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CES 2014: Consumer Drones Evolve Beyond Toys, Weapons

Used traditionally either for mere amusement as toys or as serious weapons of surveillance and attack, drones are flying toward practical consumer use at CES 2014.

sensefly

The senseFly eBee and its software offer multiple tools for practical real world tasks.

You’d be hard pressed to find a gadget with as diametrically opposed current applications as airborne drones. Up until now, these robots of the sky have either served as advanced toys for enthusiasts or as surveillance units and weapons for military applications.

If these machines fly beyond those familiar uses, CES 2014 served as a launching pad. A handful of companies on the convention floor in Las Vegas want to transform drones into tools for practical use.

Recently, the first major foray into consumer sector drone use was seemingly going to come from Amazon.com and its proposed use of sizable drones to deliver packages. That news made its own buzz, though we have yet to see any real signs that we’ll hear the buzz of Amazon rotors soon.

In fact, the attitude amongst many CES 2014 attendees was that the Amazon drone announcement was a publicity stunt — a fantasy proposal that seems entirely impractical once factors like air traffic and changing weather conditions come into consideration. It’s simply difficult to imagine a near future world where your books or CDs come to you via small personal helicopter.

But, there are companies working to serve up more practical uses for consumer drones. Parrot – an established maker of drones for amusement purposes — is buddying up with senseFLY. Along with that Swiss firm, Parrot is introducing the eBee — an automated aerial mapping system.

The application is surprisingly simple. The user uses the intertwined eMotion 2 software to preset the area to be mapped via PC or laptop. Once the eBee has its flight parameters programmed, its user activates the drone and sends it aloft. The eBee creates its own flight plan to cover the necessary terrain and — once that route is complete — returns a 3D topographical map to the user’s computer.

The applications in the consumer world are limited only by the intentions of business. An architect or construction engineer can create a landscape plane much faster than previous methods of reconnaissance and topographical surveying. Potential homeowners looking to build a property on a given real estate lot can create a 3D model to help plan housing features.

Farmers can map the condition and contents of their fields without venturing out on their tractors. And, with the additional various camera adapters (infrared, for example), those farmers can remotely analyze what areas of their fields are struggling or in need of more fertilizer and irrigation.

The idea is to present those architects, farmers and engineers the power of airborne perspective to enhance their work, essentially changing how they see the world. With a price tag running around $25,000, the eBee has the cost of a serious business tool with the application potential to match.

phantom2

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision drone.

Other drones on hand at CES 2014 looked to give photographers and artists new tools within an affordable budget. For example, DJI now offers the Phantom 2 Vision – an airborne machine specially designed for airborne photography and access to areas or perspectives previously out of reach.

The Phantom 2 Vision is controlled by its own remote unit and reports its visuals in real time back to the user’s smartphone. Landing at a price point around $1,200, the Phantom 2 positions itself above the price of a toy deliberately. Its improved controls offer professional videographers the chance to do aerial work without the need of an expensive helicopter and crew.

These more ambitious consumer drones will have to come down in price before they’ll become commonplace in daily use, but CES 2014 showed the way to how many different professions can tap into their potential.