Don't call it a drone. Though the Hover Camera has four propeller blades and a camera on its front, Meng Qiu "MQ" Wang, CEO of Zero Zero Robotics, prefers to call it a "flying camera."
Enclosed in a rigid, lightweight carbon fiber chassis, the Hover Camera hovers in the air, capturing your life.
Whether that’s walking down Fifth Avenue enjoying an ice cream cone on a sweltering hot day or mountain biking off some cliff, the Hover Camera wants to be right there next to you without you needing to fiddle with complicated remote controls to fly it.
I agree with MQ that drones are too complex for most people to fly without crashing them and endangering people around them.
Drone makers like DJI are already making the user experience easier with things like tap-on-touchscreen-to-fly-to-location modes and auto-follow modes, but drones with their exposed blades are still somewhat dangerous if they malfunction by accident.
The Hover Camera — which people will inevitably call a drone, anyway — is relatively small. It only weighs half a pound and doesn’t require an FAA drone registration to fly.
“We wanted to build products that are portable,” MQ says. “It’s very light. This is significantly smaller than any other drone devices out there on the market in this class. The main design consideration is portability, user friendliness and safety.”
The device’s carbon fiber enclosure protects its blades from giving anyone unexpected haircuts and the foldable design makes it easy to travel with. The Hover Camera, battery and charger fit neatly into a small protective case.
The Hover Camera is also unlike drones in that it truly hovers after powering it on. You simply let go of it and it’ll hover in the air at the altitude (up to 164 feet high) which you let it go at
“We wanted the user experience to be very natural — easy to use,” MQ explained. “We wanted to make sure the learning curve for users is minimum. So there is no remote control or anything. There’s no calibration process.”
In auto-follow mode, the camera and software track people’s faces, locks onto them and then follows them. For the most part, the tracking worked in my demo with MQ, intelligently following me around as I moved around in a room.
There were a few times the camera locked onto other people in the room and got confused, though. The Hover Camera maintained a safe distance of a couple of feet away, but I never worried about it slamming into me thanks to its enclosure.
The Hover Camera’s coolest feature is, no doubt, its ability to autonomously follow a person and record video of them, but you can control it manually with an app using gestures.
A two-finger swipe up and down on the screen controls the altitude. A one-finger swipe up and down moves the camera’s one-directional gimbal up and down. Swiping left and right with one finger controls yaw and swiping left and right with two fingers shifts it left and right, respectively.
More fun: You can throw the drone into the air. MQ and I played a round of “hover frisbee” where we threw the drone back and forth.
The Hover Camera’s spinning propellers are exceptionally loud — you won’t be sneaking around with this little guy following you — for such a little flying machine, but like everything else about it, it’s still being worked on.
On the front is a camera that can take 13-megapixel photos and record video in up to 4K resolution. By default the camera records in full HD video resolution. When I asked MQ if recording in 4K resolution would hurt battery life dramatically the way it does on smartphones, he was quick to say they’ve optimized the software and power consumption to ensure it wouldn’t.
The camera’s equipped with electronic image stabilization to smooth footage out. From a few sample clips I saw, the EIS works, but again, it’s difficult to judge an unfinished product.
On the bottom of the Hover Camera is a 3-megapixel camera and a sonar system that tracks its position and objects around it so it doesn’t crash. While the Hover Camera doesn’t have advanced obstacle avoidance, its computer vision is intelligent enough to not run into things.
“It has a Wi-Fi hotspot on the device,” MQ explained. “If I have 4G network, I get to keep my 4G connectivity, too. So I can post photos and videos to social networks.”
MQ also demoed the “360 Pano” mode, where the Hover Camera spins 360 degrees while hovering in place. Here’s a look at one 360-degree panorama video it shot.
The Hover Camera has a battery that’s easily swappable. MQ says each battery is good for about eight minutes of flight time. That’s pretty short, but the Hover Camera will come with four batteries for up to 30 minutes of flying.
Before the flying camera launches later this year, Zero Zero Robotics is inviting beta users to come up with creative ways to test and use it.
“So we’re working with a bunch of interesting activity groups; for example, some people in Beijing do parkour,” MQ gushed. “So they’re jumping from building to building and we’re using the auto-follow mode to follow them to capture clips of them jumping from building to building. You can’t have someone jumping with them. It’s just impossible.
And we’re also working with a group of grassroots basketball players in China. And they can do crazy dunks. [The Hover Camera] can shoot them doing the dunk from meters away. Those shots weren’t possible before. Bigger drones are going to be dangerous [to get that close and capture footage].”
The Hover Camera will launch later this summer. MQ said the company’s looking to sell it for less than $600, which would make it more affordable and attractive to consumers. Zero Zero Robotics has so far raised a total of $25 million dollars in investor funding to produce the Hover Camera.
The technology is smart from what I saw. But ultimately, it’ll be about how creators use it to create content and tell stories.