I arrived in Las Vegas fully expecting to write an entire note about drones. The pre-show publicity made it sound like drones were everywhere at the show. I hoped to profile a number of companies and highlight all the product trends.
I was disappointed. There I said it. In reality, there were only about a dozen companies selling drones. And for the most part, they had almost no differentiated features. To make matters worse, all I seemed to hear from people on the floor were stories about the failures of drones. To underscore this point, a drone video went viral during the week, showing a $3,000 drone crashing into a lake, with its owner ruining his iPhone in a futile attempt to save it.
I am starting to notice a trend about how people talk about drones. Everyone (at least men over 35) want one, but all of them admit they are not sure what they will do with them. It seems like the kind of thing you buy, test and then never take out of the box again. We are past peak- hype for Drones.
There a few key problems with drones. First, the tyranny of batteries. None of the drones at the show claimed anything more than 30 minutes of flight time. And if you read the fine print, that is 30 minutes with no wind, little maneuvering and limited payloads. This was true of even the lightest, cheapest models. This may improve a bit in the future, but there are no signs of big improvements any time soon.
Second, drone control remains cumbersome. You can now buy $20 drones readily, but flying them is hard, with complicated two-stick remotes. The more expensive models have some clever features that making steering easier, but at these price points they are meant for professional or very serious hobbyist use.
The good news on this front, is that this is a problem with an easy solution. We are starting to see drones that can substitute an iPhone for the remote. Surely better designed software cannot be too far behind.
In terms of companies, the most interesting drone maker on the market is DJI of Shenzhen. They have rapidly taken the lead by building affordable well-designed models. They are also starting to segment the market with a phantom line for hobbyists and their Inspire and S-Series lines for professionals. DJI conveys an impression of being a serious, modern hardware company. Also worth mentioning is Hubsan also of Shenzhen, largely because they seem to have done the best job of building a US sales channel. They are also segmenting well, focused on several consumer models. There were several others, but none worth detailing at this time.
With one exception – Parrot of France. Parrot deserves so much credit. They have been slugging it out in this market for years. They have driven so much innovation and really pioneered the consumer drone space. Their micro-drone ballet was the best demo I saw at CES. Unfortunately, I think Parrot has some rough times ahead. They are now competing with Shenzhen Inc., and I don’t think anyone can match those economics. Maybe if they had some incredible software, but Parrot is not Apple, and DJI is already doing some pretty solid software.
A quick review of the Parrot booth makes it clear that they are aware of this problem, at least on some level. In addition to the flying drone cage they have always had, their booth was filled with a host of other connected devices – a drone-like tank vehicle, fitness trackers and a clever gadget for remotely watering your plants. The trouble is that none of these devices are alone in the market either. Parrot is expanding into some pretty crowded territory. I hope they can surprise me, but as it stands now, I think Parrot is going to struggle in coming years.
As much as I would like to get excited about drones, I think the products are still several years away from being interesting to the average consumer. The controls are still complicated, really geared for professional usage. This is one market which needs to have some software eat it away. I think a few Stanford Machine Learning grad students need to find a good mobile User Experience (UX) designer and become the proverbial Apple of drones, with an integrated app + drone hardware experience. Their controls would be push-button simple, with a few pre-recorded movements built-in (i.e. circle around one location and a take a photo, or go over there, land and come back).I am not sure there really is ever going to be a ‘killer app’ for consumer drones, but a little ease of use will get all the highly motivated novices to come on board.