China’s Factories Hunt for Growing Markets – By GILLIAN WONG Updated Feb. 13, 2016 5:35 a.m. ET

Amid economic slowdown Shenzhen turns focus to drones, 3-D printers and robots

A Shenzhen Rapoo Technology Co. in Shenzhen, China, is using its manufacturing automation know-how to build high tech products like quadcopters as the market for its computer peripherals shrinks. ENLARGE

A Shenzhen Rapoo Technology Co. in Shenzhen, China, is using its manufacturing automation know-how to build high tech products like quadcopters as the market for its computer peripherals shrinks. Photo: Gillian Wong/The Wall Street Journal


Gillian Wong

Updated Feb. 13, 2016 5:35 a.m. ET

SHENZHEN, China—As global investors fret over the health of China’s stuttering economy, some battered manufacturers in the industrial south are pinning their hopes on moving up the technology ladder.

Inside the factory of struggling electronics maker Shenzhen Rapoo Technology Co., robotic arms that for years swiveled and bent to churn out computer mice and keyboards are now reaching further up the gadget spectrum: making consumer drones. Such products, it expects, will deliver bigger margins and find new customers as its original business shrinks.

Like many companies in Shenzhen—the city bordering Hong Kong that helped power China’s industrialization over the past 35 years by mass producing cheap toys, clothes and household goods for the world—Rapoo is racing against the clock to find new markets that will let it thrive again.

“If you know only one move well, can you really be unbeatable and not have to change for 10 years?” said Xie Haibo, Rapoo’s board secretary, a wiry 37-year-old who was skipping lunch one day last month to prepare to meet potential customers. “That’s the kind of problem we face, so we need to transform, transform, transform.”

Across Shenzhen, small manufacturers increasingly are turning out 3-D printers, hoverboards and robots that are expected to continue to grow, a view encouraged by visits and financial incentives from China’s leaders. Beijing wants the upgrade to help pull the country through a painful economic transition from infrastructure investment to a consumer model.

The city that Deng Xiaoping anointed in the late 1970s to lead China’s market reforms is once more showing the way forward. Its economy grew 8.9% last year, faster than the national expansion of 6.9%. High-tech and advanced manufacturing grew at almost double the national average, in terms of share of GDP.

China’s economic woes are largely imperceptible here, in contrast to the depressed towns built on state-run mining and steel companies that are suffering from collapsing demand. The city is home to the world’s biggest drone maker by revenue, SZ DJI Technology Co., boasts a thriving Internet startup scene and hosts technology giants such as Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s biggest telecoms networking gear provider, and Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd.

The country’s economic slowdown has even brought an unexpected benefit for once-bustling hardware makers and startups: excess factory capacity.

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Things Will Get Messy if We Don’t Start Wrangling Drones Now – TIM MOYNIHAN 01.30.16. 7:00 AM

Parker Gyokeres knows what he’s doing with a drone. A retired US Air Force photojournalist, Gyokeres now runs his own aerial photography business, and has flown photo and video missions for clients as varied as Wu-Tang Clan, the Department of Defense, and Nike.

But once in a while, Gyokeres’s DJI Inspire drone won’t take off. There’s nothing wrong with the UAV, and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s the work of built-in geofencing software, invisible guardrails that stop pilots straying into restricted areas—mostly no-fly zones like airports, but also entire cities like Washington, DC, public areas like Tiananmen Square, and, apparently, decommissioned blimp bases.

“I went to a job in Massachusetts, and I went to arm the vehicle, and it wouldn’t arm because it was on the perimeter of an abandoned Navy airfield.” Gyokeres says. Naval Air Station South Weymouth in Abington, Massachusetts—a former Navy airfield that served as the home of blimp squadron ZP-11 during World War II—hasn’t been in operation since 1997. Still, the “No Fly Zone” feature in DJI’s A2 Flight Controller system had it tagged as off-limits. And because the system’s no-fly zones are hooked up to a geofencing system, Gyokeres’ mission was auto-grounded. That canceled flight is a good example of how drone geofencing systems work, and where they can cause problems.

