In a few short years, the consumer drone industry has been through it all: skepticism, hype, the boom of excitement and outside investment, companies overpromising and overstretching, new heights of innovation, palm-sized gadgets capable of things once restricted to science fiction. It’s been a thrilling ride so far.
In our rundown of some of the most defining moments in the consumer drone industry, we’ll be taking you back through some of the pivotal decisions, talking points and events that have led up to where we are now.
The Parrot AR Drone
On January 5th, 2010, French manufacturer Parrot launched the AR Drone. Amid the hype of CES 2010, it stood out for three reasons. First of all, it could be controlled via a smartphone. Second, it had two cameras that linked you to a live feed. Third, it was well ahead of its time; a fact emphasized by the inclusion of Augmented Reality technology.
The idea was that, for a small fortune, you could get two Parrot AR drones together and have an augmented reality battle.
But the significance of Parrot’s first drone was also about the state of the consumer market at that time. The majority of pilots flying quadcopters in 2010 were DIY hobbyists building drones from kits and spare parts. Parrot’s product suggested that there was a more mainstream market begging to be tapped into.
Our first project was a Bluetooth race car. We’ve developed it, but I was not satisfied. A video game should contain a part of a dream that I missed with the Bluetooth car. It should fly! So I started the idea of the AR.Drone. With video cameras and a powerful computer, we have developed a very stable drone that is easy to control and flies like a dragonfly.”
The Rise and Fall of 3DR
Back in 2015, the consumer drone market was there for the taking. The battle for supremacy was on between Parrot, DJI and 3D Robotics.
After raising tens of millions of dollars in funding, 3DR aimed to bring a drone to market that would blow its competitors out of the water and stand the test of time. The 3DR Solo was the aircraft to take on that challenge. In the Spring, a concerned DJI actually offered to buy 3DR instead of competing head to head. But with the Solo about to ship, 3DR CEO Chris Anderson turned down the offer.
There are plenty of reasons why things unraveled quickly after that, and the 3DR Solo led to the company’s downfall from a consumer market perspective. Plenty of them are outlined in a fantastic long-read in Forbes.
But it’s safe to say that a combination of being beaten to market by DJI’s Phantom 3, missing deadlines, shipping drones with technical issues, wildly overestimating prospective sales figures, sinking too much money into production and the aggressive price slashing of DJI all contributed.
At one point, 3DR was working out of offices in the Bay Area, Austin, San Diego and Tijuana. The company had well over 300 employees and was valued at upwards of $360 million. Since those glory days, 3DR has left the consumer scene and focused on commercial drone applications. The funding is still pouring in, but the Solo effort has left its mark on what was once America’s most obvious challenger to DJI.
In fact, DJI and 3DR are now taking a more collaborative approach.
The Preview of Intel’s RealSense at CES 2016
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegan every January is generally the platform for big industry announcements in the world of tech. 2016 was no different, and although there were plenty of drones buzzing around, none captured the imagination more than the Yuneec Typhoon H. Complete with Intel’s RealSense technology, the Yuneec drone was able to avoid obstacles and change its flight path to react in real time as events unfolded.
It was the first obstacle avoidance demonstration of its kind, and a sign of things to come in the consumer drone space.
The Lily Letdown
The Lily Camera was introduced to the public consciousness in May 2015. A well-crafted promo video quickly captured the imagination of viewers all over the world. It promised a drone that could take off in mid-air, capture HD footage, fly for 20 minutes at a time, take-off from water, track its subject and much more.
It didn’t take long for customers to bet big on the Lily drone. The video – since found to have been shot with a DJI Inspire – was watched millions of times and led to $34 million worth of pre-orders. After such a huge reception from the public, $14 million of funding from capital investment firms boosted the startup’s capabilities and, if reports are true, the founders’ complacency.
After several delays and problems with production, the company declared bankruptcy in 2017. It’s since been sued by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office for false advertising, because of claims made in its original promotional video:
The Lily debacle was a damaging moment in the history of the consumer drone industry. Yet again, it appears as though an American startup underestimated the challenges and capital-intensive nature of developing drone hardware from scratch.
It seems such a long time ago, but one of the most revolutionary moments in the consumer drone industry only happened last year, on March 1st, 2016.
That was the day that DJI launched the Phantom 4, by far and away the most advanced drone the industry had seen up until that point. It was the first readily available quadcopter that could actually see the world around it and react. It was the beginning of obstacle avoidance in the consumer industry.
DJI piled an awful lot of technology into the Phantom 4 to make that happen. It had no less than five cameras/sensors: two on the front and two on the bottom, along with the integrated 4K camera for aerial photography.
With these enhanced safety features, along with a number of new aotonomous flight modes such as ActiveTrack and TapFly, the Phantom 4 quickly became the drone to own for serious enthusiasts and plenty of commercial pilots.
