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Drones

Minecraft in the sky, anyone?

DroneBase, a company that offers professional drone services, now lets anyone build with virtual blocks in the sky.

With an iPhone, you can already make virtual furniture appear in your home, or play games on your tabletop with pieces and armies that don't actually exist

Now, a company wants to let you play with virtual Lego-like blocks in the sky -- using your DJI drone. DroneBase, a company that puts drone pilots to work taking aerial photos and video and performing inspections of damaged roofs, cellular towers, properties for sale and more, has just launched a new portion of their app called AirCraft that hobbyist pilots can use as well. 

Trying out AirCraft in a Silicon Valley park.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I got to try it at a park in San Jose, California, this week, and I thought it was pretty cool. You're not just writing on your phone's screen with a finger while your drone hovers in place, oh no -- you can actually fly in, around, and through the blocky creations you make with the drone itself. 

Tap on a different block color or material on-screen, then again to place it roughly 10 meters in front of the drone's camera. You can even use the shoulder buttons built right into a DJI drone's controller so you're never letting go of the controls.

The coolest part: Your creation's GPS coordinates are stored in DroneBase's database, so anyone else who uses the app could theoretically stumble upon what you've created, even add to it, if they fly in the same location. 

Mind you, the blocky creations do "wiggle" a bit right now. They aren't firmly affixed to a precise location in the sky, because GPS has a bit of wiggle room and so do the altitude meters built into today's drones. (DroneBase co-founder Eli Tamanaha says the app doesn't use any computer vision yet, and they're working on that now.) Currently, it's not easy to build structures that look like they're actually top of the ground, or a drone race course that doesn't move.

(And while I bring up the idea of Minecraft because of the visual similarities, the blocks are just blocks so far -- not interactive, animated materials you could, say, build a rudimentary computer from.)

DroneBase says AirCraft has more potential than art and gaming, though: It's already working with a construction firm (I was asked not to name them) that wants to see what a skyscraper would look like on the actual plot of land where it will live. With augmented reality, Tamanaha says DroneBase can also provide a tool to train oil rig inspectors how to safely fly around an oil rig -- without an actual rig to worry about.

dronebase-construction-example

DroneBase

AR drone flight simulators have been around for years now, but they often involve flying a fake, computer-generated drone that doesn't naturally respond to the laws of physics. With AirCraft, they could fly a real drone in the real world instead.

If you've got a recent DJI drone (Phantom 3 or newer, Spark, Mavic Pro or Inspire) and want to give it a try yourself, you can find the updated DroneBase app on the iOS App Store now. It'll be coming to Android in a few weeks.