Can Anybody Stop the DJI Juggernaut?

When the presenter at the DJI reveal last week reached into his jacket pocket, channeling his inner Steve Jobs as he pulled several new Mavic Air drones out of his pocket, just how far this industry had come was starkly apparent. Formerly the preserve of only the biggest tech firms, the unapologetically glossy launch event evoked memories of a confident Apple at their peak- not a young company in a fledgling industry.  That young company, however, has dominated the market, throwing off the likes of 3D Robotics, GoPro, and Lily with ease.

Today, the consumer drone market has been nearly monopolized by DJI, with only Parrot and Yuneec offering any kind of meaningful resistance. In this piece I ask why has this happened- and why is no-one keeping up?

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The theatrical launch of the new Mavic Air.

DJI Drones Are Just Better, Period. 

No other brand offers the range of technologies and features that DJI’s products do, and they consistently lead the way long before other companies can keep up. DJI drones are becoming nearly uncrashable in the hands of a reasonably competent pilot, and their ground-breaking obstacle-avoidance technology has shown that their efforts and investment into drone safety (and accessibility) are paying off. The built-in camera technology in DJI drones is generally the best in the world, with only larger drone platforms that can carry DSLR-equivalents offering better quality- and they are well out of the price range of the general public. Most recently, DJI had to beat off the challenge of GoPro’s cameras and their flagship drone, the Karma, and the aggressive release of the Mavic Pro pulled the rug out from GoPro’s great white elephant project. DJI probably needn’t have bothered, given how poor the Karma was (remember the total product recall?)! DJI’s victory was total, with GoPro announcing their departure from the drone market in January, along with the loss of nearly 300 jobs.

DJI Object
DJI’s new obstacle detection system is a game changer for consumer drones.

Rapid Product Development. After the announcement of the Mavic Air, plenty of people argued on social media that DJI are releasing products too quickly, eating into their own product share and ‘turning people off’, in the same way that rapid phone developments did a few years back. On the contrary, DJI’s strategy is genius in that they are enveloping the entire consumer drone industry by not leaving a gap in the market, and then always releasing a newer, better drone before competitors can even consider keeping up. They may be at risk of alienating a few customers, but the drones they are releasing have nearly all been significant improvements on previous models, ceaselessly driving drone technology forward. This strategy is merciless for other drone companies that simply don’t have the resources or funding to keep up, for with every drone that DJI release, the further and further the other companies get left behind.

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DJI is trying to create a drone for everyone- and they might nearly be there!

Every Corner of the Consumer Drone Market Covered It has taken a few product cycles, but DJI now has a compelling, leading product at every price point. From the £100 Tello all the way up to the £2500 Inspire 2, there is little escaping their dominance of the market, and their rapid product cycles have helped to capture a greater share of the market. Clever pricing strategies have seen the older but very capable Phantom 3 series become the cheapest option for many, whilst the newer Phantom 4 models (Standard, Advanced and Pro) all offer significant steps up in capability for the additional cost. Perhaps the only section of the market DJI doesn’t have cornered is the sub-£50 category, but whether there is any point in them doing that is another matter entirely.


Inspire 2
The pro videography focused Inspire 2 is a serious bit of kit, and can sometimes be found on Hollywood sets. 

Strong Influencer Marketing. Much more than other brands, DJI understand the value of influencer marketing as well as mounting the glossy campaigns typical of other brands. Millennials, in particular, are much more likely to trust their peers when buying products (70%), and so using social media influencers heavily to market their products has been a masterstroke by DJI. Casey Neistat is arguably their ambassador-in-chief, with a mighty 8 million youtube subscribers and with him regularly releasing videos on DJI products or even just using DJI products that attract millions of views at a time, he is an invaluable asset to the company. The Mavic Air saw DJI expand this program further too, with the likes of IJustine giving them access to a wider market. People identify far more with these types of ‘star’ who found fame through youtube and social media itself than with the obviously-paid for traditional celebrity ads. Social media itself is DJI’s best friend too, particularly on Instagram- even England cricketers are showcasing their best drone shots on there! This momentum will just keep DJI rolling forward at… Genius!

Casey Neistat is arguably one of DJI’s best marketing weapons. He’s bit of a hero for millennials. 

