We’ve all heard about the explosive growth in the competitive world of drones. Statistics abound telling us that the appetite for these devices is insatiable, with consumers and industrial clients snapping them up at a seemingly exponential pace.
And it’s all true.
What’s not spoken about as much is the downside of all of this growth. Just as demand has grown immensely in the past few years, so too has supply. Some of that supply is excellent or quite good, much is mediocre, and there’s some we’d call sub-standard and even unsafe.
Don’t get us wrong. At TDC we’re crazy about drones, and quality drone technology. The problem is that so many new companies are trying to get a piece of the action that they’re flooding the market with, in certain cases, poorly designed and poorly tested machines. This issue ranges right from the sub-$100 market through to the prosumer level, where people might be spending $1500-$2000. That’s not pocket change, and people spending that amount deserve a quality product.
THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN
Getting an accurate read on how the pie is divided amongst the main players in this industry is difficult. What’s undeniable is that DJI has the dragon’s share. It got there by being first – with early quality flight controllers and DIY kits like the 2012 Flame Wheel series, then the S800 Spreading Wings – and by consistently trying to out-engineer the competition.
For DJI, the turning point came in 2013 with the release of the first Phantom quadcopter. That machine was a game-changer: Stable, and ready-to-fly out of the box.
It caught on fast – and quickly pushed DJI into the mainstream. Demand led to better products as the Phantom line slowly evolved. At every unveiling, the company pushed to release machines with significant technological improvements over the previous model.
The rest of the industry, of course, noticed the growing market. Quickly, companies already in the R/C world started switching over to quadcopter production. And many other companies – some of which were toy companies and even phone manufacturers, started jumping in to get a piece of the action.
As a result, and no surprise, there were more drones than ever at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. There were drones that could shoot tiny pellets at targets, drones you could try to bring down with tennis balls, selfie drones, egg-shaped drones, even an underwater drone that will allegedly change the way people fish (we’ll believe that when we actually catch something with it). There were news releases, press conferences, demonstrations, and a whole lot of people hanging around the drone zone.
BRIGHT AND SHINY
Yes, there were many interesting, unusual, and even gimmicky drones to catch the eye. But was there really anything new? For that, we asked industry analyst Craig Issod, who’s not only runs the DroneFlyers.com website but is known for his long and thoughtful pieces on the state of the industry and his insider knowledge of the various companies.
His take is that the annual CES – other than being a showpiece – has become meaningless. And, he says, the products that broke the most meaningful technological ground had already been released.
“The revolutionary, or highly evolutionary stuff that has been released – has all been released over the last ten months,” says Issod.
He then points to specific models.
“We could almost look at the Phantom 4 as starting it, with the obstacle avoidance. And then we had the Mavic Pro, which is obviously revolutionary, and then we had the Phantom 4 Pro, and then the Inspire 2. We had all of this stuff released, and it was all independent of CES.”
And it was all, as you likely noticed, from DJI.
Issod has no direct ties with DJI, other than writing about their products (and the products of other manufacturers) and putting affiliate sales links on his website (which he does with other products as well, and which we often do here). Yet every single product he mentions as being significant came from that one company.
Of course, there’s competition. And some of the competition has supporters who believe their products rival those of DJI. And there are, undeniably, many good products now on the market.
“In the years since (the early quads) they have morphed into very sophisticated flying machines,” says engineer Rick Smith of DroneValley.com, who will be partnering with TDC for upcoming drone rankings. “Innovations like crash avoidance, GPS positioning, advanced flight modes and insanely great cameras make this new generation of quads an entirely different category of products.”
One of the companies often mentioned as nipping at DJI’s heels is Yuneec, which had a major presence right beside DJI at CES 2017.
One year earlier at CES, the company had showcased its Typhoon H hexacopter, with “RealSense Technology” from Intel. There was an impressive demonstration where a Typhoon H followed a cyclist and avoided obstacles along the way, including a falling tree. Even now, the video of that moment is pretty nifty. (Skip ahead to the 2:10 mark to save some of your life for better things):
It looked amazing. But there were delays. And when the product was finally released, there were quality control issues. A unit TDC obtained for testing had a tiny loose screw that jammed up against one motor – and we heard of numerous returns for Q/C issues.
So while the optics of the launch were positive, they didn’t line up with reality, says Issod.
He mentions delays (RealSense didn’t come out until last summer), adding there were complaints about the camera and other quality control issues. It’s really only now, nearly a full year later, he says, that all the kinks have been ironed out.
“I still wouldn’t buy one with my own money,” says Issod, who is an avid recreational drone pilot.
On the plus side for Yuneec, its gimbal technology has some real fans who say it’s impressively liquid and smooth. Overall, though, some respected reviewers felt Yuneec over-promised and under-delivered.
