Plexidrone – another Crowdfunded Quadcopter – But is it realistic?

Kickstarter and Indiegogo are great for finding out where the hype is these days.

Drones are at the top of the hype curve it seems.

Indiegogo is hosting another quadcopter: the Plexidrone. It has raised more than $300,000 as of this writing.

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While all the famous blogs are gushing over this thing (or at least, have made a very quotable quote or two), it bears looking into the specifications a bit more.  As with all pre-prototype, crowdfunded ideas, the wish-list is easy to make before the realities of economics and physics set in. As one friend of mine used to say jokingly, “No one can deliver what we can promise”.

I guess this quote, while at first blush sounds like a compliment, sounds a bit also like a warning: “If there was a list of features we wanted on a ready-to-fly drone, it might well read like PlexiDrone’s spec-sheet” – James Trew, Engadget

In other words, out of the hundreds of quadcopters that you can buy or build these days, if it was easy or possible to have all of these features, wouldn’t someone have done it already?

A couple of warning signals that I see:

1. the flight time – this is one of the golden specifications of any aircraft – how long can it fly? The Plexidrone people are claiming 35 minutes. Whoa! That’s a long time. The Phantom 1 flies for 5-10 minutes. The DJI Phantom 2 flies for 20-25 minutes.

If you look at the specifications of this very expensive motor ($200 per motor) that you can use as an after-market modification for a DJI phantom, you can see that – and this is a very expensive, very good motor – the ones in the plexidrone will definitely be worse than this –

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So, for this “expensive ideal” motor, look at the Throttle and Amps columns. At 75% throttle, we are looking at around 5 amps of draw per motor. Let’s plug this into a handy flight time calculator (5000 mAh, 20A average amp draw) and we get 15 minutes of flight time.

The only way to get 35 minutes of flight time would be to use only 50% throttle with these (again, very expensive and not the type that is going to be used on the plexidrone) motors with 10 inch carbon fiber propellers – again, almost certainly not going to be used on the Plexidrone.

2. This Plexidrone weighs 1.3Kg; it has a 5000mAh battery – that’s around 410 grams. All the other parts therefore need to weigh 890 grams. The motors will weigh (at minimum) 100g each, so that’s 490 grams left over for everything else – the frame, the shell, the screws, electronics, and so on. This just does not seem realistic.

 

3. The flight controller. On the Indiegogo page, they state

What flight controller does the PlexiDrone use?
The PlexiDrone uses DreamQii’s custom electronics and software. We do not use any off-the-shelf options.”

Considering all of the features – including the dead giveaway – the “follow me” function – which is only available on Pixhawk controllers – it is obvious that the Plexidrone is using the Pixhawk controller. OK, Pixhawk is open-source. So they are using a Pixhawk clone. I guess it is still not flat-out lying to say that they are using “DreamQii’s custom electronics and software” but come on – it’s just a bit slightly un-truthy, isn’t it?

It’s hard to build a new flight controller – No one will think less of this company if they say that they have not built their own flight controller hardware/software from scratch.

It is hard to be one of the only naysayers around here willing to write a blog post that is not all rah-rah and spewing only positive thoughts…. but this quadcopter, as it is advertised, seems to be making some unrealistic claims. I hope these claims can be addressed and solved and that the people who back this project are not too unhappy when some of these specs slide downwards a bit back into reality.

 

Drones on Kickstarter, 2014

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Multicopters have had a huge DIY community for years already, and while there are more and more RTF (ready to fly) slick-looking quadcopters you can buy yourself, the market is far from “entrenched”. The whole industry looks similar to what the automobile industry looked like 100 years ago: there are new companies emerging every day, each one with a slightly different take on the idea; many of these companies are true garage operations – and that’s a great thing, in my opinion.  (It’s worth nothing that, just as different brands of cars might use the same brand of tire, there are only a few of some of the components – the flight controller, most of all – that are available, no matter which drone you buy or back on Kickstarter)

Almost in tandem with the rapid rise of quadcopters  and DIY drones, we’ve seen the explosion of a “maker movement” around all kinds of hardware, as well as the rising popularity of crowdfuning sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

So, let’s take a look at some of the newest multicopters out there.

