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The Age of Drones

New technology is changing faster than ever before. What was once considered a breakthrough quickly turned into a commonplace item. Just as computers were once a marvel of invention and spanning entire rooms, they have shrunk down into our pockets. Drones, it seems, are the next innovation to become ordinary. But for those with a visual impairment, a personal drone could be lifechanging.

What is a Drone?

Technically speaking, a drone is any unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). They are controlled with radio waves and GPS, are often equipped with sensors and cameras, depending on their intended use. They rely on rotors to propel them forward, backward, sideways, up, down, and hover, all while making a soft humming (or droning) sound. As the technology improves, these personal drones get smaller and cheaper. Today, they are being used as selfie cameras, drone stunting, and electronic fireworks. However, their most philanthropic use may be helping those with visual impairments live an independent life.

Personal UAVs

DIY drones is the colloquial name for amateur UAVs. These are typically lightweight and smaller, built for recreation, for transporting a payload, or for a purpose like photography or depth sensing. For now, the flight limitations on drones are set out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US and the Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA) in Canada. The TCCA states that if your aircraft is 35kg or less you do not need permission to fly it. If it is more than 35kg, you need a Special Flight Operations Certificate.

Personal Drones for the Visually Impaired

Because of their GPS, internal video capabilities, and their natural humming sound, drones are being developed to assist the visually impaired through city streets and indoor spaces, or while exercising. This is ground-breaking news for the blind community, who can often have barriers to participating in traditional exercise or exercise routines.

In order for drones to assist blind individual with their exercise regimen, a bracelet with a very small drone is attached to the user’s wrist. From there, by using verbal commands such as “navigate me to the kitchen,” the GPS system with in the bracelet itself then calculate the route and begins flying. Using GPS and Bluetooth technology, the UAV flies ahead of the user but stays within one meter of their presence. Using the hum of the drone as a guide, the user follows the sound to their destination. Upon reaching their goal, a voice command sends the drone back to the bracelet.

In a lab setting, drones have been used to guide individuals through crowded rooms. The participants made it to all targets without hitting any walls, furniture, or other people thanks to a built-in camera that can identify and avoid obstacles, guiding the user with the buzz of the rotors. The sound was easy to distinguish and allowed the subjects to walk as they normally would. While still in its infancy, the results so far are promising.

Guide Drones for Blind Athletes

Bike riding and jogging outdoors requires a sighted guide, as guide dogs are not trained for this kind of activity. The dogs are trained to take physical cues from their partner and visual cues from the surrounding environment. When jogging, may not be able to react and direct quick enough to avoid cars or other dangers. The advent of guide drones could change the way the blind community stays active.

At the University of Nevada, the drone is being used on the track to allow blind runners to go for a jog without a partner. The quadcopter stays just 10 feet in front of the user, leveraging two different cameras to simultaneously follow the track and a specific tagging marker added to the runner’s shirt, allowing the drone to speed up or slow down in conjunction with the runner. Still in development, the prototype needs to meet FAA regulations to be used outside, but could have a positive impact on blind or visually impaired athletes who want to run, bike, or ride horses.

A New Way to Take Photos: The Dronie

First, cell phones brought us the selfie. Now, drones are bringing us the dronie—a selfie taken by a drone. Thanks to the miniaturization of UAVs, they now fit into a purse or a pocket. The AirSelfie 2 is the latest and greatest in this trend. It’s roughly the size of your mobile phone and can be piloted via an app. It can travel 60 feet in any direction from your cell phone and hover to take a photo before you bring back in for a landing.

Traditional selfies or selfie stick photos can’t get far enough away from their subjects to include the landscape or an iconic structure. By simply piloting the AirSelfie 2 via the iOS or Android app, rock climbers and hikers can document their adventures at the top of a mountain. Family photos get an instant upgrade with famous buildings or beautiful landscapes in the background. Dancers, musicians, and artists can take snapshots of themselves in action.

The app syncs with your social media accounts so you can instantly post photos on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter by simply choosing the social media platform and sharing your photo via the AirSelfie 2 app. It’s a brand-new vantage point for capturing and sharing life’s best moments. How will you use it?

For other technological advancements in vision read New Canadian-Made Technology Offers Sight for the Blind

For more reading on guide dogs for the visually impaired, read How Guide Dogs are Helping Canada’s Blind Youth.