In the space of just 3 years, we’ve seen huge developments in the consumer drone sector. The DJI Phantom was launched in January 2013, heralding the arrival of personal drones and being marketed as the first consumer drone with GPS technology- my, how far we have come.
The market still largely belongs to DJI, the huge Chinese company that brought the drone to the masses in the form of the Phantom series. Whilst still relatively highly priced in the UK, around £500 for the Phantom 3 and just under £1000 for the latest Phantom 4 model, it was the Phantom that put cutting-edge tech in the hands of the consumer, beginning with basic flight tech and ending up transforming the marketplace with the advent of object-avoidance, something I think we can all expect to become standard in the future. DJI even dipped into the video market, producing drone cameras in the form of vision series that rivalled the quality of the GoPro. The advanced stabilisation tech they helped pioneer is now standard on consumer drones.
There are other brands, of course. 3D Robotics and largely open-source DIY Drones community pushed the capabilities of drones in a way that was accessible to all around the world. I personally fly an IRIS+ for research, and the SOLO is another excellent drone to rival the Phantom series. Parrot are catching up to DJI, but are targeting the market in a slightly different area, generally offering very tough, portable products but are not usually marketed as a world-class video option, as the DJI series are. Yuneec, on the other hand, shook up the market with the release of the Typhoon Q500, an affordable professional video option with tremendous features at that price point. Don’t forget Hubsan, of course, mass-producing hundreds of thousands of microdrones at the bottom end of the market.
All this, however, is history. The future has just arrived, in the form of the DJI Mavic Pro and the GoPro Karma.
The Phantoms and IRISs of old are surprisingly large, cumbersome aircraft, requiring specific carry cases made for each drone. The weight is significant too, and if you are going on a long hike (or trekking through the jungle, as I did), then you may well think again. Aching shoulders and limbs galore.
The new DJI Mavic Pro blows the competition away in this respect. This thing is tiny. It literally folds away in the palm of your hand, and is small enough to easily fit into your day bag or messenger pack. It weighs just 783g, nearly half that of a fully loaded Phantom 4, and yet comes with an impressive flight time of 27 minutes, and all the software feature of the latter, including object avoidance. It even boasts a better transmission system, offering a 4.3 mile range- though that could just be marketing speak, of course. It makes the existing Phantom designs look enormous in comparison, and this is going to radically change the market. I’d use a drone this portable one hell of a lot more- to be able to just sling it in my backpack and go, as opposed to having to buy an uncomfortable, poorly designed drone-hugger like the Lowepro CS400, is a massive plus. I’m not sure either drone will be suitable for academic research (my field), but portability would be a huge plus to the research community, enabling us to operate in isolated, remote locations, so we obviously welcome this development in a big way!
The KARMA also folds away, but is a little larger, and comes with its own carry case. Nonetheless, since folding is largely ‘new’ to market feature, this is an impressive development for a new entry to the market, and represents an exciting trend in drone developments.
The KARMA utilizes the tried and tested GoPro series, relying on the new Hero 5, Hero 5 Session or the previous Hero 4 Black/Silver. The image quality on these cameras is excellent, as is to be expected of a GoPro, but is not necessarily optimised to use on a UAV, with the wide angle lens providing less than optimum performance. There is a reason why aftermarket lenses and filter kits exist for GoPros, and I have no doubt this will follow on to the new models, even more so as the centre of a UAV system. The cameras offer 4K, of course, in a variety of flavours. In theory, you could use a competitor’s camera on the KARMA- a MAPIR for surveys, for example.
DJI have somehow shrunk their already small Vision camera for the Mavic, including a miniaturised 3-axis gimbal. The image quality is proven to be very good, and will also include 4K, though with a more limited feature-set than that of the GoPro. Nonetheless, the advanced video and photo software that comes standard with DJI’s drones will help differentiate it from the crowd. The one annoyance? It’s non-removable, which is damn annoying for the scientists out there.
You know from the Phantom 4 that the DJI tech is there. We have object avoidance, excellent range, vision sensors for precise hovering without GPS (and GPS/GLONASS of course). The Mavic Pro will obviously be subject to firmware improvements over time, too!
Little details exist of the KARMA’s software, but from pre-release footage, it looks like an impressively stable platform to fly, designed to seamlessly interact with smartphone/tablet devices as well as the controller itself. The controller itself is a very simple design- this is designed to be used by everyone, no previous knowledge needed- and for it’s target market, whether this will actually be delivered is critical to a successful release.
Price & Release
Both products are being aimed at the holiday season, so expect a mid-October release before the biggest drone marketing drive of it’s kind before Christmas. It’s going to be big, seriously.
DJI Mavic Pro: $999
($1299 with additional accessories kit, not essential for flight).
GoPro Karma: $799 without camera (£719.99)
$1099 with Hero 5 Black (£999.99)
$999.99 with Hero 5 Session.
I’ve already shown you how both drones are aggressively priced, but here’s the really exciting thing: GoPro are entering the drone market in a big way, and this is a HUGE deal. Since entering the stock market, GoPro has actually struggled in a market suddenly saturated by action camera companies, and with high-prices, lost significant market share to them. You are now just as likely to find a cheaper GoPro alternative in the shops than a GoPro itself, or at least that is what I have found in the UK. How are they going to rejuvenate the brand? The KARMA. They’ve designed an ecosystem around the drone, including a gimbal that can be used handheld, like the DJI OSMO, and with GoPro’s standard release schedule, improved models are never far away.
GoPro have poured a lot of money into this project, and it is the centrepiece of their new range, stealing attention away from the new Hero 5. What is really exciting though, is how serious DJI have taken the GoPro threat. GoPro brings a pool of marketing funds that DJI can’t really compete with, and thus by releasing the Mavic, and pricing it very aggressively, DJI have gone all out to steal GoPro’s thunder.
DJI haven’t ever truly had a major competitor, with 3DR rapidly dissapearing into the distance and Parrot producing different products. It’s the end of 2016, and at last they have one- a huge one too. This is great news for the industry and the consumer, as each company is going to seriously have to raise the stakes in the future. The drone market finally has it’s Xbox/Playstation, Samsung/Apple & Canon/Nikon rivalry, and this is wonderful news for you and I, the drone consumer.
Whilst I think the Mavic Pro looks like the technically superior drone, it is all about the long term- DJI might win this battle, but at last we have a drone company ‘war’ on our hands- and GoPro will be ready.
This is the future! Ultra-compact drones with impressive feature sets at a competitive price. The question now will be whether they can go any smaller with ever-improving software and video quality, or whether there will be a natural plateau where improvements become marginal at best, a bit like the stagnating phone industry of the time. For me though, this the drone industry’s IPhone moment- the moment absolutely everything changed. These are the first truly personal drones, that fit in the palm of your hand… Look out for one near you this winter!
Both as a drone enthusiast and as a scientist, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.