Drones in depthDonald Bell sits down with Henri Seydoux of Parrot and John Cherbini of 3D Robotics to discuss the present and future of consumer aerial drones at CES 2014.
-All right, hello everyone and welcome back to the CNET's stage in the South Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center and live coverage of CES 2014. I'm Donald Bell, editor with CNET and here we are in the next 15 minutes focusing on drones. Joining me today is Henri Seydoux, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Parrot and John Cherbini, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at 3D Robotics. Welcome. Thanks for joining us today. -Hello. -I have to say right off the bat out of anything I'd ever see at CES, the thing that draws everyone's attention immediately turns everyone with the children are drones. I wanna know what you think is going on there. Is there something about drones even at more than any other kind of RC aerial vehicle that just mesmerizing to people. Henri, what do you think the magic is here? -I think the magic is flying. And flying is like a dream and we make flying so easy that a kid of eight years can take it and in a minute he knows how to fly it. So it's something that is unbelievable and the technology made it all. -And then John, what's been your experience about what the appeal is for people coming to 3D Robotics for the drones? -That's just being able to get a new perspective on all the regular stuff that you've been doing. So, you know, water skiing or snowboarding or whatever you're able to get a hold of new perspective on what you're doing from the air. -And then let's-- I think my assumption is both of you are coming to this from different perspectives. What's been, for you Henri the, from-- the first time I heard Parrot, it is through Bluetooth headphones, headset Bluetooth speakers and then suddenly drones popped up. And then-- you know, no one was complaining 'cause there are a lot of fun. But what was the journey for you getting towards this as a product? -So we do technology around the cellphone. We do products with Bluetooth on the cellphone and one day like seven years ago, the company was going and say-- okay, now I can do what I really meant. And I've seen also some components that you have on the cellphone, the cameras, the accelerometer then I said, is this-- it's so cheap now I can make toys. So I start to make those. I make a first one was a car with Bluetooth and a camera and I gave to my son the prototype and I did not see his eyes as that, you know, it was something. -Right. -So I say okay I have to do more. So I look for something flying and I finally have to do an helicopter because he can go-- in your home you cannot fly with a plane. -Sure. -So this is all we get into drones. And then it took us four years to make the first drone for consumers. And then from there we get more idea then the technology and now we developed the drone also for professionals. -That sounds like a lot of fun. I think you were really-- a Parrot, the AR Drone. I think it was one of the first ones I saw here at CES and the kind of the first kinda commercially available, you know-- -Yes. I think for the iPhone, you know, to make it super simple, you know, really like an app, you know, it's not more difficult than an app. You have a button take off and then it take off. So this is what we like you know on the technology of today so you can hide this thing very complex into intuitive things. -You know, John, you're coming from another perspective here and a lot of the 3D Robotics rigs are meant for more of a professional user. What got everything started off? What's the inspiration behind it? -You know, we started-- it's a very similar. So in 2009, we started off making auto-pilots that flew primarily fixed wing airplanes and then started moving into new technologies that we're able to leverage from the cellphone revolution and the accelerometers and gyroscopes and barometers and GPS, and started moving the code that we use into controlling multi-rotors for, you know, four motors, six motors, eight motors, twelve motors and that's really been the progression starting off, you know, very simple infrared-based thermopiles that controlled the aircraft and moving into this more complex mem sensors and, you know, and the goal is the ease of use and Henri in Parrot have done a great job at that and we aspired to be as easy to use as they are. -It's easy to get that lost in like a lot of people were talking. We actually just got out of the panel discussion on sensors. It's easy to look at these as toys not realize how much of this technology is relying on sensors for the stabilization for everything. Tell me about your latest product. What's going on that makes this thing that you guys are showing off this year? -So this is Iris. It's our first kind of foray into the consumer drone market. We have typically been a little bit more industrial-design style. We're using more aluminum pieces and cut carbon fiber pieces and things like that. But this is our first foray into, you know, injection-molded consumer facing products. And along with this, we've also upgraded our autopilots to a 32-bit platform and 32-bit hardware and still leveraging the experience that we've had over the last four years with our code. So we've actually created a hardware extraction layer to take our existing stable code and ported over to the new 32-bit hardware platform. -But this