New Survey: What’s Your Drone Purchase Experience Like?

We just launched a new research survey exploring your drone-buying experiences, where you bought, what seller services matter, and where you intend to buy drones and/or small unmanned aerial systems. As a short 13-question survey, it’s designed for those who have bought or will buy a drone for either hobby, commercial, or public use.

You can take the brief survey here:

The study is designed to answer the following key questions and more:

  • What’s the best place to purchase a drone (for example online or in a store)?
  • What matters most about your purchase: is it price, availability of accessories, or is service?
  • What was the intended use? Was is for hobby or racing or photography, or was it for work?
  • What are the most popular drone brands by price point?

This research study is being underwritten by BZ Media, the organizer of InterDrone and Drone Dealer Expo, and preliminary results will be presented at the Drone Dealer Expo in Orlando, April 11-13, 2016.

Your individual answers are confidential; responses will be aggregated, analyzed, and summarized in research reports and publications to be issued within the next several months.

At the end of the survey there is an opportunity to receive a free summary report of survey results and the opportunity to enter a drawing to receive one of three $200 VISA gift cards.  Your contact information and email will be kept private and will not be shared with vendors or dealers.

We will be running this survey for a few weeks and results should be published in April. Make sure you subscribe to my blog that way you’ll be notified of the results.

As always, I’m interested in hearing from you.  If have something to say feel free to comment below or email me at

Six Trends Driving the Commercial Drone Market in 2016 and Beyond

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – attributed to Yogi Berra

I was recently asked in an interview to discuss four or five trends that I see as major drivers in the commercial drone industry today and what manufacturers and service providers might focus on in the future. That sounds simple enough for an industry analyst, but sometimes predictions are as hard as trying determine where that quote came from. It’s not an exacting science, but it’s certainly better than palm reading.

That said, here are six trends I think will drive key opportunities and challenges for drone manufacturers, service providers, and investors for 2016 and beyond. They are:

  1. Fidelity
  2. Sensors
  3. Mobility
  4. China Incorporated
  5. Virtual and Augmented Reality
  6. Competition


One of the major trends we are seeing in the commercial drone industry is the desire for more fidelity – that is, better image and video resolution. This is not just true for commercial drones but also consumer drones.  So, companies like DJI and Yuneec offer integrated 4K video recording cameras and HD video monitoring for as little as $1,200.  And the price keeps going down and the cameras keep getting better.  Add to that component vendors like Amimon that now offer zero latency 1080p downlinks. I could go on, but fidelity is a major driver of technology development for drones and this will continue well into the future.

A lot of this trend is being driven by the consumer. In our homes, we now have 4K TVs, HD tablets, and smartphones with higher and higher resolution, so the expectation is that a drone will deliver that or better.  As I have reported here and here, not all drone manufacturers are moving fast enough to keep up – especially the legacy defense and aerospace ones.


In line with the drive for better fidelity is the trend for better and smaller, more lightweight sensors for drones—such as stereoscopic, ultrasonic, LiDAR, infrared, and spectral sensors.  All of these will help drones perform tasks like collision avoidance, 3D imaging infrared thermography, or improved crop vigor analysis.

The chip manufacturers get this, which is why you see companies like Intel, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm making their investments and acquisitions and while we see better onboard imaging and better co-production image processing as the investments kick into high gear.


A third major driver in the industry right now is mobility.  I alluded to it above.  In the consumer world, the scales have tipped from PCs and TV to mobile devices.  ZenithOptimedia expects mobile devices—either tablet or smart phone—to become the main platform for viewing online video, reaching 52.7% in 2016 and 58.1% in 2017.

Not only that, but statistics on how the majority of enterprises conduct business processes and transactions is tipping toward mobile devices. IDC predicts the U.S. mobile worker population will grow over the next five years to 105.4 million in 2020 and account for nearly three quarters (72.3%) of the total U.S. workforce. One analyst predicts that by 2017 100% of all customer-facing apps and 75% of all employee apps will be built on mobile platform software first. The ‘enabled mobile worker’ is not just a PowerPoint slide title.  It’s a reality—especially in the field service and maintenance industry where drones are beginning to play a significant role.

