More than a decade ago, Helen Greiner was one of the three people who designed the Roomba, the cute, iconic vacuum cleaning robot that has inspired everything from a cartoon character to an introspective Twitter account.
Her new startup, CyPhy Works, is now developing drones that fit in your pocket and weighs less than three ounces. “They’ll fit in your cargo pants pocket, not like your designer jean pocket,” she qualifies.
Unlike the Roomba, the drone is actually not intended for commonplace situations at all. Instead, it’s meant to quickly help in situations like medical workers responding to a disaster or military personnel entering an unknown or dangerous situation. The idea is they could send the PocketFlyer out ahead into the building to check out the situation and send back high-quality video.
This is not a unique application for drones or robots. In fact, the PackBot, a ground robot developed by Greiner’s previous company iRobot, was one of the first robots to be used in a disaster response more than a decade ago, when it was sent into the collapsed World Trade Center towers to look for survivors. But drones have an advantage over robots: They avoid ground obstacles and simply navigate the free airspace.
The key innovation from CyPhy Works is putting the drone on a leash. The PocketFly, attached to a thin, disposable microfilament tether that unspools as the drone navigates the building, allows it two hours of battery life and uninterrupted communications with the people standing outside. If a similar sized drone were sent into a building today, its battery might only last less than 20 minutes and its video transmission would likely get disrupted as soon as it entered a basement or room where the Wi-Fi signal was weak.
CyPhy Works has a working prototype, and it recently entered a contract with the U.S. Air Force to develop a production model. Greiner believes the drone, which will be built to use several times but not necessarily to last forever, will ultimately be most useful to soldiers, FEMA, SWAT teams, firefighters, police, and the like.
Pocket Flyer is also not the only tethered drone that CyPhy Works has in development. The company’s PARC system, which stands for Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications, will be a tethered drone meant to hover 500 feet in the air for extended periods of time, so that facility owners, from mining companies to farmers and military bases, can keep a constant watch over their whole properties. “A lot of people make drones that go out and see things. What we do is we make a drone that goes up and it stays there,” Greiner says.
Greiner dismisses the privacy concerns of this sort of capability, saying that property owners are allowed to spy on their own land and the tether actually reduces the privacy risk because the drone won’t fly off and record other places. Still, the idea of drones hovering above watching everything sounds creepy. A friendly, non-threatening Roomba of the drone world, this is not.