Phenox

The Phenox, built by some Japanese researchers, is the ultimate geek quadcopter. This thing looks amazing, although it’s more of a “developer’s kit” than a real consumer product. It is a (very) programmable UAV that doesn’t require an external controller. It can follow voice commands, or the sound of a whistle, or even hand signals. It is tiny but very good at self-stabilizing and following paths autonomously. This quadcopter has an on-board Linux computer (powered by a very powerful CPU / FPGA), motion sensors, two cameras, and a microphone. I think Ryo Konumura and Kensho Miyoshi have won the maximum number of geek points that can be earned with a project like this!

The video speaks for itself:

 

 

Airdog

The Airdog is a quadcopter that follows you around. Presumably for the action-sports Gopro shooting folks. This looks like a solid team of young dudes who have crafted a very good startup pitch: They state the problem (When you’re doing that amazing 360 flip on your bicycle or snowboard, you need someone to be there all the time filming you), and then offer the solution (instead of having a friend following you around filming you, use the Airdog instead to follow you around from the air!). The way is works, basically, is that you wear a thing called an “Air Leash” on your wrist, and the Airdog follows it at a specified distance, angle, and altitude (all of which you can set on the fly) . Here is the Kickstarter video:

Successfully funded on July 26 2014 with more than $1.4 million, these guys have clocked up more than 1000 pre-orders (I mean “pledges ;). This is a textbook case of why Kickstarter is great for hardware startups (although I would guess they were fairly well-funded before their KS launch judging by the size of their team – even their domain name probably cost a fair bit of money!)

What is the Unique Selling Point of the Airdog? Well, they seem to be developing some very interesting technology around the “air leash”, allowing you to specify how this quadcopter follows the air leash. I don’t know what kind of technology they are using besides GPS for the tracking – GPS is only accurate to 10-20 meters, and if you’re going to frame a shot, well, I guess this might work ok as long as the drone is far enough away and you’re shooting with the very wide-angle lens of the gopro.

The biggest concern I would have with this thing is 1) its susceptibility to crashing into nearby things when it’s following you – buildings, trees, and so on; 2) how well it can land itself, and where it will land itself.

The Airdog is available for preorder on their website for $1300 with free shipping in December.

Here is their latest progress update from just a few days ago:

 

Easydrone

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Easydrone could be seen as something in between the “absolutely ready to fly but you need to add the interesting extras yourself” of the DJI Phantom-type of quadcopter, and the “you want a gimbal and full FPV? You need to build it yourself” kind of quadcopter.

This drone has basically no wires – you can assemble it on the field, and the pieces snap into place, and some connectors are there to handle the various connections for motors, camera feed, and so on.  The central box contains the (open source Pixhawk) flight controller, FPV stuff, gps device, and the antennae.

I think the Easydrone looks very promising, although I would like more information about how the arms snap together so easily, but don’t fall apart easily.

Also, the design is clearly taking a second place over pure function. It looks more like a home-made multicopter than a Phantom, even though it is “plug and play”. The different models available on the Kickstarter page are not very clear.

It appears that the Easydrone folks are assuming a lot of technical knowedge for a product that they are selling as “ready to go”. This might at least partly explain why this campaign did not raise as much money as other ones (the other reason I’d say is the production quality of the video – this is absolutely correlated with the amount raised in a Kickstarter campaign… this Easydrone video got the message across, but, like the copter itself, it was a bit unglamorous). All together, it looks like the product might really be great, but it is not being marketed well enough – here is an example that shows me the importance of Marketing – from the conception of what the product looks like, to crafting a message that people can easily understand so that they can decide why your product is great. I hope the Easydrone folks can address this.

It looks like the Kickstarter campaign, which ended on July 11, is going fine. Its shipping date has slipped, which is really nothing too surprising (I don’t know any Kickstarter hardware project that actually delivered on time) and it looks like the updates are coming in fairly often.

If portability is a serious issue, and you hate wires, the Easydrone might be a good fit for you. If anyone has tried the Easydrone, please let me know!

Pocket Drone

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The Pocket Drone’s elevator pitch is this: “The world’s first multicopter that’s powerful enough to carry a high quality action camera and folds up smaller than a 7in tablet.” That’s good! In one sentence I can understand why this thing is cool. I would love to have a “real” drone (i.e. one that can carry a Gopro) that folds up to about the size of an iPad mini – how cool is that?

