On Tuesday, a small Bulgaria-based drone startup called Flyver released an early version of its new framework for drone developers. The company wants to drive a surge of third-party applications made for consumers seeking innovative ways to do practical things with drones. Think Realtors, security firms, sports leagues, and any other business where a bird’s-eye view could be helpful. By the middle of next year, Flyver cofounder Anton Gavrailov is hoping to have a version ready for consumers.
But will consumers be ready for them? The mainstreaming of commercial and casual drone use can seem very far away, particularly after recent reports that the FAA plans to impose strict regulations on drone use. Yet teams like Flyver–and its larger competitor Airware–press on, confident in their vision of standardizing the quirky low-level software most drones currently use.
“Drones are going to begin to be used on the outskirts of people’s lives, in areas that aren’t populated, and move inward, toward areas that are more populated,” says Jonathan Downey, Airware’s founder and CEO. (You can already see that trend playing out in the barely populated deserts of Nevada.) Airware is focused primarily on commercial drones: the kinds that already monitor infrastructure or crops, deliver mail, or assist search-and-rescue missions.
The smaller consumer drones that Flyver focuses on have already started to enter our daily lives (often with hilariously incompetent results–use with caution!) The company’s mission is to mainstream them. How about purchasing an app for your drone that can walk your dog along a pre-selected route when you are just too busy to do it? Or one that can clean your windows?
In order to empower developers, Flyver is integrating smartphones into unmanned aerial vehicles. It’s a practical way to address the high barrier to entry that would-be drone programmers face: Most drones use obscure computer chips and software packages produced by different manufacturers. Programs written for one drone model often don’t work on others–and coding the chips usually requires extensive programming knowledge and at least some understanding of aeronautical engineering.
“Just imagine the takeoff,” says Gavrailov. “You have to warm the rotors up, start them slowly, increase the power gradually, and keep them working synchronously, otherwise the drone won’t take off properly. Our framework controls all that for the developer–for example, he or she only needs to type ‘drone.takeOff (100)’ and the drone will fly up 100 units, usually centimeters or inches.”
Other teams such as Airware and the Linux Foundation’s open-source Dronecode project are building new operating systems for drones from scratch. But particularly to those programmers who would like to code in their free time, Flyver’s more incremental approach–retrofitting the smartphones that are ubiquitous today–offers some distinct advantages.
Firstly, Flyver’s software framework runs on top of the the Android operating system, with which many developers are already intimately familiar.
“The difference there is in the level of abstraction,” says Callan Bryant, a U.K.-based developer who is designing an app that allows people to play a city-wide laser tag game with drones. “The stepping-stone from being able to develop Android apps to being able to program a drone is a lot smaller.”
Replacing the drone’s chip with a modified smartphone is an inexpensive way to bring aboard an integrated camera, GPS, and velocimeter–all very useful in small flying robots, and easy to program if you’re familiar with Android.
To make development easier, the Flyver team is setting up cloud storage for programmers as well as a marketplace for applications similar to AppStore and Google Play. They also plan to provide developers with inexpensive drones to play with–“and to break at will, as would inevitably happen,” Gavrailov adds.
Downey agrees that the age of smart drones may be just around the corner. “It’s really only going to be limited by people’s imagination,” he says. That, and regulation in the American market. On Tuesday, the same day as Flyver’s announcement, U.S. senators were complaining about the pace and scale of FAA regulation. In the meantime, the true believers press ahead.