Now I don’t think that DJI can monopolize the drone world forever, and I think everyone would like to see some more competition at the top. Despite this DJI’s internal competition to produce better drones continues to develop drone technology at pace, and they continue to push the envelope far more than any other brand. For now then, the consumer drone industry is in safe hands, but I worry that only the likes of a huge technology company at the scale of Microsoft, Google or Samsung will be able to keep up.

DJI are the rulers of the drone world, yet the technology world can change very, very quickly. Who is waiting in the wings to dethrone them? 

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Drone volcano
Somebody is out there with a plan, right? 

4 Amazing Drone Companies to Watch!

As more press releases emerge detailing the extent of Drone Strikes across the middle-east, from both RAF and USAF/CIA drones, it is more important than ever to show the other side of the drone industry- the side that is pioneering for better healthcare, better disaster response and better environmental protection through their efforts. Detailed below are 4 of the most exciting, inspirational companies and organisations that are taking the world by storm- or will be soon! 

Conservation Drones

Conservation Drones is a brilliant non-profit that leverages technical UAV expertise to assist various excellent ecology and biology projects across the world. This has involved practical data collection, such as working with the Ugalla Primate Project, part of the Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania, as well as training up organisations and individuals to make impacts themselves. Having operated in dozens of countries across the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Suriname, Indonesia to Nepal, Conservation Drones have amassed an incredible amount of knowledge on the use of UAVs in an ecological context.

Led by the notable Professor Serge Wich, of Liverpool John Moores University, Conservation Drones often use their airframes that they have developed themselves to achieve their goals in the field. From lightweight, rugged platforms ideal for carrying across the jungle, to big, long-range endurance platforms, this organisation is truly at the forefront of environmental UAV innovation and design. WWF DRONE.jpg


This is a new company, but believe me, you are going to hear ALL about them in the coming years. Launching fully in early 2017, EnviroDrone seems to offer something a little different, offering an end-user orientated approach to geospatial data collected by drones. Not only will they offer their own all in-one UAV system, integrated with multiple sensors, they also propose an in-house software solution, making the data more easily accessible to those who need it on the ground. EnviroDrone possibly heralds a different approach to ConservationDrones, offering a more commercial option in comparison to the latter’s relatively democratised approach. If it takes the difficulty out of geospatial data collection and analysis across environmental industries, it could be hitting a very valuable, untapped niche in the market- and are thus are well worth keeping an eye on during their launch year. Based in Canada, it is worth noting that they have collaborated with Conservation Drones in the recent past.

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Led by the impressive Dr. Patrick Meier, best known for his work on open-source disaster mapping, We Robotics is at the forefront of democratising geospatial technology across developing countries. Far from keeping UAV technology and skills in the hands of the privileged few in the west, WeRobotics uses ‘FlyingLabs’ to help scale the impacts of development, humanitarian and environmental projects. This involves the direct transfer of technology from partners including Parrot and DJI, as well as skills transfer through training sessions.

The Flying Labs are created with training and technology from We Robotics, collaborating together on initial operations with local organisations, providing initial impacts. The Flying Lab then takes up the torch after We Robotics leave, working on their own projects with local social and environmental-good organisations. Across developing and at-risk countries, the approach removes existing barriers to technology, and puts incredible geospatial technology in the hands of those who need it most.


I’m a big fan of Patrick Meier- he has some excellent Ted Talks as well as a great book (‘Digital Humanitarians’) that are all well worth a look if you are interested in this field.


In a similar ‘development’ vein, Zipline is the company that is seriously making waves in the global media. Raising some $25 million in venture capital, Zipline is starting operations in Rwanda this year, and is widely regarded as one of the great hopes on the drone industry. Why? Zipline could change everything we know about healthcare logistics.


Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills for a reason. It’s beautiful if unforgiving topography makes logistics by road especially challenging, and with healthcare, that can cost lives. Enter Zipline, using cost-effective drones to deliver blood samples, vaccinations and medicines to health centres across the country. Taking infrastructural issues out of the equation, Zipline really does represent a pioneering new concept in healthcare logistics that should have great value across the world.

Think of the number of nations with infrastructural gaps, poor road networks and major remote settlements- there are several in Central Africa alone, before you even consider the likes of Myanmar and Nepal. This is an incredible concept, my only worry being that they overstretch themselves too early. They say they are looking to expand into other countries this year already- I would want to ensure the success longevity of the Rwanda project first. This is a competitive field, however, and other companies will soon be snapping at their heels- and with $25 million in funding, one would assume they have done their due diligence. rwanda-1

(All images taken from respective websites, unless otherwise noted).


