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Imagine you’re riding your mountain bike through the wilderness, and your own personal aerial drone hovers overhead, filming your every move. Imagine you’re hiking up a mountain, and your aerial drone captures the footage like a scene from an epic movie. Thanks to a new aerial camera drone called Hexo+, this science fiction may soon become a reality.
The drone was the brain-child of Xavier De Le Rue, a mountain snowboarder and action movie maker. Xavier was desperate to capture aerial footage in remote locations where it was very difficult to fly in a film chopper or other craft, so he launched an effort to find a very light, highly portable but also highly effective aerial filming solution. In the Kickstarter video released on June 16th, Xavier explained that he tried everything from fan-powered gliders to light helicopters, and finally drones.
Unfortunately, the drones on the market didn’t fill the needs of action sports enthusiasts – light, packable, and able to “work everywhere, all the time.” Since there was no such system on the market, Xavier set out to innovate a brand new aerial camera drone capable of not only hovering over you, but also tracking you, following your every move, and filming every moment of your adventure.
Interview: Hexoplus CEO Antoine Level
The effort to develop this autonomous, subject-tracking, aerial film-making drone started in August of 2013 when the concept was first developed and the specifications were defined. Fast forward to April of 2014 – the development team upgraded the final predictive tracking algorithms for the customer test flights, and by May of 2014 the first “ready to fly prototype” was ready.
In an interview with Antoine Level, the CEO of Hexoplus, we asked about the inspiration for the project, and details surrounding what the drone would really be capable of.
MUO: What was the initial inspiration behind the HEXO+ Autonomous Aerial Camera?
Antoine: HEXO+ autonomous aerial camera comes from real problems that Xavier De Le Rue is having. He is struggling to get aerial shots with a system that is easy to carry and easy to use. He spent the past 3 years trying different solutions including piloting drones. Toying with his needs, this is how we came up with the idea of HEXO+.
MUO: How many folks are on the development team that designed and produced the drone. Can you share some details about some of the individuals and their expertise?
Antoine: We currently have 5 people on the development side: William, our Dr Drone, has been an expert in drones for past 20 years, 3 full-time critical embedded software developers who are experienced in avionics certified software and myself as an electronics engineer.
MUO: Is the camera drone fully autonomous, and if so can you share some of the details about the technology? Is it following a tracking device on the person? How is it controlled?
Antoine: The technology we are using combines a mix of GPS and other sensors in the smartphone. Those are used as inputs to anticipate the trajectory of the targeted person. The resulting trajectory is then combined with the embedded control system of the drone to ensure that the drone is at the next correct position to have the next perfect framing.
MUO: Is the HEXO+ aerial camera drone going to be safe? How does it avoid objects like trees or other obstacles?
Antoine: One of our key focuses in HEXO+ development is safety. We achieve this first through our software development process, and second through fail-safe features allowing for a safe drone behavior in specific scenarios (e.g. when you lose signal, when you run low on battery, when the drone flies outside a pre-defined geo-zone…)
We do believe HEXO+ brings a new revolution in aerial filming and sports action.
MUO: Have you patented the technology?
Antoine: We are working with technologies developed by universities and labs, which are patented or in the process of being patented.
Antoine: We do believe HEXO+ brings a new revolution in aerial filming and sports action. We do have major pro riders on board, and they all support the project!
The Potential of an Autonomous Camera Drone
The idea of an automated drone that can capture footage of you without a cameraman and without the need for someone to pilot it seems nearly impossible, but the project is already a reality with a working, tested prototype.
The popularity of such a concept is clear. Within just two days, the Kickstarter project gathered over $400,000 in pledges, with still 28 days left in the campaign. The value of the system is in its simplicity. The control system is nothing more than an app on your smartphone. The required hardware is nothing more than the drone itself and a camera. The secret sauce is the tracking algorithm.
The way the smartphone app works is you’ll simply pinch the distance between the subject being filmed and the drone itself.
The drone will hover and then fly itself horizontally at whatever speed necessary to keep you within the perfect aerial frame that you’ve set. The control system of the drone is essentially working to maintain the “filming parameters” that you’ve set – even predicting and positioning itself to maintain that frame no matter what you do.
Features and Drawbacks
Some of the key features of the Haxo+ include:
- Auto take-off and auto landing
- Completely autonomous
- Foldable and lightweight
- Can travel up to 70 km/hr (45 mph)
- Vibration-free for smooth filming
- GoPro camera compatible
- App available for both Android and iOS
The potential for this technology is staggering. It’s being marketed for action sports – an obvious use for it – but this technology could also be used for things like low-budget movie making, capturing family events or vacations from a very unique perspective, and much more.
There are a few limitations of the technology at this point – things that the team claims in the Kickstarter project they are working on. Some of these issues include:
- No obstacle avoidance. You’ll need to keep activities limited to wide open areas.
- Loss of GPS or battery power fail-safe are features that are currently “planned”.
- The team will only ship to the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia.
Whether this magical “subject-tracking” algorithm works well out in the wild is yet to be seen, but if the footage from the Kickstarter video is any indication, this technology could very well be the next generation of action filming to come since GoPro cameras were first launched.
On an interesting side note, a similar Kickstarter project was launched the same day by Helico Aerospace of their product called AirDog – which they also described as the “world’s first auto-follow action sports drone.” The timing was quite a coincidence – a clear sign that both teams knew that a race was on to become the first, and also a sign that this is a technology sure to be picked up by aerial filming enthusiasts around the world.
Check out the Hexo+ Kickstarter project and keep your eyes open for when this cool technology hits the mainstream!
If you could get your hands on one of these aerial camera drones, what would you use it for? Share your own action-filming ideas in the comments section below!
Images Courtesy of Hexoplus Team & Kickstarter Project