Local firms show off drones and bots for law enforcement

Members of a French police intervention unit take positions while a drone flies outside windows of a building where a man is entrenched with his children and threatening their safety, in Paris in March.
Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
Members of a French police intervention unit take positions while a drone flies outside windows of a building where a man is entrenched with his children and threatening their safety, in Paris in March.

A Danvers-based drone maker has begun shipping a new kind of police surveillance aircraft that can stay aloft for days, because it never completely leaves the ground.

The Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications system or PARC from CyPhy Works uses a thin wire tether, 500 feet long, that connects the drone to its human operators. It can carry a payload of up to 4 pounds, enough for a variety of surveillance cameras. While standard battery-powered drones can barely stay aloft for 15 minutes before needing a recharge, the PARC can hover around the clock, keeping an area under constant surveillance.

“It gets power and data from the ground,” said Kristen Helsel, CyPhy vice president of commercial systems, at the Police Innovation Conference in Cambridge on Monday. “So it can fly 24/7, as long as you need it.”

PARC carries a backup battery with enough power to let the drone safely land itself if the tether breaks. And since PARC doesn’t rely on radio, its transmissions can’t be jammed by criminals or a military foe.

CyPhy was founded in 2008 by Helen Greiner, the former president and co-founder of iRobot Corp. of Bedford, a leading maker of consumer and military robots. Helsel said that CyPhy has sold the first of its PARC machines to a domestic law enforcement agency, though she declined to identify the customer. She also said that the system also has commercial applications. For instance, a PARC is capable of lifting a 4G LTE transmitter, the kind used in cellular telephone systems. A network of such drones could quickly restore telephone service in a community ravaged by a hurricane, Helsel said.

Helsel also showed off prototypes of two other CyPhy products due to go on sale in 2016. PocketFlyer is a six-rotor micro-helicopter that could fit inside a large pants pocket. Like PARC, it uses a hair-thin wire to transmit data and receive power. Helsel said the PocketFlyer is designed for remote surveillance of hazardous indoor spaces, like a building occupied by criminals or a chemical factory that has sprung a leak. Each PocketFlyer will contain 30 cellphone cameras to generate a panoramic view of the area. It also will be capable of carrying a small sensor for detecting radiation or chemical contamination.

The LVL 1, due to go on sale in February, is an untethered drone that can move about freely. It features a built-in high-resolution camera, and can be controlled remotely through a smartphone or it can be programmed to follow its owner as he or she walks around. Most drones tend to lean forward as they fly, so the front of the aircraft is angled downward, toward the ground. The LVL 1 is designed to fly level at all times, which should result in smoother, steadier videos.

CyPhy raised $882,000 on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website to finance the launch of LVL 1. It was designed as the company’s first consumer product, but Helsel said the company has received many queries from police agencies interested in purchasing it.

Investors will get the first units for $500; Helsel said the price may be higher for customers who buy it at retail.

Also at the conference, iRobot showed off a new user interface that will let police and soldiers control the company’s venerable PackBot robots with a touchscreen tablet.

The uPoint system features an app designed to run on tablets that use the Android operating system. The app allows fingertip control of all the robot’s functions. A user can manipulate the robot’s arm and its gripper unit by touching an onscreen image of the robot, or order it to drive to the other side of the room with a swipe of a finger.

“If you can play any games on your tablet or on your phone,” said Tom Phelps, iRobot’s director of robotics products for North America, “you can now easily drive a robot.”

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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