The fabled consumer drone that can do all the things we want is, so far, still out of reach. Huge steps have been made in the past year or so. But there remains a long way to go in terms of both refinement and software development. Here's a closer look at five software features the drone industry will expect to perfect in the near future...
Ah, obstacle avoidance. When you think about it, it's easy to understand why this is probably the most in-demand development in the drone industry. Yes, DJI's new Phantom 4 and Yuneec's Typhoon H both have some form of collision avoidance, but to say the technology has been perfected would be an exaggeration. The Phantom 4's system only works for obstacles directly in front of the drone, and is still fallible. The Typhoon H performed an impressive demo back in January.
True obstacle avoidance appears just beyond the bounds of what is capable in the consumer industry today. This is perhaps because what we are desperate for requires drones with true awareness, which requires levels of artificial intelligence and machine learning difficult to realize without a huge amount of investment - the kind that would probably take consumer drones well out of the consumer spectrum. Fingers crossed there are big developments in this area, to go alongside the revolutionary steps taken by DJI and Yuneec so far.
The drone industry is plagued by a minority of reckless pilots, who fly where they shouldn't and generally give the majority a bad reputation. Take the countless near misses reported by airline pilots around the world. There are also plenty of stories about drones being used to ferry contraband into prisons from above. This kind of negative publicity shapes public perception of an industry that should be taking off and changing lives.
Fortunately, there's a relatively straightforward software solution. It's called geo-fencing, and is already incorporated to an extent into drones from DJI and 3D Robotics. The idea is that virtual fences are put up around locations where flight is forbidden. This might be nearby airports, over prisons or sporting arenas. If you happen to fly into one of those zones, your drone either will not allow you to move any further, or will land automatically.
This technology already exists, but it hasn't been implemented as widely as it could have been. As mentioned above, DJI and 3DR have made moves with regards to geo-fencing, but that isn't really enough. Geo-fencing is in no way being applied across the board by all manufacturers, and counter-intuitively, DJI users have the power to temporarily self-authorize their flights in no-fly zones.
Until enforced geo-fencing limits both altitude and areas of flight across the range of manufacturers, more controversial incidents will occur and the industry will suffer as a result.
The planning of autonomous flights is one area where there has been plenty of software development. The result has been a number of options to choose from depending on a pilot's individual requirements. But from Autopilot to our very own Airnest app, along with the software offered by various manufacturers, there are always improvements to be made.
Our latest update has included a range of new features to help make flight planning more intuitive and in-depth. These range from automatic transitions between multiple point of interest, to the ability to define how sharply you want the turns between waypoints to be.
We're starting to see a trend in the consumer industry, where manufacturers are producing one touch controls in an effort to lessen the skill needed to fly their drones. Several drones released this year don't even come with controllers, and can be handled fully through an app instead. The range of one touch controls is also expanding, from setting flight paths to initiating subject tracking and returning to home.
This is a trend designed to attract users previously intimidated by the thought of having to fly and perform complex manoeuvres with a controller. The result is an industry accessible both to RC enthusiasts and complete novices. As more detailed one-touch flying becomes the norm, it will become increasingly important for developers to design functions that seamlessly work in conjunction with each other. It's also vital that one-touch controls don't come at the expense of the intricacy of manoeuvres that can be performed with controllers.
Let's face it. There's little point in having al, of these fantastic features if the user interface of whatever software you're using is too complex to get your head around. All pilots, from amateur to professional, want simplicity. From flight planning to in-flight controls, things should be easy, intuitive and as straightforward as possible.
This is something we feel we've nailed at Airnest. With out new update, 'Plan' we've brought in a range of tools inspired by Photoshop. Our users have always been able to draw flight paths with the swipe of a finger, but now we've added a waypoint lasso tool, and the ability to easily adjust a corner radius just by dragging. Flying a drone and capturing the shots you want should be something open to everyone, no matter how skilled. That's something we're working hard on. Check out our homepage for more information.