Rise of the drones: is the self-flying Lily a sign of narcissistic things to come?
First the selfie, then the selfie stick, now the selfie drone. When historians look back at photos from the early-21st century, they’re going to see our pictures moving further and further from our faces, away from our arms and up in the air.
Promising to shake up the way we think about snapping ourselves are a new breed of personal drones. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) offer the chance to grab aerial shots that would normally take a helicopter and thousands of pounds worth of equipment to capture. Just as smartphones brought cameras to an enormous audience of casual photographers, the next year could see selfie drones massively expand the field of aerial photos and film.
Leading the pack is Lily, a self-flying drone which connects to a portable tracker and follows the user at a fixed distance. The brainchild of a group of recent Berkeley graduates, Lily combines GPS tracking with a high-power camera. Described as a ‘camera. reinvented,’ the easiest way to think about Lily is as a personal, flying cameraman – your very own film crew.
Using the tracker you can order Lily to follow you at a distance of between 5 and 100 feet, all the while filming with 1080p HD video, slow motion 720p footage or 12 megapixel still shots. It can fly at 25 miles per hour, is fully waterproof, has an in-built microphone and can stay in the air for up to 20 minutes before running out of power.
All of that film power is great, but perhaps the most interesting things about Lily is that it flies itself. While photography drones like the Parrot Bebop have been around for years, they tend to go along with a complicated set of controls. Using Lily, you simply throw the drone in the air and its four rotors automatically kick into action. Play around with the controls on your wrist and you can tweak the flying distance as you watch live video streamed to your phone, but aside from that Lily can pretty much take care of itself.
This ease of access is key. While big price tag and steep learning curves have so far limited personal drones to groups of enthusiasts, being able to get impressive shots without having to master complicated controls taps into a much bigger market. As the tech develops so does the culture around it: drone photosharing sites like dronestagr.am are on the rise, while last March saw the first New York City Drone Film festival, all of which seems to signal a technology teetering on mass popularity.
A Growing Swarm of Selfie Drones
And Lily isn’t the only selfie drone on the scene. Recent months have seen a number of companies launch Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns to develop self-flying photography drones. AirDog is developing an ‘auto-follow drone for GoPro camera’, ElecFreaks Tech are working on a the smartphone-controlled ELF and the British company Torquing Group is developing Zano, which the company claims is ‘small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and intelligent enough to fly all by itself’.
Along with the promise of self-flying and smartphone controls, the relatively low price tags of these drone further lend the tech mass market appeal. Lily has a pre-order price of £318 ($499) while the Zano is currently pitched at around £170. Those numbers are still high enough to put off casual users but they are markedly cheaper than the £700 Parrot Bebop and within a year those prices will fall. If the aim is to make aerial photography and film as accessible as possible, affordability is a crucial part of this.
But the question remains, will selfie drones translate to everyday use? When you’re hurtling down ski slopes or shooting a film arm-length really isn’t enough, but what if you’re going for a walk in the park? Or sat in Nandos? If the next few years sees a rising number of selfie drones on the market, can we expect to see these nano UAVs buzzing around everywhere we go? Needless to say, this raises a whole heap of questions about privacy and access.
Whether or not we’ll need ‘no drone’ areas is another matter; what’s certain is that drones like Lily, AirDog, ELF and Zano are pushing the envelop when it comes to autonomous flying tech. What’s more, with a chance to capture breathtaking shots simply and inexpensively these drones hint at a whole new way of thinking about aerial photography.