Beijing’s Zero Zero Robotics launches world’s first ‘selfie’ drone

Founder says the US$599 device that shoots 4K video, serves as your own personal aerial photographer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 9:55pm

When Wang Mengqiu, the founder of Beijing-based startup Zero Zero Robotics, told his friends two and a half years ago he wanted to build an artificially intelligent flying camera, they thought he was out of his mind.

“My friends asked, ‘so you’re going to have this device that lifts off your fingertips and just follows you around? You’ve got to be kidding’,” he said, “reminding me I’d never worked in hardware, that I didn’t know anything about manufacturing.”

But how Wang has proved his detractors wrong.

Established in 2014 in Beijing, Zero Zero Robotics has just officially launched its Hover Camera Passport, a US$599 portable artificially intelligent drone that shoots 4K video and serves as your own personal aerial photographer.

Unlike most aerial photography drones on the market, which can fly far and wide to capture a landscape view, Wang said the Passport was designed to photograph people.

“It will capture your life moments when you travel with your friends and loved ones. Passport allows you to capture yourself and the view behind you [hands-free],” he said.

But he says what sets the Passport apart from other drones on the market is its lightness, its foldable body, its enclosed propeller blades, and its artificial intelligence.

The propellers are fully enclosed in carbon fibre, allowing users to grab the device in mid-air and fly it in enclosed spaces without fear of hurting anyone close by.

It will capture your life moments when you travel with your friends and loved ones. Passport allows you to capture yourself and the view behind you [hands-free]
Wang Mengqiu, founder of Zero Zero Robotics

And unlike drones that track users using stereo vision – defined as the perception of depth obtained by comparing visual information from two vantage points – the 242-gram flying device employs computer vision for facial recognition, thereby allowing it to lock on to a specific user and follow them around.

“It can track you from the front, the side or from behind,” Wang said. “[With the artificial intelligence software], it actually recognises objects in its view. It’ll draw boxes around every face it sees and you can double-click on which person it should follow. No other drones can do that.”

The Passport can also orbit around the user and spin 360 degrees to capture a panoramic photograph. Users who prefer to control its flight path can do so with an accompanying mobile app.

But the Passport is not without competition. The device is being pitched against DJI’s Mavic Pro, a US$749 foldable camera-drone the Shenzhen-based company launched last month.

The 734-gram Mavic Pro is almost three times the weight of the Passport, but has obstacle avoidance, a feature the Passport does not yet have. It also boasts almost three times the Passport’s 10-minute battery life.

“I do wish we could have improved the battery life more,” Wang said. “We promised eight minutes when we showcased our prototype in April, and now we can go 10. That’s 25 per cent better, but we’re not going to pat ourselves on the back.”

But while Zero Zero Robotics currently only has one device in its portfolio, Wang has ambitious plans.

“We want to do so much more in the personal robotics space,” he said, adding that the Passport was a first step towards more robots the company planned to build.

His vision of a personal robotics system at home starts with an aerial command centre – an eye in the sky, which issues commands to other devices around the home.

“Once a device is airborne above 1.5 metres, there are very few indoor obstacles – perhaps several humans and some pillars. Mobility becomes a lot easier when you can manipulate yourself in a 3-D [setting] ... there is a better view, better path-planning. Obstacle avoidance becomes easier,” he said.

A smart drone could easily give commands to robots on the ground that “don’t have to get very smart”, Wang said. “It just has to do what it does on the ground very, very well. The [airborne device] can be the one to plan out the path for the ground robot and tell it what obstacles it has to avoid.”

He added that the next-generation Hover Camera Passport, which he expects to release in about a year, would be a lot smarter.

“[The device] is going to be completely autonomous. It will be able to land and charge itself, and then automatically take flight and avoid obstacles while circling around a room,” he said.