20 percent project: Hacking a drone for the hell of it

by Colin Morris
April 19, 2016

The über nerds at

have done it again. Just one month after bringing regular toys online with Bluetooth beacons, a team led by Design Lead JoJo Marion, Vice President of Engineering David Olesch and iOS Developer Matt Wanninger has written software for the Apple Watch that lets users control a drone with a flick of the wrist.

See it in action

[video:https://youtu.be/hFChuauEOos width:610 autoplay:0]

How they did it

Using a Parrot drone’s software development kit and the accelerometers built into the Apple Watch — which became accessible to developers with the release of WatchOS 2 — the team painstakingly mapped out every function of a regular remote control, then designed hand gestures for each one.

But don’t bother scrolling around for a ‘buy’ button. This isn’t for business — at least not directly. "Labs Projects," as they’re called at Jackrabbit, involving experiments with VR headsets and even homegrown hardware, are just how the team likes to spend its down time.

“The reason we’re doing this, in all honesty, is the reason we started this company — to do what we wanted to do and work on what we wanted to work on,” Marion said, explaining that, while still lucrative, the company’s bread and butter — mobile app development — doesn’t always provide the same thrills it did when the company was founded in 2012 because it isn’t as groundbreaking as it used to be. “The point of [Labs Projects] is working on what we want to work on. This is us saying OK, let’s do the craziest stuff we can think of.”

In fact, the company is giving away the code on GitHub so drone lovers can make the same magic at home.

A soft return on investment

But that’s not to say there’s no benefit to Jackrabbit’s bottom line. Marion (pictured right) said these projects have the potential to attract the attention from partners who want to do more with emerging hardware and expand Jackrabbit’s capabilities — and client portfolio.

Flashy tech stunts also bolster a company’s recruiting brand.

Marion’s team first showed off their watch-controlled drone at a TEDxYouth event at Westlake High School. By Marion’s account, everyone wanted to fly it. But even for engineering wizards, some things are off limits — the audience was almost entirely students, and handing over the reins to an experimental drone with 600 people in the building was too great a liability.

Onward and upward

Marion and Olesch are already looking to expand on the innovation of wearable remote controls. Their team is eagerly awaiting the arrival of new equipment to mount cameras on the drone and beam video back to a VR headset that could be used to pilot it.

“We try to do Labs Projects as quickly as we can,” Marion said. “We also want to build on top of the things we’ve done.”


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