Chinese Startup Envisions Rise of the Machines With AI Drones

  • IDG-backed Zero Zero touting flying cameras with AI tracking
  • Beijing-based startup begins testing this year before sales

The rise of intelligent machines could become literal this year, when a Chinese startup begins selling a camera drone that can track and film people and objects on sight.

Zero Zero Robotics, a Beijing-based startup valued at $150 million in a November funding round, plans to introduce its Hover Camera later this year. The autonomous flying gadget picks out individuals and shadows them on command, capturing every movement with 4K videos and photos via a 13-megapixel camera.

Chief Executive Officer Meng Qiu Wang showed off a device that weighed half a pound, fit in the palm of a hand and will cost under $600. The drone, which during the demonstration hovered in lock-step with the user, can fly for eight minutes on a single charge of a removable battery, he added.

Zero Zero joins a circle of companies from SZ DJI Technology Co. to IoT Group’s ROAM-e trying to cash in on a surge of consumer interest in unmanned aerial vehicles. Their sophistication has grown in recent years: market leader DJI’s popular Phantom detects and avoids obstacles.

The Hover Camera’s selling point is AI that not just recognizes a user on sight, but can track selected targets and their surroundings. It’s part of a wave of affordable drones and cars that incorporate learning machines into real-world devices rather than software like Apple’s Siri personal assistant.

“Imagine an autonomous ground vehicle being paired up with a drone so you have eyes in the sky, which do all the mapping and task-finding,” said Wang, a graduate of Stanford University. He likens the Hover Camera to a one-year-old baby, that has the ability to learn and become smarter with more programming, he said.

The company intends to give away Hover Cameras to selected beta-testers initially, to encourage the creation of video footage and content. Wider sales from Zero Zero Robotics’ website will begin in August, the company said, as talks with physical distributors have yet to begin.

Artificial intelligence is already being commercialized thanks to software and advances in computer vision, with driverless cars the next step in the process, according to Marcus Hutter, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“AI will have more and more influence in our society,” he said. “This will be the biggest revolution in the next 20 to 30 years, far out-weighing the industrial revolution.”

Zero has raised $25 million from backers including IDG and GSR Ventures since it began life in 2014. It’s spent almost two years in ‘stealth mode’ to prevent rivals from copying its ideas and designs -- a legitimate threat in an arena with scores of brands trying to cash in. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that more than 2.8 million drones will be sold in 2016 in the U.S. alone.

“We have reasonable evidence that we’ll be able to ship at least 200,000 to 300,000 units within the first 12 months,” Wang said, adding that such success would require another major capital raising within the next year to pay for increased manufacturing costs.

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