Fotokite has been tinkering with this idea for a while, and the product is finally becoming available this holiday season. The Fotokite Phi is, in the simplest terms, a drone on a leash. You control it with hand gestures and the palm-sized leash handle, and the drone flies nearby without the need for a GPS or basically any setup. The company is calling it “the tethered, foldable quadcopter made for anybody who wants to take photos or video from the sky.” It’s supposedly as easy to fly as a kite (or easier, since flying a kite is something I never quite mastered) and is compatible with the most popular GoPro cameras (3/3+/4 and Hero5 Session).

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The Fotokite Phi’s salability is based on nine key features, encompassed below:

  • Instant launch: To launch the Fotokite Phi, users simply point it in the direction they want it to go and give it a quick twist. Campaign backers that have already received the Phi have reported being able to fly it in cluttered, indoor settings within minutes.
  • Intuitive gesture control: The Fotokite’s core algorithms enable the device to fly itself on the end of the tether controlled only with simple gestures. Rather than relying on complicated joystick controls, often unpredictable camera tracking algorithms or GPS, the Fotokite uses the force of the tether to fly next to the user. Hold the yaw or orbit button on the leash and rotate your wrist – the Phi will follow your commands. 
  • No Flyaways: The Fotokite Phi is always attached by a tether line to the user, preventing the common drone problem of flyaways. If the tether is cut, the Phi will automatically begin a controlled descent and power off upon landing. The Fotokite Phi will also give low battery alarms if you run low on power, and if it runs out of battery while you are flying, it will automatically land softly and turn off.
  • Sharable: The Phi can be shared between friends in the same way they’d share a kite. Simply hand off the tether to a friend, and the Phi will continue flying and recording footage seamlessly.
  • Built-in “follow me” mode: The Phi has a built-in “follow me” mode, allowing users to use the kite in windy conditions or to walk down the street, hike in the woods or even ski down a slope while recording videos and photos.
  • Foldable and portable: The Phi weighs 14 ounces including the GoPro 3/3+/4/Hero5 Session camera and battery, making it the lightest GoPro-carrying quadcopter on the market. The Fotokite Phi folds into a compact carrying case (about the size of a two liter soda bottle) and can easily fit in a backpack or suitcase. The Fotokite Phi comes with up to 100 feet of leash and a removable battery (13 minute flight time) that charges directly through a USB port.
  • Camera integration for GoPro Hero 3/3+/4: If a GoPro Hero 3/3+/4 camera is installed, it is powered by the Phi and automatically turns on when flying. Compatible cameras (Hero4, soon Hero 3/3+, Session 5) are controlled directly from the Fotokite Phi leash (video start/stop, photo capture).
  • Upgradable: the Fotokite Phi is completely field-firmware-upgradable and may be recalibrated for challenging settings such as high altitudes. The Fotokite team plans to release future firmware updates improving support for cameras such as the Session 5 and implementing other improvements.
  • Safe: Fotokite’s soft propellers turn at a lower rotation speed than traditional drones, reducing the disruptive noise typical to drones and making the Phi safer to use. Even if the Phi gets close to a wall or a tree, it can easily be pulled to safety with the tether.
  • Accountable: Many people are uncomfortable seeing unmanned vehicles flying overhead, but Fotokite’s tether makes it easy to identify the pilot and assign accountability for its movements. The tether makes it clear to bystanders who’s controlling the device, allowing for accountable aerial photography.

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Wanting to make something “new” and “fresh” in the aerial camera market, Photokite Phi is a drone for the masses, a tool that can be used by anyone, anywhere and that is supposedly safer than any other drone, with literal tethered accountability.

It’s an interesting concept, but will it take off (ha, pun)? The idea of a string attached to the drone severely limits the kinds of images and video that can be captured. And, of course, you have to consider that many images will contain the string in the shot… which is not ideal. The team says on their YouTube that the string isn’t that noticeable, but I definitely took note of it in their demo video. It may bother me, but it might not bother may other people, especially if it means they can easily fly a drone with no training or skill required.

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Another question to be asked is… is this drone regulated by the FAA, considering it’s tethered?

Whatever the case, it’s a drone that was an idea not too long ago and is now a shipping product today. That’s more than we can say for the Lily, for example.

The Fotokite Phi is available on the Fotokite website for at a reduced price of $250. The exact nature of the pricing period wasn’t specified in their release, so if you’re interested, get it while you can before the price returns to $350.

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