The Wristwatch Drone – All you need to know
A drone that can be dispatched with the flick of a wrist feels like an invention likely to fly out from the Batcave, but a Stanford Ph.D. and a Google program manager are close to finalizing a quadcopter that can be worn like a slap bracelet.
Called Nixie, this diminutive drone weighs less than a tenth of a pound, but can capture HD images and sync with a smartphone while its owner is busy scaling an Alp or biking through the Teutoburg forest. “Quadcopters give you a new perspective you can’t get anywhere else,” says Jelena Jovanovic, Nixie’s project manager. “But it’s not really feasible to pilot a drone and keep doing what you’re doing.”
Being able to wear the drone is a cute gimmick, but it’s powerful software packed into a tiny shell could set Nixie apart from bargain Brookstone quadcopters. Expertise in motion-prediction algorithms and sensor fusion will give the wrist-worn whirlybirds an impressive range of functionality. A “Boomerang mode” allows Nixie to travel a fixed distance from its owner, take a photo, then return. “Panorama mode” takes aerial photos in a 360° arc. “Follow me” mode makes Nixie trail its owner and would capture amateur athletes in a perspective typically reserved for Madden all-stars. “Hover mode” gives any filmmaker easy access to impromptu jib shots. Other drones promise similar functionality, but none promise the same level of portability or user friendliness.
“We’re not trying to build a quadcopter, we’re trying to build a personal photographer,” says Jovanovic.
A Changing Perspective on Photography
Jovanovic and her partner Christoph Kohstall, a Stanford postdoc who holds a Ph.D. in quantum physics and a first-author credit in the journal Nature, believe photography is at a tipping point.
Early cameras were bulky, expensive, and difficult to operate. The last hundred years have produced consistently smaller, cheaper, and easier-to-use cameras, but future developments are forking. Google Glass provides the ultimate in portability, but leaves wearers with a fixed perspective. Surveillance drones offer unique vantage points, but are difficult to operate. Nixie attempts to offer the best of both worlds.
Origin of the Species
After receiving a quadcopter for Christmas last year, Kohstall began tinkering and looking for ways to improve the technology. He quickly learned that drones have a tendency to crash and drown in bodies of water, so he built a working prototype that could dive and reemerge from under the surface.
As more of Kohstall and Jovanovic’s friends got the quadcopter bug, common complaints about bulk, weight, and arcane user interfaces popped up. Kohstall experimented with wearable solutions, including hacking a pair of eye glasses with propellors so that they could fly at a moment’s notice, and if equipped with a tiny camera, capture a drone’s-eye-view. This was an interesting UI experiment, but limited the wearer’s ability to see, leading him to focus on designing a soaring smart watch.
Can They Build It?
Nixie is an undeniably impressive concept, and while rough prototypes prove the principle, the question remains if its myriad design challenges can be solved without sacrificing the sleek look.
The team’s strong background suggests they can. As a teenager, Kohstall designed a telescope that could follow a point in the sky to take long exposure star photographs using bike frame parts and Lego motors before graduating to writing a treatise on Metastability and Coherence of Repulsive Polarons in a Strongly Interacting Fermi Mixture.
Jovanovic has previously worked on submersible drones and comes from family where hardware is dinner table conversation—Her mom leads PCB design for Google Glass, her dad heads R&D for a high-end headphone company, and her little brother is in charge of product at quantified car startup Automatic. Nixie team members Michael Niedermayr, Floris Ernst, Stefan Niedermayr, Steven Le, Kris Winer, and Jeremy Swerdlow add expertise in motion prediction algorithms, design, and engineering.
Despite a world-class technical pedigree, Nixie will require near perfect execution of both control algorithms, usability affordances, and industrial design. Current prototypes are light, but lack the durability and polish consumers will require. Concept renderings show a gleaming white future for Nixie, but finding durable, lightweight, and flexible materials to make it a reality is no small task.