What this means for drone manufactures and service providers is that their application development is shifting from desktop to mobile apps and, since there is no clear winner, they’ll have to develop apps that are both iOS and Android compatible and release them simultaneously if they want to stay competitive. But I can tell you most firms are struggling with this—even the big ones like DJI.

China Incorporated

Chinese companies both large and small will be dumping consumer drones on the market either to establish market share or increase it. This year’s CES, also known as the Consumer Electronics Show, was a harbinger of things to come.  It saw booths by many newcomers from China like 9 Eagles AEE, Autel Robotics, Ehang, Hexo, and ProDrone, to name a few.

A lot of these are or will be DJI clones. This is already a fun trend to watch—and one to be wary of as Eric Cheng, former Director of Aerial Imaging for DJI, has pointed out here. The problem is DJI already accounts for over 45% of registered commercial drones in the U.S. as reported here. The only other vendor capable of competing with them based on feature and price is Yuneec.

I suspect, in an effort to save a buck, commercial drone service providers will be tempted to try a clone. Ultimately, they will need to choose a compelling user experience, but given the variety and the number of competing vendors, who has time to learn a whole new technology?

Virtual and Augmented Reality

At the top of MarketWatch’s 2016 predictions: The six tech trends that will rule is the prediction that virtual reality (VR) will shine at the consumer level and augmented reality (AR) will continue to prove itself in the workplace. Virtual reality (VR) already has proven itself in video, and Trace is betting on that horse with immersive 360-degree applications for use in both commercial and consumer quadcopter drones.

But the big money is in AR. Enterprise AR apps reduce workers’ reliance on laptops and tablets where they are cumbersome to use—like in dirty or tight spaces. AR glasses enable field service technicians with a hands-free solution that provides access to visualizations of job-critical information and expert knowledge. SAP has already led the field here. Inspection drones will only add to that benefit since the video feed to the technician is really no different from AR glasses.


A lot can be said about the power of incumbent technologies (like satellite and manned aircraft) that compete with drone services. And a lot can be said about how drone leaders and service providers underestimate that power, especially in agriculture.  We have written about that topic here, and this video of Young Kim, CEO of Digital Harvest, echoes that.

But there is one part of competition in the commercial drone space that doesn’t get talk about a lot, and it’s this:  What will happen when the proposed FAA rules (aka Part 107) become law in mid-2016? My take is it will lower the barrier to entry for new manufacturers and providers.

In theories of economic competition, barriers to entry are obstacles that make it difficult to enter a given market. The term can refer to hindrances a firm faces in trying to enter a market or industry—such as government regulation and patents, or a large, established firm taking advantage of economies of scale—or those an individual faces in trying to gain entrance to a profession—such as education or licensing requirements.

If the rules come in as proposed—that is, with no pilot’s license required for the operator—then the barrier to entry for commercial drone services gets lowered.  It’s only natural that we’ll see an uptick of new entrants (they just have to take a test) and we’ll see downward price pressure.

We see this as a major disruption to the drone service provider market and those already with a business because they’ve already got a Section 333 exemption from the FAA to operate commercially.

These firms—the ones that operate legally now—will suddenly face more competition, whether their business is real estate photography or infrastructure inspection. There simply will be more drone pilots and more drone service providers, and with that the law of demand and supply kicks in. The more supply you have, the lower prices go.

You can find more of our insights on these SlideShare presentations. I’m always interested to hear your thoughts and insights about the commercial drone market. Comment or write to me at

Image credit: The Fortune Teller, by Caravaggio (1594–95; canvas; Louvre), depicting a palm reading

Five Observations about the Camera Drone Market from NAB 2015

By Steve Maller for Drone Analyst

My brief but productive visit last month to the 2015 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in Las Vegas showed me just how fast the camera drone market is heating up. More than 97,000 people in media and entertainment attended this year, and the show featured for the first time an Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion with a fully enclosed “flying cage” for demonstrations. It was so well attended that one writer called the NAB 2015 “The Year of the Drone.”

Much has already been written about how drones impacted the show, and you can find good articles here and here.  I was particularly impressed with FreeFly System’s ALTA high-end drone because it represents what I consider to be a prime example of just how advanced unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology have become. You can find my post on that here.

