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Tech by VICE

'Follow Me' Drones Will Hover By Your Side on a Digital 'Leash'

A new class of drones is about to start automatically following its pilots wherever they go.

by Jason Koebler
Jun 16 2014, 7:30pm
Screengrab: Hexo+

So far, "dronies" have been boring. They mostly consist of videos of lots of people holding drone control sticks and, maybe, waving for a second. Not anymore: Companies are beginning to launch the first drones that automatically and autonomously follow and film its pilots, which could very well revolutionize how hobby drones are used.

We already know that drones can be used to take very pretty aerial pictures and videos—but until now, the subject matter has always had to focus on other people and goings-on, because the pilot had to worry about not crashing the thing. 

That's great when you've got a dedicated, skilled pilot who is able to follow you on a skateboard or through a movie shoot, but part of the allure of action sports is doing stuff and going places no one else can. One of the reasons GoPro has been so successful is because it has cut the invisible cord between companion photographer and athlete. New "follow me" drone tech is about to do the same for would-be aerial photographers. 

But the AirDog, the "first auto-follow action sports drone," promises to take the difficulty out of flying, while a new app from 3D Robotics called "Follow-Me" can do essentially the same thing using just an Android phone app. Another drone of similar intent, the Hexo+, has already raised $312,000 on Kickstarter, well beyond its goal.

The innovations are the next step in drone photography, and the drone's first big consumer tech step forward since they became an affordable product in the first place. As happened with the GoPro, the first "follow" drones are likely to be used by action sports enthusiasts—GoPros have been nice for capturing first person footage of a snowboarder hitting a jump, a skydiver jumping out of a plane, or a BMXer on a half pipe, but, until now, they haven't been able to capture the greater context of a move. 

No longer: With the AirDog, the drone will communicate directly with a wristband worn by the pilot, naturally called a "leash." The user can plug in the distance from the wristband, angle, and altitude that he or she wants the drone to fly, and the drone will automatically follow. 

That drone looks to be specifically marketed at the extreme sports crowd (and will cost roughly $1,500 when it launches later this year), but "Follow-Me" mode, released today as an update to the Drone Planner app by the folks at 3D Robotics (headed up by former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson), has most of that functionality, is free, and can work with any drone sold by the company. 

"Follow Me mode allows you to be your own one-man aerial film crew: Capture yourself in action, with all the freedom of spontaneity and zero pre-planning, even when there’s no one around to helm the sticks for you," Anderson wrote in a blog post announcing the new app. 

The app works much like the AirDog, with your phone becoming the "leash," and a bluetooth connection or a proprietary 3D Robotics radio working as the conduit between the phone and the drone.

We've already seen some pretty amazing drone videos, but most of them have been cool mostly because they have democratized aerial photography, not because the subject matter itself is particularly interesting or exciting. With this tech, it's looking like we'll increasinly see drone footage that has both a unique perspective and an interesting subject. It's also, perhaps, the first step towards personal service drones.