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The Roomba’s Inventor Launches What Might Be The Easiest-To-Use Drone Yet

Even the worst pilot can get this flying robot to perform.

Consumer drones are so cheap now that almost anyone can get one. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to fly. They often wobble like drunken bees (you can see Fast Company’s own harrowing experience here). At minimum, keeping them level takes focus that distracts from the operator’s ability to keep an eye on what they’re filming.

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A new drone prototype, the CyPhy LVL 1, is supposed to eliminate this problem with stabilizing technology that keeps the device completely horizontal. The drone’s developer, a Massachusetts-based company called CyPhy Works, has also embedded it with other unique, consumer-friendly functions: An intuitive smartphone interface that controls the drone with simple swiping and in-flight social sharing (rather than most drones, which require a download at home). Basically, if you can use Tinder, you can figure this thing out.

“This is really the first drone for everybody,” says CyPhy Works CEO Helen Greiner, who is launching a $250,000 Kickstarter campaign on Monday to attract early interest to the product. (The company has already raised $12.5 million in venture capital and debt financing.)

Greiner would know. She is the co-designer of one of the world’s best-loved robots, the Roomba–the robotic vacuum cleaner made by iRobot, a company she helped lead from MIT spin-off to a global venture. Like iRobot, which first began by selling bomb-diffusing robots to the U.S. military before it got into the consumer market, CyPhyWorks has so far focused on developing drones for commercial and emergency responder-type uses. Now it wants to sell to everyone.

Kickstarter backers will get a base model CyPhy LVL 1 for $495, which is also eventually the expected retail price. This is more money than the cheapest hobbyist drones, which can cost as little as $50, but hundreds of dollars less than some of the highest-end consumer drones on the market today. The battery life of the two-pound unit will be a somewhat standard 20 minutes, says Greiner. One of its other advantages, she notes, is that it will also make it easy to create a “geofence.” By pacing around the boundaries of, say, a backyard with a smartphone, the user can define a confined area in which the drone can roam–alleviating worries about it potentially spying on the neighbors. With a built-in protected camera, it can survive a crash too.

But what about the more general privacy concerns? The CyPhy LVL 1 not only makes it easy to film via drone, but also allows users to post the footage in real-time. Greiner doesn’t dismiss the privacy concerns that come with these machines, but she says the concerns not unique to drones. “Talking about it with drones only is a little bit of a red herring. It should be about where you can and can’t point a camera system,” she says.

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Overall, Greiner expects that the consumer market for drones will continue to grow as they become more user-friendly: “Drones have an advantage over Roombas. Roombas are very practical and useful. But drones are very practical, useful, and fun.”

The Kickstarter will run until June 17, and backers can expect the product to ship in February 2016.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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