Wakeboarding in a hurricane or skiing down K2 might be the stuff of adventure sports enthusiasts' dreams, but if they ever do it, one of the many problems they would face is how to prove the awesomeness of the experience to their friends.
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Enter the Staaker drone, available for pre-orders today at $1,195. It might not survive a hurricane or K2, but after spending three years in development and countless hours of real-world tests, its designers are pretty sure it will follow you where no drone has gone before.
That's because the Staaker isn't a conventional drone. Instead of a cumbersome remote control, it has a bracelet with just four main buttons. The bracelet, called a tracker, communicates via 2.4GHz radio waves with the drone, which is packed full of artificial intelligence that Staaker CEO OJ Seeland says can make it follow you pretty much anywhere, as long as you're going under 50mph.
Sure, other drones can follow you, and drone giant DJI even has an app that adds autonomous and semi-autonomous flight modes to many of its products. But those and other existing designs typically rely extensively on the PID regulator, the device that stabilizes the unmanned craft's flight path.
"We don't use that at all," Seeland said last week as he gave PCMag a demo of a Staaker prototype in San Francisco. "We just depend on our AI."
Since the Staaker's AI algorithms have been trained over a period of three years by following professional surfers, bikers, and snowboarders, it knows a thing or two about how to follow extreme sports maneuvers. For example, taking its cues from the waterproof tracker, which you strap to your wrist, the drone recognizes when you're about to do a ski jump and pre-adjusts its flight path accordingly.
The drone and tracker communicate 500 times per second, ensuring that Staaker constantly knows what you're about to do. It can follow you at a maximum distance of 1,150 feet, which should give you quite a bit of wiggle room. Production models will be able to stay in the air for up to 30 minutes, though the prototype's battery did better than that. It decreased by less than half during the 20-minute test of mostly calm flying.
As for the camera, Staaker includes a built-in GoPro mount that is compatible with Hero, 3, 3+, and 4 cameras. The AI also controls a motorized gimbal to keep you in the frame at all times.
Operating the drone is supposed to be simple; after all, it's targeted at thrill-seekers, not pilots who like to fiddle with settings. The tracker's four buttons increase or decrease the following distance, change the flight mode, and tell the drone to take off, begin following, or land. You can also fly it manually if you want to, but most thrill seekers probably won't.
Staaker is a start-up, and the $1,195 price is for pre-orders, which include a waterproof travel case in addition to the drone and tracker. There's always the risk that it won't be able to deliver—Seeland admitted that his company's financial status depends to a large degree on how many pre-orders it gets.
But Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn, which also makes iPhones, has already agreed to build the drone. That should give a confidence boost to adventurers thinking about taking the pre-order plunge before the price rises to $1,795 in December.