is for someone who is not fooling around. They wanna-- they really wanna have a product that's gonna get up and take some, you know, controllable aerial shots. There's the Brushless Gimbal down here for moving the camera once it's in the air. -Yeah. This thing ready to fly us about $800 and so, you know, I would say, you know, any sports enthusiasts or somebody who really enjoys taking pictures from the air, it's very accessible and, you know, it obviously goes up from there but, you know, it'll also go down from there eventually as well. -Right. Now, Henri, you've got some, you know, very high-end products too. But the one that we're most excited about seeing at CES this year is the smallest Quadcopter we've seen from here. Tell us about what you've got. -So what we show here at the CES, what we introduce is the mini drones. So it's really a drone for indoor and for all the [unk]. So this drone rolls but it rolls also on the ceiling. It rolls on the walls and also it fly. So it's really something that we do for, you know-- -There you go-- yeah, my kids will love that. I'm sure. And this kinda gets back to the-- what sounds like the original inspiration of trying to find something fun for your kid as well. So this is actually, this seems like the top of my list of my five-year-old, you know-- -I think to do things for the kid is difficult. You know, it's a challenge. Don't believe that we do this because we believe it's easy, you know. We do it because we believe it's very difficult. Today the kids are most of their experience they have of playing is video games. Of course, video games are beautiful. You know, they're very strategic and the shows as well are kinda what of today. But I want to do something that for the kids it is as sophisticated as video games but on the real world. -Right. -So this is why we get those ideas of those robotics firstly to have fun with the technology of today on the second way you learn. For example our drones, everything is repairable. So you can find any parts and we do tutorial and videos in the internet. So any kid which is 10 years old can fix the drone, returns it back, return it-- and it's a part of the game. -And so that gets to another question I had about the hurdles for developing this. But both of these are, you know, some products of hard years of development going into variations on other products that you guys have on your belt. What are the struggles that have happened? What do you see in drones that is kind of the biggest struggle against the category growing? Was it the perception like even the word drone kinda sounds like a loaded word, is it safety concerns? Like you're saying like building something for your child is a lot different process than building something that's gonna get up and you don't have a lot of power. What are the struggles? -The safety is very important. We passed all the rules of a toy so it's legally a toy so-- but for us, you know, what is the biggest difficulty is the technology is going so fast. So it's very interesting but it's like making stuff. You know, I don't do stuff that I imagine, you know, to stay on the stuff and to ride from the wave to the beach is not easy, you know. So the technology is going fast, new techniques are coming every year. -Right. -So to get the part product at the good time using the latest technology for me is the challenge. -I can imagine too with the competition now, everyone could come in and coming out of product in a different point, maybe if they all to pick up on a different wave in the technology seems tough. -But I think now the category also is not popular and I don't think people are afraid by the drone. You know, I'm not afraid by robots and I think they like them. -Now the customers are different for your products, you know, this is-- you're saying this is your consumer product but this is still a relatively expensive product. This is for someone who-- describe your customer. I guess I want-- -You know, like I mentioned early. You know, we're really targeting kind of those consumer action-oriented markets of sports, photography and taking aerial images from this consumer perspective. You know, we have a ton of other application, viable applications like, you know, mining, construction, agriculture, all of these are things that we're moving into with other platforms. But for Iris here in particular, we're really looking at those, you know, action sports, photography kind of markets. -Now I'm assuming both of you have heard about Jeff Bezos' claim about him want to have a fleeted drones for product delivery. How much are you buying that as a legitimate proposition for either he or even a smaller business that might wanna have a fleeted drones to deliver products? -You know, when you have a new techniques, people don't believe it. So when you say maybe tomorrow we will deliver drugs by drones and-- so people find this crazy. But at the end, everything is done, you know. So the question is, I don't know when but for sure, for something like a drug you have a fan, you want this thing, why not, you know. So it will-- today drones use as professional is to collect data. Collect data for mining, for agriculture and also making photography mainly making photography and then process the photography for different application. This is the application today for the drone and there is a lot to do. It's super useful. We have a big ops and 3D Robotics was also in agriculture. Because