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Like the Airdog, the Pocket Drone has a “follow me mode” using your mobile phone (with GPS of course)

It also seems to allow control of the drone via an Android phone, but NOT using wifi, but rather using a separate radio transmitter dongle that you plug into your phone. This is very cool.

Their video is well-written and gets the message across that these guys are building this tricopter because they really want to have this great toy for themselves. They appear to be participating in the DIY multicopter community for a while, and have designed a product that really hasn’t existed up until now.

I guess the biggest caveat for me would be the fact that without a stabilizing gimbal, you can only film the “roller coaster” style of video – it does take a lot of practice to shoot that kind of video without making your viewers sick. Anyway, if that is the biggest problem with this thing, I would be more than happy to keep one stashed in my backpack for those many spare moments in life that I could be flying a copter and making new friends 🙂

The Pocket Drone had a smashing success on Kickstarter, raising nearly a million dollars and getting around 1,600 pre-orders at a ~$500 price point – this is fantastic to see. The product looks really viable to me and I hope that they manage to ramp up production and work out all the challenges they face.

The current price for the Pocket Drone on their website is $599 with controller. This is a hard sell considering a DJI Phantom 1 can be purchased for $479. If you like the portability of the Pocket Drone, then I could see why it would be ok to pay more for this obviously very cool new product.

As usual, it was supposed to ship in June but isn’t shipping yet, but it appears that they’re working really hard to get everyone’s pre-orders shipped soon.

Game of Drones

This is not really a whole drone per se – it’s just the airframe. It appears to be the most outrageously tough quadcopter frame in existence. Also, they have the coolest logo ever:

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These guys say their super-tough quadcopter frame has been crashed thousands of times, landed on water, flown through fire, and even shot at with a shotgun (!!) and it is still flying. These guys look like true multicopter maniacs who are clearly doing it for the passion of making something cool:

Their latest update says that they are finally shipping now. Good job guys! You can buy a frame right now at their shop for $140 each, or a 10-pack for $900.

 

Hexo+

This hexacopter is another “follow me” drone which is aimed at action/sports people who need a flying robot slave camera man to cover their crazy moves (are you feeling like a lazy slob yet? I am!). It can fly up to 70km/h for about 15 minutes (wow, that is a lot). Also, I don’t see a landing gear anywhere but presumably they’ll solve this!

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They have plenty of stunningly beautiful example shots in their video. I’m a bit skeptical of the shot following behind the runner, going between (and under) two rows of trees – I mean, maybe this thing can do that, but how many people are going to risk it? Does it really work that well? It is a pretty bold claim.

From what I can tell of some of the shots in their video which I presume are mostly mockups, I can guess that they are trying to do some computer vision / object tracking in addition to simply using GPS as a beacon (you would have to if you’re going to pull off the shot flying under the trees at 2:03….

This is another “fabulously successful” Kickstarter campaign, having snagged nearly 2000 pre-orders. From the updates being posted, it appears that they are seeking VC funding in addtion to the $1.3M they’ve raised already, which should help them ramp up their development and manufacturing.

The Hexo+ is still available for pre-order at $949 (with 2-axis gimbal) and $1149 (with 3-axis gimbal) with a shipping date of May 2015.

 

iStrike Shuttle

This one is actually from the end of 2012, but it is so wacky that I had to include it in this post.

I have actually never seen this form factor until now. Behold, the iStrike Shuttle:

Why, you may ask, is it shaped like this, with the upright, elongated body? Well, I’m glad you asked! This thing deserves to be called a drone – in a way that many “multicopter” pilots find the word objectionable – you see, it’s build to drop ping pong balls! That’s right, you can actually invade your neighbor or office mate by piloting this thing with your iPhone, dropping ping pong balls on them.

As this project ended on Nov. 23 2012, we can even find a bit of evidence that they did, in fact, fulfill their backers, and produce these things. Here is a random video from youtube, presumably from one of the backers. While the video is not long, it shows that this thing does, in fact, fly:

The iStrike Shuttle is now available for sale on the Dream Cheeky website and it is $59….

 

That’s all for now. If I have missed a product, if I’ve made any mistakes, or if you have any other question please contact me.