Things tend to move pretty fast in today’s connected world, especially when compared to when I was growing up way back in stone age of the Nineties. What may be true today is usually proven false tomorrow, and the drone industry is certainly not immune to this phenomenon.
Just a few months ago the industry was awash in negative feelings, most of which were being lobbed at FAAs methodical (some would call it draconian) approach to approving UAS missions in the national airspace.
Fast-forward to today, and FAA has fast tracked over 100 commercial UAS exemptions for everything from aerial filming to “wildlife and forestry” in a stunning reversal of previous policy.
Now imagine how this author feels, having written an article for this very website entitled “Drones On The Farm 2015: Dark Days Ahead” which months later has proven remarkably wrong in almost every way. Agriculture drones are in fact not suffering dark days, but are gracing the skies of our nation’s food producing areas in increasingly large numbers.
So, in that same vein as my last failed predictions article, I’ll attempt to make some more guesses on the direction of the consumer drone industry in the next few months. Let’s hope I get some of these right this time:
1. Cheaper UAVs Coming Soon
While most were wowed by its 4K/30 FPS video capabilities and flashy metallic-gold trimmed design, what struck me as most noteworthy after attending DJI’s virtual global launch event for the Phantom 3 was easily the sticker price: $1,259 for the Professional model and only $999 for the Advanced.
Now, for many those figures sound pretty hefty but, when we consider the current price of many of the most popular consumer drones on the market (DJI’s other 4K-capable drone, Inspire 1, retails for over $2K), a 4K-capable drone with the plethora of advanced features the Phantom 3 offers for under $1,500 is a remarkable deal.
Hell, the flight controller that comes with Phantom 3, regularly singled out as being the best controller in the business, retails for over $300. Combine this with the fact that most DSLR 4K-capable cameras retail for at least $500, and you can see how the Phantom 3 has a chance to revolutionize out-of-box price points throughout the industry.
Therefore, in the coming months look for the price of competitive solutions to drop as rival manufacturers try to stay competitive with the Shenzhen-based drone giant. DJI’s CEO Frank Wang recently told Forbes he foresees DJI capturing a 90% market share of the global consumer drone industry in the next two years.
I am all for the underdog – David versus Goliath and such – but good luck competing with that, you guys.
2. A Peripherals Arms Race
I think at this point in the Drone Revolution we can all agree – whether we’re talking about quadcopters, octocopters, or even the less-popular-among-consumers fixed wing layout, the design of drone crafts themselves has been optimized and standardized.
Manufacturers looking to differentiate from a crowded pack should instead focus on ensuring their products interface easily with the myriad of peripherals currently available to the UAS market (The Oculus Rift VR headset, iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets, First-Person View goggles, Google Glass and even the Apple Watch, to name a few).
Drone pilots don’t want to fumble around with a bunch of Micro-SD cards and/or wait until post-flight image processing is complete to enjoy their bird’s eye view. They either want their flying robot to interface with one of the aforementioned FPV headsets on the market, or they want to integrate their mobile device as a secondary display.
Parrot’s Bebop Drone, has the ability to pair with Oculus Rift headset for real-time FPV, and even the budget drone in DJI’s fleet, Phantom FC-40, has a controller mobile app that provides a first-person view up to 100 meters on an accompanying mobile display.
Call me crazy, but I could see a day when there are Apple Watch apps that provide launch/land control, among other simpler tasks. It’s all about peripherals.
3. Wild West Days Are Almost Over
As of this writing basically any Joe Schmo with a couple grand to burn can log onto Amazon or Ebay and purchase a drone capable of reaching altitudes that, frankly, are pretty unnecessary for Mr. Schmo.
That is likely to change fairly soon, as FAA announced back in February its Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM). With the issuance of that NPRM came this little interesting tidbit for those of us that enjoy this fine hobby: “…proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds. The FAA is asking the public to comment on this possible classification to determine whether it should include this option as part of a final rule.”
Not only is FAA looking at what we can only imagine will be stricter rules on small, hobbyist-size drones, but state governments and local municipalities are also looking to get out in front of the consumer drone craze with rules of their own.
Case in point, my home state of Ohio just introduced House Bill 218 in the state legislature. HB 218 would, according to Cleveland.com, prohibit operators from flying drones near airports and require drone sellers to keep a registry on customers in case authorities need to subpoena such records.
Under the bill illegal drone operation near airports would be a first-degree felony punishable by up to 11 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Additionally, if (God-forbid) a drone collides in midair with a manned aircraft near an airport, the device’s operator would receive seven to 11 years in prison and a fine of $10,000 to $20,000.
So, if you’re like me and don’t plan on going to UAS college or getting a private pilot’s license anytime soon, get those drone flights in soon, because you never know what tomorrow may bring.