drone skypixel drone skypixel A man catching a DJI Phantom drone. This photo won third place in a recent aerial drone photography competition from SkyPixel.com. (Photo: Luke Bell/Skypixel

5 incredible ways drone technology will evolve in 2016

From better cameras to longer flight times, drone innovation is about to soar even higher.

Not a week goes by that the world isn't captivated by some new image or gorgeous video taken by a drone. This technology has opened up a new world of possibilities – from wedding videos to rainforest management – that only a few years ago would have seemed almost science fiction. So what's next for these aerial eyes in the sky? Below are just a few of the new upgrades to expect from drones in the near future. As you'll see, the sky is truly the limit for where this industry goes next.

1. Your drone eye view is here – with popcorn

If you thought gazing down at your smartphone for a real-time view of what your drone is seeing is cool, you're going to love what's next. With the advent of headsets like the Oculus Rift and even Google Cardboard, live video from drones is now available and as immersive as virtual reality. Turn your head to the left, and your drone camera will follow. Look down, and you'll see the abyss open up below. For those who want to experience flying from the safety of the ground, it's never been easier to make your stomach perform virtual flips.

The rise of "drone goggles" has also given birth to a new sport: competitive drone racing. Armed with virtual reality headsets, the drone pilots have a first-person view as they race against others through an obstacle course. The first meet of the professional Drone Racing League is scheduled to kick off Feb. 22 at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium.


2. Aerial delivery inches closer

2016 may not be the year Amazon Prime Air delivers a package to your home, but the online retail giant is making progress. The delivery drones, under development in centers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel, will eventually be able to travel 10 miles and deliver packages up to 5 pounds.

For those who can't wait, there is another option available right now. Flytrex, a drone manufacturer from Israel, offers a delivery-ready drone capable of carrying drinks, t-shirts, food and other lightweight goods weighing up to 2 pounds. Even better? The accompanying delivery app can manage a radius of 11 miles to deliver that Blu-ray copy of "Game of Thrones" to your friend without running out of juice.

FlyTrex CEO Yariv Bash is an alumnus of Israel's Tel Aviv University and an aeronautic engineer by trade. "We wanted to produce something different," Bash said. "We didn't want to produce another wireless selfie stick."


3. Improved GeoFencing

We've all heard about drones flying into restricted airspaces, but apart from the more obvious landmarks to avoid, it's sometimes not easy to know if the flight you're about to take is legal. Geofencing, which uses GPS to accurately determine whether a drone is in a no-fly-zone, will finally hit its stride in 2016. Santa Monica-based AirMap is currently working on next-generation geofencing systems for drone giants DJI and 3D Robotics. According to Wired, AirMap's system updates in real-time and works directly with the Federal Aviation Administration to relay not only permanent no-fly zones, but also temporary restrictions for events and/or natural disasters, first responders, etc.

In the end, according to the FAA, it's up to the drone pilot to be aware of their surroundings and not depend exclusively on software. “An aircraft operator, whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned, is responsible for knowing the rules and flying safely and responsibly at all times,” a spokesperson told Wired.


4. Longer flight times

One of the biggest thorns for any drone operator is range anxiety. Most unmanned aerial vehicles on the market today have flight times of between 15 and 25 minutes, requiring many pilots to carry around extra batteries and accurately time their flights. But what if a drone could stay aloft not for minutes but for hours? That's the goal of Intelligent Energy, a technology firm based in the United Kingdom that's working on next-generation fuel cell batteries for drones.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Intelligent Energy unveiled its new ultra-light fuel cell battery developed exclusively for the drone market. The technology will dramatically increase the amount of time a drone can stay in the air, with benefits to search and rescue, long-range deliveries, and much more. Because the fuel cells can quickly be recharged in only a matter of minutes, downtime will also be reduced substantially. How soon will fuel cell drone tech be available? After CES, Intelligent Energy reported they had signed a deal with a major drone manufacturer to bring the tech to market. Range anxiety will soon be so 2015.


5. Better cameras, better brains

Despite the fact that most of us don't own monitors capable of viewing 4K video, most of the leading drone manufacturers are now offering models that record in the high-definition format. Santa Clara-based Ambarella, which supplies chips for high-end, commercial-grade drones, says its new H2 and H12 camera chips will capture 4K UltraHD video at 60 frames per second or 4K AVC video at 120 frames per second. Translated, this means that drone pilots will now be able to record super-smooth video during fast action scenes, as well as professional slow motion in crisp detail.

In addition to improved vision, drones are also starting to become more aware of the world around them. Yuneec, a drone manufacturer based in Jiangsu, China, will release a new version of its popular Typhoon quadcopter that comes with something called "real sense" technology. Developed by Intel, the feature will allow the drone to detect buildings, trees and other obstacles and intelligently swerve to avoid them.

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