How GoPro Is Building Its Future Drone Platform Foundations

GoPro started working on drones a few months ago in order to stake a claim in this multibillion-dollar market. This is a natural for them, as they will be able to offer the best flying immersive camera on the market — completely autonomous, no pilot required. We explain here why they could be the next big player in the emerging drone market.

Even though we’ve seen GoPro non-event videos appearing on the web, it’s probably when there is no communication that the best technological innovation will emerge.

A few months ago, GoPro announced buying Kolor, a 360-degree video software vendor company in France. Kolor is developing a platform for stitching together 360-degree videos coming from, for example, different GoPro units attached to a specific mast. The company has become a dedicated business unit for 360-degree spherical applications.

Kolor’s founder is now Senior Director of Immersive Media Solutions at GoPro. With this acquisition, GoPro is entering the market for 360-degree drone images/videos applications. Even though there are some 360-degree camera players on the market (like Bublcam, Panono and Giroptic), none will be able to natively integrate the camera on the drone for perfect image quality and stabilization.

Immersive video and images applications are the next big thing coming on the market. Anyone who has ever tried to set up a drone gimbal to catch perfect quality and stabilized video on three axes knows it’s a nightmare.

Immersive video without any camera/drone movement allows you to benefit immediately from a panoramic and 360-degree spherical view to offer interactive exploration directly inside the image, to see the real world in your VR gear. This is what Kolor is doing in this field with Chrome for 360-degree view.

One of GoPro’s latest acquisitions is in Zürich, Switzerland. GoPro is now entering GPS-denied navigation space. In fact, they have taken the opportunity to establish their Swiss subsidiary after buying Skybotix in September (a small company of five engineers coming from ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich).

Skybotix has five years of experience in autonomous drone technology. ETH also is well-known for having spun-off several companies. For example, senseFly became a Parrot company (the worldwide leader in professional drone mapping systems).

The Skybotix team was able to send a drone inside a building, with no pilot, by reconstructing real-time 3D space and constraints. Their technology is providing a visual navigation application that replaces GPS with much more accurate, camera-based positioning. Their multi-camera sensors used industrial-grade visual odometry and real-time 3D reconstruction in unstructured indoor and outdoor environments.

This is not only a strategic acquisition for GoPro, but they also take root at the same time with this new team: Autonomous Systems Lab (ASL) and Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) Technology, the two departments belonging to ETH, one of the most advanced labs in the world. Here is an example of what they have achieved so far with their drone:

Now the team is directly integrated as a GoPro product division. With this acquisition, GoPro is taking a strategic advantage for advanced SLAM applications (simultaneous localization and mapping), where 3D representation of the environment is used for automatic collision avoidance, improved user interaction and helping operators in terms of orientation and flight planning. Remember, sense-and-avoid is one of the key issues for the FAA to allow drone systems to evolve autonomously without pilot line of sight.

But behind the scenes, a strategic battle for software and hardware is also playing out. Hardware is a core component in the size/consumption of drones, as is building more and more intelligent applications with data power calculation coming from integrated multiple sensors, like the former Skybotix.

Qualcomm will certainly be a major player for drone hardware platforms in the next few years. They have vast field robotics experience and now run a robotic accelerator with a promising drone startup.

Qualcomm recently announced a partnership with Yuneec, the second Chinese ready-to-fly platform (their Snapdragon advanced processing power and real-time flight control has a leading global navigation satellite system [GNSS] optimized to support highly accurate location positioning). The Computer Vision and Geometry Group from ETH has also been involved in the advanced development of their onboard computer.

GoPro certainly has the assets to make the best flying camera on the market.

Intel intends to play a major role, as well, with their Edison chipset embedded on open-source hardware computers. They are partnering with 3DRobotics and Ascending Technologies in Europe to build next-generation autopilots for on-board image processing and sense-and-avoid technology. Intel also funded Yuneec, with $60 million.

Then, there’s the software. The intelligence of drones lies in the DOS (Drone Operating System); in other words, the autopilot: the command-and-control central nervous system.

In this space, we have players aiming to become the platform leaders. One is Airware, which is licensing an end-to-end open aerial platform to simplify the development and integration of drone applications, sensors, remote control systems and cloud data analysis. Airware has raised $40 million so far, and has closed another round to reinvest in building the emerging drone ecosystem.

On the other side are the open-source autopilot platform projects, such as the Linux Foundation Dronecode project. It is supported by many companies (Parrot, Intel, Yuneec) and led by 3DRobotics with the PX4 Project of the Computer Vision and Geometry Lab of ETH Zürich again.

Today, the 3D robotics ecosystem has hundreds of contributors in the world, as well as international distributors.

In addition to the U.S. players, we have DJI coming from China. DJI is a ready-to-fly drone products manufacturer. Its core model was, until now, a proprietary technology (which has provided success since 2009).

DJI now understands they must open their platform (their SDK is still limited to education and simple development) if they want to continue to lead the market. To develop a DJI ecosystem like Airware, they have closed a $75 million round with Accel.

Among those big players, GoPro certainly has the assets to make the best flying camera on the market for B2C applications, and maybe take part in the construction of new professional applications for the B2B market. And it would not be a surprise if they joined the Linux Foundation Dronecode project in the next few months.