AWS Startups Blog

The Future of Drones is Bright!

By Amanda Mackay, Loft Manager, AWS Startups

I haven’t been on a vacation in the past six months where I didn’t see a drone. Just last weekend I was at the top of Donner Summit taking in the beauty of the Sierra Mountains, only to have one zoom past me to get the perfect photo…one that would make me jealous on Instagram later. Drones are everywhere lately, and it’s for good reason. Drones have the capability of taking photos we’ve never dreamed of, providing entertainment to the masses and, soon, assisting in tasks that will make our lives easier.

Intel Drone 100 Light Show

To learn more about drones and where they are headed, I sat down with Natalie Cheung, Drone Product Manager at Intel. You might know her as one of the Intel gurus behind Drone 100, which lit up the night sky in Indio, California last March.


Amanda: Can you share your story about how you got into the world of drones?

Natalie: Getting into the world of drones was definitely a pleasant surprise. In my previous role, I had an opportunity to lead several special projects, and a few of them were about drones. One of the projects was called Drone 100. It stemmed from a hallway conversation I had about having 100 drones light up the night sky and forming the Intel logo above our campus. It was such a farfetched idea, but at the same time doing something like that was fascinating from both a technology perspective and a creative perspective. Before I knew it, my full-time job mostly focused on drones, so I made a switch out of my role to specialize in drones. I’ve never looked back!


Amanda: As an expert in drones, what best tips in purchasing the right drone can you recommend?

Natalie: It depends. There’s a lot of different drones out there for various use cases—you’ll have to choose the one that fits your needs. If you want something more compact because you’ll use the drone when you travel, there are some great drones out there that have collapsible props and are lightweight. If you are more into professional photography and film, you’ll want a drone that has a mechanical gimbal and high-quality camera so that the footage captured is high resolution and smooth. If you are looking for a smarter drone, you’ll want to look for one that has collision avoidance enabled and has some automatic modes for filming.


Amanda: We’re seeing faster, better quality, more portable drones coming out at an increasing pace. With this rapid iteration of innovation, where do you see or hope to see drone technology in 3-5 years?

Natalie: In 3-5 years, I see drones everywhere (in a managed fashion) in the sky. Drones will be used to help inspect cell towers or bridges, deliver packages in neighborhoods, and provide entertainment[MB2] . Not only will we see better quality and more portable drones, but we’ll also see drones that are smarter—like ones that are able to analyze data or ones that have 4G or 5G integrated in—that will automatically send that favorite photo. We’ll even see drones that communicate with one another to safely fly as a community.


Amanda: There are around 500+ drone startups currently working around the world. Can you share 2-3 of your favorites and why they have such a big impact?

Natalie: I loved Legos when I was a kid, so I have to say Flybrix. They have Lego-based drones that anyone can build. From a safety perspective, AirMap is a great startup that focuses on air space safety for flying a drone.


Amanda: Drones generally don’t have high computational power on-board but are able to augment their capabilities in the cloud. Can you share how this has opened the door for exciting new technologies that are impacting industries?

Natalie: Drones today are getting smarter. Manufacturers are integrating Intel Atom processors, vision processors, FPGAs, etc. This allows drones to do analysis on board versus up in the cloud, allowing the user to have a smoother experience.


Amanda: What are the current laws/FAA regulations still on-going regarding drone hobbyists that we should all be aware of?

Natalie: I’d recommend the B4UFLY Smartphone App or checking the FAA website for the latest regulations. Make sure that you are in the right environment to fly safely!


Amanda: Earlier this year you and your team conducted a 100-drone synchronized light display to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Can you share some of the challenges in such a massive project of orchestration?

Natalie: Drone 100 had lots of challenges that we had to solve. First, from a technical perspective, building software that allows 100 drones to be controlled by one pilot is quite a feat! We saw challenges with finding an open area that had enough space to fly Drone 100 and showcase different animations and scenes. We had to receive regulatory approvals where we flew: USA, Germany, Australia, Austria, and more. However, we were able to engineer a way to meet all those challenges, and Drone 100 has been one of the most unique projects. We’ve been able to change the definition of nighttime entertainment, change the perception of what drones can be used for, and showcase multiple drone-per-pilot technology that can be implemented in other drone segments in the future. This also helped us grow our fleet to more than 500. We used the Intel® Shooting Star Drone, which is purposely built for drone light shows, and we were able to put 500 drones simultaneously up in the sky. This new drone led to a holiday collaboration with Disney: We’ve been flying 300 drones at Disney Springs nightly and will do so for eight weeks to bring this technology to the public. What was Drone 100 over a year ago has blossomed into new fleets that can redefine nighttime entertainment.


Amanda: Enterprises and startups are both heavily investing in drones. Who do you feel has the competitive advantage? Is it the capital investment of the enterprise or the nimble ingenuity of the startup?

Natalie: Both have different advantages. I believe that both are needed in order to allow the drone ecosystem to flourish and grow.


Amanda: How many drones do you own, which is your favorite, and how do you pick a good name for your drone?

Natalie: Technically the drones from Drone 100 are registered in my name, so I have more than 100 drones. My favorite drone that I own is the Yuneec Typhoon H with Intel RealSense Technology. I’m slightly biased as I was part of this project with Yuneec. It’s a smart drone that has an Intel RealSense Camera, a depth camera that allows the drone to have eyes and see it’s environment so the drone can actually see an obstacle when it flies and fly around the obstacle. This drone also has a great 360 degree 4K camera and six props to help ensure a stable flight.


Amanda: The world of mapping has been heavily evolving with the introduction of drones. Can you share how startups like Mapbox have been leveraging drones to improve maps of the Earth?

Natalie: Mapping and drones go hand in hand. With the right sensors and cameras, drones allow users to capture the X, Y, Z components of any structure. I believe it’s using data fusion with the right sensors and cameras, and a robust and precise drone to map out environments to centimeter accuracy. With this, you’ve digitized your data and can do any analysis far easier than before.


See the Intel Drone

If you would like to take a look at an Intel Drone, stop by the AWS Pop-up Loft’s new location in early 2017 where you can see one on display. For our events schedule, visit our website.

A big shout out to Natalie Cheung for taking the time to speak with me and to AWS Startup Evangelist, Mackenzie Kosut, for writing our rad questions. This blog post was brought to you by Intel and AWS.



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