from the fleye-my-pretties dept
I've seen crowdfunding projects for personal drones that promise the moon and obviously fail to deliver — and it's not surprising that this happens and even sometimes works, given the automatic sci-fi appeal of an autonomous flying assistant that hovers at your side. Today, we're looking at a project by someone who shares that dream, but who recognizes it's not going to materialize overnight: Fleye, the personal drone and developer's platform that represents a step in the direction of that sci-fi future.
In a world increasingly saturated with drones, there are two things that make the Fleye stand out. The first is its design: unlike most drones, it's not a quadcopter, but rather is powered by a single blade concealed entirely within its round outer shell. Aesthetically, this is just cool: the Fleye doesn't look like it should be able to hover and maneuver the way quadcopters do, but it is. Functionally, this serves a key purpose: if the goal is a future where small flying robots operate regularly in human-filled spaces, then the safety factor becomes a real concern, and little bumper rings around exposed high-speed blades simply isn't going to cut it. The Fleye has nothing on the outside that can hurt you — and watching it gracefully recover after being bumped or shoved is delightful.
The second notable aspect is that the Fleye is focused on being a platform for developers. The creator clearly has a vision of a future full of small autonomous and semi-autonomous drones, hovering over our shoulders and running errands for us and taking our selfies for us — but he also gives the clear impression that he knows this future isn't "right around the corner" and, in fact, may never even arrive in the vague way we envision it. Rather, he wants to offer a real opportunity for people to explore and experiment in that direction. The Fleye has WiFi, an HD camera, and an on-board computer available in two different models: one with a dual-core and half-gig of RAM, the other with a quad-core and a full gigabyte. All this is wrapped up with an API and an SDK that lets developers create autonomous tasks for the Fleye, leveraging its ability to recognize its surroundings and make split-second adjustments to its course. The Fleye itself, as it is right now, probably isn't the drone that goes mainstream and starts appearing everywhere — but it may well be the platform that trains the generation of developers who go on to achieve that dream.
Drones still face some severe technology limitations, and the Fleye is no exception. For one thing, though the video isn't entirely clear on this point, it surely makes the same loud and somewhat grating noise that we were all disappointed by the first time we saw a drone flying in person rather than doing graceful silent maneuvers in an audio-dubbed video. Secondly, it still has the limitation of a 10-minute flight time on a full battery charge. Neither of these things are the fault of the Fleye itself, but they do represent technological bottlenecks that diminish the usefulness and appeal of personal drones in general.
By default, the Fleye is controlled solely by apps for iOS and Android. Normally this is a very irritating choice, but in the case of the Fleye, it's actually just a starting point: the drone is controlled by WiFi through an API that uses JSON-over-UDP, meaning virtually any WiFi-connected device is capable of become a controller. The creator is working on SDKs for iOS, Android, NodeJS and Python so people can begin creating their own control software for any and all devices. But that's just for remote control — the Fleye itself runs on Linux and can be accessed via SSH, deploying custom software directly to the drone so it can then operate autonomously or semi-autonomously to complete tasks you've designed. Custom apps don't need to train the drone from the ground up, as a low-level API within the Linux environment gives custom software easy access to the autopilot functions and video pipeline.
With all these capabilities, I'm excited to see what developers start creating once they get their hands on the Fleye.