The last few years have become the proving grounds for all forms of consumer technology. Home automation and mobile tech innovations often consume the spotlight but there is another consumer tech revolution gaining ground faster than anyone could have imagined a decade ago.
The consumer drone market has literally exploded overnight – starting as little more than a small movement of radio control enthusiasts equipping small aircraft with cameras, experts estimate the drone market to be worth about $140 billion a year by 2020. This revolution in consumer-grade flying tech has been spearheaded by companies such as DJI and Parrot, both companies offering drone products ranging from mere toys to professional flying cameras used to capture aerial action for Hollywood film endeavors. As the hardware required to operate these drones continues to decrease in both size and price, powerful UAV technology is available to everyone. Form ready-to-fly kits to DIY drone products, there is a UAV for everyone and the trend continues to grow in popularity at seemingly break neck speeds.
A Brief History of Drones
The first aerial drones were developed in the early 1900s and were used for military target practice exercises. Experimentation with unmanned aircraft continued throughout the 20th century with the first militarized drones appearing in WWII.
UAV technology continued to be developed, mostly by the military, and finally gained notoriety during the first Gulf War in the 1990’s. During this time, the first aerial footage of drones attacking remote targets with laser precision was released to the public on national television, forever etching this powerful military technology into the minds of citizens around the world. These drones represented a new kind of warfare that leveraged technology to create less expensive, yet extremely capable, weapons systems that did not put the lives of pilots at risk as is the case with conventionally piloted military aircraft.
With the dawn of the 21st century, electronics manufacturers began focusing more time and resources developing consumer electronics. Smartphones, home automation gadgets, and hybrid vehicles are just a few of the new products that spawned from this renewed focus on consumer-grade tech. It was during this time that the groundwork for the consumer drone market was laid in place. The first consumer grade drone, the Parrot AR Drone, was introduced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This consumer drone was revolutionary because it provided public access to UAV technology using only a smartphone for control. Since that time, hundreds of manufacturers have joined the revolution with each new product offering consumers improved functionality at an affordable price.
Improvements to small electronic components, radio control units, and HD camera equipment have allowed drone manufacturers to create entire product lines of small UAVs specifically targeting the consumer marketplace. While some of these drones may be nothing more than expensive toys used to spy on the neighbors, others have found a place in professional videography as a less expensive option when capturing aerial footage. Small drones are even used to improve the efficiency of large-scale agricultural operations, in search and rescue operations, and in the near future, as a way for packages to be delivered to Amazon customers.
It seems like the number of ways UAV technology can be leveraged is never-ending and as the technology continues to improve, there really is no way of knowing what impact small drones will have on the future of commerce. UAV technology is exciting and constantly evolving, a tick in the history books that is not soon to be overwritten as each day brings renewed promise that drone technology will soon assimilate into our daily lives much like mobile devices and social media have done already.
The Many Uses for Small UAVs
The first consumer grade drones were introduced as a tech commodity targeting early tech adopters. While this market segment alone can be somewhat profitable, it wasn’t until mainstream consumers became interested in UAV technology that the industry finally evolved into an indicator of what the future might look like; forever changing the consumer technology landscape while creating an abundance of new tech jobs around the world.
Some of the most popular uses for small UAV technology include:
- Physical security
- Search and rescue operations
- Agricultural and land surveying
These newly discovered used for small drone technology have furthered the rapid expansion of consumer drone popularity. Similar to how the smartphone evolved from the original iPhone to the quad-core processing power of today’s handheld devices, the consumer drone continues to offer more functionality at a lower price point – allowing consumers to enjoy the benefits of UAV technology for as little as $100 in some cases.
Latest Developments and the Future of Small UAVs
As consumer drone manufacturers compete for market ownership, new features and technology are being offered to consumers all the time. Many of these developments have placed the consumer drone market in a unique position that practically transcends the boundary between consumer-tech and professional electronic equipment and as the price of these hardware and software developments is driven down by market competition, the reality is that a consumer can purchase a UAV capable of flying miles away in some cases while transmitting real-time HD video feeds back to the pilot.
