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Hands-on with Fotokite Phi, a pet drone on a leash

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Drone enthusiasts are flush with options these days, from a Parrot for a few hundred dollars to high-end quadcopters going for upward of $5,000. But the Fotokite Phi is unique because it offers a tether and controller that makes it feel very similar to flying a kite. I met Fotokite's founder, Sergei Lupashin, at a downtown San Francisco building to try it out. The drone he designed just hit crowdfunding site Indiegogo for early-bird prices cycling up to $349. Once it launches, though, the price is more likely to be in the $500-plus range.

One of the nicest features of the Fotokite is how it folds up, allowing it to be stowed in a lightweight tube. And since the target audience is more of an outdoorsy user who just wants good photos of, say, a beautiful vista on a hike, that packability is key.

The tether design helps keep the Fotokite aloft and easy to use-- creating strain on the connection that the drone works against.

Lupashin says the connection was not intended to thwart any potential FAA regulations in the US, but he noticed how much more accepted he feels when taking the drone around. I didn't get to witness this first hand, but it makes sense. I've watched a few YouTube videos of strangers attacking drones that buzz too closely for their liking and tend to side more with the attackers than attackees (sorry UAV enthusiasts).

To use the drone, you first have to unpack it, give the center locking mechanism a twist and then give one quick twisting motion to the drone itself. It will then fire up, pulling on its tether to keep tautness in the cord. The hand controller has a manual wheel to unspool the eight meters of string inside, giving you 26 feet of vertical range. Two small buttons can move the drone to face another direction, sending your GoPro (not included) to get a different view -- and also twist it around to a new angle.


I was able to get the spin down, but had less luck with the twisting motion and button-pushing at the awkward (to me) angle you're forced to hold the controller. I'm sure with more time, though, I'd get it. The drawback to my demo was that I could only pull it around the inside of a building, so I'm not sure how something so lightweight (only 12 ounces with a GoPro strapped in) would fare in the wind. Lupashin even calls out the wind factor, so that's an issue to consider if you're hoping to buy something like this to play with off the California coast. My takeaway for that is: Be warned.

Another issue for me was using the controller: Lupashin says anyone can learn to operate the drone within five minutes, but I found the prototype controller somewhat cumbersome, like holding a large, plush hockey puck in one hand. I'm sure it works fine for large-handed folks, but some love for the ladies and/or anyone without bear claws for appendages would be much appreciated.

The battery lasts 15 minutes and also powers the GoPro while aloft. That's not much runtime, but at least you can swap out the rechargeable battery for a fresh one if you need to.

The drone is designed to stop flying if the tether isn't attached, as the tension helps keep it up and under control. If the tether should snap off for some reason, the drone is programmed to hover, then gently lower to the ground. And unlike the pro version of the Fotokite, this one does not come with a power cord.

I'd have to spend some time with this drone to make a final judgment, but overall I was really into it, especially for a more amateur hobbyist. The drone has an appealing any-man sensibility to it that makes it fun to use and share. I walked out of my demo saying I could see myself actually buying one, not something I've said before about previous test drives I've taken with more intimidating rigs. However I'd want to use a drone out on the San Francisco Bay and I'm nervous about how it'd do in the wind. Lupashin himself has taken the prototype sailing and said all went well, which helps ease my mind. I also love to hike and this thing has weight on its side there: I can definitely see throwing this in a backpack for some amazing mountain-side shots.

The Indiegogo campaign needs to reach $300,000 to get a minimum of 1,000 drones into production, which seems likely to happen at this point. Yes, it's a bit expensive, but if someone already has a GoPro, this seems like the next logical advancement for the "record all your epic crap" crowd.

[Image credit: Fotokite (drone selfie; flying drone)]

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