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As autonomy stalls, lidar companies learn to adapt

By Devin Coldewey

Lidar sensors are likely to be essential to autonomous vehicles, but if there are none of the latter, how can you make money with the former? Among the industry executives I spoke with, the outlook is optimistic as they unhitch their wagons from the sputtering star of self-driving cars. As it turns out, a few years of manic investment does wonders for those who have the wisdom to apply it properly.

The show floor at CES 2020 was packed with lidar companies exhibiting in larger spaces, seemingly in greater numbers than before. That seemed at odds with reports that 2019 had been a sort of correction year for the industry, so I met with executives and knowledgeable types at several companies to hear their take on the sector’s transformation over the last couple of years.

As context, 2017 was perhaps peak lidar, nearing the end of several years of nearly feverish investment in a variety of companies. It was less a gold rush than a speculative land rush: autonomous vehicles were purportedly right around the corner and each would need a lidar unit… or five. The race to invest in a winner was on, leading to an explosion of companies claiming ascendancy over their rivals.

Unfortunately, as many will recall, autonomous cars seem to be no closer today than they were then, as the true difficulty of the task dawned on those undertaking it.

The FAA proposes remote ID technology for drones

By Brian Heater

The Federal Aviation Administration this week issued proposed rules for the remote identification of drones in the U.S. The “next exciting step in safe drone integration” (their words) aims to offer a kind of license plate analog to identify the some 1.5 million drones currently registered with the governmental body.

The document is currently available online through the Federal Register in a kind of draft form, as part of a 60-day comment period. The FAA is using the two months to solicit feedback from drone operators, enthusiasts and general aviation safety wonks.

“Drones are the fastest growing segment of transportation in our nation and it is vitally important that they are safely integrated into the national airspace,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.

The rules are clearly an attempt to not only address ongoing safety concerns in high-risk areas like airports and stadiums, but also to get out in front of ever-crowding skies. Between hobbyists and commercial interests like UPS and Amazon, it’s not difficult to imagine even more issues, going forward.

Per the draft:

This is an important building block in the unmanned traffic management ecosystem. For example, the ability to identify and locate UAS operating in the airspace of the United States provides additional situational awareness to manned and unmanned aircraft. This will become even more important as the number of UAS operations in all classes of airspace increases. In addition, the ability to identify and locate UAS provides critical information to law enforcement and other officials charged with ensuring public safety.

DJI says it’s “currently reviewing” the proposal, though the drone giant notes that it implemented its own AeroScope remote ID technology some two years ago, in order to address pilots flying too close to problem areas.

“DJI has long advocated for a Remote Identification system that would provide safety, security and accountability for authorities,” VP Brendan Schulman said in a release. “As we review the FAA’s proposal, we will be guided by the principle, recognized by the FAA’s own Aviation Rulemaking Committee in 2017, that Remote Identification will not be successful if the burdens and costs to drone operators are not minimized.”

DJI patents an off-road rover with a stabilized camera on top

By Devin Coldewey

DJI is easily the leading brand when it comes to camera drones, but few companies have even attempted a ground-based mobile camera platform. The company may be moving in that direction, though, if this patent for a small off-road vehicle with a stabilized camera is any indication.

The Chinese patent, first noted by DroneDJ, shows a rather serious-looking vehicle platform with chunky tires and a stabilized camera gimbal. As you can see in the image above, the camera mount is protected against shock by springs and pneumatics, which would no doubt react actively to sudden movements.

The image is no simple sketch like those you sometimes see of notional products and “just in case” patents — this looks like a fleshed-out mechanical drawing of a real device. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s coming to market at all, let alone any time soon. But it does suggest that DJI’s engineers have dedicated real time and effort to making this thing a reality.

Why have a “drone” on the ground when there are perfectly good ones for the air? Battery life, for one. Drones can only be airborne for a short time, even less when they’re carrying decent cameras and lenses. A ground-based drone could operate for far longer — though naturally from a rather lower vantage.

Perhaps more importantly, however, a wheeled drone makes sense in places where an aerial one doesn’t. Do you really want to fly a drone through narrow hallways in security sweeps, or in your own home? And what about areas where you might encounter people? It would be better not to have to land and take off constantly for safety’s sake.

It’s likely that DJI has done its homework and knows that there are plenty of niches to which they could extend if they diversified their offerings a bit. And like so many situations where drones have become commonplace, we’ll all think of these robot-powered industries as obvious in retrospect. For instance, the winner of our Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin, Scaled Robotics, which does painstaking automated inspections of construction sites.

In fact DJI already makes a ground-based robotic platform, the RoboMaster S1. This is more of an educational toy, but may have served as a test bed for technologies the company hopes to apply elsewhere.

Whether this little vehicle ever sees the light of day or not, it does make one think seriously about the possibility of a wheeled camera platform doing serious work around the home or office.

