Cameras mounted on drones have been used for all sorts of interesting things lately — getting a fuller picture of the scope of Ukrainian protests, capturing skiers and snowboarders in action at the Olympics in Sochi, showing aerial views of real estate or zooming way out on the Burning Man festival.
But unmanned vehicles flying overhead and recording what is below still feels somewhat invasive. That’s due in part to their origins spying and firing missiles and such. It’s also because people who see drones flying above them have little way of knowing what they’re doing or where they came from, unless they see someone holding a controller nearby.
So what happens when you add a dog leash to the setup?
“It becomes like a flying pet,” said Fotokite founder Sergei Lupashin. “And as soon as you have the tether, people think of it as a pet.”
Lupashin builds prototypes of the aptly named Fotokite out of 3-D printed parts, a standard GoPro camera, and a retractable dog leash. The BBC is among the early testers, and Lupashin is part of the TED Fellows program for emerging creative thinkers.
In an interview at TED, Lupashin said there are other benefits to leashed quadrocopters besides the way people perceive them. They’re much simpler to operate, and the tether acts as kind of an extendable tripod.
The intelligence in the Fotokite remembers the trajectory and direction at which it’s launched into the air. So while Lupashin and I were talking while walking through the TED conference in Vancouver, the Fotokite hovered at about chin level, focused back toward us, even as we went down an escalator.
What are the potential uses for this? “A journalist documenting a demonstration, a photographer shooting a wedding party, firefighters on search and rescue, architects, archaeologists, scientists and many others,” Lupashin said.
“Purpose-built robotics solutions for firefighters have had very limited success, but if a 5-year-old is able to use a Fotokite, then perhaps it’ll actually be useful at the site of an accident or a breaking news event,” he added.
Plus, Lupashin said that proposed FAA guidelines for unmanned aerial systems explicitly won’t apply to tethered aircraft like kites.
This is far from being a consumer product — in fact, Lupashin said he does not yet know how Fotokites will be distributed or sold to professionals or consumers. Currently, Fotokite is being built by a team in Zurich with a robotics grant from the Swiss National Foundation. But Lupashin is trying to raise a seed round on AngelList.
Here’s a video, taken mostly by Lupashin’s Fotokite extended up above our hallway-and-escalator interview at TED. It was edited by Vjeran Pavic of Re/code.