This is the dock that allows Skydio drones to really fly themselves

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Skydio is the only company making drones that can largely fly on their own, detecting and avoiding objects so seamlessly you could hand a toddler the controls. But legally and practically they need it a lot of human supervision. Who is going to charge the drone, update it, download the footage and be the often legally required visual observer to make sure it doesn’t crash into anything nearby?

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But Skydio has been working for years on the gadget that could take annoying people out of the equation. It’s called the Skydio Dock, and it’s a 30-pound motorized box that allows these drones to operate completely autonomously. I drove to Skydio’s headquarters in San Mateo, California this week to check it out, watch it fly an autonomous mission, and use one to remotely control another drone 27 miles away.

Originally announced in October 2019, the dock is basically an internet-connected robotic landing and charging platform that behaves in a very specific way to protect and maintain a Skydio X2 or Skydio 2 drone. As you’ll see in our embedded video, it has a fancy motorized door that closes multiple times during launch and landing. It not only keeps out rain and dust, but also ensures that a drone’s propellers and antennas fold in and out properly.

The landing point is a first. I saw the bottom-mounted battery of a skydio x2 slide right in as it landed.

The landing point is a first. I saw the bottom-mounted battery of a Skydio X2 slide right in as it landed.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic/Media Today Chronicle

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There’s a large landing board on top of the box that a drone’s cameras can use to lock onto its landing point and a nice robotic arm that slides out to “catch” the drone with a small shovel. Skydio CEO Adam Bry tells me his drones reliably land on that scoop 99.9 percent of the time. If they don’t, they usually just switch to plan B and land safely on the ground nearby.

When the arm is retracted into the box, it pulls a newly designed Skydio battery straight into a battery charging socket. The fanciest version of the Dock even has air conditioning inside to cool the battery for faster charging, and a heater to melt any ice and snow on the roof, as well as IP56 dust and rain protection. Skydio’s drones each have about 30 minutes of flight time and take between 30 and 45 minutes to charge and cool down before they’re ready for a new mission.

In the doc, a charging connector.

In the doc, a charging connector.
Photo by Sean Hollister/Media Today Chronicle

The dock requires new batteries for the skydio x2 and 2 with this connector.

The Dock requires new batteries for the Skydio X2 and 2 with this connector.
Photo by Sean Hollister/Media Today Chronicle

Perhaps most importantly, Skydio pairs the Dock with a full software suite in the cloud – a web portal that you can log into from anywhere to manage and remotely control an entire fleet of Skydio drones. On a laptop, I tapped keys on a keyboard to remotely launch and control a drone on the other side of San Francisco Bay, flying it to a balcony in one of Skydio’s test warehouses as a mock remote tour of sorts .

Next, I pressed a button on another laptop to fly another drone through a pre-programmed inspection of the roof of Skydio’s headquarters, looking at the HVAC system as if to find a problem. (It looked pretty clean, except for one peeling label, but admittedly I have no idea what to look for.)

Finally, I set up my own waypoints for a third programmed mission, simply by manually flying the drone to the places I wanted to include. Early this year, Skydio introduced its KeyFrame feature that can automatically calculate a full movie flight path from just a few waypoints, and there’s a version of this too.

And while all that did require my human flesh body to press buttons, the web client will allow you scheme your fleet of drones to perform those pre-programmed missions as well.

But for now, there’s one major technical limitation and another major legal caveat for those eager to fly fully autonomous missions outdoors.

A skydio x2 on the pad.

A Skydio X2 on the pad.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic/Media Today Chronicle

Throughout all of our demos, we found ourselves experiencing mild connectivity issues, pauses in the video signal, lag, and a general lack of range to allow the drone to fly freely. That’s because the Skydio Dock relies entirely on local Wi-Fi to communicate with the drone at launch. There’s no direct connection between the Dock and its drone, and the company had no clear answer as to why it’s launching without that feature.

Skydio marketing manager Erik Till says the machine is ready for a direct connection – the hardware is in place, it’s FCC certified and should allow a range of up to 6 kilometers – but will require a software update sometime next year. LTE cellular connectivity for the Dock is coming “in the near future”.

BVLOS waivers are essential for true autonomy

The other limitation is something Skydio can help customers with right away: legally fly a drone without a human at the controls or a human observer. You see, the United States is one of those countries whose aviation authority requires a waiver to fly beyond a human’s line of visual sight (BVLOS), and even companies that get government approval for remote piloting sometimes have a local visual check is required. observer.

But Skydio says some of its customers have already received waivers for that, too, such as Dominion Energy, which can autonomously inspect more than 40 power plants in 7 states without a human eye, and BNSF Railway, whose waivers specifically allow docks to be used as long as while flying those drones within 100 feet of the ground. Southern Company has just received an exemption to autonomously inspect one specific power plant.

Skydio’s Bry tells me part of the Dock subscription service is regulatory assistance; the company will try to help other customers get BVLOS waivers as well.

But he also points out that there are no regulations at all indoors. And Skydio has seen interest from companies that want this kind of thing in their facilities — for things like warehouse inventory tracking, where it partners with a company called Ware to scan inventory by flying around and spotting bar charts.

There’s enough interest that Skydio is building a second “Lite” version of the dock without all the fancy motors – just a landing pad with an integrated pogo pin charger for a Skydio X2. It weighs just 1.46 pounds with its bundled carbon fiber tripod, and here’s what it looks like now:

The skydio dock lite.

The Skydio Dock Lite.
Photo by Sean Hollister/Media Today Chronicle

Unfortunately, Skydio doesn’t plan to make any of this available to individuals, and it won’t say what it will cost – just that it’s “in a different universe” than competitors shipping containers costing half a million dollars. However, Bry says it will be “competitive with DJI, but with a lot more functionality,” and I see some vendors pricing the DJI Dock, with an M30-series drone, at around $30,000.

Right now, a drone is something that people take to a park, use as an inspection tool, or drop off as an occasional necessity, usually with people in control all the time. But I wonder how long it will be before there are more robot pilots than humans – our days may be numbered.

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