The last several years have brought many noteworthy improvements to the consumer UAV market including a focus on better video equipment, improved gimbal systems, and increased pilot control of pan/tilt/zoom functionality during flight.
DJI, for instance, now offers a fully-functional 3-axis gimbal system designed to support numerous portable camera systems such as the GoPro Hero 4 and DJI’s own proprietary 4K and 1080p HD camera systems.
Another major development in small drones is the increased flight range of the aircraft (the distance the drone can fly away from the pilot without losing signal). Some of the less-expensive consumer drone products – those typically marketed as toys to entry-level enthusiasts – have a limited operating range of 100 – 200 feet. Newer products marketed to professional aerial videographers, however, often boast flight ranges exceeding 1.5 miles. Thanks to advancements in First Person View (FPV), pilots can view a real-time video feed of the drone camera in flight to effectively navigate the aircraft after it has left the pilot’s view.
Improvements to battery technology and drone power consumption are responsible for longer flight times. Modern drones often boast continuous flight times of over 20 minutes on a single charge. As batteries become smaller and lighter, the aerial maneuverability of small UAVs has also improved, making it easier than ever before for a novice drone pilot to quickly master the art of aerial flight control. The addition of powerful sensors have also made learning to fly drones easy for pilots of any skill level.
Accelerometers, gyroscopes, on-board autopilot systems, and GPS equipment work together to create a fly-by-wire experience. Maneuvers that can be difficult to master, such as hovering and inverted flight, are made easy by the use of these sensors and allow pilots to capture stunning aerial video within a few minutes of taking flight for the first time.
Some companies, like DJI, are developing proprietary technology that will propel consumer drones even further into the future. Lightbridge is DJI’s high-bandwidth wireless transmission system and it allows for long-distance communication between an aerial drone and the pilot. Not only does Lightbridge increase the usable range of a drone to distances exceeding 1.5 miles, it also ensures that pilots receive real-time video and telemetry feeds from the drone without the interference that so often plagues other drones. Some of DJI’s drone products include Lightbridge technology out of the box, but the Lightbridge system is also available as a standalone unit that can be added to numerous compatible drone products for improved range and functionality.
The addition of custom components to existing drones represents perhaps of the most significant developments in small drone technology: DIY drones. Considered by many to be the next big leap in small drone technology, DIY drone enthusiasts are able to build custom UAVs using readily-available parts, sensors, and kits. Leading the DIY drone revolution is Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired Magazine. His startup, 3D Robotics, specializes in creating DIY solutions for the small drone market. Many of the drone kits offered by 3D Robotics are nothing more than a radio control aircraft – leaving the addition of flight control systems, cameras, and other sensors to the enthusiast. The availability of these customizable drone solutions is allowing drone pilots to create new uses for the technology that just a few years ago were unimaginable both in terms of cost and technology availability.
For example, DIY drones have been outfitted with IR sensors that allow farmers to survey crops for soil moisture content to ensure even distribution of water throughout an entire field using small UAVs. Leveraging drone technology in unique ways like this saves time, money, and resources while ensuring optimal use of natural resources.
As drone technology continues to evolve and new DIY drone kits enter the market, there really is no way of knowing what groundbreaking use for these small flying craft will be discovered next. It certainly is an exciting time for consumer drone technology and it isn’t much of a stretch to envision a future not so far in the distance where small drones are buzzing over our heads all the time while performing all sorts of tasks from delivering packages to your doorstep to assisting law enforcement when tracking a fugitive. The possibilities are endless and the promise of innovation fills the air as new drones take flight every day.
Manufacturers Leading the Drone Revolution
The increased popularity of drone technology has led numerous companies to enter the market. Some manufacturers focus on entry-level drones that are more akin to high-tech toys while other companies focus on creating consumer drone technology that is literally reshaping the way we think about drone technology altogether. Below, you will find an overview of some of the biggest names in the drone industry today as well as specifications of the flagship drone products offered by each. From the most advanced and expensive UAVs on the market to inexpensive toys that serve as the perfect introduction to small UAV technology, there is a drone available for every experience level and budget and new products are being introduced all the time.
Considered one of the top brands in the consumer drone industry, DJI continues to push the limits of what a consumer drone can do by introducing new technology and professional video equipment into drone products that are ready-to-fly right out of the box.