As a post-show wrap-up I offer five observations about the state of the aerial film / photo / video drones market:

  1. LAND GRAB. Anticipation of long-awaited regulatory changes in the U.S. is creating a frenzy of opportunity and activity and a frenetic land-grab. It’s already been observed here that film / photo / video is and will continue to be the largest commercial market for drones.
  1. SPECIALIZATION. Many large and small companies are designing and marketing highly specialized camera platforms – many of which are even geared to only one of the film /photo / video applications. Take for example Intuitive Aerial’s Aerigon. It was built ground up for use with heavy, cinema industry-standard cameras like the Red Epic. This specialization implies maturing market demand.
  1. UAS-CAMERA INTEGRATION. Complete integration between UAS and camera is now common, either through proprietary cameras (such as DJI’s Inspire 1 and Phantom 3) or through partnerships with existing camera manufacturers (such as 3DRobotics’ Solo and GoPro HERO4).
  1. SAFETY. Complete or partial flight autonomy is being heavily developed by manufacturers even without solutions to complicated problems like sense-and-avoid and no-fly zones. This is a dangerous precedent as I do not believe the industry can deliver on its promise of reliably and safely without addressing these air traffic control concerns. I don’t see standardized solutions to these issues on the market yet. But fortunately operator training programs are appearing like FlySafe and Unmanned Safety Institute that can improve operating safety through education and promotion of safe practices.
  1. COOL FACTOR. Mainstream audiences are beginning to see what us aerial film / photo / video pioneers have seen for a while — that camera drones are tools for getting better shots. A year ago, the word ‘drone’ was heavily discussed by the UAS community as being sorely in need of a less menacing synonym, but today it doesn’t seem to matter. Drones are now ‘cool,’ – something that I don’t think anybody expected to happen so soon. Sure, the ones carrying Hellfire missiles and eavesdropping on terrorist mobile phone calls are still out there, but folks on the street are beginning to understand the difference.

This year promises to be the most exciting and eventful one yet for the world of camera drones.  Who knows what innovation we will see next?  In the meantime, we would to hear your thoughts on this market.  Send us your comments or write us

Image credit: PerspectiveAir

Commercial Drone Markets: 2014 Year in Review

Judging by the headlines, 2014 turned out to be the year for drones. I referenced in Tweets a total of 503 articles with the word ‘drones’ in the headline last year.  A Google search brings up about 61.4 million results referring to ‘drones.’  Granted, that search includes references to military and hobby drones, but it still delivers higher results than other years.

If the first theme of 2014 was the rise in popularity of drones, the second theme was how hamstrung the commercial markets are in the U.S. because of a lack of regulations. But there’s more going on than the buzz and frustration with FAA progress; in this post, I’ll review what I think were the five most significant commercial market trends for drones in 2014.

  1. ‘Drones’ Got Hyped

As mentioned, 2014 brought lots of hype about drones in the media, and investors can’t tell fact from fiction.  Here’s one example where a writer and industry analyst asserts that the civilian commercial market for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will dwarf that of the military. But the evidence shows otherwise. My colleague Mitch Solomon summarizes the problem well in this article:

“Venture investors have a huge variety of questions about the commercial drone market, but two stand out in terms of their importance.  The first is: what is hype and what is reality?  Put another way, is this market really a big, high growth, high margin market?  If you rely solely upon media hype and AUVSI [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International], your answer would be an unequivocal: yes, the commercial drone market is the biggest, highest growth, best new market opportunity to come along in decades (or maybe centuries…AUVSI shows the US commercial market at over $1 billion in the first year after regulations are approved by the FAA.  (Really?!).”

Like Mitch, I’m not so quick to buy the media hype or AUVSI’s forecast (for more on that, see this article), and my market view is much more pragmatic and measured. Still, if tier-one venture investors are asking questions about the hype, then that is a good sign. It means that while there is interest in the space, investors will need to work smarter to make sure capital won’t be wasted chasing fictional opportunities.

  1. Oil and Gas Inspections in the U.S. Got a Frivolous Beginning

While drone inspections of land-based refinery flare stacks have been permitted in other countries for some time, it wasn’t until June of this year that the FAA granted permission for the first commercial drone for this industry in the U.S.  Problem is, it wasn’t for the same purpose. That permission went to oil company BP and drone manufacturer AeroVironment to fly aerial surveys of over Alaska’s North Slope.