if you can get pictures of your field and every month you see how it go or how much you have to put chemicals, you can put less chemicals. You can put the chemicals at the higher place. You can put less water or you can-- so for agriculture, the drone should be a very ecological progress for agriculture. So this is our target for the next year for the company on professional drones. -All right. What do you think about the Bezos' version of delivering? -I think he's a little ahead of his time at this point and time but it's-- Henri's right. We are gonna get there. I think there are certain ways to create, you know, easements and leverage existing space and cities that we can do this in a safe and reliable way. I think it's just gonna be a few more years before we're really able to scale it. -But you would also have to make a Quadcopter that is inexpensive enough to sacrifice, correct? I mean, I just-- my mind goes immediately to people trying to shoot them out of the sky. -Yeah. -You know, and gone with the packager. -We will definitely have disposable drones to where it's-- it doesn't. You send a hundred out to go do a job and if 80 come back, it's not that bit of a deal. -Right. Now that also get some point of legal issues, lawsuits, the idea-- I mean with any new technology, people are afraid. I also, I think legitimately I would be concern about, you know, Amazon drone falling out of the sky and, you know, hitting me in the head. I know a lot of people are probably scared about drones because of issues around getting hurt. Is that unfounded? How dangerous are these things like a commercial scale version of this? -I mean we, you know, we always stay under full hundred feet with that line of sight and away from people and objects. I wouldn't want the sky falling on my head either. But I think from the commercial perspective that we were touching on earlier is that it's a matter of creating safe zones for these things to travel in and, you know, and proving the safety and reliability of the hardware. -All right. And then overall in terms of the formula for designs, both of these I feel like the Quadcopter is in a mature of state. I mean I've seen the Hexcopters and the other, you know, more rotors, more lift, better cameras. But what's the formula for the whole thing that you guys are honing in on year after year. Is it making it lighter, is it the battery, is it the range? Describe to me, if not, just one specific thing what the laundry list of things are that kind of get dialed in? -It's like an insect, you know, you have a small tiny bugs. You have a large huge bugs like flying saucers. So you don't have a drone for everything. The Quadcopter is [unk] of formula the most modern because it's very robust and it's easy to manufacture. You don't have mechanical path, you know. So the Quadcopter, which is a very old idea. The Quadcopter is the oldest idea of the helicopter. It comes from the 1910 or 1912 they did the first helicopter. So the first helicopter is very good but if you need to make a lot of pictures and to go into lush fields you need to have wings. So-- but the drones, the nice thing of it, you know, it's like aviation in 1920 or 1910, you know. Everything is to do. You know, for example at the [unk] we like to make wings and flying because we think it's more funny but also it has more usage. For example for delivery. Sometime you have [unk] you cannot go on the [unk] and sometime you cannot do you will fly. I don't know, you know, it's really an open field for imagination. -All right. And then John, what are the things that you're dialing in the most kinda week to week, is it getting it lighter, is it new materials, the processor, sensors? -Yeah. I would say all of the above. I mean, you know, we recently moved to this 32 bit autopilot and, you know, we call it a universal autopilot because it is with one piece of hardware you are able to control multiple pieces, multiple configurations of hardware. I can control a Tricopter, a Quadcopter, a Hexacopter and Octacopter. A rover, a fixed wing airplane. So it really does depend on the application that you're looking for as to what platform you would choose. We feel we have an advantage in that. You know, our hardware has enough head room and has the code that backs it that's able to allow it to operate multiple vehicles. So it's honestly, it really is all of the above. If you're talking agriculture, you're typically talking for a larger areas, fixed wing airplanes for smaller areas. You can cover them with things like hexes and things like that. But it really depends on application we're talking about as to what you want to-- what you wanna maximize on your hardware. -And today the technology is cooler. You know, maybe drones will be printer, you know, because the iconic you just do to autopilot for everything so maybe you will choose what you do and you will print your drone. -And this does look like 3D printing material, am I right? Is this-- -Those our 3D printed [unk]. -Yes, I can imagine getting pretty crazy with these. So it sounds like a lot of fun, a lot of work-- fun work to be done in making these more interesting year after year. Thank you guys both-- joining me today and talking about the magic of drones and Quadcopters. All right. We look forward to seeing more projects from these guys, but we will be back live at the top of the hour with CES In-Depth. So stay tune to CNET's live coverage of CES 2014.