In the year since the release of the Ghost Drone, camera-equipped quadcopters that can autonomously track a subject haven't exactly become par for the course, but that feature is no longer enough to set them apart from the crowd either. In its ongoing search for a point of difference, the Chinese maker of the Ghost Drone has returned with a new and improved version, which allows pilots to don a set of virtual reality goggles and control the direction of the drone's camera simply by moving their head.
Mixing virtual reality with drones isn't an entirely new idea. Parrot combined the two in its Bepop drone that launched last year, which allows users to plug headsets such as the Oculus Rift into the controller to gain a unique vantage point. The sensation offered through real-time, first-person flying is also the main factor driving the sport of drone racing, where pilots tune into the views of their custom-built quadcopters as they zip through warehouses and forests.
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But Ehang, maker of the Ghost Drone, is looking to take things one step further. The Ghost Drone 2.0 will ship with a purpose-built virtual reality headset that, in addition to immersing users in the experience, could potentially overcome one of the more troublesome tasks of drone photography – specifically, controlling the orientation of a camera during flight.
The system takes the movement of the VR headset and uses it as input controls for the Ghost Drone 2.0's gimbal. This is meant to mimic the natural motion of the head, so looking up and down will move the camera in those directions. Ehang claims data is transmitted at 5.8 GHz with zero latency up to 3,000 ft (914 m) away.
As for flying the drone itself, Ehang has also developed a new iOS and Android app that allows users to switch between the downwards-facing camera and another at the front, presumably to help avoid collisions, while also incorporating gesture controls. This means that mobile devices can be tilted in-hand to move the drone in the corresponding direction. This setup is very much in keeping with Ehang's approach to the original Ghost Drone, which eschews the radio controlled transmitters that accompany many popular quadcopters in pursuit of a more user-friendly way to move through the sky.
Smartphone control may be less intimidating, and it is a strategy that Parrot has used to great effect first with its hugely popular AR Drone and then the Bepop, but they do have their limitations. In our experience they can be clunky and don't offer the same precision as a set of joysticks, but Ehang seems sure it can continue to win over smartphone-owning would-be pilots with an easier transition into drone flight. The app also allows users to set waypoints and includes a follow-me feature, along with an auto-return home function for when battery is low or the signal is lost.
Among the other improvements to the second Ghost Drone is an upgraded GPS system and a more powerful processor, which Ehang says makes for improved overall flight. The spherical camera shoots videos at 4K resolution and photos at 12 megapixels, with an aperture of 2.8 and a 93-degree wide-angle lens. The 4,500 mAh battery is a slight downsizing from the 5,400 mAh that powered the original, resulting in a 25 minute flight time compared to 30 minutes.
There's no word just yet on shipping or the exact pricing for the version that includes the VR headset and 4K camera, though Ehang is now taking preorders for a basic US$599 model that comes without either.
You can check out the promo video below.