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,

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


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Unmanned Systems take over the CES Show in 2015 (#CESdrones) Part I

Part I The Future is Automated

all images copyright George Krieger 2015

This year was a breakout year for Drones at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The main section called Unmanned Aerial Systems was huge, compared to last year's group of only 2-3 OEM's.  This year saw so many drones, in so many areas, that I still do not have a good number on how many I saw.  

Let's get right into it and show you what I found, that flies, at CES this year.

One of the most interesting projects at CES was a Kickstarter called Spiri. Created by Patrick Edwards-Daugherty it was successfully funded on September 11th 2013 to the tune of $140K beating their $125K goal soundly. 

Spiri on the CES show floor

 Spiri is designed to be a flying API. It will provide a stable flying platform for programmers to utilize. From my talk with Patrick, I found out that they built this with gaming and Geo-spacial Perspective in mind. They want to augment coding to be safe for flight by making a safe hardware platform. The programmers would need to know nothing about drones to utilize this platform. The functions of stability and safety would be built in, and part of every available command.  This way the program may fail but the unmanned autonomous system would stay in flight and not be affected by a fatal error in the added software. Certainly this will advance innovation by taking many of the hurdles away from adding drones into your code.

Spiri is already a successful Kickstarter and they are getting support from large operations like here at the Freescale exhibit, where Spiri was featured.

Another amazing project that I saw at CES 2015 was the Collision Avoidance project by SkySpecs.  Daniel Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs was walking this DJI S900 

SkySpecs, Guardian Collision Avoidance system

version of their system through the halls of CES. We chatted for a few minutes, and now I can see their vision.  The Guardian system from SkySpecs is an automated co-pilot that senses potential collisions and gently takes control, just long enough to correct the flight path, then returns to operator control.  The pilot of the craft should hardly notice that they have been assisted. For things like inspection drones and search and rescue operations, being able to forget about colliding into anything and focus on your objective is vital. The result should be safer flights with less focus on flight paths and needing a spotter and more immersion into the core focus of the project the drone is doing.  It is an infrastructure that could be built into most platforms as it gets smaller and lighter.  See their site for more information and if you want your company to be an early adopter the application is here                             

I spoke with SkySpecs today about their early adopter program.  From the questions they asked me and the information I was told, they are choosing a limited number of testers to fly a S900 with their collision avoidance prototype on-board. Since they are providing the aircraft, and not just the added features, they will charge a monthly fee to "rent" the system and test it.  The current whisper price is $400 per month on a 6 month contract.  They claim the system can stop an S900 from hitting a wall, while going full throttle. They said it would stop it dead in its tracks. Using 270 degree LIDAR, SkySpec's collision avoidance system is able to detect objects in the same plane as the aircraft. It can then take control of the system and make navigational commands to "avoid" the object it is tracking.  It then returns control to the pilot, allowing continuation of the flight. There is a 90 degree gap in the coverage which is well within the view of the cameras we use.  For most purposes collision avoidance is not needed forward while using FPV.  You should be able to see what is in front of you.

This system will allow pilots to immerse themselves into their flight's purpose and concentrate on their professional, creative, or scientific goals. Scientists will be able to collect water samples, and not have to worry about hitting the trees. Inspection crews will be able to focus on the inspection, instead of worrying about the airborne unit hitting the crane boom. Search and rescue will be able ti use goggles and keep their attention on finding and rescuing rather than flight paths and tricky terrain or crowded environments.  Cinematic pilots will be able to film, instead of filming half the time and hoping to keep the shot in-frame when using line of sight to check where the camera drone is.  In addition, the system will augment the fail safe return to home functions, by adding collision avoidance to the path.

The Follow- Drones are coming to film you!

The first follow-drone was a huge kickstarter success.  Airdog, the Auto-Follow Drone was seeking $200K and got over $1.3 million vaulting them into aerial legends.  

AirDog and its wrist beacon/controller called an AirLeash 
AirDog's basic concept has been copied by several other unmanned projects, but they are the original as far as I can tell.  Their features are basic but well rounded and seemingly functional. The arms can fold and the frame is made for very rough use.  Features include:

  • DURABLE  Durable and weather resistant construction

  • FLIGHT TIME 10-20 minutes flight time depending on flight speed

  • BATTERY Interchangeable 14.8 V, 5000mAh, LiPo batteries

  • WIND RESISTANCE Wind resistance up to 28 knots (14 m/s)

  • TOP SPEED Top speed, 40 mph (software limited)

  • RANGE AirLeash range up to 1000 feet (300 m)

  • OPERATIONAL CEILING Operational ceiling, 14000 feet above sea level (4300 m)

  • WEIGHT Total weight 4 lbs (1.85 kg) with battery and GoPro camera

AirDog can be pre-ordered here for $1295 usd

Follow me with your eyes.

Trace Live Networks was showing a follow-drone called the FLYR1. The difference in their technology was that it only uses the camera for this function... no gps or electronic beacons.  Nothing to home in with except the camera. 

Trace Live Networks FLYR1 drone will follow you using only the camera.

After the Trace loses view of its objective it will gently land and wait for you to get it.  Trace is focused on action sports capture but is not limiting the Trace device to be a drone.  There are 2 other options for Trace. It can be tripod mounted and they have a little RC style car they can mount it on top of too. Another thing about Trace and their Live Network, they are not calling themselves a drone or camera company. They consider themselves a content company.  Pre-order signup is available but there is no set price yet. Go to for more information.

In this space there is another Kickstarter legend called the Hexo+

HEXO+ winner of the CES Envisioneering award this year.
HEXO+ went for $50k in crowd funding and got over $1.3 million just like AirDog. They call themselves "Your Autonomous Aerial Camera-Drone"  They had a rocky time at CES, from what I heard. They crashed their only prototype during an interview before the event even started.  Then they came in and won 2 awards for their efforts.

Here are their detailed specs to compare with AirDog:

  • Dimensions: 62 x 52 x 12 cm - 24 x 20 x 5 inches
  • Total weight: 980 g - 2.2 lbs 
  • Hexacopter design with 30° tilt propellers 
  • Speed range: up to 70 kmh - 45mph
  • Flight time: 15 min with 3S battery, gimbal and GoPro attached

Flight controller

  • Filming distance range:  Technically, the drone can be as far from the GPS as 2 kilometers, but we advise you to research and respect your local regulations. 
  • Auto take-off and auto landing
  • Trajectory anticipation 
  • Video target locking* 
  • GPS + onboard sensor position tracking
  • Processor with MAVLINK protocol


  • High performance 2D brushless gimbal
  • Easy attach/detach from drone body for transportation
  • GoPro mount
  • Camera
  • GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition or Hero3 White Edition available


  • iOS and Android versions 
  • Intuitive 3D framing or intuitive live view framing* 
  • Favorite framing presets
  • Subject framing lock
  • Emergency landing 

Get yours pre-ordered for $1149usd here

Next we will look at the Drone Clones and how some smaller companies copy rather than  innovate. 

So in summary, the unmanned aerial systems of tomorrow, will have more autonomous features than manual control. Having a drone camera follow you during action sports activities will be the norm. We also learned that drone platforms will include a flying API platform and collision avoidance to allow you to focus on the goals for flying in the first place. Safety and stabilized programmable flight with more functions than most piloted aircraft will be the norm.  Aerial sensors are going to change the way we live and how much we know about our surroundings.  Remember this is the Consumer Electronics Show, so we are not seeing the purely B2B drone operations here. I suppose that will  be most evident at the NAB show in April.

All images and writings by George Krieger.  Write to for permission to use this article or the images contained in it.