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Like a pet dog, Fotokite Phi is the flying camera you lead around by leash

As a robotics researcher, Sergei Lupashin has spent a decade working on drone technology, including his doctoral work at the Flying Machine Arena at the Swiss science and engineering university, ETH Zurich, and starting his own company, Perspective Robotics AG. The result of his work: a quadcopter with a leash.

If the Fotokite Phi looks like a simple toy, in some ways that was Luphashin’s goal. In the lab he was working on sophisticated drones, but a frustration was how to bring that technology to the outside world. Lupashin tells us that he wanted to create something that is super accessible and safe for consumers to use yet had all the sophisticated trappings of robotics engineering.

“We spent a lot of time on engineering in how to make it comfortable.”

However, the Fotokite Phi, which is being announced today via an Indiegogo campaign (pre-orders start at $349, camera not included; early-bird pricing is also available, starting at $259), isn’t some poor man’s drone. Think of the Fotokite Phi as an operator-guided flying camera that provides a different type of aerial photography (Lupashin jokingly refers to it as a flying selfie stick). It lets you capture stunning aerial photography and videography with very minimal effort. The Fotokite Phi can be used safely in crowded events, such as a party, sporting event, or any social situation. Media organizations could use it to cover a protest or any event that could be better covered with aerial footage.

Because of the tether, the quadcopter is more of a manned aerial vehicle that will never fly away (it gently returns to the ground if it loses any tension from the tether), and because it isn’t technically a drone, Perspective Robotics is working toward securing special-use permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (it already has permission in Switzerland and France for use near crowds).

Related: Facebook’s Aquila is a drone that beams internet to Earth

But many years of engineering went into the product: The tether isn’t some basic leash, but a simple way to operate the quadcopter, using your hand’s gestures. After a quick shake, the Fotokite Phi automatically launches toward the direction you’re aiming at. The quadcopter stays in position while in flight. A twist of the gesture-controlled hockey-puck handle moves it around, and the tether can be manually lengthened for more height (up to 26 feet).

“We spent a lot of time on engineering in how to make it comfortable [to use],” Lupashin says.

Fotokite-Phi_9

In a demonstration, Lupashin showed how easy it was to pass it around, from person to person, and that the soft propellers are safe to touch. The whole thing is simple to operate, yet, as Lupashin says, a lot of engineering went into making it so.

The tethered design not only helps Lupashin and his team to keep costs down (you don’t have to worry about adding GPS or remote control), but it eliminates the need to calibrate it – again, the ease-of-use approach. In the demo, Lupashin quickly launched the Fotokite Phi (inside a low-ceiling conference room, no less – something we wouldn’t dare do with most drones) without needing to adjust any settings. The idea is that the Fotokite Phi can spring to action at any moment. Even the attached camera, a GoPro Hero3, turns on automatically when the quadcopter takes flight. And unlike a drone that you have to remotely control, the Fotokite Phi lets you keep one hand on the leash, and another to live-view the stream from the camera.

What’s really impressive is the Fotokite Phi’s collapsible design. After unlocking, the arms fold up and the whole thing fits inside a cylindrical carrying case. Unlike other drones, there’s no need to disassemble any parts. At 12 ounces, it’s possibly one of the lightest quadcopters on the market, making it very portable.

At 12 ounces, it’s possibly one of the lightest quadcopters on the market.

As for the camera, Lupashin went with the GoPro Hero (the Fotokite Phi supports the Hero3, Hero3+, and Hero4 models). He says a lot of drone projects use custom cameras, but GoPro had done a good job in creating a very good camera; using an established camera allowed the company to concentrate on building the copter.

The Fotokite Phi only has a rated flight time of 15 minutes, and it uses a built-in rechargeable battery. That isn’t very long, but you could quickly recharge it via USB using a portable battery. It’s also designed strictly with the GoPro in mind, so you won’t be able to fit another camera unless you’re willing to MacGyver something like a Sony Action Cam into the camera cavity.

Related: Google joins NASA and others to work on drone traffic control system

While Perspective Robotics is using Indiegogo to help raise funds, the Fotokite Phi isn’t a new concept. It’s the company’s follow-up to the Fotokite Pro, a similar but more expensive and complicated device that is being used by media organizations to cover protests and other events, among other uses. Perspective Robotics says it intentionally built a high-end version for broadcasters and TV crews first, so that it can learn to develop one with consumers in mind (Lupashin says the concept was inspired after seeing a drone used to cover a protest in Russia). And while the Fotokite Phi may be intended for consumers, we can see a lot of professional users attracted by this low-cost solution.