Successful with phones & drones, Parrot ponders farming

Successful with phones & drones, Parrot ponders farming

Business news |
By eeNews Europe

The French company has soared to global notoriety on its drones. It is a pioneer of flying video cameras and mini-drones controlled by smartphones and tablets.

How did a car telephony specialist end up developing little pilotless spy planes? Furthermore, how has it turned drones into its fastest-growing business?

Business transformation stories are often told by executives as the outcome of their best-laid plans. The truth is usually closer to serendipity. Henri Seydoux, a 54-year old French entrepreneur, boldly admits this.

When asked why he did drones, Parrot’s founder and CEO told us in an interview here, "It’s because I’m crazy. Everyone at this company was against the idea."

Drone development at Parrot — an effort that began in stealth mode nine years ago — led to the January 2010 launch of Parrot AR.Drone, a radio-controlled flying quadcopter.

From mini-drones to flying camera drones
According to Parrot, third-quarter drone revenue increased 130% from the same period last year. In fact, the drone segment provided 44% of the company’s overall revenue in the third quarter of 2014, bringing in €27.7 million ($34 million).

Though 87% of its drones are sold for consumers, revenue from commercial and civil drones are rising steadily.

Last month, Parrot launched its €499 Parrot Bebop Drone — which Seydoux calls a "flying GoPro" — in addition to mini drones (the €159 Jumping Sumo MiniDrone and the €99 Rolling Spider MiniDrone).

The Bebop Drone, which does not use a GoPro camera, leverages the Parrot engineering team’s unique software skills to capture well-stabilized HD video images.

Seydoux said two things are necessary in making something like the Bebop Drone. "First, the drone needs to fly well. Second, we have to make a very good camera." But making a drone that can fly in a stable manner isn’t easy. Maneuvering the propellers’ motor speed is the only means of keeping the drone flying smoothly.

Yannick Levy with his Bebop drone in his office.

Yannick Levy with his Bebop drone in his office.

"At Parrot, we like to think we are good at software," he said. But when it comes to mechanical designs, "not so much." The device uses a fish-eye lens to capture a 180-degree video image. Yannick Levy, the former DiBcom CEO who joined Parrot in 2011, said Parrot software running on a GPU flattens the image, selects and stitches the images to make the video footage look steady.

When flying outdoors in wind and in other conditions, Seydoux said, the Bebop Drone "shakes a lot." But the camera drone can produce steady video without adding extra parts or components to the drone or making it heavier. "We depend on our software" to compensate for any potential weaknesses.

Flying robots
Levy, now executive vice president for business development at Parrot, acknowledged that a lot of his time is spent developing Parrot’s drone business, especially in commercial and civil drones. "In many ways, drones are turning into flying robots," he said. Commercial drones are now being applied, not only for surveillance, but also for mapping and agriculture.

"Drones can carry a lot of payloads," such as image sensors, ultrasound, laser, and vision mapping. When sensor data is combined with the brain of a drone, it can, for example, calculate nitrogen levels in crops. It can visualize and map out the fields, determine soil and crop health, and prescribe the necessary level of fertilizer.

Parrot Flower Power, a wireless sensor for plants. Parrot Flower Power, a wireless sensor for plants.

Beyond the company’s wireless, hands-free headphone, Zik2.0, and a wireless stereo audio system called Zikmu Solo, Parrot is pushing its Internet of Things devices, not in fitness or health, but in the agricultural field.

In an urban setting, it means potted plants and flowers on a terrace or balcony. This year, Parrot rolled out Flower Power, "the first intelligent wireless sensor" applied to gardens.

The battery-operated, Bluetooth-enabled wireless sensor unit is designed to connect to a Bluetooth LE-enabled iOS device. One can place it in the soil next to a plant and correlate it with the Parrot plant database. It monitors and collects data on soil moisture, sunlight, temperature, and fertilizer. It will diagnose any issues and help the user monitor the plant’s needs for long-term care.

Parrot plans to launch a couple of new products — suspected to be related to gardening — at CES. But the company isn’t giving out any more information until the announcement.

Spread too thin?
With close to 900 employees, half of them engaged in R&D, Parrot might be getting spread too thin. After all, drones, automotive infotainment systems, and wireless sensors for gardening are very different businesses.

Parrot's revenue breakdown for the first half of 2014.

Parrot’s revenue breakdown for the first half of 2014.

But using connectivity as a common thread, Seydoux said he is aware that his devices are naturally taking Parrot into the business of collecting data.

If Flower Power becomes popular, the wireless sensor data collected every 15 minutes could eventually morph into more accurate weather data, he said.

"I have yet to see naked celebrities shot by camera drones."

But how is Parrot planning to respond to the inevitable privacy, security, and safety issues presented by drones and other connected devices?

"As a company, we follow the rules. But eventually, it is in the hands of the users of our devices, who are responsible for using them appropriately," he said. "We can’t put a policeman at each drone."

Do drones face a backlash for violating privacy? "No. Not really. I have yet to see naked celebrities shot by camera drones."

The irony of this statement, especially coming from Seydoux, is that his daughter, the actress Léa Seydoux, will be exposed quite publicly (and perhaps overflown by a few pararazzi-operated drones) in the next James Bond film.

— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times

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