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

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.

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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.

It has a black box on board that records its movements and actions, so any bugs can be tracked and acted on.

Drones in general aren’t welcomed by everyone. There are privacy implications to take into account and, in recent months, agencies in countries around the world have been clamping down on the use of such devices, even if the pilots are amateurs using them for recreation.

That includes Ireland. According to the Irish Aviation Authority’s guidelines, anyone who wants to operate an unmanned air vehicle, regardless of weight, in Irish airspace, needs to obtain permission.

There have been a few accidents too that have raised concerns about the safety of such aircraft, including an incident where an Australian athlete was injured by a falling drone, a collision with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a hefty fine for a British man who crashed a model plane near a nuclear submarine facility in England.

Add into that a near-miss between an American Airlines flight and an unmanned drone in Florida in March, and reports of a drone falling to the street in the middle of Manhattan, and you can see why regulators are nervous.

But Fotokite may just skirt these regulations, given that it’s tethered. That was a main consideration in its development, Lupashin says.

“If you have a tether going to the flying unit, the rules generally change,” he says, adding that people’s perception changes too. “When you have a physical connection, the privacy situation changes. You know exactly who is responsible for it.”

Regulations are difficult to tackle, he says. In the US, it’s set by court cases. In Switzerland, where Lupashin is also based, privacy regulations are extremely stringent, with even Google streetview cars falling foul of them.

“As something that’s physically attached, there’s this principle of accountability. If people can see who is accountable, it puts it in a different class.”

There’s also the safety aspect; the tether keeps it under control rather than allowing it to fly free. Although it’s only limited by the tether – tests have put it up 150 metres before the line ran out – Lupashin says it is best suited to short distances, around 30 metres. That makes it perfect for journalists and amateur users.

The device is not yet on sale – Lupashin says the end of the year would be optimistic – but he says he hopes to bring it the market “sooner rather than later”.

“The bigger picture is that drones are here and this is going to be an experiment that we will run. I think we really have to strive to find the responsible solutions for this.”