Device Will Turn iPhone into 'Mobile Ground Station' for Drones

The radio will allow drone operators to control their aircraft from up to a mile away.

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A San Francisco-based startup company is hoping to sell an iPhone accessory that'll turn the smartphone (or an iPad) into a "mobile drone ground station" that can control drones from up to a mile away.

The "Fighting Walrus Radio" will allow drone owners to extend the range of commercially-available hobbyist drones from about 200 feet up to a mile, which could get some people into hot water with the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency requires drone operators to fly unmanned aircraft within "line of sight of the operator."

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Andrew Aarestad, one of the developers of the Fighting Walrus Radio (which gets its name from the fact that its developers say the device "look[s] like a plucky little walrus peering over the edge of [an] iPad"), says the team plans to tell customers that they still have to operate within the FAA's rules.

"You can operate outside of the FAA's guidelines if you're not careful," he says. "That is a concern—if you are operating your own personal drone, you have to be mindful of the restrictions."

The team plans on releasing the device in September—it's currently being financed by the Kickstarter-like IndieGoGo, and has more than 70 people interested. Since being launched two weeks ago, the team has raised $11,000 of its $50,000 goal, much of that in the last several days.

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The device will cost $99 and a longer-range one that can control drones for up to a mile will cost $140.

For the device to work, the pilot has to connect a radio receiver to the drone, which will allow it to operate outside of Wi-Fi range and will allow it to communicate directly with the Fighting Walrus device. The team also plans on selling ready-to-fly drones with the device already installed.

Aarestad says the device is designed for hobbyists who want more control over their drones—it also offers waypoint navigation and flight-logging data. The radio won't allow drones to stream video back to the iPhone, making it unlikely to be useful for surveillance. The team is working on a follow up device that will allow drones to send video back to its pilot.

 

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If a drone operator uses the device to fly out of line of sight, they might also run into safety issues—most of the drones that the radio is designed for don't have "sense and avoid" technology, meaning they fly in straight lines regardless of whether there is an obstacle. When used in waypoint mode, drones could potentially crash if not used carefully.

"If the user is operating their drone autonomously, they're still ultimately responsible for what the drone is doing," Aarestad says.

Although the device is designed for "toy" drones, law enforcement agencies have shown interest in them. The Maine state police bought a $300 "Parrot AR.Drone2.0"—one of the drones compatible with the Fighting Walrus Radio—and the Iowa Department of Public Safety's Division of Intelligence recently looked into purchasing the Parrot as well.

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The team says as drones become more commonplace, their pilots will want to have more sophisticated controls over them.

"It's a niche product for now," Aarestad says. "We feel that given a year or two, there will be exponentially more people using [drones] in ways that would benefit from the radio."

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