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Drone

Quadcopters have shot to fame on the back of their remarkable agility and versatility, but not everybody is bowing at the altar of four-rotored supremacy. In a marked departure from popular drone design, US startup Ascent Aerosystems has developed a two-prop aerial vehicle with a HD-quality camera and cylindrical form that's designed to be conveniently slid into a backpack when you're headed outdoors.

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A couple of years ago, UK-based product designer Witek Mielniczek turned to Kickstarter to fund B – a combination radio-controlled car and quadcopter. Its ability to both fly through the air and drive along the ground was certainly intriguing, although its ability to traverse rough terrain wasn't necessarily phenomenal. That's why he's now created B-Unstoppable, which swaps wheels for neoprene tank-like treads.

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Micro-drones may be versatile in the air, but carry one in your pocket or bag and you run the risk of damaging its propellers. While carry cases are available for a number of models, some are catering to the micro-drone class with arms that fold away for safe storage. Two Swiss roboticists are the latest to take this approach, with a palm-sized quadcopter that spreads its wings and springs to life in less than a second.

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When people suggest possible uses for electric multicopter drones, it frequently seems like they're forgetting something – presently, most such aircraft can only fly for a maximum of around 25 minutes per battery charge. Horizon Energy Systems, however, is developing a quadcopter that should do a lot better. Known as the Hycopter, the fuel cell-powered drone is hoped to be capable of 4-hour flight times once completed.

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Keeping track of crop health is an overwhelmingly tough ask for farmers, and things are only likely to get tougher with predictions of huge yield drop-offs in the coming decades. With a freshly-inked US$100,000 cheque tucked under its arm courtesy of MIT, startup RaptorMaps plans to get crop-mapping drones into the air this summer to better track their health and give farmers' harvests a boost.

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It's easy to be inspired when you see some of the aerial photography captured by drones. Perhaps inspired enough to get a camera drone of your own. But one of the hurdles in doing so (apart from the price) is learning to fly the thing, let alone capture nice shots with it. But there are a number of companies looking to break down these barriers by building drones that automate much of the piloting process. The latest to join the fray is Silicon Valley-based startup Lily, whose aircraft starts flying and snapping all by itself, all you need to do is toss it into the air.

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Drone deliveries hey? What could be more convenient than having the milk for your cereal arrive fresh each morning, or that forgotten dinner ingredient plonked down on the doorstep just as you fire up the stove? Well, details now revealed in an Amazon patent application suggest that if its Prime Air drones do materialize, they mightn't just be limited to making house calls. The application outlines plans for drones that track a customer's GPS position, flagging the possibility of having items brought to you even when you're out and about.

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A team of MIT researchers has developed algorithms that allow robots to plan and execute underwater missions with minimal human input. The technology should free up valuable time for project engineers, and may even open the door to autonomous exploration of remote parts of the planet's oceans.

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Amazon's ambitious plans to deliver small parcels by drones just took another little jump towards reality, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launching a new program to study the use of drones beyond the operator's line of sight. The initiative sees the agency team up with three companies to take drone technology forward, with the ultimate goal of hastening the safe integration of the vehicles into US airspace.

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Drones may have gone mainstream, but it's not everyday that you see an entry to that marketplace from a veteran technologist with a history of popularizing clever little robot vacuum cleaners. Having already built a pair of industry-oriented drones, Roomba co-designer Helen Grainer's startup CyPhy Works has made its first flirt with the consumer space with a moderately priced six-rotor drone that takes flight with a swipe of the smartphone screen.

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