The lack of real-world consequence of this permission is best stated in this article. Until June, the FAA has approved drones for public safety, such as police or firefighters, or for academic research, on a case-by-case basis. Most of those cases were for use cases similar to flare stack inspections (perch and stare) and were for small, versatile drones with relatively low-cost technology.  But this was for an expensive 10-year-old military spec fixed-wing drone that has limited commercial viability. As the article states:

“The FAA is essentially using the military’s prior experience with this specific drone platform in place of the agency’s airworthiness certification requirements, so it is not an option for people hoping to use the newer drones being designed by high-tech startups that are not involved in military applications,” [Brendan] Schulman said. “It is a small step in the right direction but really only for companies who want to operate in very remote locations using military surplus equipment.”

  1. Drone Cinematography Came Out of Shadows

As this research points out, filmmaking, video, and photography drones have flown commercially without FAA authorization for years now.  It’s no surprise, then, that this is the biggest and most mature commercial market for drones. Notwithstanding, drone regulation was among many issues the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) lobbied on in 2012 and 2013, at a total cost of $4.11 million. The MPAA has been constantly appealing to the FAA to let them use smaller drones for film-making purposes. It seems that lobbying paid off.  In September, the FAA granted regulatory exemptions to six TV and film production companies to operate drones on sets: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, RC Pro Productions Consulting, and Snaproll Media.

There is a catch here.  Operators are required to hold private pilot certificates. This has many scratching their heads.  Why do commercial remote control operators need to learn how to land a Cessna when they’ve been operating these drones safely for years as ‘hobbyists’ without that requirement?

  1. Agricultural Drones Got A Reality Check

A reality check is an assessment to determine if one’s circumstances or expectations conform to reality.  This certainly is the case with the market for agricultural drones.  It needed a reality check because of the hype created by AUVSI study titled The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States. It claims precision agriculture and public safety will make up more than 90% of the market growth for unmanned aerial systems. The report confidently states, “…the commercial agriculture market is by far the largest segment, dwarfing all others.”  To this day, that fiction gets repeated over and over again in the media.

The market potential for drones in precision agriculture needs vetting—see Film or Farm: Which is the Bigger Drone Market? – Part 2 for my thoughts on this. It’s not yet clear how a UAS can deliver more usable data to a farmer or provides a cost benefit over the existing image solutions available to them today. But don’t take my word for it–watch this video of Rory Paul at the 2014 sUSB Expo for his take on the misconceptions about this market.

  1. The GIS Market Heats Up

Back in the spring, GIS software market leader Esri published this article about how drones greatly benefit the work of professional surveyors and mappers.  Devon Humphrey states it clearly:

“Due to the unique flight characteristics of UAVs, the imagery is sharper and offers some unique advantages. This means that the camera captures high ground resolution on the order of two to five centimeters. In addition, because there is a large amount of overlap in the imagery, digital photogrammetric processing results in 3D point clouds of similar resolution. Turnaround time is a few hours, instead of days, weeks, or months in the case of traditional delivery times. The user also controls the process rather than working with an outside vendor or being stuck using “day-old donuts,” generic imagery that doesn’t meet the temporal requirements.”

He is not alone in that assessment. I think this market is heating up to become the second biggest commercial drone market behind aerial photography and cinema and ahead of precision agriculture. In a nutshell, I believe the GIS market will continue to grow rapidly because drones provide a technical advantage over incumbent aerial technology and incumbent technology costs more.

What should we expect in 2015?

A lot depends on the forthcoming small drone rule from the FAA.  If it looks at all like the exemptions granted this year (which have onerous restrictions), then U.S. commercial market growth will be seriously hampered.  This should be no surprise to anyone.  Much has been written on how government regulations hinder economic growth (for example here and here).  Still, in other countries with smarter regulations, expect these and other markets to continue to flourish and those over here will be looking at the success stories with envy.

You can find more insights from 2014 on these SlideShare presentations.  I would love to hear your thoughts about the commercial drone markets. Feel free to comment or write me at

Image credit: Shutterstock[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Does DJI’s New Drone Hit the Target Market?

