Interest in drones takes flight

LAS VEGAS - On a dusty stretch of Nevada desert, a quadcopter drone kicks up a small cloud as it takes off. It then trails its operator on a drive across the flat terrain, filming the motion from a short distance above.

The AirDog drone was designed to capture the intensity of extreme sports that have been difficult to access - surfing, skiing, off-road biking and similar activities.

"We felt we could change the way video is captured in action sports," said Agris Kipurs, co-founder of AirDog. Created by a group of Latvian engineers and now based in California, AirDog is starting beta-testing on its products later this year.

The AirDog drone, one of dozens showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week in Las Vegas, is aimed at offering "an unassisted experience, so all you need is the tracking device on your wrist", Mr Kipurs told AFP during a demonstration in the desert outside Las Vegas.

Drones are showing up in a variety of shapes and sizes at the huge electronics fair, which has for the first time a space dedicated to "unmanned systems". More than a dozen companies are displaying the flying devices, for uses ranging from remote- controlled toys and professional film-making to industrial and agricultural applications.

The Hexo+ drone from Franco-American Squadrone System is another drone on display that can be pre-programmed to follow and film a person or object from any conceivable angle, using a smartphone.

In a similar category, the show got a look at the Nixie drone, a flying camera which launches from one's wrist and was the winner last year in a competition sponsored by Intel for wearable technology.

"We think drones have a possibility to change our lives in positive ways," said Intel chief executive officer Brian Krzanich in a CES keynote speech, during which he demonstrated Intel- powered drones from Ascending Technologies that navigated obstacles on stage.

South Korean-based Byrobot is showing its "drone fighter", which enables its users to simulate aerial combat with infrared signals to fire at enemy aircraft.

When one of the drones is hit, its lights flash and its hand controller vibrates, signalling it is downed, according to the company, which offers an optional camera with the device.

With United States regulations on drones still uncertain, some developers are looking for ways to avoid being grounded.

The Zano drone, a so-called nano-drone designed for aerial photography and selfies, weighs in at just 55g, just under the current limit of 60g to be regulated in the US, said Thomas Dietrich, design director for the British- based Torquino Group.

"We've squeezed a lot of technology into a very small package," he said. "It's a smart device. It's all gesture based and it has obstacle avoidance."

At US$279 (S$370), he said, the drone "is affordable for everyone".

A full line-up of drones is on display from the French electronics group Parrot, which has expanded its offerings over the past year in both consumer and industrial unmanned vehicles.

"The past year was very good" for drone sales, said Parrot marketing director Nicolas Halftermeyer.

Parrot recently introduced its Bebop drone for the consumer segment, which can take high-definition video and be controlled from a tablet or smartphone.

It also sells a professional mapping drone called eBee and another designed for agricultural use called eBee Ag.

"This part of the business is growing very fast," he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which organises the show, said the market for these devices is hitting new heights as the technology previously used for military aircraft is adapted for consumer and industrial activities.

The show includes a panel discussion on the plans for US regulations.

According to CEA research, the global market for consumer drones will approach US$130 million in revenue this year, up 55 per cent from last year, with unit sales of consumer drones expected to reach 400,000.

Revenue from drone sales is expected to top US$1 billion in just five years, the CEA said.