August and September have given us three new drones towards the top of the consumer market: DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian and Mavic Pro Platinum, and Parrot’s Bebop 2 Power. So how are we feeling about these three major releases? Does painting a drone black justify a press event? Have we already maxed out the potential of drones in the consumer market?
What’s Hiding Under That New Paint Job?
First of all, it’s a little unfair to say that these three new releases only featured cosmetic improvements. There were some steps up in functionality and flight time for the Parrot Bebop 2 Power. And there was noise reduction and a small flight time improvement for the Mavic Pro Platinum. It feels like we’re stretching here, but the Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian had an upgraded gimbal. Apart from that it was just black, and at the same price as the original P4 Pro.
We won’t really know how much the Bebop 2 Power has improved compared to the original until we get our hands on one. But it seems like it’s more a bundle that offers good value for money than a drone that will compete with DJI’s finest. Which leaves us with one question: Are drone manufacturers running out of ideas, room for development or resources? It seems as though progress has stalled from the heady days of 2016, when obstacle avoidance, gesture controls and 4K video all hit the mainstream.
Instead of coming up with new signature technologies, old models are being repackaged with new paint jobs. Does this mean we’ve reached peak consumer drone already?
Will DJI’s Domination Slow Down Consumer Drone Innovation?
The most exciting drone launch this year has been the DJI Spark. As well as having a new 3D-sensing system, it manages to cram some of DJI’s signature technologies into a tiny little drone. Camera quality and flight time suffer as a result, but as a $500 drone for beginners, it ticks all the boxes.
The result of the Spark launch was that DJI now has a compelling product in almost every product category, from beginner to professional. There are different estimates over what proportion of the drone market the Chinese manufacturer has, but it’s safe to say it’s well over 50%.
One interesting question is this: With few rivals stepping up to the plate, who is pushing DJI to do better and innovate, instead of just ticking along from now on with small iterations? And will this have a knock-on effect on the quality of drones in the future and the speed that they hit the market?
It’s difficult to answer those questions without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. One thing that has to be taken into consideration is the fact that the technology inside today’s best drones, from batteries to cameras to visual systems, might have hit a plateau.
This isn’t new in the world of technology. Companies like Apple have long released new models year on year with only minor improvements. There’s only so much a phone can do, after all. But maybe we expected drones to continue developing for a few more years before that process started happening.
The phone – drone comparison is an interesting one. There’s no doubt that drones have evolved much more rapidly than mobile phones ever did. The consumer industry has gained autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, immersive FPV flight and gesture controls in a few short years. It’s close to the ceiling of what’s possible.
It could be that we’re already at the stage of incremental improvements. That would explain why paint jobs are suddenly a ‘feature’. Manufacturers like DJI and Parrot are trying to keep things fresh even though they don’t have that much to offer at the moment. The technologies that will hopefully come to the fore in the next few years, such as improved batteries or an alternative power system, are still too expensive to develop for the consumer market.
The fact that DJI and Parrot are releasing new models with small improvements also indicates what a great job they’ve done up until this point. Their drones are already useful tools for photographers and professionals in a number of other industries. They are much closer to being perfect than they are to being useless. Improving them is difficult.
Perhaps a revolutionary new DJI Phantom 5 will be out before Christmas and any doubts about innovation in the industry will be put to rest. Until then, it’s looking like the drone industry’s major manufacturers are a bit short on ideas. Or at least they are short on the resources and technology to make those ideas a reality.