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][UPDATE 9/10/2015 – See update in comments]


I think it’s futuristic – the drone that is.  The camera, on the other hand, is another story.

The drone

For a guy like me who not only follows the commercial market for drones but is also an avid photography and multirotor enthusiast, the new DJI Inspire 1 is, well, inspiring. It’s chock full of features I wish I had four years ago when I first started mounting GoPro cameras on quadcopter kits — things like ease of use, a simple interface, controller ergonomics, telemetry, a 3D-axis gimbal, integrated HD video downlink, optical flow for indoor flying (how cool is that!?).

Much has already been written on the Inspire 1 T600 (like here and here) so I won’t repeat it.  The question for this post is: Did DJI hit the mark for the target market?  For that answer, we need to go beyond the drone itself and look at how professional photographers and videographers use drones and cameras.

The market

As a primer, you may want to read what I have already written about this market in Film or Farm: Which is the Bigger Drone Market? and The Democratization of Aerial Photography.

Drone manufacturers understand photographers have longed for inexpensive ways to take aerial images, and DJI heralded the turnkey consumer-level camera drone with its DJI Phantom Vision. Some billed it as a toy. But it didn’t take long for professional photographers to notice its package of features and ease of use. Soon, every camera retailer, from Adorama and Amazon to B&H Foto, carried the Phantom line. Even photography software companies like Adobe tailored offerings to it. Product sales skyrocketed.

Concurrently, drone manufacturers like DJI and FreeFly Systems created larger multirotor airframes, controllers, gimbals, and componentry to satisfy the growing market for high-end aerial photography and cinematography.  On these machines, users can mount their favorite (and heavy) Sony, Canon, and Panasonic DSLR – and even Red Epics. However, these drones do not arrive ready-to-fly (RTF).  They require considerable assembly to get operational.  This left the door open for savvy resellers like Aerial Media Pros, DSLR Pros, and Quadrocopter to do that work and offer high-margin RTF packages.  Besides video and cinematography, these packages are used for the following photo applications:

  • REAL ESTATE – showcase homes, marquee properties, commercial buildings, and structures
  • LEGAL – support forensic investigations, insurance claims, and property assessments
  • CONSTRUCTION – progress reporting for commercial, residential, and civil engineering
  • LAND – landscape architecture, land development, and research

I think DJI correctly assessed the entry level and high-end camera drone markets and recognized the middle was open.  Why not offer a better turnkey package that satisfies the demands of professionals but does not cannibalize their own high-end products?

The camera

For professional photographers and videographers, it’s not about the drone; it’s about the camera. The drone is just an extension of their reach. It’s a camera platform, a flying dolly, a zooming boom, a tripod in the sky.  Mounted on a drone, a camera becomes a tool for better storytelling, and its unique aerial perspective broadens the possibilities for those stories and gives audiences a better sense of an object’s physical space and context to location. As a tool for this kind of storytelling, camera resolution matters.

But herein lies the rub for the Inspire 1 T600.  The drone has very high-end features, but the camera (see specs here) may not satisfy all intended professionals.  Clearly, 4K video meets the needs of a large population of aerial videographers, but 12-megapixel still photos will not meet the needs of aerial photographers involved in supplying images for the applications listed above.  It will if the image is destined only for the web, but not if it’s used in print (think real estate brochures) or detailed investigative work (like construction exploration, legal investigations, and land surveying).

Two factors are unknown about the T600’s camera at this point: the resolving power of the lens and the dynamic range / image noise.  These two issues matter greatly to photography professionals, who will surely scrutinize and vet these over social media.  No doubt comparisons will be made between cameras of all types – including the one on the less expensive Phantom 2 Vision+.  On the surface it looks like DJI may have got the lens right.  Apparently gone is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ wide-angle distortion that professional photographers and videographers had to correct post production (same problem with GoPro).  Low light sensitivity and noise is TBD.

The upgrade?

