This US drone startup thinks it can take on DJI where others have failed

The Skydio R1
The Skydio R1
Image: Skydio
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Here we go again.

Today, Feb. 13, a robotics startup called Skydio announced it will begin selling a new drone called the R1, which it says delivers “on the promise of the self-flying camera.”

It’ll attempt to take on Chinese consumer-drone powerhouse DJI, which has pretty much cornered the high-end market. Those who have come before it, including 3D Robotics, founded by former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, and GoPro, have not fared well. Both companies ended up exiting the market after not being able to keep up with DJI’s pace of innovation. Another startup, Lily Robotics, claimed to have built a selfie drone that you could toss up and start filming within seconds. It failed to even ship a product before folding.

Adam Bry, Skydio’s CEO and co-founder, told Quartz that he wanted to create something that was actually easy to use. Many of the best consumer drones on the market today, including DJI’s, still require complicated apps or dedicated remotes to fly properly. They’re fiddly and often not particularly easy to wrap your head around, especially if you’re a newbie in drone flying.

Bry wants to change this. He and his cofounders met as grad students at MIT in 2007, and have been working on autonomous flying systems for over a decade. His final project was building a modern airplane that could fly around on its own. The R1 is a culmination of Bry and his team’s years of research in the field, and Bry’s desire to get the best aerial footage possible. “If you can use the camera app on your phone you can use the drone,” he said.

The R1 can take off from your hand, fly on its own, find you, and track you, without you having to program or command it to do so. In the drone’s app, you can set it to follow others, to follow you from the front, or orbit around you. “It’s a flim crew that fits in a backpack,” Bry added.

Avoiding trees on its own.
Image: Skydio

The drone has 13 cameras onboard—one 4K camera for recording, and 12 cameras positioned around the drone that help it sense the world and navigate through it. Using computer vision models running on their own training data compiled over the last few years, along with open-source datasets, Bry said his team has built a drone that can fly truly autonomously around objects and understand the difference between, say, a person and a tree as it does so. It also uses a special Nvidia chip being used in self-driving car research to process the world around it in real-time.

The company recently secured $42 million in Series B funding from venture firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Playground Global (the fund of Andy Rubin, the creator of Android and the Essential phone), and chip-maker Nvidia.

Bry’s drone will not come cheap. It’s available from Skydio’s website today, and costs $2,499. “It’s not a mainstream, mass-market price point,” Bry admitted. Skydio built the R1 in the US because it wanted parts of the “highest quality”—including the durable carbon fiber and aluminum that comprise the drone’s body. Bry said the drone should fit into any backpack that can accommodate a 17-inch laptop, and that he expects his customers will be early-adopter types. The sorts of people who want to flaunt that they’re at the cutting edge of technology. (Where have we heard that before?)

The R1’s many cameras.
The R1’s many cameras.

But many of DJI’s drones, including the Spark and the newly released Mavic Air, can do the majority of what the R1 can do (albeit with a little more elbow grease required) for a fraction of the price. The Spark currently only costs $400, and is considerably smaller. At this price, the R1 is competing against DJI’s professional drones, like the Inspire 2, which have higher-resolution cameras and faster top speeds, and can fly much farther away from the pilot. (The R1 has a range of about 300 ft, according to Bry, whereas the Inspire 2 has a range of over 4 miles.)

Regardless of how it fares, Skydio’s first product is a welcome sight in a drone industry dominated by DJI and companies rushing to rip it off. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, just about every drone on display was a knock-off of some DJI design or idea. Skydio’s is, at least, something entirely different-looking.

“We’ve tried to focus on building something different that’s useful,” Bry said. “We’re really just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”