CyPhy Works’ co-founder and CEO Helen Greiner knows what it takes to get robots into the hands of consumers. As a co-founder of iRobot, she helped create the Roomba vacuum, which brought affordable and user-friendly robots into the home. Now she and CyPhy Works are trying to repeat that accomplishment with drones, and they think they’ve taken a big step forward with the LVL 1, a six-rotor vehicle that is the company’s first consumer drone.
CyPhy Works unveiled the LVL 1 to the public Monday and launched a Kickstarter campaign to build interest and get the drone into the hands of early adopters and drone enthusiasts. CyPhy Works, which is located in Boston, is trying to raise $250,000 by June 17. Backers who contribute $495 will get the base model of the robot. The company expects to ship the drones in February 2016.
Greiner knows consumers have been able to buy drones for years and that it will take some big advances to make a breakthrough. Greiner is confident her team has done it.
“We’ve invented a better way to fly,” Greiner said. The key to that is the robot’s advanced software that keeps it on a level flight path. Greiner said that makes the drone simpler to fly, especially for novices. CyPhy Works also developed an app for iOS and Android that allows pilots to fly their drones using their touchscreens.
The camera is a key part of the LVL 1, and the company decided to incorporate it into the body of the drone. While allowing for better, more stable footage, Greiner said the hardware/software combo creates what could be a game changer that could give the drone an edge with consumers. The software allows pilots to post their video footage online in real time, she said.
But the more important advancement might be how the software changes pilots’ approach to flying. Instead of having to track the flight from the ground and visualize a flight path, LVL 1’s pilots have the equivalent of an on-board point of view like a real pilot would have.
Pilots can see where the LVL 1 is heading and don’t have to keep track of which direction the camera or front of the drone is pointing. “You’re flying the camera, not the drone,” Greiner said.
CyPhy Works also created software that can be used to create a geo-fence, which sets boundaries on where the drone can fly by creating “a box” that keeps the drone over a limited area and within a set altitude range. Greiner expects that will appeal to novices who are learning to fly and don’t want to crash their expensive investment—and keep it away from sensitive areas, like the White House or Capitol. Advanced pilots could use geo-fencing to create a safe training area as they learn aerobatic tricks, she said.
Since CyPhy Works was launched in 2009, the company has devoted its attention to military and industrial drones, and Greiner said it has contracts with the Army, Air Force, and search and rescue agencies. CyPhy also is working on commercial-use drones, such as for package delivery, which is an industry Greiner has high hopes for. But the company’s vision is more expansive than that, and repeating iRobot’s move into the consumer market was always a possibility, Greiner said.
“We like to say we’re ‘the drone company.’ We’re not a consumer drone company, we’re not a military drone company or the industrial drone company. We really are the drone company,” she said.
Greiner said LVL 1 is packed with technology and features that are making the crossover from the work CyPhy Works has done on industrial and military drones.
“One of our guys invented the technology that keeps the flight level. Once we had that, all of our drone pilots wanted to fly it because it was really, really cool and a better way to fly,” she said.
Initial tests showed the new technology’s potential, so CyPhy Works put together what Greiner called a skunk works project to build prototypes. The key vision driving the development process was making advanced drones that are easy to fly and affordable enough that the average consumer would be interested.
But the engineers and designers didn’t stop there.
“We asked one simple question: what would it take in a drone so that you’d recommend it to your friends? They came up with a whole host of features that we’ve implemented,” Greiner said. “There are so many things they wanted to see on a drone that weren’t on consumer drones.”
That led to several changes that CyPhy Works believes makes the LVL 1 more consumer- and novice-friendly, such as getting rid of landing gears or skids so the drone is more compact and portable. But they also added features like making the software hackable that will keep experts and gearheads interested.
Affordability remained important, however.
“We designed it at a price point that’s consumer-friendly. Most other drones are two to three times that with the same functionality,” Greiner said.
Greiner is expectedly bullish on the future of drones. She acknowledges that there remain a few technical issues to work out, along with “some regulatory and cultural issues to work through.” But she believes that as more people buy drones for their personal use, their friends and neighbors will see how cool they are and want to try flying.
She also thinks delivery drones are going to live up to the hype. Right now, people might joke about the idea or doubt its practicality, and it might sound silly. But buying a robot to vacuum your house also sounded silly 15 years ago.
“I take drone delivery very seriously. It’s just a really good application for a drone,” Greiner said. She imagines that in a few years drones will be dropping packages off at special stations at the top of residential and commercial buildings, although they’ll first make their mark in business-to-business delivery.
Investors seem to agree with Greiner’s vision and believe CyPhy Works is an important player to make it happen. The company has raised $12.5 million from venture backers including General Catalyst Partners. A number of influential government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security are strategic partners, as is Motorola Solutions.