The Phantom 4 also heralded the natural partnership of Apple and DJI. Perhaps a sign that camera drones were edging closer to the mainstream: DJI drones became available for purchase on the Apple website and in Apple stores, in what was another big moment in the consumer industry.
Thanks to DJI’s relentless innovation, the Phantom 4 wasn’t the only revolutionary product announced in 2016. A matter of months after the Phantom 4 came the Chinese manufacturer’s latest model, the Mavic Pro.
DJI’s Mavic Pro is a small, compact and foldable drone that gave pilots and aerial photographers access to almost all of the technology in the Phantom 4 but in a smaller package. And for less. There were also a range of new flight modes, including the super-stable Tripod, which is ideal for flying indoors.
Significantly, the Mavic Pro was launched just a week after the GoPro Karma, its main rival in the foldable, portable drone category. On paper, DJI’s offering seemed to wipe the floor with GoPro’s first drone. Either way, it never really developed into a straight shoot out between the two…
The GoPro Karma Recall
The short history of the consumer drone industry is littered with ups and downs. None is more literal than the rise and fall of the GoPro Karma.
Having spent the early days of the consumer industry supplying the cameras while manufacturers concentrated on perfecting flight, GoPro decided that a branded drone represented the best way to boost faltering sales numbers.
After months of hype, bold advertising and whispered promises, GoPro launched the Karma to plenty of fanfare but not a lot of substance. The drones capabilities were disappointing, even if its modularity was the main selling point. To make things worse, within a matter of days of the Karma launch DJI released the Mavic Pro, a foldable drone that blew the Karma out of the water in almost every department.
Like 3DR a few years previously, another American manufacturer was feeling the effects of DJI’s rapid prototyping and market dominance. And then things got even worse. First, the Karma was delayed. Then, within a few days of hitting the shelves, reports began to circulate of GoPro’s first drone falling out of the sky.
Randomly falling out of the sky is probably the last thing you’d want a drone to be doing. So, understandably, the company issued an immediate recall.
This was damaging, not just for GoPro, but for the reputation American consumer drone manufacturers. 3DR had already lost the battle against DJI, and it appeared as though GoPro had fallen at the first hurdle, too.
The problem with the Karma – an issue with the battery fixing – was sorted, and it’s now back out in the wild. However, it remains to be seen if pilots will trust GoPro’s reliability going forwards. Who knows, with a second iteration of the Karma expected, there might be a chance at redemption for America’s last major manufacturer left standing.
The Rise of Drone Racing
It’s hard to pinpoint where on the spectrum of consumer > commercial drone racing fits. On the one hand, organizations such as DRL are making plenty of money selling broadcasting rights and signing global TV deals. FPV racing is big business now, after all.
But that doesn’t detract from the fact that racing is essentially a consumer hobby, even if a handful of pilots are starting to turn professional.
The past couple of years have seen a huge rise in both interest in the sport and the numbers of pilots taking up drone racing. The World Drone Prix in Dubai saw a British teenager walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the aforementioned Drone Racing League has signed multi-million dollar deals with the likes of ESPN and Sky. The same company also recently broke a world record for the fastest ever racing drone.
The sport is only going to grow in popularity. Particularly with PR-savvy teams, the general trend towards eSports and skilled pilots all working towards the goal of making FPV racing mainstream entertainment.
Throughout the history of the consumer industry, there have been plenty of media reports of ‘near-misses’ between drones and commercial airliners. But in April 2016, news came through from London that a drone had struck a passenger plane coming into land at Heathrow airport.
So it had happened: the moment many in the industry had feared. Thankfully, there was no damage to the plane, which was cleared for takeoff soon after. But it did cause alarm and something of a media frenzy: This was just the start. Planes would soon be falling out of the sky because of rogue pilots.
But then more news came out: It turns out it wasn’t a drone after all, but a plastic bag. All the hysteria was for nothing.
Arguably though, the damage had been done. Overzealous headlines last long in the memory, and public perception is that drones pose a serious threat to commercial airliners – no matter what the research suggests.
The DJI Spark
It’s not often that a new drone hits the market and immediately sets the stadard for others to follow. But that’s exactly what the DJI Spark did back in May 2017. As DJI’s first entry into the lower end of the consumer market, the Spark has taken selfie drones to new heights, rising above competition from Yuneec and various other selfie drone manufacturers.
To us, the accessibility and entry point of the Spark – a relatively affordable $500 – seemed like a potent combination. Perhaps one that could further cement DJI’s market share across all sectors – professional, enthusiast and complete beginner.
There’s more to come from the consumer drone industry
If the past two years are anything to go by, there’s plenty still to come from the consumer drone industry. As more and more people get into aerial photography and flying for fun, manufacturers led by DJI are starting to make drones and flying more accessible than ever before. Portability, flight times, camera quality, reliability – all have been drastically improved.
Although we wonder how sustainable the current rate of innovation is, the tendency towards smarter, safer, cheaper, more autonomous drones should ensure that they continue to fly off the shelves for years to come.