Sunflower Labs is building a drone surveillance system for high-end homes

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Tucked away high in the residential hills of suburban San Carlos, California, is a three-bedroom home with its own autonomous aerial security system. The house is no different than any other residence on the quiet street full of well-manicured lawns and spacious views of the Pulgas Ridge Preserve.

But it just happens to be the personal home of former Evernote executive and Sunflower Labs CEO Alex Pachikov. He’s turned the house into a prototype home for the Sunflower system, which uses a series of motion and vibration sensors in conjunction with an autonomous drone to monitor all activity, down to measuring the footsteps on the grass outside his front door.

Sunflower Labs is building a three-part drone security system for large homes

“We have a core belief that a lot of value is hidden not just in the vision spectrum, but the motion and vibration spectrum,” Pachikov tells me before using a Siri integration on his iPhone to launch the drone from his backyard with a voice command.

Part of the Sunflower system involves the Sunflowers, the small, roughly 1.5-meter bulbs filled with sensors that are disguised as garden lights. “The sensors can detect people, pets, and cars. Vibration sensors detect footsteps, car engines… even if you’re running a coffee maker.” The Sunflowers are placed around the home to help create a map and triangulate people and other objects within the space. But the real draw of the Sunflower system is the drone that flies itself. The drone is called the Bee, and its base station is called the Hive.

The whole system works together by letting the Bee leave its station and then fly around the home capturing video by using the Sunflowers to perform path planning and relying on its built-in cameras and sensors to avoid obstacles. When it’s ready to land, you press a button on the Sunflower mobile app, and the drone docks itself into the funnel-shaped landing zone of the base station, which also doubles as a conductive wireless charger.

In practice, the Sunflower system would alert a homeowner of something unexpected moving around the house, thanks to the ground sensors. They would then manually choose whether to deploy the drone, which would then stream a live 1080p video feed to your phone or tablet. Once the drone is docked again, the video is saved to the cloud. The company says it’s designing the system to be deployable by both homeowners and third-party monitoring services, like ADT, in the event that you’re asleep or away from home and not monitoring your phone when the activity occurs.

“The security industry is just absolutely ripe for disruption. They haven’t done anything particularly new in 30 years,” Pachikov says. “It’s door and window sensors, and CCTV cameras.” Instead of having to go back and see what went wrong after an intruder has already broken in, or needing to have someone monitor the system all of the time, Pachikov says he “wants to know what’s happening around my property before it’s at my door.” For instance, if someone is scoping out the house to see whether it could be a viable target at some later date.

Although the concept of operating your own personal drone surveillance system can seem outlandish and excessive, Pachikov sees it as a viable and new type of deterrent. “Current security systems don’t provide any deterrents. Mostly it’s a 120-decibel alarm that blows out your eardrums because it’s mostly false alarms,” he says. “If the drone comes out, it’s very similar to a security guard coming out, or at the very least, a dog barking.” The noise is a deterrence element, too; in my experience, it was about as loud as other consumer drones on the market. Pachikov says they plan on reducing the noise a bit, and that using 3D-printed parts for the prototype is one reason why it’s louder than the company eventually intends it to be.

In this way, Sunflower Labs represents a new kind of drone company. It’s one that specializes less in the physical hardware and camera capabilities of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), like Chinese drone giant DJI, but in the possibilities a drone provides you as a consumer if it’s specifically outfitted to fulfill a certain need. Similar to Skydio, an AI-focused startup that makes a self-flying drone for action sports enthusiasts, Sunflower is taking advantage of the fast-maturing drone market to sell the promise of aerial video surveillance to both the home consumer and the security industry at large.

Sunflower is working with Stanley Black & Decker on a potential commercial system

Sunflower Labs has been working on the project for nearly three years now with more than $6 million in funding. Investors include General Catalyst — former Evernote CEO and co-founder Phil Libin, who now works as an adviser at GC, helped close the seed round — and Stanley Black & Decker, the industrial tool maker that also happens to be a major supplier of commercial security systems. The company is split between 10 employees in Zurich, Switzerland, and another eight in San Francisco.

The goal with the Sunflower system right now is to sell it to consumers on a subscription, while pursuing commercial applications in the future. Pachikov estimates that the whole package will cost someone around a few hundred dollars a month, and it will include the Sunflower sensor lights, the Hive base station, and a Bee drone.

Pachikov has no delusions about the product or who it is designed for. Sunflower doesn’t want every home to be outfitted with a security drone. “We’re going for higher-end, affluent people who are tech-savvy and eager to do this,” Pachikov says. “Once we’re self-sustaining, we’re going to drive the cost down and go for more regular homes.”

The goal is to target low- to medium-density areas; in other words, suburban America. Pachikov says Sunflower already has thousands of customers lined up to purchase the system with its subscription model. Down the line, Pachikov says its ties with Stanley Black & Decker will open up new avenues into commercial drone security. The hope is that, unlike standard, wired security systems or even the AI-driven Knightscope security robots, a drone is a better and more efficient way to surveil a scene, cover large amounts of ground quickly, and avoid being tampered with by an intruder.

There is, of course, the matter of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which make commercial drone operations a bit difficult without jumping through some serious regulatory hoops. There are also rules for consumer and hobbyist drone flights concerning flying outside an operator’s line of sight as well as at night. (The Sunflower drone is designed to capture video at night and operate autonomously in the dark, as well as other tricky weather conditions like rain and wind.)

“We see this as our Tesla Roadster.”

“The regulations to allow things like this are imminent,” he says. Currently, in a homeowner setting, you can fly a drone on your own property as a hobbyist. Eventually, Pachikov wants the drone to be able to deploy itself without requiring the manual go-ahead from the mobile app. To get there, Sunflower will have to bring the weight of its drone down a bit, as Pachikov says a device under half a pound would bring the UAV into the least restrictive FAA category. “We’re at three pounds. Hopefully, we drive the weight down and they raise the limit.”

What is clear is that, regardless of the regulatory road map, security drones are indeed on the way, and Sunflower wants to be at the forefront of both the consumer and commercial market. And while the Sunflower system may be for wealthy homeowners for now, Pachikov sees a broader audience on the horizon. “I see it like the Tesla Roadster. It’s a fun proof of concept, but it’s not a consumer car. We see this [the Sunflower system] as our Roadster,” he says.

Photography by Nick Statt / The Verge