Sunday, January 25, 2015

Drone makers become Camera makers and compete with GoPro.

Part II 

Consumer Drones are all about the cameras

The DJI Inspire1 
The #CESdrones have leaders and followers.  Last year there were only a few OEM's. This year there was a mob of them.  Drones were seen in almost every hall.  The market for consumer drones is growing exponentially.  It has revealed a clear winner in these early stages of unmanned systems. It has shown that DJI Global has captured the largest market share of the consumer business. Most consumer drones are purchased for capturing imagery and DJI has risen to the top of that segment.
DJI Phantom series Vision+ platform with proprietary camera and RAW image support.
I saw drones everywhere from the first hour I walked around the show floor, which was during setup on the day before the show opened to the public. In every building and almost every show hall until the show ended. The only place drones were not seen, was in the skies over Las Vegas.  The area has very strict and well known rules forbidding unmanned systems from flying there.  Inside the Las Vegas Convention Center flying was allowed for those who had a protected area, designed for safe demo flying. (Attendees were not allowed to fly)  
DJI Global's X3/ FC350 camera mounted on a prototype handheld gimbal
Over the past 2 years DJI has actually specialized in photographic drones so much, that they are now a camera OEM, as well.  It started with their FC40 camera.  Then they released the Vision+ camera, and now it is the Inspire1's camera called the X3 model #FC350. This is the companies first 4k offering and they even showed a prototype handheld gimbal for it at their CES booth.
Sprite Limited is an action camera OEM and new Drone manufacturer

Copying is a Form of Flattery or a Market Strategy?

It is kind of ironic that DJI has become a small sensor camera manufacturer, because they are being treated very much like GoPro.  Other manufacturers are copying DJI Global product's look and features.  When I asked one booth attendant what the difference was from the DJI model, she said "It's Cheaper!!!"  That is probably a very true statement.  Companies that copy product designs  and release them as cheaper alternatives, are not good at making them work as well as the originals.  They lack the software and user design features that make the original worth owning. Some drone OEM's even fail to include basic safety features that are key to making the original a good seller.
AeroView's Product line at CES (notice no round edges in this copy)

So, if DJI Global owns market share who else is in the game?

The only other major manufacturer at CES this year was Parrot.  With 3D Robotics not showing and Walkera having a very small booth, with a useless crew, not much else was here from the top players.  It was like DJI scared them all away. Several specialized OEM's represented this year, including Harwar and Hubsan. The biggest contingent on the 2015 CES show floor were crowd funded & award winning drone companies like Nixie, Hexo+, AirDog, Ghost, and Zano.
Hexo+ is a crowd funded follow drone system. (A drone designed to follow and image you)
Why was 3D Robotics a no-show for CES2015?  There have been a few speculations, but most likely it is a combination of product cycle and money. 3DR had no real new products to show this year, and CES is expensive, as well as time consuming.  Many companies take a year off the show floor, when they are in development cycles.  The other expected new OEM was GoPro, but they did not offer any news of a drone in their future.  The interesting thing was that they also did not deny that they were working on one.  That is not much to go on, but since DJI is making their own cameras and testing handheld gimbals, GoPro might be losing aerial purposed sales.  I guess there is only so much you can assume about things that were NOT at CES.  You never know what is coming next in this arena.  I hope we see less copies and more innovation.

Lets see some New Drones



Parrot Showed off their Exom system for mapping and filming using SenseFly.
A closer look at the Parrot Exom camera
Parrot is not just a drone OEM, they are born from an Automotive Infotainment group that also makes consumer products for smartphones and tablets.  Now they are a camera OEM, as you can see from their Exom and Beebop products.
Parrot Beebop Drone with proprietary camera. It features image stabilization without a gimbal
If the CES booth told us anything, it is that Parrot is getting into mapping this year.  They showed several platforms that can use their SenseFly system, including the Ebee Agricultural Mapping fixed wing platform.
Parrot Ebee Mapping Platform (uses the SenseFly system like the Exom model)


