With his tethered quadcopter Fotokite, Russian-born inventor Sergei Lupashin plans to put aerial photography and the power of unmanned aerial vehicles in the hands of of journalists, architects and artists. Interestingly, this device was actually inspired by a 2011 protest in Russia. We talked to Lupashin to find out more about this inciting moment, and about how he plans to push past the public’s fear of drones.
You’ve said that the idea for Fotokite came from witnessing a protest. Can you tell us more about that?
The protest I was referring to took place in Bolotnaya Square, in 2011, in response to massive irregularities in federal elections. Something very rare happened — a lot of people came out to protest in Moscow. For Russia, this was a huge event. But for whatever reason, the world media pretty much ignored it.
There happened to be a group of photographers nearby who usually do nature shots. They take quadcopters and octocopters to, say, the Sphinx or the Pyramids, and take these fantastic panoramas. They happened to be just around the corner, so they did a few panoramas of the protest. In a single image, you really got an the idea of the scale of this event. It was really eye-opening. Ironically, these photographers were completely apolitical. They were simply documenting what was going on near them. It struck me how powerful it is — how even a single photo from an aerial perspective can really change the world’s perception of situations and events.
This is still a motivator for us, and we’d like people to take the Fotokite to breaking news events. TED Senior Fellow Teru Kuwayama once said to me that you only need a very small shift in perspective to be able to make a great, unique photo. This is also quite interesting to me, because the Fotokite really opens up your envelope in terms of where you can place the camera.
You first came to TED as part of the team manning the Flying Machine Arena at TEDGlobal 2013. (Watch the talk, “The astounding athletic power of quadcopters.“) What’s the difference between the quadcopters you demonstrated there and the technology you use for Fotokite?
The quadcopters we showed at TEDGlobal were part a larger system. The Flying Machine Arena is essentially a motion-capture space configured for robotics, surrounded by a net cage. Motion capture is usually used in Hollywood to track actors, but in this case, we used it to track vehicles. The quadcopters are only able to fly so precisely because they’re being tracked by external cameras, in real time, with extraordinary accuracy. It’s a very expensive—a very specialized system that you couldn’t actually use in the real world beyond performances and installations.
So the question was: how do we build something for the real world, something really simple that you could use outside of a very controlled setup? The Flying Machine Arena served as an incredible sandbox for exploring various directions and concepts with the technology. We learned to build the Fotokite in this environment.
Every photographer knows how to use a tripod. So the idea emerged to build a tripod that could extend very high up, say, 100 meters. Initially, we were using different algorithms to make this “flying tripod” work, but ultimately, a tether proved to be a very elegant solution. The tether is always taut, so we can use it for two things. One is to interact with the vehicle — you can control it like a flying pet. The other is to let the vehicle know where it is, relative to the user. This replaces expensive cameras and GPS.
How does it work? Is there a camera that reads where the tether is?
That’s the magic of it: there are no special sensors. It’s using the same sensors you have in your phone, for example. The magic happens is in the algorithms. So we’re using inertial sensors, very simple sensors that have been made affordable and incredibly reliable thanks to smartphones and consumer electronics, to measure accelerations and rates of rotation. Then we apply estimation algorithms to figure out the angle of the vehicle relative to the user.
So the sensors figure out the angle of the quadcopter to the person using the algorithms, with the tether as a reference point?
Exactly. There’s always a tether, and because it’s always kept taut, it’s always stretched, it’s always producing a force pulling on the quadcopter. We can observe this force using these sensors, and therefore, if we know what that force is, we can figure out where the quadcopter is relative to the person. This means we can also stabilize and do intelligent things based on that data.
There’s something really cool there as well. The quadcopter is aware of the user, of the person pulling on the leash. So we can actually use it as a communication channel. So you can do things like walk around with the leash, and the quadcopter moves with you. But you building on top of that, you can actually communicate with tugs and things such, so you can give it commands by physically pulling on the tether and it can even give you feedback by tugging back. It’s as if it’s a flying dog.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>