360-degree camera drone can depth-map its surroundings with 8K video
Maryland company Door Robotics, started in 2016 by a pair of University of Maryland students, has hit Kickstarter with what it claims is the world's first fully integrated 360-degree camera drone. The Vista combines the output of two ultra-wide cameras into an all-encompassing, depth-mapped 8K/30-fps video stream.
This flying 360-degree camera thus doesn't have to worry about gimbals; it can easily software-stabilize its image simply by tracking its movements and angles in the air. It's a neat idea, and the image stitching software can sew the edges of the images up in such a way that the drone itself doesn't appear anywhere in the picture.
Each of the cameras uses a quality, 21-megapixel Sony IMX-204 sensor, allowing stitched 360-degree stills up to 40 megapixels in size. Sounds a bit like overkill, but then when you're looking around in an image in VR, you're only ever able to see part of it, so you want all the resolution you can get.
Likewise the 8K video; Door wants the Vista to be a programmable one-step device for creating super-smooth virtual reality walkthroughs of indoor and outdoor spaces that can be presented in VR, so while 8K video doesn't have a ton of utility as a delivery format for flat screens, it'll sure make a difference when you're looking at it through goggles.
Four LiDAR sensors measure depth all around the drone, enabling obstacle avoidance and object tracking, as well as allowing it to create depth maps of the scenes it's filming. This is particularly neat in real estate applications, where it can give you a visual tour through a house and allow you to take measurements around the place to see if your fridge or sofa will fit.
This stuff has been going on in real estate for many years, of course, but using a time and labor intensive process in which an operator has to move a tripod around the place, and producing a result in which the user ends up with a bunch of still points they can move around between. The Vista can create a video as it moves through the space, allowing you to stop anywhere and look around in 8K detail, and if that turns out to make you a tad queasy you can easily just get it to hover in place and take huge-resolution stills.
An optical flow sensor and stereoscopic cameras also assist with stable positioning and depth mapping, and the Vista is designed to navigate new areas on its own to map them out. It's got some other fairly standard drone features: follow me, automated takeoff and landing, low-battery return-home functionality, that sort of thing. A 31-minute flight time is targeted for each swappable battery, and footage can either be streamed out live in 1080p or up to 1.5 hours can be recorded onto storage media.
Vista will ship with its own controller, a fairly simple-looking affair with a pair of thumbsticks and a touch screen. It's probably unrealistic to wish for a user interface as tight and clean as you'd find on a DJI drone, but that can be forgiven in light of this drone's 360-degree capabilities. We're interested to learn what you can see onscreen when you're flying this thing, and how it might differ from a traditional single-camera drone.
We wouldn't expect a 1080p zoomed crop of an 8K video image constructed from two ultra-wide fisheye views to give you the kind of video quality you'd get with a single camera that's dedicated to shooting in the same field of vision you'll be watching in, but some of the company's demo videos don't look bad.
Could you get the bulk of this thing's utility by strapping a regular 360-degree camera to any old drone? Well, sort of; I can't see how you'd be able to eliminate the drone in the stitched image, so anyone looking around in VR is going to see a great big airframe sitting on top of their heads. There's nothing particularly magical in the way Door Robotics is packaging the Vista; it seems reasonable to expect 360-degree camera drones like this will become a thing. Heck, we're kinda surprised DJI or Insta360 or the like don't already have one out there.
They may even at some stage make more sense than regular camera drones, since as long as they can see an object they can film it, and they'll let you compose your shot in post production, opening up some wild effects. But to get to that point, they'll need a pretty significant leap in image quality and you'll need some chops with some 360-degree video editing software.
Door Robotics is crowdfunding the Vista on Kickstarter for an early bird "50 percent off" pledge of US$1,199 for one chromed-out drone and a controller, with deliveries slated for April next year. It's already nailed its target three times over, so the project is going ahead – but all the standard crowdfunding warnings apply. Indeed, one of the only other integrated 360-degree camera drones we can find appears to have been an Indiegogo crowdfunded device back in 2016 that never delivered.
Check out a video below.