Parrot showed their mapping and camera prowess with realtime 3D mapping demo based on the Nvidia Tegra Chipset.  The project uses 2 BeeBop cameras to do stereo-imaging, and provides a real time visual output of the image building.  Mapping is the next big thing for unmanned aerial systems. 3D and "4D" mapping are going to be a huge part of the mapping innovations coming out. (4D mapping is 3D mapping with a 4th dimension of information) 
Parrot BeeBop 3D Mapping project powered by Nvidia Tegra
Walkera was at the show, but had a very small booth. They did present a new flagship product called Voyager3.  The booth attendants were not very helpful and knew almost nothing about the new offering.  
Walkera's Voyager3 with a proprietary camera that lowers as the landing gear raises.
From what I was able to find out, the new platform will have a 4K camera and retracting landing gear. The proprietary camera will lower as the legs raise providing a 360 degree unobstructed rotation.  The final configuration of this new aircraft looks very similar to the Inspire1 from DJI.  The features are very different and do not seem to be as good as the Inspire1.  In their defense, Walkera did say that this product was still under development.
DJI's Inspire1 being presented on stage by Eric Cheng director of Photography at DJI

DJI shipped their first batch of pre-ordered Inspire1 drones just days before the show.  The Inspire1 was announced and demonstrated back in the fall. The expected release date in December was missed due to something going wrong with the production.  The exact reason was never really specified, but the result was surely a better released product and a lot of angry customers.  Those angry customers would have been much worse off if DJI did ship on time.  It was a hard time for DJI, but a good decision in the long run.  Now Inspire1 is shipping the production unit and I have been told by several Beta unit pilots that the new one is much better at everything.  I got to fly an Inspire1 Beta unit about a week before writing this. I saw some of the issues with it and it was still one of the best machines I have ever flown.
Harwar industrial drone used by border patrol and private security firms
Harwar was one the specialized OEM's on the show floor, but they really don't make consumer aircraft. Their main business is commercial use drones for surveillance.
Hubsan X4 Pro with a feature so important they had to write it down on a piece of paper
Hubsan showed off quite a few drone models in their booth.  They had minidrones, fixed wing styles and this curious model called the X4 Pro. The main feature was 4K live video that you can share.  Considering that there is no way to transmit true live 4K video I am sure the transmission is not 4K just the source.  They could give me no information to back up this hand written sign.

Hubsan's GPS Spy Hawk 

To summarize the consumer drones at CES this year, I would have to say that there is starting to be a real crossover between the unmanned systems space and the action camera space.  The biggest thing I saw in drones was new cameras. Less and less aerial platforms are using GoPro's and are instead starting to make their own cameras.  There is even a couple of camera manufacturers that are now making drones, like Sprite Limited and AEE.  

Sprite Limited is an action camera OEM that now makes drones.
These two markets are going to become more and more blurred over time. A drone is nothing more than a tripod for a small sensor camera. But a tripod that you can move in 3D space. The two products are in need of the other.  A drone without a camera is as bad as a camera without a view.  After seeing all this camera and drone crossover happening, it is hard to imagine that GoPro is not making their own drone platform.  There were also news stories that popped up back in November on the Wall Street Journal that hinted about this possibility.
Action camera OEM AEE  is now a drone OEM as well.
Stay tuned for my next report on the drones of CES. We will talk about the crowd funded drone phenomena.
Trace Live Networks claim to be a content company whose main product is a social network and a camera platform.  It was easily the most forward thinking camera OEM's that had a drone aspect.  One of their cameras is mounted in a follow drone. Their main focus is the live aspect and sharing live streams through their social platform. I think that this combination of social content and drones is here to stay.  DJI already has one such project, www.skypixel.com.

George Krieger is a tech enthusiast, teacher of Aerial Imagery as a Master at TheArcanum.com and a photographer, that has used capturing imagery as a way to do physical therapy.  All images copyright 2015 George Krieger.























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