Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—or drones—have been used in the U.S. for over 50 years, largely for military purposes. It makes sense; drones can be used for surveillance and fighting enemies without putting pilots at risk. But there are plenty of uses for unmanned camera-equipped drones outside of the military, including documenting protest situations, monitoring fertilizer applications and water distribution on farms, and just taking pretty pictures.
Drones for Peace, a project currently working its way through the MassChallenge accelerator program, wants to bring these drones to the masses. The ultimate goal is a drone for aerial photography that sells for just $100.
This is the first project for Rotary Robotics, a company that may eventually launch a whole line of drones for different applications. This first $100 drone is meant for general use. "We are engineers who were working in the military UAV space for awhile. We wanted to a create an aerial surveillance aircraft that was cheap enough that it would be accessible to everyone," says cofounder James Peverill.
And so they did. The prototype drone is about a pound, has a two-foot wingspan, and can travel at 20 to 30 knots. It’s simple enough to use that anyone could launch it to gather aerial photos without having any knowledge of how to navigate UAVs. That’s because there’s no human navigation involved—a smartphone app lets users select points on a map that they want to photograph, and the drone automatically launches itself, takes the picture, and comes back.
The ultra-expensive drones on the market have data links to the ground, but maintaining that link can be challenging and expensive, so Rotary Robotics decided to nix a link altogether. "There’s really no interactive control. Once the drone is out there doing its thing, it’s following a pre-planned mission, but you can take as many photos as you want," says Peverill. He anticipates that the consumer-ready version of the drone will be able take a number of photos around a specified point before returning.
Rotary only has a proof of concept at the moment, but Peverill expects to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the near future. Initially, the drone will probably cost somewhere in the range of $200 to $250, with prices eventually dropping to $100.
Rotary is also visiting with potential users, including a tech-savvy farmer in New Hampshire who has previously worked with balloon and kite photography. "He’s really excited," says Peverill. "He’s interested in UAVs but didn’t have the expertise or budget."
And as for the non-farmers among us? We will soon be able to send our drones out to cover the latest round of police confrontations at Occupy Wall Street protests without getting pepper-sprayed.