Jackie Wu and Ritwik Ummalaneni are aiming to give some tiny flying quadcopters a new job in home security. The idea is to have a Jackie drone linked to a home Wi-Fi network charged up and ready to patrol. Using a smartphone app, the home owner can remotely activate Jackie and fly it around the house to see what's going on with the help of video feeds from its onboard camera. It's still early days for the project, but a proof of concept prototype system has already clocked up some flight time and a Kickstarter campaign has been launched to bring the idea to life.
We've previously seen quite a few security cameras from the likes of Belkin, Withings and others that allow smartphone users to virtually look around a room when an alert is triggered. The problem with such technology is that if the camera is pointing the wrong way, unable to show what's lurking behind the sofa or not even in the same room as all the action, the user doesn't get to see what's caused the system to fire off an alert.
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What's different about Jackie from Eight Six Ninety-One Technologies is that the security camera is mounted to a small drone that can be controlled over an internet connection using a smartphone app. The app will show the camera's point of view onscreen and the remote pilot will be able to fly the drone from room to room checking that all's well at home. At least that's the idea.
Anyone who has flown a quadcopter using a smartphone will know how difficult it can be even when you can see the drone right in front of you. Piloting a remote flyer around a home full of precious ornaments, top-heavy table lamps or expensive TVs using just the video feed on a smartphone screen for visuals may prove more harrowing than actually (virtually) confronting an intruder trying to make off with your knick-knacks.
"Stability and flying are our biggest concerns," Wu told us. "We are implementing a downward facing camera and stabilization algorithms to level the quadcopter, adding better controls and another microprocessor just for stability. This is something we are working on."
The specs of a consumer release drone are still being worked out, but it will carry a high def camera – though the development team has yet to choose the actual model that will be carried by Jackie, telling us that "we have tested a nice 1080p HD camera that is light enough to be used." So, if having a camera-packing drone in hot pursuit isn't enough to persuade a would-be bandit to flee the scene, then at least a user might be able to give an identifying image or two to the authorities.
The team is estimating that the Jackie drone will be able to stay in the air for up to 6 minutes before needing to return to its base station for automated charging (top ups will take about 30 minutes). For the time being, remote flyers will need to navigate Jackie back to its wireless charging base station between scouting missions but the developers are looking into an auto return feature. The wireless charging pad will sport a microphone and speakers.
The proof of concept prototype you can see in the pitch video at the end is a modified Crazyflie, but the production version will be a proprietary design and will feature soft props and blade guards to minimize crash damage. Cloud-based computer vision algorithms are being developed to detect events or anomalies and the development team is promising an easy to use and intuitive smartphone control interface.
As well as applications in home security, the flying smartcam can also be used for peace of mind verification (such as checking that the door has been locked after the last occupant has left for work or making sure that the stove is turned off when there's no-one at home).
It's certainly an interesting idea but Wu and Ummalaneni, both former students of the Robotics program at Northwestern University, have got quite a bit of work to do and a number of obstacles to overcome before a production-ready flying home security cam gets off the ground. They report that they've already lined up some manufacturers with experience of quadcopter production to begin work on a market-ready design, get the electronics in order and increase Jackie's stability.
Before that can happen though, the team has turned to Kickstarter both for financial help and to test market demand. Project backers will need to stump up at least US$199 for a Jackie flying smartcam and companion Android/iOS app (expected to retail for $249). Such things as automated event notifications and online storage of recorded footage are not part of the rewards of the main campaign, which runs until May 8, but are being offered as stretch goals. Should everything go to plan, delivery is estimated for December.
You can see the prototype Jackie in action in the pitch video below.
Update April 14: The Kickstarter campaign has been cancelled by Eight Six Ninety-One Technologies. "We are temporarily pulling down the Kickstarter campaign to do more work on getting customers excited, media and marketing outreach, as well as further develop our prototype and be able to show it in the best light," Jackie Wu told us. "We'll be up again later this year!"