Catch all the action this summer with the new generation of sports drones

Drones for sport: capturing the moment

Catch all the action this summer with the new generation of sports drones.

Catching yourself in action on your bike, surfboard or skis has never been more popular or easier and the latest way of doing so is with drones.

Up until now these have generally been high tech, costly and required a certain amount of skill to fly, as well as needing a third party to operate them, but recent developments mean that footage such as that of mountain biker Danny MacAskill on Skye’s Cuillin Ridge (see Links) is now theoretically possible for anyone with a few hundred quid to spare (although few will be able to match the spectacular skills of MacAskill).

‘Follow me’ drones such as the soon-to-be released Zano allow anyone with a smartphone to capture themselves in action with relative ease, whilst others such as AirDog utilise a ‘leash’ which is worn on the wrist to control the machine (in the case of AirDog this is also waterproof so it can be used for sports such as surfing and kayaking).

There are a number of features that are essential in any drone with the ability to follow the user autonomously. The fact that these features are becoming easier to incorporate into increasingly smaller units, along with more user-friendly functionality, means that it is likely to see amateur users latching onto the technology.

The ‘follow-me’ aspect of a consumer drone necessitates the obvious requirement for the machine to ideally have some form of built-in obstacle avoidance system. There are different ways of going about this. Zano uses an infra-red system for instance, whilst the larger AirDog drone does it with software which has the ability to create pre-planned ‘no-fly’ zones on a map, along with ground avoidance sensors to prevent it colliding with the earth.

AirDog community-generated ‘no-fly’ zone maps of popular mountain bike trails, snow parks etc. will eventually all be stored in a Cloud and available for download to all AirDog community members. 

Equally important for a ‘sports drone’ of course is the ability to carry a camera. Most drones require a camera such as a GoPro or Sony action cam to be attached to them, and many will have a gimbal fitted so that the camera remains stable whilst filming from pretty much any angle (depending on how many axes the gimbal is able to work on).

This clearly adds both weight and bulk to the drone and will affect the flying time – you can usually expect around 15-20 minutes before the battery runs out in a drone such as the AirDog, which is actually much the same as in the smaller Zano which carries a tiny, lightweight integrated 1080P high-definition camera.

This latter set-up allows the manufacturer to keep the size and weight of the unit down (the dimensions of the Zano are 6.7cm x 6.7cm, weight is 60g) which means it can readily be carried in a small backpack or even a jacket pocket, whereas larger drones like the AirDog can be folded for ease of transport but are still considerably bigger than the Zano.

However, since the Zano lacks a gimbal the footage is unlikely to be as smooth as that obtained with a gimbal system and the shots will only be directly what the camera is looking at horizontally; it can’t point downwards and take a ‘top-down’ shot.

That said, obtaining detailed information on the technical aspects of these machines is not easy. When asked to provide more detailed specifics of the design and componentry, or diagrams for illustrative purposes, none of the manufacturers was inclined to assist – clearly secrecy is of the essence in what is a potentially huge worldwide market.

Nevertheless the Zano has huge advantages for the recreational user in terms of portability and, perhaps more importantly, cost. The AirDog is set to retail at more than $1,200, but Zano is looking to come in at around £200.

I had the opportunity to speak with Zano’s marketing and business development director Reece Crowther at some length, so let’s look at this particular consumer drone in a little more detail, since it seems set to become something of a game changer when it launches (no pun intended) this July.

The Pembrokeshire-based company used crowd funding in their initial set-up. The preliminary target was £125,000 using Kickstarter – at the time of writing they’ve raised well in excess of £2 million, which is some indication of how it’s captured the public imagination.

Ironically using Kickstarter to launch the product wasn’t as much about raising money as “viral marketing – we saw it as an ideal way to get the product out to the masses,” says Crowther. Incidentally, Crowther explains the name thus: “I don’t particularly like the word ‘drone’ as I feel there are potentially negative connotations to it. Zano is a fun, content-creation tool. I came up with the name when I turned the ‘N’ on the front of ‘Nano’ on its side to get ‘Zano’, which I feel is a fun, two-syllable word that accurately depicts our product since it’s so much smaller than any other consumer drone”.

The essential feature of Zano is its ease of use. “We wanted to make Zano the most intuitive product on the market – you can get it out of the box and use it pretty much straight away as it’s effectively an extension of your phone’s camera; anyone will be able to learn to fly and use Zano within an hour,” says Crowther.

Thus Zano’s app allows you to use the screen of your smartphone to stop/start and record, and to control altitude, rotation and direction. There are also buttons on the screen for emergency off (in which case the drone will automatically return to the user), landing, return to base, self-timing and follow-me mode along with a ‘dead man’s button’. This latter allows the drone to hold its position until the user activates the button with a thumb or finger, which then enables ‘gesture control’ – by tilting the phone left, right, forwards or backwards the drone will move correspondingly. The dead man’s button also allows you to control altitude and rotation by sliding your thumb up or down (for altitude) and left or right (for rotation).

“Zano effectively makes aerial photography available to everyone,” says Crowther. “It lends itself to everything from mountain biking and skiing [Zano has a top flying speed of 25mph] to simply getting extraordinary imagery of a walk on the beach or an evening barbecue with friends. And Zano’s small size and weight [it will fit into the palm of your hand] means you can readily take it anywhere”.

I asked him about non-consumer uses and Crowther said that oil companies, airlines, insurance companies, search and rescue organisations and the military have all shown interest in the product for their own specific uses.

There are apparently no flying issues in terms of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations, although Crowther notes that “Zano’s operating system is fully customisable ‘on the fly’, which means we can add restrictions to the drone long after the consumer has purchased it, so that if any CAA regulations change, we can alter the unit’s functionality to ensure compliance with these changes.

“This means we’ve essentially future proofed the Zano hardware. However, as far as the current CAA regulations are concerned, Zano is fully compliant for consumer applications.

“Furthermore, the unit’s signals won’t become scrambled if other Zanos are in close proximity. If anything, its performance will be enhanced as the units are able to constantly exchange information with each other so it will actually ‘know’ more about its surroundings”.

As far as Zano’s camera is concerned it has the ability to take high definition motion and still images as well as stream via Wifi to the user’s chosen device; in addition it can record in high frame rates for slow motion and virtual reality integration.

Other features include the aforementioned infra-red obstacle avoidance system and integrated GPS, echo sounding sonar altitude control and barometric air pressure sensor, 32 bit 330 DMIPS processor, four replaceable propellers and bidirectional motor control.

It’s also possible to control multiple Zanos from one device, enabling the user to film the same event from several angles. Each drone can communicate with its ‘fellows’ using various built-in sensors which allows the sharing of information such as positional and obstacle avoidance data, as well as sharing processing power for the performance of different tasks.

Whilst the first generation Zanos cannot fly in heavy rain there are plans to actually produce a fully-waterproof submersible model in the future, which will pretty much fulfil Crowther’s wish of making drone photography “available to everyone.”

Further information

Video: watch mountain biker Danny MacAskill on Skye’s Cuillin Ridge

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