March 2, 2017

The king of quads for action sports paves a path of autonomous follow technology.

Nobody should enjoy kicking a competitor when he’s down, but in action sports, like other professional athletics, winning is the primary objective. When Lily Camera fell from the top of the mountain before releasing a product, the hungry meat-eaters at AirDog, a company featured by DronesX last year, were glad to accept the crown as the king of drones for action sports.

Edgars Rozentals is the mastermind behind the AirDog who caught the drone bug when his girlfriend gifted him an RC helicopter in 2009. She wanted him to have one final toy before becoming a father in a few months. Little did she know. After playing around with the copter relentlessly, Rozental emerged a drone enthusiast who would eventually become a serious UAV entrepreneur with drive, vision and a plan.

AirDog isn’t for drone junkies. Action sports athletes make up the company target market, from snowboarders to skaters to mountain bikers. By communicating with the wearable AirLeash via long-distance Bluetooth, the drone flies autonomously while keeping the athlete secure within the range of a GoPro’s frame. Users can breeze through a user manual and within minutes send the drone skyward without needing any prior flying experience.

Depending on your sport of choice, the AirDog operates with different software. There is an app for windsurfers, wakeboarders, mountain bikers, and back country athletes. Apps for kiteboarding, waterskiing, snow sports, and motocross will be released next season.

“Many of [our team members] do different action sports, starting with surfing, kitesurfing, snowboarding, different kind of stuff, so we had a very good understanding of what is required to film yourself,” Rozental told DronesX.

An IT entrepreneur since 2000, Rozental began working on drone development after founding Helico Aerospace Industries, a startup based in Latvia. A visit from a friend and snowboarding icon paved the way for AirDog’s creation.

“A friend of ours came over, he was a guy really involved in action sports, and he said ‘Hey guys, why don’t you build a simple small drone that follows you with a GoPro camera?’ And at that point the idea was born. [Development] turned out to be more complicated than we thought initially, and that actually inspired us to go for this project. If it was too easy, we wouldn’t do it because there wouldn’t be any barrier for anyone who wanted to copy us.”

Rozental then started a Kickstarter campaign to fund AirDog’s development, which garnered 1,357 backers and raised a total of $1,368,000. The crowdfunding effort earned a place on Kickstarter’s list of Staff Picks, despite reports that DJI swooped in to save the campaign. AirDog also received much praise during its CES debut, with EnGadget naming it the Best Robot or Drone of the 2015. One year later, the company was flying. Here is a video of Edgars giving DronesX a demo of the AirDog at CES 2016 on a rainy day in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.

And, here is a much better video produced by AirDog:

“Over a period of three years, we were developing the technology. It was actually quite complicated software that makes following action sports and autonomous filming possible,” Rozentals said. Arguably the biggest technological feat of AirDog is its sidekick AirLeash. The wearable wrist or upper-armband is waterproof and uses smart sensors, GPS, an internal compass, and inertial measurement to predict movement so the athlete stays in frame. Users can also switch the AirLeash to joystick mode to control it manually.

“The user experience is something we really try to keep our focus on,” Rozentals said. “Drones in general are still quite immature. People might think that the technology has gone far in its development, but we still believe that there is a lot to be done before drones will reach user experience comparable to smart phones—something that you simply pull out of the box that works, and you literally have to do nothing.”

Right now, users need to fly the drone in open spaces only, but the team is working on obstacle avoidance software that will enable AirDog owners to create a “No-Fly Zone” to avoid trees, ski-lifts, and buildings in the future, for greater flexibility. The drone flies up to 45 mph and utilizes LiDar technology to avoid colliding with the ground.

Like the AirLeash, AirDog is waterproof and weatherproof, and doesn’t lose its functionality in sub-zero temperatures, a definite perk for winter athletes. It comes with a built-in two-axis camera gimbal, and the plastic body is foldable with detachable propellers for easy carrying.

You can buy the AirDog for $1,599, which includes a lithium battery that lasts for 10-18 hours, a battery charger, the AirLeash, a USB adapter and cable, and a power cord. It’s compatible with the GoPro Hero 3, 3+, and 4, and an adapter is purchasable for Hero 5. Reviews so far have been favorable, by customers and journalists.

Autonomy is the future and AirDog is clearly beyond the reach of new competitors. As they become easier to navigate, the buyer demographic will likely expand to include customers beyond prosumers and professional athletes. Edgars envisions customers walking their dog and AirDog at the same time.

“Drones will become more and more intelligent, more capable of making educated decisions about their surroundings and the environment in which they are operating and flying, and they will rely less on the decisions of humans,” Rozental said. “That’s when drone markets will really experience massive explosion.”