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.


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.

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!


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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#DronesForGood: Search and Rescue

The word ‘drone’ has become a loaded term for many, and it is through the hashtag ‘#DronesForGood’ that UAV Scientists and professionals are fighting to reclaim the word. In the first of this series of blog posts, I will explore the use of drones by Search and Rescue teams. 

Search & Rescue 

Drones provide numerous advantages to search and rescue teams, enabling them to cover large areas of ground much more quickly than they could on foot. They are also able to access dangerous areas, such as inside collapsed buildings, without placing personnel at risk. They aren’t infallible of course, and people can be missed, such as by human error or a poor quality sensor. Thermal imaging would obviously be ideal for this application, but sensor miniaturisation hasn’t quite reached where I would like in the thermal world just yet. There are a few lightweight, portable options, such as the FLIR VUE, but the very best thermal version is still restricted to military applications.



Nonetheless, drones have seen increasing success as SAR tools across the world, and will inevitably become more popular as the platform matures. Close to home, Cornwall Search and Rescue has access to a drone on some searches, something reflected by other SAR teams up and down the country. The Italian Red Cross has been quite forward in trialling the technology, whilst organisations across the world have adopted drones in one form or another. Notably, a drone was used in the past month at the scene of a major warehouse collapse, helping to locate an unscathed casualty amid the carnage, which underlines their value as a tool both indoors and outdoors. Interestingly, a network even exists that offers volunteers with drones to organisations in an emergency situation, something that is a great way of utilizing existing skillsets for limited cost, provided the operators are capable. The UAV Challenge, started long ago in 2007, used to task students and innovators to build a drone capable of finding a casualty in a short period of time, underlining how some had the foresight to see drones as a great rescue tool long before they became popular.


There are limitations of course- you can’t fly a drone in a hurricane, and they generally have quite short flight times; but the potential is surely there. Devon and Cornwall Police even have their own drone for search operations, and they can be invaluable in searching challenging terrain, with them seeing recent use on Dartmoor, for example. Personally, I believe that the drone, in one form or another, will become a standard part of the SAR team toolkit. The commercial race to offer leading SAR Drones has already begun, with companies such as Microdrones starting to offer solutions, whilst DJI has been busy donating platforms to various trial units across Europe, as part of a EENA strategy. It offers some ideal advantages which will surely increase the success rate of search operations- and that is, ultimately, the name of the game.


360 Video: Inspirational Education

After a few months of little market-penetration, 360 degree video is finally making waves. I’m sure you’ve seen clips on social media, but if you haven’t, I’ll give a brief explanation. 360 video cameras usually have two lenses facing opposite to each other, giving a roughly 360 degree effect, with fisheye lenses in the same style as a GoPro. Using correction functions in post-production software, it is possible to make it look very much like a real scene, with an amount of unavoidable distortion.

The real beauty of 3D video is that it allows you to explore what is going on anywhere in the scene. By scrolling across the screen, you get to choose the direction of the camera at any given moment. As a platform, it really is quite brilliant, though the quality isn’t quite the 4K/HD quality most of us are used to by now. As shown in the linked video of Liverpool Football Club’s ground, Anfield, it has real potential as a medium. At the moment, the devices are quite expensive and haven’t seen much real world use- big events seem to the name of the game.

I’m keen to take one on my expedition this summer for an altogether reason: education. It is one thing to teach children and students through textbooks and pretty photographs on a presentation slide, but imagine if that student could explore the subject for themselves? Take the jungle for example; I can show kids as many horrific photos of me being bitten by leeches as I like, or of enormous monitor lizards roaming the jungle, but surely by letting them explore the jungle themselves, they would be more interested?

Like most wildlife videography, the scenes would have to be staged to an extent, with us already knowing what will be in each shot, but a student could scroll through video, searching for something, when they get to discover an amazing species, and feel that buzz- you know, the one that I assume all scientists get when they find something cool and are doing what they love? I believe that by putting this choice (and this chance) in the hands of students, perhaps on a website or as part of a presentation, we really could inspire the next generation of Bioscientists and Geographers, as well as other disciplines.

Could this be the future of Educational Science Communication?

I’d argue not the future, but I think it should certainly play a big role in the coming years, and I’m incredibly excited to see this technology develop.

360 Degree video is here, and you should definitely be paying attention!