Chances are, you have seen a DJI Phantom.
Hell, even Martha Stewart has one!
Due to the drone’s relatively low price tag, ease of use, high quality image capture and our society’s ever-increasing need to document everything, the DJI Phantom has become the face of the nascent commercial drone industry.
Recently, we got to speak with DJI’s Director of Aerial Imaging, Eric Cheng, to find out how the Phantom reached such prolific status and what we can expect from a future filled with drones.
What Inning are we in?
Many drone manufacturers and industry experts have voiced their opinions about how far drone technology has come and how far it can go.
Aerial Imaging professional Terry Holland (who uses a Phantom for his business) often compares the emergence of drones to a baseball game where the first inning is the emergence of small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology and the ninth inning is complete, ubiquitous integration in our daily lives.
So The first question for Cheng was, what inning are we in?
“I would say we are lining up for tickets,” he laughed. “It hasn’t been that long since drones have been in most people’s vocabulary as something other than a tool of war.
Drones have taken on a totally new persona in the last year or so. A lot of that has to do with this incredible convergence in technology that has led to drones that are ready to fly ‘out of the box.’
The fact that virtually anyone of the planet can pick up a quadcopter that carries a camera and do something that no one has done yet means we are essentially pre-ball game.”
That is a pretty bold statement for someone whose company has released four generations of hardware in half as many years and claimed such a huge piece of the market share.
There are entire social networks devoted to sharing pictures and videos captured from drones and most of those users fly a DJI product.
If all of this has happened before the game has even started (so to speak), the long term vision for DJI must be aggressive as it is innovative. Cheng explains:
“We think about the pieces of aerial imaging, such as platforms, cameras, stabilization technology, as integrated products. Our goal is to commoditize flying cameras in a way that makes them accessible to people who are interested in imaging and taking it to another level.
The system is still a little artificial. We are taking ‘real’ cameras people use on land -that have affordances for being hand held, like a grip or a battery or a viewfinder you physically look into- and we are stabilizing them so that they can be useful for video.
But in a flying platform, the ability to stick an entire camera in a gimbal and fly that isn’t optimal.
In the same way you have seen us move toward the Vision+, which has an integrated camera, communicates with a smartphone for both FPV and telemetry, and waypoint driven ground station features, you’ll see much more integration into polished products across the entire line.
We hope that in five years it will just be the norm that you can position and move a camera in a creative way, arbitrarily in space.”
But top-of-the-line cameras and smartphone piloting capabilities won’t mean much unless drones can be adopted into the mainstream.
And, in order to do that, UAS technology must be developed and proven to assure the skeptics drones are as safe as they are useful. How can we achieve this level of trust?
“When we first started flying these things, you would literally have to throttle up to take off.
Now, when you are dealing with virtually controlled aircraft, you are really telling the drone to ‘go up.’ You’re not really saying ‘throttle up.’
The next logical step is ‘go there,’ as in, ‘go to this place and stay there for five seconds.’ That’s where we are now with the Phantom’s ground station feature.
Another component that has to be figured out even before ‘go there’ really works is object sense and avoidance.
Right now it still takes quite a bit of skill to fly a drone competently. I shouldn’t be able to fly one at full speed into a wall, but I can.
There are also a lot of smaller improvements that would radically change the way we use drones.
For example, battery life is the biggest day-to-day issue we deal with as pilots and users.
There is a whole class of autonomous use that is essentially hindered by these products’ inability to charge themselves.
The other piece that is going to be revolutionary is having drones connected to the cloud. Right now they exist to be piloted around by one user. But giving them the ability to look up information or to be connected in some way so they can be monitored and controlled from anywhere is another huge step.
A lot of these safety precautions need to be built into the product so that it makes it much harder for accidents to happen.”
Until that time comes, and people trust drones to be autonomous and not fall out of the sky, DJI will continue to be the face of drones in the media; for better or worse. For every breath-taking vista captured by a Phantom, someone is crashing them into buildings in major cities or taking video of private medical facilities. How does DJI feel about this double-edged sword?
“It’s a great example of how young this industry is. People are testing the limits. They are going out and seeing what’s possible. It’s a very natural thing that occurs any time there is a leap in technology that enables something completely new.
I wish everyone would be really responsible but, again, it’s a really natural feeling to say ‘wow it’d be really great if I could push it a little further and see what I can get’. I think there is a balance there we haven’t quite hit yet.
But most people seem to at least realize how important the technology is going to be in many industries including photography and consumer and commercial use but also industrial use. They realize the technology is out there and while there may be some misgivings about what it means, it’s a totally normal reaction.
Whenever there is a new class of product it’s been met with both excitement and apprehension. In imaging we saw this with the rise of digital, we saw this with camera phones – they were mocked by the media mercilessly; ‘why would you need a camera phone?”
It was at this point Cheng brought up the elephant in the room.
“Another thing is, from a legal standpoint, policy is very unclear in the U.S. So you have this combination of confusing or missing policy and people who are suddenly enabled by a new technology testing that technology’s limits.
At the same time, you have these companies actually developing the technology, like DJI, who are starting to implement some safety protocols into their products.”
No conversation about UAS would be complete without mentioning the legality of drones in the U.S.
Saying policy is “unclear” is probably one of the kindest ways to describe the situation. Many industry leaders have gone as far as to say the lack of regulations in this country is crippling innovation.
But if anyone would know the exact effects of the FAA’s failure to publish UAS rules, it would be a company with global presence.
So, after seeing drones successfully integrated into the airspace of other countries around the world, does Cheng think the FAA is cramping our style?
“A lot of people who go out and buy a quadcopter, even a toy quadcopter to fly around the house, are not thinking about where it’s legal to fly. Or whether it’s legal to fly across the room or the backyard. Or whether the legality depends on if someone gave you a dollar to do it.
It’s not really about the FAA cramping our style – it’s about the FAA needing to get together with the community to figure out regulations that make sense. I hope that happens soon.
I hope we don’t reach a state in which it’s too late to go back. If the market gets flooded with these things and everybody starts using them, it’s going to be really difficult for the FAA to assert control.”
A Picture-Perfect Future
“Our slogan is ‘the future of possible.'” Cheng concluded. “We want to give people the opportunity to unlock the possibilities in aerial imaging.”
That being said, Cheng conceded we should not rule out the idea of DJI building a drone for something other than taking video.
But there is still so much in development -sense and avoid, pinpoint GPS capabilities, autonomous takeoff and landing etc.- that it seems his team will have their hands full for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps when DJI has perfected the flying camera, they will repurpose some of their findings to build the next great commercial UAS.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com