The private drone industry is like Apple in 1984

January 25, 2013
January 25, 2013

You never forget your first drone.

When the Phantom first takes off, it sounds like a swarm of bees. But when it rockets 200 feet into the air at 25 miles per hour, you can’t hear it at all. It’s just a small dot with blinking lights, waiting where you tell it to wait, taking pictures with its camera until you ask it to come back home.

When the chief executive of DJI’s American subsidiary, Colin Guinn, came to Los Angeles to sell film studios on his company’s professional-grade unmanned aerial vehicles, he also let Quartz test-drive the company’s newest product: the Phantom, a remote-controlled quadcopter with a camera mount that you can essentially fly right out of the box. It sold some 2,000 units in the first week after its Jan. 7 debut, according to Guinn. Here’s a video that shows what it’s like to fly:

DJI is a Hong Kong-based company that makes automatic pilot packages for helicopters used by filmmakers in need of steady, controlled shots. Guinn, who ran an aerial photography company using the technology, helped convince DJI to produce unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, like the Phantom. The idea is to market it as a photography accessory—just what you need to take aerial photos like this one:

Tap image to zoom
Here’s what you can do with the Phantom.(DJI)

You can get one for $679. Is it the future of the drone industry?

We needed iPhones to get a drone of our own

The Phantom is not a drone in the fullest sense of the word: It can’t follow a pre-programmed GPS path. But it can use satellite navigation to hover in place autonomously, and it can navigate itself back to where it took off from if something happens to the controller, or if you just want to show off.

But it is arguably the most complete consumer drone on the market, combining affordability, ease of use, robust flight abilities, and range. And it’s designed to use the popular GoPro camera. Other drones are cheaper, like the Parrot, but it doesn’t have the Phantom’s range, or 3D Robotics’ ArduCopter, which is more fully-featured but requires more assembly.

The UAV industry is a fairly new one, and right now its main focus is on consumer products. That’s partially because it is growing from a consumer base: What has made them possible is the smartphone revolution, which drove down the price on the tiny electronic components needed to turn low-power remote control aircraft into flying robots that navigate, communicate, and sense. While defense contractors were making expensive and powerful drones for the US military, hobbyists were basically bolting iPhones onto remote-controlled helicopters.

That’s how Chris Anderson got involved with drones: building them for fun. The former editor of Wired left the magazine last year to run 3D Robotics, a UAV company he co-founded and raised $5 million for. His transformation from hobbyist to drone builder has been well chronicled, and 3D Robotics plans to roll out its own read-to-fly drone in a few months, one that Anderson promises will maintain its open-source roots and adaptability—”Phantom-like ease of use with real UAV functionality.”

But the other reason to focus on consumer drones is that commercial drones are technically illegal in the United States. The American Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t issued rules yet for how unmanned aircraft will fit into the already bustling skies safely, nor to address the inevitable privacy concerns that come with everyone being able to buy an aerial camera. The agency has advised that they not be used for commercially, even busting Los Angeles realtors for using a drone to take aerial film of a property. While enforcement is spotty, most commercial users are leery of the risk.

But all that is expected to change in 2015, when the FAA is expected to give the go-ahead to commercial UAVs.

The race to fill the skies with commercial drones

“Ultimately, we’re not doing this for hobbyists, we’re doing this because we think UAVs are the future of aerospace, and the commercial potential of this is ready to hatch,” Anderson says.

What would they do? In Germany, drones are used to inspect the blades on wind turbines. Farmers use them to survey and tend to their crops. Oil companies use them to monitor pipelines. Filmmakers will put them to use, as will anyone who needs cheap aerial footage: journalists, civil engineers, realtors, and artists. Then there’s the non-photographic implications: I’m surely not the only person who longs for the Tacocopter to become a reality, and the US army is already testing unmanned freight-carrying drones.

The reality, though, is that opportunities will become apparent with use as people push their limits and try new projects.

With tech like this emerging in the private sector, it’s not clear which companies will come out ahead. DJI is a leader among Asian companies that produce UAV technology; defense contractors will surely market their products to the private sector; and then there are companies like 3D Robotics, which have gone from garage-operations to competing with Boeing in a matter of years.

“We’re past the Apple II, and we’re kind of closing in on the Mac,” Anderson says. The reference is to the early days of PC development—the Apple II was one of the first mass-produced personal computers in 1977, while the Mac became the company’s long-running gold standard PC when it was introduced seven years later. The Apple I, like Anderson’s early drones, was a garage product.

As the technology becomes easier to use and more effective, more people will see how useful they are and want them in their professional capacities, just as with other nascent tech products like smartphones and tablets. Cultural adoption can be just as important as business adoption, and the company that has the largest consumer marketshare will also have the most manufacturing experience and developed product.

That’s how we’ll get from the Phantom to aerial food delivery—or at least useful drones.

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