Personal drones are already smart enough to fly themselves and follow moving subjects. Their next feat: sensing obstacles to avoid collisions.
Sales of consumer drones have grown from nearly nothing several years ago to $1.6 billion globally, according to research firm Gartner. But most models are aimed at enthusiasts with some previous flying experience. To reach the mainstream, manufacturers say, keeping a drone in the air has to be as easy as working a smartphone.
In early March, DJI, which makes the industry’s most popular model, began selling the first consumer drone that can detect and dodge obstructions. Chip giant Intel’s technology will bring similar capabilities to some models later this year. And startup Skydio, which recently raised $25 million in funding, makes software aimed at preventing drone crashes. “These systems, as they become safer and more aware of their environment, will get more intelligent,” says Anil Nanduri, vice president of Intel’s New Technology Group.
DJI equips its copter with two technologies to make this possible: vision and machine learning. The former consists of multiple cameras, while the latter lets drones learn new concepts, like what a person looks like, with little human input. Making all this affordable is the biggest challenge, according to Paul Pan, a DJI senior product manager.
Safety measures are key as the Federal Aviation Administration mulls rules for public drone use. The FAA requires that drones weighing 0.55 lb. to 55 lb. be registered online in order to be flown outdoors. Nearly 300,000 were registered as of January. Here’s a look at some of the newest models.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
|DJI PHANTOM 4||YUNEEC TYPHOON Q500 4K||3D ROBOTICS SOLO||PARROT BEBOP 2|
|Cost||$1,399||$899.99||$999.95||$549.99 ($799.99 with controller)|
|Flight time||28 minutes||25 minutes||20–25 minutes||25 minutes|
|Camera||4K video, 12-megapixel photos||4K video, 12-megapixel photos||Not included, but works with GoPro models||High-definition video, 14-megapixel photos|
|Special features||Avoids obstacles; can follow, film and track you even when you’re not holding the controller; flies autonomously||Can follow and track you, as well as fly back to you, when you’re holding the controller; programmed to stay out of no-fly zones||Can stream HD video from attached GoPro; follows you with GPS; flies autonomously; includes preset camera maneuvers||Fish-eye lens; flies autonomously with in-app purchase|
This appears in the March 28, 2016 issue of TIME.