Hands-on with DJI’s Osmo Mobile 3

By Veanne Cao

Hello, it’s your video-making friends at TechCrunch again. This time, DJI sent us the latest iteration of their mobile phone gimbal to try out for a couple of weeks. While I took mine to Budapest and Vienna, Gregory tested his demo unit all around the Bay Area.

 

With added tools like gesture control, story mode, Hitchcock dolly zoom and hyper-lapse, the Osmo 3 breaks up the monotony of regular footage and makes shooting more fun. It’s a great hardware design upgrade for DJI and a must-have for content creators, influencers and regular folks. For anal-retentive video makers like us, we just need a little bit more control.

DJI Mavic Mini Review

By Matt Burns

The $399 Mavic Mini lives in a sweet spot of core features and a low price. It packs everything critical to be a quality drone. It has a good camera, good range, and a good controller. It holds up well in the wind and is quick enough to be fun. And it’s so small that you’re more likely to throw it in your bag and take it on Instagram adventures.

The small size is the Mavic Mini’s main selling point. It weighs 249 grams, and that odd number isn’t an accident. Drones that weight 250 grams and above have to be registered to fly. And yet, even though the Mavic Mini is lightweight and foldable, it’s packed with core features: 30 minute flight time, 4 km HD video transmission, 3-axis gimbal holding a 2.7K camera, and a physical controller that works with Android and iOS devices. At $399, it’s a lot of drone for the money even though it’s missing features found in DJI’s other drones.

There are more expensive drones packed with a lot of features. I own most of those drones. They’re fun, but several years ago, feature creep started sneaking into DJI’s products. Now, with a convoluted product line, a spreadsheet is needed to deceiver DJI’s drones. Most come loaded with countless features owners will likely never use. The Mavic Mini is something different. It’s basic, and I dig it.

Here’s what’s missing: collision detection, ultra-long-range connection, 4k camera, gesture control, and advanced camera features like trackable follow, panoramic, timelapse, and optical zoom.

The Mavic Mini is quick enough to be fun, but it won’t win any races. It’s responsive and fast enough. Light and easy. Compared to a Mavic 2, it feels smaller and less powerful — because it is — and yet it never feels too small or underpowered. The Mavic Mini is well balanced, and owners should find it enjoyable to fly.

Despite its tiny size, the Mavic Mini holds up well in high wind. I took it up to 200m on a windy fall day in the Midwest. The wind was clearing leaves off the trees, and I was bundled up in hat and gloves. It was gusty. The Mavic Mini didn’t care. It took off like a drone much larger and stood tall against the wind. What’s more, the video didn’t suffer. The gimbal held the camera steady as it recorded the autumn landscape.

The drone uses DJI’s new app, and I’m using a beta version to test the drone. Called DJI Fly, it’s a streamlined version of DJI Go and packs several enhancements. Safe fly zones are better integrated into the app and have an additional level of detail over the older app. DJI also better built-in support for its social community app, SkyPixel. However, as this version is streamlined, it lacks a lot of information standard on the Go version, most notable, a mini-map in the bottom corner of the screen. I’m hoping DJI adds more features to this app after it launches.

[gallery ids="1907926,1907927,1907929,1907932,1907930,1907931"]

The camera is good for the price. The pictures here were taken from the drone and not altered or adjusted. They were taken on cloudy and sunny days. The range is surprisingly good as the drone can capture blue skies and dark highlights. Occasionally in direct sunlight, the camera colors become washed out.

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s where the Mavic Mini comes in. The best drone is the one you have with you. For years, I lugged around a massive Pelican case containing Phantom 2 and later a Phantom 3. I thought I was the coolest. At a moment’s notice, I could go to my car’s trunk and retrieve a suitcase containing a flying camera. A few minutes later, after my phone synced to the drone, and the controller joined the drone’s network, I had 15 minutes of flight time. Then came the foldable Mavic, which fit alongside my camera gear like a large telephoto lens. Other drones came and went. I liked the GoPro Karma for a time.

The tiny Mavic Mini is a game-changer. It’s small enough that I’ll bring it everywhere. It’s small and light enough that it feels like a large point and shoot in my computer bag.

Want more features and a better camera but keep the portable size? Earlier this year DJI announced the $919 foldable Mavic Air that has a 4k camera and 5 mile video transmission.

The Mavic Mini gets everything right. It’s small, comes with a lovely case, and in a $499 bundle, two extra batteries with a clever charging pack. The camera is surprisingly good though admittedly less powerful than DJI’s more expensive drones. The Mavic Mini is the perfect drone for a first-timer or experienced drone enthusiast. DJI stuff enough features into the 249 gram body to make this a fantastic drone for anyone.

[gallery ids="1907939,1907948,1907954,1907968,1907942,1907934,1907935,1907941"]

DJI Mavic Mini announcement

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