DJI’s flagship product, the DJI Inspire 1, represents the ultimate in small UAV tech – boasting features that are usually only found in drones costing tens of thousands of dollars or more. Groundbreaking technology including Lightbridge, a powerful GPS feature that allows for automatic flight between predetermined waypoints, a powerful 3-axis gimbal system for in-flight camera stability, and retractable landing struts to ensure the props and landing gear never get in the way of your aerial shots are just a few of the features that set the DJI Inspire 1 above just about every other consumer drone on the market.
The Inspire 1 includes an impressive 4K/30fps video camera designed to work with DJI’s own 3-axis gimbal system. In addition to capturing stunning high definition video footage, the Inspire 1s camera can capture 12MP still shots and the gimbal system allows for a full 360° of pan movement and the ability to tilt 135°. Unique among all consumer drones is the Inspire 1s ability to raise the propeller arms and landing struts after takeoff to ensure the landing gear never ends up in the camera’s field of view (a common problem that plagues most drones with a bottom-mounted camera system.
Advanced sensors including an ultrasonic transducer coupled to an auxiliary camera on the bottom of the aircraft help the pilot to maintain level flight while hovering above the ground. This system is also used to automatically raise and lower the landing struts during takeoff and landing maneuvers. This feature helps protect the sensitive camera and gimbal system while making it much easier for even novice drone pilots to successfully operate the Inspire 1.
Currently available for $2,899, the Inspire 1 is one of the more expensive consumer drones on the market but its impressive list of features and amazing video quality make it suitable for both professional videographers and hobbyists who want the very best in small UAV technology.
Parrot was the first company to release a consumer-grade UAV to the public, first unveiling the Parrot AR Drone at the 2010 CES in Las Vegas. Since that time, Parrot has improved upon its original AR Drone with the release of the AR Drone 2.0 and most recently, the Parrot Bebop – a drone offering many of the same features as the more expensive DJI products but without the high price tag associated with the Inspire 1 and many of the DJI Phantom models.
In order to keep costs lower, Parrot did take some shortcuts with the Bebop but with an MSRP of a mere $500 (more or less depending on the options chosen), the Bebop has proven to be an excellent small drone capable of transcending the gap between toy-grade drones and professional flying camera equipment. For instance, instead of relying on an active gimbal system for image stabilization, the Bebop uses a digital stabilization algorithm to remove camera shake during flight. The system works surprisingly well but it pales in comparison to a fully-functional active gimbal system. That said, the cost savings achieved by not adding a gimbal makes the Bebop more accessible to consumers of varying budgets.
Like the Inspire 1, the Bebop does include an assortment of sensors to make flight easier and smoother. GPS functionality allows a pilot to set waypoints for automatic flight trajectories and even ensures that the Bebop returns to its takeoff location should the drone lose contact with the control unit. Combined with other features including Glonass and Galileo technology, the Bebop can hover in place without any pilot input. It’s features like these that make the Bebop an excellent choice for aspiring drone pilots looking to gain some flight experience using an easy-to-fly and very forgiving flying camera platform.
The Bebop is equipped with a 14MP sensor capable of recording full 1080p video at 30 fps. Still shots can be saved in either JPEG or RAW format using the drone’s onboard 8GB storage. RAW format allows pilots to edit photos more effectively since the image is not compressed when captured.
For aspiring drone pilots seeking an affordable UAV that’s ready-to-fly out of the box, the Blade 350 Qx3 is an excellent choice. Affordable, yet surprisingly capable, the QX3 offers enough features to keep avid drone enthusiasts happy despite its low price point.
Blade has made this product even more accessible by offering the QX3 in multiple configurations. The least expensive of these does not include a camera; rather, it only includes a fixed camera mount for use with the GoPro and other popular HD camera platforms. This is perfect for enthusiasts who already own a compatible camera or for people wishing to improve their piloting skills before mounting expensive camera hardware to the UAV. This basic version is available for a modest $350, making this small drone accessible to people without a large budget for tech gadgets. On the other end of the product line, Blade offers the 350 QX3 AP Combo (available for $799.99). This package includes Blade’s improved CG02 16MP camera and the Spektrum DX4 transmitter.
