May 23, 2024
NatureEye launches immersive drone flights over world nature destinations



NatureEye is launching immersive drone flights to tourist destinations around the world, taking you to exotic places such as Elephant Sands in Botswana.

The Menlo Park, California-based company wants to revolutionize the virtual travel industry with the launch of its immersive drone flights. You can fly the drones yourself on your own safari in Africa or over a volcano in Iceland. I went on trial trip to Elephant Sands, where a tour guide named Ben and Matthew Rabinowitz, chairman of NatureEye, helped me get around.

NatureEye offers a unique opportunity for users to pilot their own 30-minute drone flights at conservation locations worldwide, providing an unparalleled exploration of nature from the comfort of home. The platform allows participants to control their avatars, navigate to points of interest, and capture high-resolution photos, all in real-time or near real-time.

With recent advances in drone and communications technologies, NatureEye is making it possible for consumers to remotely fly drones in iconic locations around the world. This experience allows users to control the movement of the DJI Mavic 3 drone, explore breathtaking landscapes, and learn about new places.

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“This is truly a game-changer in the travel and entertainment industry,” said Rabinowitz. “We believe everyone should have the chance to witness the world’s natural wonders and iconic landmarks. With NatureEye, we are bringing these incredible experiences through the use of cutting-edge technology and providing an unforgettable and educational journey for people of all ages.”

NatureEye offers an inclusive and accessible way to experience the world, catering to a wide range of individuals. Whether it’s parents looking to provide an educational and entertaining experience for their children, couples in search of a date night activity, or people with limited mobility eager to access remote destinations, NatureEye provides a platform that breaks travel barriers and allows anyone to explore the world’s most stunning locations.

Guided tours with expert guides are available, providing participants with stories and insights about each location’s history, culture, and significance. With live audio commentary, users gain a deeper understanding of the world around them, fostering a sense of wonder and appreciation for our planet’s treasures.

NatureEye is not only transforming the way people experience travel but also making a positive impact on conservation efforts. For each flight booked, up to 50% of the revenue will be shared with local sites, supporting their ongoing efforts to conserve natural habitats and wildlife for future generations. Additionally, NatureEye’s partners benefit from reaching a global audience and gaining access to drone technology for anti-poaching and other conservation initiatives.

“We are thrilled to partner with NatureEye and be at the forefront of virtual travel showcasing the cultural and natural wonders of Peru to an international audience,” said José Koechlin, CEO of Inkaterra, a pioneer in ecotourism and sustainable development, in a statement. “Our shared vision of uplifting local communities by making conservation profitable will help preserve these unique places.”

NatureEye initially offers flights in Peru, Iceland, Botswana, Kenya, Cambodia, and the United States, with plans to expand to additional locations in the future. By visiting NatureEye.com, customers can schedule their own unforgettable drone flight and embark on a virtual journey to some of the world’s most extraordinary destinations. NatureEye charges about $95 per 30-minute flight if you have a guide, and you need to book it in advance. It costs less for flights without the guides.

Trial run

A drone’s view of a nature lodge in Elephant Sands, Botswana.

I made an appointment to visit Elephant Sands in Botswana. Ben switched on the drone and then I got a video feed from the drone’s camera. Once NatureEye confirms that the video console is working, they switch the flight to a “virtual stick,” which means they hand control of the drone over to me.

I’ve flown such things in video games before, and so the controls weren’t foreign to me. Fortunately, NatureEye puts some controls in place so that it can make it simpler and take over as needed. There is a takeoff button that maneuvers the drone upward, so you don’t have to manage that.

The drone ascended into the air. And when it reached 50 meters, the control returned to me. I could use the arrow keys on my computer keyboard to move backwards, forwards or sideways. I could also move my camera in a particular direction as well. You can press more than one key at a time.

The height of the drone is controlled for the commercial air space rules. Fortunately, many tourist destinations are in remote areas and don’t prohibit drone flight. But you can’t go too low or too high, and so you stay in a safe air space.

“You can’t crash the drone or anything like that,” Rabinowitz said. “You just have fun.”

I booked my time at 8:15 a.m. on a Saturday and it was in the afternoon in Botswana. The area was suffering from a severe drought, and it shocked me how dry things were. The ground was dusty brown and most of the trees that the elephants eat for food were stripped bare. Rain was supposed to be coming soon.

“There’s not enough food to go around,” said Graham Wallington, chief business officer at NatureEye, during our flight.

The drone started at a lodge at Elephant Sands where Ben was located. We headed in one direction toward a known watering hole, on Ben’s direction. Wallington said the animals weren’t even aware of our presence. They directed me to go down a road and then Wallington spotted an elephant to our left.

An elephant viewed from a drone with a telephoto lens.

I didn’t see it at first and then used the guide’s directions to zoom in on the spot. Sure enough, it was a big male with giant tusks, walking away from me. I did a 7.2X zoom and the picture disappeared for a bit and then finally zoomed in on the animal. I flew ahead, turned around, and zoomed on his face from far above. He was walking fast, heading toward a watering hole. His trunk was dark and so he had been dipping it in water. I took some pictures that were saved to a folder that I could access later on.

“By he has some big tusks on him,” said Wallington. “That’s a beautiful animal. He just doesn’t know we’re here.”