In these early days of the drone craze, automated geofencing systems have been put in place by manufacturers including 3D Robotics, DJI, and Yuneec to curb reckless flying. In the most basic sense, geofencing can prevent a drone from taking off or entering restricted airspace based on its GPS coordinates. Geofencing is appealing because recent history shows drone pilots can’t be trusted to stay out of trouble. Drones have interfered with firefighting operations, been spotted by airline pilots around airports, and even crash-landed on the White House lawn. (That last one led to a blanket ban on flying drones in the nation’s capital.)

And with drones quickly filling our skies—the FAA predicted a million would be sold last holiday season alone, and the civilian UAV market could be worth nearly $4 billion in less than a decade—finding a way to make sure they all behave responsibly is increasingly important.

While it’s understandable that drone manufacturers and regulators want to err on the side of caution in terms of safety, these early geofencing systems are prone to errors and confusion. “These things aren’t necessarily bad, because the market isn’t mature at this point,” says Gartner research director Brian Blau. “The devices are only in their infancy, and we’re confident that over the years, some of these issues are going to get worked out—specifically around no-fly zones.”

That resolution may come very soon. In the next year or two, geofencing systems in many high-end drones will get more accurate, more dynamic, and more communicative. They’ll also start to work with lower-end drones—machines that don’t even have GPS. Down the line, geofencing systems could also help power safe autonomous flight, paving the way for those delivery drones Amazon and Google really want to deploy.

The Problems With Current Geofencing Systems

Most early systems, such as the DJI “No Fly Zone” feature that launched in 2013, were developed by the manufacturers themselves. And while it was relatively easy for these companies to hard-code no-fly zones into drone software based on areas that are always restricted (like airports and the White House), it’s harder to keep drones consistently updated with new and changing restrictions. The FAA is constantly setting up temporary no-go zones: airspace over live sporting events, wildfires, presidential motorcades, things like that. Not only did primitive geofencing systems spit out false positives like that old blimp base, they wouldn’t know anything about newly closed areas.

Another hiccup: Right now, geofencing systems are only found in higher-end “prosumer” drones, ones that require substantial skill (and money) to operate. Their pilots tend to be professionals, often with FAA permission to uses drones for commercial purposes like aerial photography, videography, and cinematography. These are the folks who tend to be most aware of airspace restrictions and the nuances of flying responsibly. Meanwhile, geofencing systems don’t come with cheaper, toy-like drones, whose controls are more likely to be in the hands of kids or inexperienced operators. In other words, these geofencing systems can limit the very pilots who are more likely to fly responsibly.

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How Rogue Techies Armed the Predator, Almost Stopped 9/11, and Accidentally Invented Remote War – ARTHUR HOLLAND MICHEL. 12.17.15. 7:00 AM

Predator 034, the first drone that a Hellfire missile was ever fired from. Photographed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  BRYAN DERBALLA

Predator 034, the first drone that a Hellfire missile was ever fired from. Photographed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. BRYAN DERBALLA

On the afternoon of October 7, 2001, the first day of the war in Afghanistan, an Air Force pilot named Scott Swanson made history while sitting in a captain’s chair designed for an RV. His contribution to posterity was to kill someone in a completely novel way.

In the moments leading up to the act, Swanson was nervous. He sat in a darkened trailer tucked behind a parking garage at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, remotely piloting a Predator drone over Kandahar, 6,900 miles away. Nearly everything about his rig had been cobbled together and hastily assembled. The Predator itself, one of just a handful in existence, was flying about 250 pounds heavier than usual. And the satellite communications link that connected Swanson to the aircraft would periodically shut down due to a power issue, which software engineers in California were frantically trying to patch.

When the order came through to take the shot, Swanson pulled a trigger on his joystick. A little more than a second later, a Hellfire missile slid off an aluminum rail on the Predator’s wing and sailed into the Afghan night.

