The FAA has surprised many by granting a ‘107 waiver’ to CNN allowing the media organisation to fly a named drone above the heads of the general public. The shock however is more the choice of drone, an 18-month late, unfinished, pre-order drone called ‘Snap’.
In the landmark case, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted CNN permission to utilise the 620g Vantage Robotics ‘Snap’ drone in operations which include above the heads of crowds of people, up to an altitude of 150 feet.
The wider non-technical press and media has absorbed the glossy marketing image and PR story for Snap but they have failed to investigate further to understand the customer story and struggle.
Snap is far from being a finished drone, a majority of customers that have paid for and long-supported the start-up company are still waiting for delivery, 18 months later than promised.
CNN now has permission to fly above crowds…
CNN are one of the three organisations named “Pathfinders” chosen by the FAA in order to develop a mature Part 107 waiver process.
The expectation of CNN would have been for the media organisation to have chosen an established drone, with mature firmware and app, as well as sensing capabilities such as obstacle avoidance and optical flow to provide safe and stable flight control.
“This waiver signifies a critical step forward not only for CNN’s UAS operations, but also the commercial UAS industry at large, we are truly grateful to the FAA for allowing CNN to demonstrate its continued commitment to safe UAS operations.”, David Vigilante, SVP of Legal for CNN
Instead CNN chose Snap which is a pre-order drone product, unfinished, over 18 months late, struggling to ship to customers and partially still in beta. In addition Snap is the first drone product for Vantage Robotics, a new start-up located in San Francisco.
The choice of Snap as the CNN drone-of-choice may put the future of the Part 107 waiver process at risk.
Snap, a troubled pre-order drone…
Launched in late 2015 as a drone pre-order campaign, Snap was billed as unique due to its enclosed props and modular design, the production version of Snap has a reduction in the extent to which the props are shrouded.
Vantage Robotics claim that Snap provided greater levels of safety due to the shrouded props and a modular design with the “same principles used in Formula 1 racing to save critical parts from damage”.
Eyebrows were raised when Vantage Robotics made an admission that Snap was tested by “pot dealers, people who have bought pot, or people who are currently stoned,” according to Tobin Fisher, founder of Vantage Robotics.
Of the few customers that have received their drones so far, incidents of faults, crashes and drops from the sky are being reported fairly often, largely relating to loss of control, WiFi drop and loss of GPS acquisition. The ‘Return To Home (RTH)’ functionality is also questionable in success according to some customers.
“After assembling the Snap and getting a solid WiFi connection, I slid the take off button up. My Snap rose straight up about 4 ft and, instead of hovering, took off like a banshee at high speed in a downward clockwise death spiral, finally crashing into a low bush head on with a tilted aspect and breaking apart. Total flight time under 5 seconds.”, Christopher Wiley, Snap Discussion Group
“It took off. Flew over the railing out of control. Hit the building. Fell to the ground. Totally destroyed. Getting it off the roof now.”, Jon Scott Stevens, Snap Discussion Group
Shipping 18 months late, so far…
Originally stated to ship in Spring 2016, Vantage Robotics lapsed on their timelines and pushed delivery to the end of 2016. The date then slipped into early 2017 and was pushed further still with a commitment to complete shipping by the end of May 2017. Vantage Robotics missed this project commitment as well.
Amidst growing frustration and irritation from pre-order customers, good news fortunately arrived that Snap would commence shipping from the 14th June, although only to USA customers.
But poor project planning continued to disappoint customers when three months later Vantage Robotics announced in their September 13th ‘Shipping and Development Update‘ post that only 10% of orders had been shipped.
Vantage Robotics attempted to demonstrate that Snap had been arriving with customers by show-casing real-customer videos however it soon became clear the small handful of YouTube videos which had appeared were posted by members of the Snap beta-test group whom had early access to their drone.
Customers have reported that their comments had been censored or deleted from the Vantage Robotics Facebook page and official Blog, consequently the Vantage Robotics Snap Discussion Group was created by DroningON in order to create discussion and to give customers a voice.
One customer even dedicated time to document his experience with Snap, which after arrival crashed after the app allowed take-off despite magnetic interference. A lack of downward-facing optical flow led the drone to spiral and crash.
Some customers even returned their drones for refund despite waiting two years for it to arrive, many others have since cancelled their orders.
“I’m throwing in the towel..I’ve been tracking with the blog for more than a year and a half. I’ve sent about a half dozen emails requesting updates on the delivery date, all of which were met with the LEAST informative, guarded, non answer responses I could have imagined. I am asking for a prompt refund so I can move on from hoping to actually doing aerial drone videography with someone else’s product.”, Colin Despins, Snap Discussion Group
Vantage Robotics has fortunately honoured all requests that we are aware of, but the small start-up may soon reach the stage where providing a refund is not financially viable or possible.
Snap is already out of date…
Originally due to have launched prior to the release of the DJI Mavic Pro in 2016, Snap would have been at the top of its class in terms of portability and features. But running now at over 18 months late, Snap lacks the basics in terms of features, functionality and physical sensor redundancy.
At a high-level, Snap is vastly inferior to the DJI Mavic Pro in the following technical and practical areas:
- Snap has no downward-facing optical Flow camera, resulting in a drone which cannot hold its position if flown indoors without a GPS lock, the Mavic has two optical flow cameras both providing direct redundancy and stable indoor hovering.
- Snap has just a single ultrasonic sensor instead of the two fitted to the Mavic, providing direct sensor redundancy, not alternative sensor redundancy.
- Snap has no obstacle avoidance, although touted as a future ‘addon’. Mavic has a twin-camera forward-facing OA system.
- Snap only has a 2-axis gimbal, depending on EIS to stabilise the yaw axis, Mavic has a 3-axis gimbal resulting in far smoother video.
- Snap has multiple components due to its ‘modular’ design, this is far less convenient than the single body folding Mavic which ultimately is more portable.
- Snap has no dedicated transmitter and can only be controlled via smart-phone. For extended range, a mixture of ‘WiFi’ and DSM will extend the range to a maximum 1.5km, compared to the 7km of the DJI Mavic Pro with its dedicated transmitter.
- Snap costs $1,097 with 3 batteries, spare props and no additional accessories whilst the DJI Mavic Pro costs $1,299 together dedicated transmitter unit, with leather case, car charger, multi-battery charging hub and spare props.
- Snap can fly for 20 minutes per battery, compared to the 27 minutes of the DJI Mavic Pro.
Snap can claim a flight time of 20 minutes with its props shrouded (as the guards are not removable), the Mavic Pro has a reduced flight time (from its native 27 minutes) when the official DJI prop guards are fitted, but with third-party prop guards a flight time of over 20 minutes is achievable.
There is an argument that drones simply should not be flown in close proximity amongst members of the public, even if their props are guarded. A 620g drone flying out of control towards the face of a child or dropping from the sky onto their head will cause serious injury, regardless of whether the props are exposed or not.
It is crucial that CNN do not rush to utilise their new rights, they must also closely monitor and scrutinise Vantage Robotics and their quality-control processes to ensure that the product delivered is perfect, safe and reliable for use above and close to the general public.
The ruling by the FAA is clearly a step forward for the wider drone industry but the consequences of a Part 107-waivered Snap drone flying out of control into a crowd could be equally as devastating for the sport/hobby.