“Yuneec made promises they couldn’t keep,” says Tom David Frey of Tom’s Tech Time. “Their marketing was better than their final product.” In an exhaustive comparison between the Typhoon H and the DJI Phantom 4, Tom scored the P4 with 82 out of 100 possible points; the Yuneec Typhoon H with RealSense earned just 41. And the Yuneec costs significantly more.
“DJI’s leadership in the drone industry may not be set in stone,” concludes Tom in his review video, “But Yuneec is not the company to dethrone them.”
The other company frequently mentioned as being a potential contender is Autel Robotics. Their X-Star Premium drone has received excellent reviews and has quite a few online (and real-life fans). For the price, the model offers good value for the money.
In Issod’s view, the X-Star – despite some of its features – remains a DJI knock-off. He doesn’t diss the product itself, but says it doesn’t push the envelope either. It’s a discussion (sometimes a debate), he says he’s had on multiple forums.
“And I’m like: ‘You know when a real competitor comes, that competitor will lead. That competitor won’t make something that looks like the Phantom,'” he says.
Still, the Autel X-Star Premium has received strong reviews and has some features DJI has undoubtedly noted – especially for the price point.
When it comes to range, DJI has pretty much consistently led the pack. The Autel, for example is rated at 1.2 miles (1.92 kilometres) with an HD video feed. DJI’s Lightbridge system can provide a bird’s eye view for up to 5 kilometres.
Arguably, that’s a moot point, as it’s beyond visual line of site. Still, it’s nice to know the capability is there (and some pilots do receive special exemptions allowing them to fly BVLOS for specific shoots).
Private companies keep their actual sales figures close to their competitive chests, so it’s not easy to find out how much various manufacturers are selling. But there are some clues, if you talk to people with solid affiliate link numbers or comb through the Amazon rankings.
According to Issod, Autel is “Selling a lot of product,” though it remains a very distant second behind DJI. “And the main reason for that is the users are happy – they’re not crashing left and right. But that said, what you’re going out and buying from them today is equal to the P3P from 18 months ago.”
Only a small number of the many companies in this market have been building drones for a long period of time. One of them is Parrot, which first attention when it launched it’s AR.Drone, which was operated by a smart-phone app and offered First-person-view.
Now, after several different models, it’s starting to see traction with its Bebop 2. That model ships with a VR-style headset that employs the user’s smartphone and app as a screen.
The other great splash of 2016 – followed by a great crash – came from GoPro. The company, known for its ubiquitous action cameras (which are also under siege from several new competitors), launched a much-hyped drone called the Karma in mid-September. Plenty of GoPro fans had been waiting for this moment, and were thrilled when they first saw the product at its unveil: The Karma was a folding drone. Not only that, but it had a removable gimbal stick that would allow the owner to hand-carry (or mount) a gimballed GoPro for use on the ground as well as the air.
It was competitively priced, and at first looked like a winner. GoPro stock took a significant jump, and people started placing orders. Not in huge numbers, but they ordered. (Though many changed their minds when DJI’s Mavic Pro launched later that month.)
Once the Karma started shipping, however, the problems started.
Reviewers like iPhoneDo trashed the product as the worst drone he’d ever flown. YouTube videos began surfacing showing people losing control of their aircraft – with some Karmas even slamming into the ground. The stock headed in a similar direction as news spread. GoPro announced a recall.
“Drones are hard to build,” says Issod.
Of course, these aren’t the only manufacturers in the ever-expanding ring. 3DR is still around, dumping its Solo at bargain-basement prices, but the company has scaled back considerably and is heading now in a more service-provision direction.
But the above are, arguably, the main competitors for the more serious purchaser: The person willing to spend $400+ and who wants a decent camera with a three-axis gimbal, accurate and stable flight with a video feed and the knowledge their unit is going to return home safely and reliably.
There’s an entirely other category of drones – in roughly the $100-$400 price range that TDC will explore at some future point. So if you think we’ve missed something – it wasn’t deliberate. We likely felt it either belonged in this category or did not have significant enough features or sales to include with this report.
So who sells how much? We don’t actually know. Issod’s best calculation, based on a combination of research and intuition, is that DJI commands “at least” 75 per cent of the market, and probably even more. It’s a guess – but an educated one. (DJI projected that its own sales in 2015 would be around $1 billion; a 2016 Marketwatch report suggests that DJI commands 50 per cent of sales in North America.)
The followers, Issod believes, are likely in the following order: Autel, Yuneec, Parrot – followed by a small handful of companies that might have just one or two per cent of the market. (But remember, it’s a big market.)
And, be believes, it will be some time before there is a challenger. DJI has the engineering, and the money, to simply steamroll over most competition.
“Anybody trying to enter this (market) has to have a real solid case: Why would someone buy this instead of the DJI? It really is somewhat true that the industry, other than DJI, hasn’t really gone anywhere.”
And the implications of that?
“The ante is way up, way, way up,” he concludes. “It’s not going to come out of somebody’s garage, the next big thing.”