CNN buys failsafe NZ-made drones for news gathering
New Zealand company Altus Intelligence has sold six drones to CNN because of their fail safe features, aimed to prevent the machines from injuring or killing people.
There have been a number of incidents where drones have caused injuries by falling on people.
Altus chief operating officer Simon Morris said CNN was the first United States news gathering organisations allowed to fly over people, which made it imperative to use drones which were safe.
"CNN flies over people without having to get their permission, they have the mandate of the Federal Aviation Administration so they wanted a very safe, reliable drone with risk mitigation technologies. They therefore chose ours," he said.
CNN has its own Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR) unit with two full-time drone operators who integrate drone images into CNN news reports.
One of the Altus safety features is a parachute which is fired by a CO2 cylinder and can be deployed as low as 8-10 metres above the ground.
"There are quite a few drones with parachutes out there but what is unique about ours is the way that it fires, we use compressed air filled with CO2."
"The parachute is fired automatically so if anything happens like it loses power, rolls over 70 degrees or starts to go out of control, the parachute is then effective from a very low altitude. A lot of the others just flop out and it's 20-30 metres before they open," Morris said.
Altus has taken out a patent over the gas-fired parachute.
Another way the company has guarded against accidents is to have three auto pilots controlling the drone. Equipped with three GPS receivers, the system is a "majority-rules voting" one.
"The auto pilots are all independent and check the others, so if one of them gets out of whack the other two just vote it completely out of the system and ignore it," Morris said.
The third safety feature is the propeller control. Each is controlled by a separate motor, ensuring that the drone will remain in flight even if one fails.
One of the reasons Altus has in office in Georgia is that CNN is based "just up the road in Atlanta".
"We've sold them some more gear, helped them out with demonstrations, got their people trained. Now they want us to build them some smaller ones that are more portable so they could potentially have one at every office."
At $40,000, the drones do not come cheap, so do not expect New Zealand media outlets to be clamouring for one. A basic drone can be bought for as little as $4000.
Altus manufactures other units for $12-15,000, but they do not have the same levels of safety.
Morris said Altus's main business is in mapping and surveying, and that the CNN contract was "a bit of a funny for us".
It is working on developing a couple of helicopters at the moment - one electric, one diesel - which could be used as a miniature sprayer and precision fertiliser.
At a recent Agribusiness Showcase in Palmerston North, the company was one of 12 startups which pitched to a group of investors. Altus was seeking $5m to advance its business, and Morris described the response it received as "pleasing".