Swanson’s target was a pickup truck parked outside a compound thought to be hiding Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban. The missile killed two unidentified men believed to have been his bodyguards. It was the first time a US drone had fired a weapon in combat. It was the first time a modern drone had ever killed a human being.

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Amazon unveils hybrid drone prototype to make deliveries within 30 minutes – Ed Pilkington Sunday 29 November 2015 16.01 EST

Retail company’s UAV can fly vertically, like a helicopter, and horizontally like a plane but may still face regulatory obstacles in US, despite safety features

Amazon’s prototype delivery drone could travel up to 15 miles at high speed.

Amazon’s prototype delivery drone could travel up to 15 miles at high speed. Photograph: Amazon

Amazon has unveiled a new hybrid delivery drone that can fly both vertically, as a helicopter capable of landing in customers’ backyards, and horizontally like a conventional plane. The drone can travel up to 15 miles at high speed.

The online retail giant released a video on Sunday in which the prototype is introduced by the former BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson. The film shows the unmanned aerial vehicle rising up from an Amazon warehouse, flying over pristine countryside, then landing on an Amazon logo placed on a customer’s lawn.

The hybrid is conceived as the prototype workhorse for Amazon Prime, the futuristic delivery service that aspires to carry purchases to customers within 30 minutes of an order.

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I Went to the Drone World Expo and Saw the Future. It Sounds Like Bees – MATT SIMON. 11.28.15.

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STANDING IN FRONT of a drone in a mesh cage, a somewhat nervous man with a somewhat Southern accent tells us about his machine, which a pilot is banking left and right and flinging up and down. It’s got a 4K camera and can hit 40 mph. When its battery runs low, it buzzes your phone. It’s not just a “solution,” but a “complete solution.”

This is the 21st century version of the Wild Man caged and prodded in a freak show, and that freak show is the inaugural Drone World Expo—75 exhibitors and more than 2,000 drone pros packing the San Jose Convention Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. The overwhelmingly male crowd, which is overwhelmingly wearing branded polo shirts, is here because there’s a mountain of money to be made in this nascent industry, perhaps almost $12 billion a year by 2023. Need a camera system? Look no further. How about lawyers to keep the FAA out of your hair? They’re here too.

This place sounds like the future—a high-pitched white noise not unlike the hum of bees. The smaller drones sound like mosquitoes. Regardless of what insect they sound like, these machines are big business, because more and more, drones are infiltrating our lives.

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The prototype drones aimed at improving lives 15 April 2015 Last updated at 00:23 BST

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at Apr 15, 2015 3.11

A competition designed to show how drones can be used to enhance people’s lives has been held in Dubai.

Teams from around the world competed for the £700,000 ($1m) prize in the international category of the Drones for Good competition with machines designed to lift heavy objects, fight poaching or clean windows.

BBC Click’s Spencer Kelly reports.

Feds unveil commercial drone rules – By Keith Laing – 02/14/15

Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration is moving to allow commercial drones that weigh less than 55 pounds to be flown in the U.S. under new regulations that were released on Sunday morning.

The proposal, which has been highly anticipated, would greatly increase the domestic use of drones in a long-sought victory for advocates of the technology.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the FAA’s rules will strike a balance the desire for increased drone use and concerns that have arisen about potential privacy violations from the unmanned flights.

“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” Foxx said in a statement.

The FAA’s rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights that are less than 500 feet and speeds that are less than 100 miles per hour.

The regulations also call for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17. Drone operators are also prohibited under the FAA proposal from conducting flights that take the devices out of their line of vision, which is a big blow to companies, like Amazon, that have touted the possibility of using the technology to conduct deliveries.

The rules make drone operators responsible for avoiding collisions with manned aircraft that are in the same airspace as the devices, and the prohibit drone flights that “fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the rules are an attempt to regulate the use of non-military drones without stifling the expansion of the new technology.

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” Huerta said. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

Lawmakers who support the increased use of drones in the U.S. cheered the FAA’s announcement on Sunday.

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