See The Future of Drones!

The Past

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.

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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. 

Why? 

Portability

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.

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Trust me, that’s a big, cumbersome drone.

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!

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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.

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Video Quality

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.

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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.

Software

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.

The Industry

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

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California Field Course: Yosemite to the Sierra Nevada

The CGES California field course finally ended today, after an excellent 10 days encompassing several sites within Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada. 

We’ve been lucky enough to get a real taste of the diverse environments that California has to offer, from the searing deserts near Bishop’s Tuff to the geothermal springs and salt flats near Crowley Lake, to ancient Bristlecone Pines in Inyo County, descended Mammoth Mountain and explored the world-famous Yosemite, with views of the stunning El Capitan and Half-Dome. As an experience, it has been wonderful, opening doors in a part of United States that I may well have never visited. We’ve had access to some very good resources at the Sierra Nevada Aquatics Research Laboratory, and have had a lot of fun completing our research projects along the way (even if mine involved walking through a cold stream two days in a row). We’ve discovered that the group has diverse musical tastes, especially within the staff- exposure to acid house was not necessarily on my bucket list but is appreciated nonetheless.

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Make no mistake, California is a deeply beautiful place. There are just so many stunning landscapes that it is almost hard to process, and that doesn’t necessarily mean Yosemite either. The Sierra Nevada and the Mammoth Mountain area was strikingly beautiful, in a very different way, as only drylands can I suppose. Trees make way for sparse, scraggly shrubbery, glacial moraines and a beautiful, pinkish light that makes photography in the evenings a dream- I took better images in the Sierra Nevada than in Yosemite. The previous trip saw multiple bears, so it was naturally disappointing to miss out this time around, especially as someone as wildlife-mad as me! Regardless, I was able to tick off 20 or so new species of American bird, including a very special sighting of a Bald Eagle at the side of Convict Lake, flying over our heads into a blend of a blazing sunset and a literal blaze- the Owens River Fire.

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The Wildfire was strangely one of the highlights of the trip for me, as we saw the fire from it’s humble beginnings (with a small smoke plume as we drove into SNARL) into a raging inferno the next day, with an impressive Pyrocumulus cloud. I’ve learnt a lot about wildfire response and hazard management throughout modules at University as well as through school, so to see huge DC10 jets dropping fire retardant overhead, fire engines of every shape and size all over the town of Mammoth and the SkyCrane tanker helicopters, of Vietnam War vintage, taking off from the adjacent airport was a fascinating, inspiring experience. I’ve always had a strange obsession with the emergency services and their work, but to see the way wildfire is fought in person was an incredibly humbling experience. We had previously explored how wildfire is actually a natural, regenerative process in some ecosystems, and that management may actually be environmentally counterproductive- witnessing a fire in person however, felt very, very different.

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The fire was disturbing beautiful, and the smoke plumes, whilst they killed the air quality, had an almost ethereal quality to them. It inspired my first poem of many a year, and made me really reconsider my photographic style and technique. In fact, the field trip was incredibly rewarding from an artistic perspective, which will sound completely mental to anyone who knows me as I’m about as artistic as a brick. Nonetheless it was, freeing my creative writing block that I’ve been fighting for months. Words inspired by Muir, Twain and the great landscapes of the region flowed (and continue to flow) beautifully, and that is the last thing I expected this fieldtrip to achieve!

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It is very easy for me to say that the ‘experiential’ learning we did in California, designing dozens of mini research projects until we got them right, was brilliant, because it was. It is how I learn the best, and I know that the lessons learnt in the field on this trip will stand me in good stead for my coming dissertation and hopefully my later career. There is something to be said, however, from the development of the individual in the field- it isn’t all about the research, the lectures and the sessions- operating in an unfamiliar environment presents challenges that I absolutely relish, and I know that I’ve taken a lot away from that alone. I imagine others will have too.

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Finally, there was a big emphasis early in the course on the concept of ‘wilderness’, and it’s taken a while for me to synthesise my thoughts on the matter. Wilderness could be seen as a colonial term to some extent, as these lands were never really wild- Yosemite was inhabited by Native Americans before they were turfed out by Burrell & Lafayette of the Mariposa Battalion. Thus they were not discovered- unless you mean by white, European settlers. Regardless, how do we define what is wild, especially in the technological age? Is it escaping the everyday hum of the internet, or going where no cars can be found (a la Rousseau)? If so, then perhaps Yosemite isn’t the place to be. Is it the potential for things to go wrong, with predators lurking out of sight? I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘wilderness’ as such does not exist, and it never really has. Regardless, humanity is constantly reaching, grasping for the most fleeting taste of wilderness, for that feeling of being ‘in the wild’. Strictly speaking, nearly every habitat on earth has been modified by humans, and thus in reality wilderness doesn’t exist as such- but that will not stop man and woman from camping under the stars, paddling from source to sea, and hiking deep into forgotten valleys. We primally desire, nay require, our earth to be wild, for their to be the unexplained and the unpredictable in an increasingly binary world.

In the words of the great Thoreau, in Walden:

‘We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable’.

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And with those words ends a truly great field trip, one that I will cherish and remember for as long as I live. I’d like to express a sincere thanks to the Centre for Geography, Environment and Society for organising the trip, with special mention to every single member of staff who travelled with us for making it the memorable experience it was.

#CGESInTheField #CGESHeadingHome

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Billy Burton,

San Francisco, USA.

The Old Friend- A (Geographical) Poem

Inspired by the works of Muir, Twain, Kerouac and some muppet who accidentally started the rather big #OwensValleyFire. I’d like to give my thanks to plate tectonics (and glaciers) for making some pretty nice mountains too. I know it’s not technically correct, but that’s art, right? Best read in a deep, gravelly voice. 

A sole flame flickers at tinder dry,

A wisp of grey rises up high.

The amber valley sun falls below,

and great carved mountains sink into shadow.

Yet on those hills,

touching the sky,

A roaring glow illuminates the night.

A land born of lava and ice,

an inferno returns to reclaim it’s right.