2014 may be the year of the commercial drone, and CES offers us an intimate preview.
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There's no shortage of opinions when it comes to the merits of the fledgling commercial drone market.
Skeptics fret about privacy and pervasive surveillance—not to mention the potential for overcrowded airspace—while advocates argue that a safe, regulated market can offer unprecedented opportunities for photography, disaster relief, weather monitoring, reporting, and, yes, e-commerce deliveries.
Last Fall, the BBC showed off its investment in a brand new hexacopter, which it intends to use as a field reporting tool. More recently, Amazon unveiled plans to deliver orders via quadcopter, stirring both concern and excitement.
But whether or not these drone ambitions ultimately take flight in the mass market, the consumer UAV sector is on prominent display here at CES. And while there are drones for all budgets and uses, three stand out in an increasingly crowded field.
DJI pitches itself as a maker of tools for creative individuals. Whereas some commercial UAVs are intended for law enforcement, surveillance, and even agricultural uses, the DJI Phantom series is intended largely for photography and filmmaking. Indeed, DJI itself claims it is "dedicated to making aerial photography and videography accessible to professional photographers, cinematographers, and hobbyists."
At this year’s CES, DJI is expected to show off its Phantom 2 Vision—a 2.5 pound quadcopter with an integrated camera. The cam can snap 14-megapixel images, record 1080p video, and livestream footage to a mobile device. The copter itself boasts a flight time of 25 minutes at a distance of up to 300 meters.
Parrot has a somewhat eclectic catalog of products. The company started out selling wireless devices and handheld communications systems in the 1990s, and has since barreled into the commercial drone market. Today it offers both a quadcopter and an aerial mapping drone. Oh, and it also sells some Lou Reed–inspired headphones.
At CES this week, we’re expecting Parrot to show off its app-controlled AR.Drone. The AR.Drone has many of the same features as the DJI Phantom, but is perhaps most notable for its entirely mobile/app-based UX, low cost (it can be found for less $400), and optional GPS flight controller.
It can record 720p HD video, which looks like a downgrade from the DJI's 1080i, but the progressive output might be preferable in actual use.
That nifty little doodad will be on display this week in Las Vegas, but so will Yuneec’s FlyingEyes HX3 hexcopter. With a diverse background in everything from adventure cams to electric aviation, Yuneec seems well-suited for the commercial UAV market.
The Shanghai-based company will be making its U.S. debut this week with both the E-Go and HX3. While a new entrant to the American UAV space, the HX3 may have a leg up thanks to its reported flight time of up to 90 minutes—not to mention its capacity to equip a Canon 5D–sized camera (it allows for a payload of up to 4.4 pounds).
The HX3's weather-proofing and lightweight carbon materials also turn our heads, though the $2,999 price tag seems a bit prohibitive, especially for a market this young with competitors like the $369 AR.Drone.
Check back for updates all week on the various drones, cams, and mobile gizmos on display at this year’s CES. And, if you really want to get an idea of all the mesmerizing, frightening possibilities of consumer UAVs, check out this TED Talk:
Hero image: DJI North America