Keeping invasive robot drones on a short lease at Ted Talks salon

Fotokite seeks to avoid some of the opposition to drones by means of a physical tether from the device to its pilot

Aerial show: Sergei Lupashin demonstrates the Fotokite, a tethered, remote-controlled camera, to Susan Dargan, head of global services at State Street Ireland. photograph: jason clarke

Aerial show: Sergei Lupashin demonstrates the Fotokite, a tethered, remote-controlled camera, to Susan Dargan, head of global services at State Street Ireland. photograph: jason clarke

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 01:05

Standing in front of a room of people in suits is not Sergei Lupashin’s regular Monday morning routine. The aerial robotics researcher and entrepreneur, who describes himself on his Twitter profile as “an aspiring troublemaker” is usually to be found working with his Fotokite in the Flying Machine Arena. This is basically a sandbox where he and his his team can test and work on their tethered, aerial camera device.

But this week he was in State Street’s Dublin office as part of the Ted salon series, talking about his experiences in developing the Fotokite and answering questions from the audience on risk taking and failure.

It may seem like a leap from flying photography to the financial world but the lessons learned can be applied to any industry: responsibility, flexibility, learning from your mistakes and carrying on.

Unlike the Parrot AR Drone, the Fotokite is a tethered quadcopter camera, controlled by gesture. While the idea of a camera-carrying drone guided by an unseen hand hovering overhead may make some people feel uneasy, the tether immediately adds a sense of accountability, Lupashin says.

The big motivation behind the device was the elections in Russia two years ago, when there were protests that failed to make much of an impact on the world media stage. Seeing the scale of the protests from the air meant the scale of the dissent could not be ignored. But there are issues with piloting the unmanned drones to take these photos – they require a level of skill and control that may be beyond most amateurs.

And so, the Fotokite was born.

But the idea of a tethered camera such as the Fotokite isn’t a new one. Rather, it’s been tried in different guises over the years, from a pigeon-mounted camera in 1903 that had limited success, by way of an early kite-mounted camera developed in 1906, to the first images taken 100km above the earth on a Nasa-built rocket decades later.

It’s just the implementation that’s different.

“Looking at the Fotokite, it’s not that new,” he says. “Even before the kite, people were trying to do aerial photography.”

There’s a moment when the demonstration goes a little awry and the Fotokite takes a dip towards the floor. Live demonstrations can always be problematic, as many other tech executives have found out to their peril. Lupashin, however, doesn’t bat an eyelid.

“Because it’s a prototype, sometimes it does weird things,” he says. “In the real world, things don’t always go to plan. The magic really happens when you give this device to other people to use.”

The device itself has been specially made for the Ted Talks series to allow attendees to see the different parts and how they fit together. It’s mostly 3D printed, although some components are laser cut. The advantage of this is that parts can be replaced easily, quickly and at little expense.

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