While thousands of companies exhibited their products at the Consumer Electronics Show, the massive tech industry gathering in Las Vegas that comes to an end Friday, about a dozen received outsize attention.
They were the drone manufacturers displaying all manner of consumer drones – most of which were about the size of a basketball or slightly smaller. What they had in common was a desire to appeal beyond the hobbyist, to the consumer who may want a new way of taking photos of themselves or others in action.
Nixie, which was shown off during Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote address, was a standout. It’s a wearable bracelet drone that can unfurl, boomerang out to take an aerial selfie – or a “dronie” as Krzanich put it – then fly back. The product won the $500,000 grand prize in Intel’s 2014 Make It Wearable contest.
You can view the Nixie demonstration at the 57-minute mark in the video of the keynote below.
Drones are projected to bring in more than $100 million in 2015, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That’s a 50 percent increase from last year. And more companies are entering the market.
“We sold 15,000 units via Kickstarter. so it’s been pretty big,” says Reece Crowther, product designer for a palm-size drone called Zano, which is expected debut in the U.S. this summer and cost $300. The Zano drone can follow you around, taking photos and video.
“We developed [the technology] with the intention of being used in law enforcement, military applications,” Crowther says. “Zano is a consumer version of that technology.”
Almost all the drone makers at CES are trying to pull in consumers with small models crammed with sophisticated sensors and guidance systems. On the other end of the spectrum is Chinese manufacturer Harwar, whose drones are $15,000, the size of a microwave — although they weigh only 5 pounds — and can fly to 15,000 feet.
“For us, it’s more focused on high-end commercial use,” says Frank Yang, a Harwar spokesman. “So they’d be used for … firefighting, border controlling and public security. And also natural gas pipe-leaking detection.”
Interest in their drones had been high, Yang says, with some CES attendees approaching the company about distribution. One ranch owner wanted to buy a drone from Harwar’s exhibit booth, but went home empty-handed, Yang says.
One of the challenges for the company is that the FAA is still drawing up the rules for big drones – the ones, like Harwar’s, that can fly high and could pose a danger to other aircraft or people on the ground if they come crashing down.
Jim Williams, who heads the FAA office in charge of unmanned aircraft, spoke on a CES panel about future regulation of drones. He says the agency is trying to figure out how much regulations the drones require.
“There already is a graduated level of certification required based on the risk. We plan to fit unmanned aircraft into that same risk-based approach that we have for manned aircraft,” Williams said during the panel discussion.
That could mean requiring a drone operator to have a pilot’s license or making sure the drones have sophisticated communications equipment, such as transponders. But the little guys, like Zano, don’t have to worry about those requirements, because the FAA considers them hobby aircraft.
That doesn’t mean there are no rules. Even hobby aircraft must adhere to certain FAA regulations. They must be flown below 400 feet, avoid areas around airports, not be used for commercial purposes and be kept within the operator’s sight to prevent it from interfering with other aircraft.
“You don’t want to be flying in urban areas. You don’t want to be flying over the top of a lot of people,” says Gordon Cockburn of Hobbico, one of the biggest makers of radio-controlled toys and now drones.
“So what we suggest is that you fly in open space, near nature, over the ocean,” Cockburn says.
Or, you could fly a drone they way they did at CES: in small areas surrounded by nets.
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