Then I tapped “points of interest” and chose to navigate to a water hole. It immediately took over and flew me to the hole, where the others saw a herd of elephants earlier. One tech they are exploring is a thermal camera that can pinpoint the animals in the environment. That lit up some trucks in the distance.

Sadly, when we got to the watering hole, there were no elephants walking there. But there was a dead elephant in the middle of the watering hole. The animal had died in the last 24 hours. Then we saw another animal approaching the watering hole. It was a spotted hyena, loping toward the water. It had clearly smelled the elephant carcass. I zoomed in on it and took pictures. The hyena circled the lake and tried to find a path to the elephant. But it circled, howled for its mates, drank some water and then left at a trot.

Then we decided to head back to the lodge because we were running low on time. The drone had no microphone so I couldn’t hear anything. If you run low on battery, the drone will automatically land itself rather than crash. But the notifications will enable you to get back to the drone station on time. I pressed the button and let the drone fly itself while I took more pictures.

We arrived at the lodge, which had a camping area, a series of small tents, a restaurant and bar. There were people at a swimming pool, but sadly the nearby watering hole was dry. But there was a whole herd of elephants loitering nearby. One guy was talking on his smartphone, oblivious to the elephants just a few feet behind them. I was surprised the elephants didn’t drink out of the swimming pool. Fortunately, the first rain had come the day before. Heavy rains can turn the area into a green paradise, Wallington said.

The drones can connect via video and the internet through the Starlink mobility service, which is a high-performance system based on satellite communications. Then I pressed the button to land the drawn. They examined my file and found 33 photos. Ben downloaded the files from the SD card and would later upload them to the NatureEye app.

After report

An elephant family in a dried-up landscape in Botswana.

To me, it felt like a little trip into the metaverse. I was being transported virtual to another real place in the world. Rabinowitz said that the conservancy that manages the elephant park will get half the money, and it can use that to help improve the park. Normally, it is places like the lodge that make the money rather than the park. So this virtual tourism helps spread the money around and it helps the caretakers improve the park.

I chatted afterward with Rabinowitz, Wallington, CTO Jonathan Sheena and CMO Michelle Weil.

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Elephant Sands and I loved taking control of the drone and the camera. It gave me agency and it was interactive, unlike watching someone else’s documentary. And that made it much more interesting to me. I think that NatureEye is on to something, and it could become very popular and the costs could come down and flights could be longer as drone technology improves.

Future plans

A spotted hyena calls to its tribe about an elephant carcass.

Rabinowitz said there are thousand of places that could be good locations for drone tours. At the moment, each of the drone locations at six locations have one main drone and a backup, Weil said. About a hundred locations are in the queue, subject to getting service and regulatory approval.

“We want to get things well-oiled and iron out glitches, as with any, new technology,” Rabinowitz said. “We’re just at the beginning.”

The locations include one at a volcano on the continental divide in Iceland, where there was a famous scene from Game of Thrones; Machu Pichu, Peru; Chulu Hills in Kenya, near Mount Kilimanjaro; Dungeness Spit in the state of Washington in the U.S.; and the Mekong River in Cambodia, where there are endangered species of dolphins. One coming soon is a site where snow leopards have a habitat in Kyrgyzstan. Many of these places are where human visitation is discouraged or limited.

“This is one of the things that is central to our mission,” Rabinowitz said. “We will split the revenues with the Nature Conservancy.”

The company hopes there will be group tours with lower prices per person from places such as schools or corporations staging events. Money is also shared with guides by the conservancy, and the tips generate meaningful income for the guides, Rabinowitz said.

Origins

A spotted hyena tries to reach a dead elephant in the middle of a watering hole.

Starting in 2019, Rabinowitz and Sheena funded the project, with some seed funding from Sequoia Capital. The company has less than 20 people.

Rabinowitz was the CEO of multiple public and private biotech companies. He has been a consulting professor in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford and visiting faculty in genetics at Harvard. He is also executive chairman not only of NatureEye but also MyOme, Marble Therapeutics and Natera.

And he got into the nature conservation movement after volunteering for the World Wildlife Fund.

“I care a lot about nature conservation,” he said.

He saw that you could leverage various technologies like Starlink and drones and high-zoom cameras. As the pandemic hit, many of the locations could no longer receive guests and they got in line for the virtual tour technology. During the gestation, technologies like high-zoom cameras with 50X capabilities became practical.

The company also depends on AI, as image recognition isn’t possible without the deep learning neural networks. Wallington had a lot of experience with underwater drones and Africa cam, a site that had the highest viewership of any remote viewing system in the world.

Rabinowitz doesn’t think the virtual tours will hurt real tourism in the areas. Rather, he thinks it will motivate people to go see these places of the Earth before they disappear. At places like Elephant Sands, he noted, there is a lot of wildlife you just can’t see. And sharing video of these tours could also generate new visitors.

“We are leveraging a lot of the trends and technologies to enable this amazing avatar experience in these wonderful places in the real world,” Rabinowitz said.

As for the metaverse, Rabinowitz said, “I think people care about the real world, and people care about influencing the real world. But you can make the engagement with the real world enhanced by leveraging the tools of the metaverse, so long as people don’t become completely detached from the real world.”

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