? Clip this article and save it as a guide for surviving our airborne future. In a woodsy park in San Francisco last week, I had an encounter with just such a self-flying drone, and I found only one trick for escape. Hint: It involved the indignity of repeatedly running around a tree.

 

As the hapless chump in its cross hairs, I will tell you this: Being tailed by a 13-eyed flying machine has a way of focusing the mind.

The drone chasing me, the R1, was created by a start-up called Skydio; it sells for $2,499 and will begin shipping to customers in two to three weeks, the company says. It is the closest thing to a fully autonomous drone you can buy today.

Autonomous drones have long been hyped, but until recently they’ve been little more than that. The technology in Skydio’s machine suggests a new turn. Drones that fly themselves — whether following people for outdoor self-photography, which is Skydio’s intended use, or for longer-range applications like delivery, monitoring and surveillance — are coming faster than you think.

They’re likely to get much cheaper, smaller and more capable. They’re going to be everywhere, probably sooner than we can all adjust to them.

Most consumer drones rely on some degree of automation in flight. DJI, the Chinese drone company that commands much of the market, makes several drones that can avoid obstacles and track subjects.

But these features tend to be less than perfect, working best in mostly open areas. Just about every drone on the market requires a pilot.

“Our view is that almost all of the use cases for drones would be better with autonomy,” said Adam Bry, Skydio’s chief executive.

 

Skydio was founded by Mr. Bry and Abe Bachrach — who met as graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later started Google’s drone program, Project Wing — along with Matt Donahoe, an interface designer.

In 2014, with funding from the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, the company began working on what would become the R1. Skydio has since raised $70 million from Andreessen and several other investors, including Institutional Venture Partners, Playground Global and the basketball player Kevin Durant.

Skydio’s basic goal was a drone that requires no pilot. When you launch the R1 using a smartphone app, you have your subject stand in front of the drone, then tap that person on the screen — now it’s locked on. You can also select one of several “cinematic modes,” which specify the direction from which the drone will try to record its subject. (It can even predict your path and stay ahead of you to shoot a selfie from the front.)

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/13/technology/skydio-autonomous-drones.html