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Skydio's AI-powered autonomous R1 drone
(13/Feb/2018)
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Skydio, an autonomous drone startup based out of Redwood City, California, unveiled a product today that it’s been working on for four years. The R1, as it’s called, is an artificial intelligence-powered quadcopter capable of shooting 4K video of a subject and maneuvering complex environments all on its own. Using industry advancements in AI to help train a custom computer vision system, Skydio developed a product that’s effectively the first professional-grade drone that can be flown without any expertise whatsoever, the company claims. In fact, the R1 doesn’t even come with a controller because in almost every situation imaginable, the drone should fly itself.
 
It’s a dream quite a few startups have tried and failed to deliver: full autonomous drone flight that is both safe and robust at high speeds and in busy environments. But few companies, beyond drone heavyweight DJI, have come even remotely close. Most drones today, including both cheap entry-level units and multithousand-dollar rigs designed for professional use, involve by default a manual system using an external controller, which relies on at least a bit of know-how to operate.
 
Skydio’s R1, on the other hand, uses 13 onboard cameras to do real-time mapping, path planning, and obstacle avoidance. A Nvidia Jetson TX1 computer, used mainly as the brain of prototype self-driving car systems, is used for onboard processing. Skydio’s software combines all that data with built-in algorithms trained to recognize humans and other distinct objects like trees and cars. That way, the drone is able to avoid dangerous elements in an environment and follow a user through a variety of terrains and situations, from skis slopes to mountain bike trails.
 
All controls for the R1 are managed via Skydio’s mobile app, which manages the launching and landing of the drone. The app is also where users can see video previews of footage and control how the drone captures that footage with presets like “orbit” for 360-degree shots and “lead” to make the drone follow and film its subject from the front. The app has a manual flying mode as well, but all of the drone’s autonomous safety features remain active at all times, so the drone can’t be flown into people, trees, or other obstacles. Controlling the R1 is pretty straightforward, with an on-screen vertical slider and a virtual directional pad for sending the drone forward and backward and for rotating it left or right.
 
Skydio pictures the R1, which comes with about 16 minutes of flight time on a single charge and 64GB of onboard storage, appealing to the the early adopter crowd within the drone enthusiast community. But the company also sees the device appealing to anyone who’s interested in the type of photography and video drones are capable of capturing. The company, at least right now, has a specific focus on action sports enthusiasts and athletes, the same people who populate many of the company’s early testimonial videos. Because the R1 requires no expertise, it can be flown out of the box with all the sophistication and safety considerations of an experienced pilot, the company says.