There were 3800 exhibitors at CES 2016 in Las Vegas this month, spread out over 2.47 million square feet — each one, sharing their vision of the future of technology. Attending with the rest of the 170,000 tech enthusiasts at the show, I scoured the drone scene to bring you the latest in advanced technology and future trends.
Here are the highlights:
To commemorate their ten-year anniversary, DJI, the undisputed market leader, has reduced the price of their Phantom series UAVs: The Standard was reduced from $799 to $499; the Advanced went from $999 to $799, and the new 4K dropped from $999 to $799. These are pretty impressive price points considering most other 4K shooting drones cost over $1000.
Even more compelling, from a geospatial prospective, is that DJI plans to begin bundling FLIR's thermal imaging camera with their Inspire 1 and Matrice M100 aerial platforms. This will provide enhanced sensory data for GIS applications like agriculture, mining and inspection.
Parrot showcased their newly-announced Disco, a fixed-wing drone that can fly 50 mph for 45 minutes on a single charge. The nose camera can record 1080p video or 14 megapixel images.
I'm guessing that the Disco was developed by senseFly, a Swiss company Parrot purchased several years ago. SenseFly’s eBee is an expensive fixed-wing drone that has been widely used to collect geospatial data. I'm hoping the Disco is a less expensive version of the eBee; unfortunately, cost and a delivery date for the Disco has not yet been announced.
The Typhoon H is Yuneec's newest hexacopter. It has retractable and folding landing gear, with a camera that takes both 4K videos and 12-megapixel stills. The drone is powered by Intel's RealSense, which allows it to avoid collisions in real time, even when flying among trees and other dense obstacles. Intel Corp. invested $60 millionin Yuneec International Co. last year as part of its strategy to expand the market for its semiconductors, and this is a clear indication of the power of their collaboration. The Typhoon H will sell for $1795 and should be available, according to their website, sometime in February 2016.
ProDrone's Byrd is a foldable quadcopter that can carry an impressive 4.5-pound payload and still fly for over 20 minutes. Various cameras, gimbals and sensors can be attached. It even has a small drop box that can be released at the press of a controller button. It comes in three versions: Standard, for $949, Advanced, for $1059 and Premium, for $1399. All models are now available and shipping from their website.
The French manufacturer Hexo+ has developed a drone that only flies autonomous missions. Hexo+ has replaced the traditional controller with either an Android or iPhone Smartphone. The associated app enables pilots to select a number of preprogrammed flights so video and image shots can be staged easily. In other words, not only is the mission automated, so is the camera position. Record a ground location while flying in or out, while circling my location, or while following me are just a few of the camera options available. Flights can also be customized. Hexo sells for $1395 and is available off their website. The GoPro camera is not included in the price.
Fleye is being billed as the world's safest sUAV. Developed by a Belgium company, Fleye incorporates a creative and unique spherical design. Like Hexo+, it flies autonomously and offers preprogrammed flight missions via an iPhone app. It flies for about 10 minutes, has two cameras, and won’t be available until the fourth quarter of 2016.
EHang, a Chinese drone manufacturer, unveiled the EHang 184, a one person Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. The craft drew a lot of attention, but as a prototype that's still pending FAA approval, it could be years away from production.
Based on what I saw at the show, I think it's safe to say that in the future:
Drones will get less expensive but more feature-rich.
- Ambarella just announced two new low-power chips for flight control, data transfers and image stabilization.
- Qualcomm introduced Snapdragon Flight, a digital signal processor for flight control, with WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and support for different sensors.
These new developments will add features to UAVs, while at the same time reducing the number of components needed to shoot video and control the drone in flight.
Many future prosumer drones will only fly autonomously.
- There is a difference between easy to fly and easy to film. Creating great video means users will need to concentrate on staging the shot rather than flying the UAV.
- Autonomous flight will likely reduce the number of potential accidents, because the drones will be preprogrammed to avoid flying in controlled areas.
There will be a high abandonment rate for two very different reasons:
- No matter how simple drones become, they will not be point and shoot cameras. Many new users will lose their initial enthusiasm and find that UAVs are too bulky and require too much setup time to use on a regular basis.
- As UAV/camera technology accelerates and prices come down, dedicated users will replace their current drone with a more feature-rich model. Next year’s drones may include object recognition and avoidance, and thermal, infrared and LiDAR imaging.
Future drones will have powerful integrated cameras.
As mentioned earlier, camera and stabilization features are now becoming part of flight control semiconductors. It’s simply easier and cheaper to build in a camera than to add a GoPro Hero 3 or 4 stand-alone camera.
Regardless of regulation, prosumer drones will soon carry various sensing instruments for commercial work.
This is already happening with DJI and Parrot.