Update October 13, 2016: Zero Zero Robotics began selling the Hover drone today, with a surprisingly low introductory price of $549. After the first two weeks, the price will rise to $599, which is still quite affordable by drone standards. The full name of the product is the Hover Camera Passport and it is geared for travel use. It is the first in a new category of drones that are truly autonomous, with no input required by the user to pilot them. The drone is available for order online.
Drones are popular, but learning to pilot an unwieldy and unpredictable device can be intimidating. If you’re more interested in aerial videos than Top Gun fantasies, what you want is something that can fly itself, like the Hover, the latest in autonomous flying cameras.
The Hover looks nothing like a traditional quadcopter. Roughly the size of a thick book – it even looks like one – the Hover unfolds to reveal the wings – two panels, each containing two propellers in a metal caging. Made with carbon fiber, it’s incredibly lightweight, yet sturdy; in fact, it comes in just under 0.55 pounds (0.53 pounds or 8.5 ounces, to be exact), which exempts it from the Federal Aviation Administration’s registration requirement. When folded, the Hover can be easily stashed in a backpack or in the provided carrying case, and it’s less likely to draw attention like most quadcopters would.
Made with carbon fiber, it’s incredibly lightweight, yet sturdy.
But unlike most drone cameras, the Hover isn’t designed for faraway travel (there’s no GPS or any sort of built-in tracking sensor) or high-altitude aerial videography. As its name would suggest, the Hover is meant to be your own personal selfie cameraman. Using face-detection and other computer vision technologies, as well as sonar and a ground-facing camera, the Hover effortlessly maintains flight and follows the user at a safe distance. Because the propellers are in a metal housing, you can grab it with your hand or push it around while it’s in flight. You can throw the Hover for takeoff, and initiate a safe landing. Even if it crashes to the ground, the carbon-fiber construction provides strength against impacts. If a propeller is damaged, it’s easily replaceable.
As a camera, the Hover is built around a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with a camera that’s capable of shooting 13-megapixel photos and 4K video at 30 frames-per-second. In addition to a single-axis gimbal, the Hover uses electronic image stabilization to keep image quality steady.
But the Hover needs the processing power because of the complex algorithms required to keep the Hover afloat (since it doesn’t rely on human controls), and to accurately track faces, bodies, and surroundings; it uses Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, or SLAM, to perceive and map an unknown environment, which is used in other unmanned vehicles. It doesn’t require any learning or training – Hover will go to work when it’s turned on.
Hover is the launch product of Zero Zero Robotics, a firm based in Beijing, China, with an office in San Francisco. The company, which raised $25 million in private funding, had been working in secrecy since it was founded in 2014, by two Stanford engineering grads. One of the founders, M.Q. Wang, who demoed the Hover for us, said the eight-person company wanted to wait until the Hover was nearly complete before revealing it. Zero Zero had wanted to announce the product last year, but development issues pushed things back. The product, Wang said, had to meet three things: It had to be portable, safe, and, user friendly.
The Hover seems simple, but to make it do what it does, Wang said it couldn’t rely on open-source software. The company developed all of its proprietary technologies, from face detection to flight-control algorithms. The unique design also required the algorithms to be tuned up to a higher level, in order to make it fly. When Hover is in motion, it’s using all four cores of the CPU and the GPU at 100 percent, which created a thermal issue. To compensate, the team developed a way to funnel the air generated by the propellers, back to the central unit.
It’s so complex that “Qualcomm was surprised by what we managed to achieve with the Snapdragon 801,” Wang said. (The startup is currently doing R&D work with the Snapdragon 820, which would add obstacle avoidance to the features). Wang confidently claimed the Hover has some of the best computer-vision technologies in a drone.
There’s still work to be done, however, which is why there isn’t an availability date (it will list for $600; not exactly cheap). But Wang said the hardware is essentially complete, and the company is now fine-tuning the software, like lowering the RPM of the propellers so that it isn’t so loud (it is really noisy). With over-the-air upgrades, Wang said the Hover will continue to get smarter. One limitation is battery life: The Hover will stay active for only 8 minutes, but Zero Zero plans to supply four batteries with the unit. Wang says it’s a physics issue that’s associated with lithium-ion.
As is, we thought the Hover’s face detection and tracking capabilities were effective during the demo. As the camera naturally followed us around, we realized it was the one of the better examples of computer vision-based drones we’ve seen. With minimal controls from Wang’s iPhone 6, he pushed a 360-panorama button and the Hover automatically flew around us to shoot a video. Wang threw the Hover into the air and it quickly stabilized itself in-flight, and safely landed itself when the kill switch was pressed. The Hover is extremely light, yet super-rigid when we tried pushing down on the metal.
The Hover is a fun action camera for recording videos of you in front of the lens, or group activities like parties, weddings, festivals, etc. It’s not cumbersome like, say, the Lily, an autonomous flying camera that’s larger and heavier, and it’s easy to control. Compared to an aerial camera drone like the DJI Phantom 4 or 3DR Solo, the Hover’s capabilities are a bit more limited. But the Hover is designed to be personal, and from what we’ve seen, it’s one of the few that seems to have gotten it right.
There remain questions that need answering, like how well would it perform when there are lots of people in the frame, and how sharp the video looks. But the computer vision tech is impressive, and the Hover is a promising twist on a familiar concept that we can’t wait to see in action.