While the CG02 camera offers high-quality images in most scenarios, professional aerial videographers are likely to be left uninspired by the images caught with the AP Combo and are typically better served by purchasing the Bind and Fly package and outfitting the drone with the HD camera equipment of their choice.
For its moderate price, the 350 QX3 does have some drawbacks. Of note is the relatively short flight times provided by the included rechargeable battery and the extremely short flying range (only about 100 feet from the pilot). This limitations make the QX3 a poor choice for some applications but the perfect small UAV for activities where range and flight time aren’t especially important (i.e. capturing video at an indoor sporting event).
Whereas DJI has successfully carved out its niche in the highly competitive drone market by offering some of the most advanced consumer drones in the world coupled with powerful cameras and an impressive gimbal system, 3D Robotics has taken a different approach by fostering the development of the DIY drone movement.
The availability of a la carte hardware, sensors, and other components allows drone enthusiasts to create custom UAVs designed for a specific purpose. The DIY drone movement is an important indicator regarding the future of consumer drones because most of the latest innovations are coming from enthusiasts creating their own drones using custom components.
3D Robotics is helping the DIY community by offering a product line of drones that do not include many of the bells and whistles found on products from companies like DJI and Parrot. Instead, 3D Robotics offers flying machines that have been stripped down to the bare essentials. This allows the drone pilot to add hardware (flight control systems, cameras, and image stabilization equipment) on their own to create a custom UAV solution that is truly unique among the hundreds of consumer drones on the market.
While DIY drone technology remains 3D Robotics primary focus, the company recently released a ready-to-fly aerial drone that from conception, was designed to compete directly with DJI’s extremely popular Phantom series of flying cameras.
Known as the Solo quadcopter, this new product offers an attractive alternative to DJI’s flagship drones by offering many of the same features at a much lower price point. For $1,399, a pilot can purchase a Solo quadcopter complete with controller and a unique-to-the-industry 30 day satisfaction guarantee. The Solo includes 3D Robotics proprietary gimbal system and provides the pilot with complete control of a GoPro or other high definition camera during flight. It’s worth noting that the Solo doesn’t include a camera and a compatible HD action camera will easily add hundreds to the final price tag, but for enthusiasts who already own a GoPro or similar, the Solo may very well represent a better choice for aerial videographers looking for a powerful flying camera platform that allows for a variety of camera and lens configurations. For comparison, DJI’s popular Phantom 3 can be purchased for a similar price, but includes a proprietary camera system that cannot be replaced, thus limiting the possible configurations available.
One of the features that makes the Solo unique among high-end aerial drones is the use of GoPro Bus Control. For those not already familiar with the GoPro, there is a special bus connection on the back of the camera that until recently was not useful for very much. 3D Robotics has changed that by connecting directly to the GoPro bus for full control of the camera system during flight from the Solo’s control unit. Considering that the GoPro remains one of the most popular and widely used action camera platforms currently used by amateurs and professionals alike, this unique feature sets the Solo apart from every other consumer drone on the market and as such, should be considered by anyone planning to use a GoPro to capture aerial videos and still shots.
The manufacturers above are all making history in an emerging market that seems to have no limits in terms of potential. There are countless other drone manufacturers that produce everything from miniature toy drones that can be flown around the home to massive flying machines equipped with some of the most advanced video equipment and sensors in the world.
The consumer drone marketplace continues to grow and that means there are even more opportunities to experience small UAV technology first-hand – regardless of our budget or lack of flying experience. Whether you want to survey your land, create aerial action videos of special events, or simply annoy the neighbors, there is a drone product available and as the technology continues to improve, there really is no telling what the future has in store.
Imagine a world where you order an item from Amazon and a small drone delivers it right to your door. It’s already in the works and Amazon is calling the service Prime Air. Think about the possibilities – it’s awe-inspiring to imagine the potential uses for small UAVs and although the sky above you may seem disappointingly devoid of drone activity right now, a swarm of purpose-built UAVs could make an appearance in the skies near you soon…much sooner than any of us could ever imagine.