It’s hard for me to believe DJI didn’t know that still image resolution didn’t matter for the target market and it’s quite plausible that a better or different camera is coming.  And it should!  I have talked to several existing Phantom owners who are professional photographers and many say they’ll wait to buy one when a better / more versatile camera is available.  As DJI explained at its press launch, the Inspire 1’s gimbal and camera system is “modular and upgradable.”  That’s important if the company wants to keep up with professionals who demand ever better sensor and image processors.  Whatever the reason, it’s paramount that DJI get this right – especially if it wants to provision other commercial markets like GIS where the camera’s still resolution is king.

While the $2,900 price point is set right for a mid-tier turnkey camera drone system, it seems the camera spec is too skinny and the price just high enough to create a barrier for some existing customers, especially those who are professional photographers.

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to comment or write me at

This post also appears in sUAS News ‘Multirotor‘ section.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Film or Farm: Which is the Bigger Drone Market? – Part 1

This is Part 1 in a two-part series that summarizes my views on why video/film/cinema – not agriculture and farming — will be the largest driver of sUAS commercial businesses. In this part I explore thoughts on the market for video/film/cinema, and below I outline why I believe film and video will lead in market uptake. In Part 2 I’ll outline why I believe agriculture will lag in market uptake.

A total economic impact of $13.6 billion and 70,000 new jobs in the first three years. That’s the forecast for what drones will bring to the U.S. once regulations are in place, according to a March 2013 market study produced by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The report entitled “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States,” goes on to say that precision agriculture and public safety will make up more than 90% of this growth. Most important, the report confidently states, “…the commercial agriculture market is by far the largest segment, dwarfing all others.”

These figures get repeated over and over again in the media and across the blogosphere.  Existing players and potential new entrants in the UAV market are betting their business futures – and in some cases their entire family’s income and savings – on them.  Everybody wants in on the action.  But are the media, blogosphere, and AUVSI reports correct? I have some serious doubt. Here’s why:  The numbers from my recent study on the impact of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules on the small UAS business say aerial photography and cinema – not agriculture –dominate the other vertical markets and will continue to do so for some time. This two-part post looks at those two industries – film making and agriculture – and attempts to separate market forecast hype from the reality by looking at detailed numbers, market forces, and the specific applications themselves.

“Survey says…”

Validated respondents to my survey represent principals and employees at sUAS companies whose annual revenues span from US$100,000 to more than US$10 million. Every significant market vertical is represented. Survey participants were required to identify their primary commercial service offering. The results appear in the table below.

Primary Service or Product Response Percent
Aerial Photography / Video & Cinematography / Movie /TV 41%
Sales of sUAS aircraft and/or technology 11%
Agriculture / Farming Services 8%
Mapping / Topography / Geospacial / Photogrammetry 5%
Education and Training 5%
Consulting 4%
Data Aggregation or Analytic Services 3%
First Responder Service (Police, Fire, or Medical) 3%
Utilities 2%
Scientific Research 2%
Construction 2%
All Others 13%


Clearly, the dominant service offering is aerial photography / video / cinematography / movie/ TV (41%). Only eight percent of participants identified themselves as offering or wanting to offer agriculture / farming services.

When viewed through the lens of each service provider type, this data offers some interesting insights. For example, the largest group of service providers, aerial photography and cinematography, have current revenues that spread across the whole range (from zero to over $1 million). In fact, several reported revenue over $10 million, a figure no other group – including agriculture – reported. Clearly current UAS market activity runs contrary to the AUVSI forecast.

Money talks

Drone regulation was among many issues the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) lobbied on in 2012 and 2013, at a total cost of $4.11 million.  According to this report, the MPAA has been constantly appealing to the FAA to let them use smaller drones for film-making purposes. If you follow the market dynamics and technical advancements of the TV and film industry, the push by the MPAA for sUAS makes sense. High-end digital cameras and computer-generated imagery (CGI) effects have drastically reduced film-making costs, and have been delivering scenes that weren’t possible before. Even so, the industry is striving for more technological enhancements every day because audiences expect to see something new and spectacular in each new film. The longstanding arms race in Hollywood among studios vying to deliver the most eye-popping shots and special effects continues unabated.

Drone cinematography is now the new kid on the Hollywood block. A drone costing just a few thousand dollars can deliver high wow-factor shots that were impossible to get before, or could only be captured using expensive cranes, stabilizing equipment, and a manned helicopter. The average TV or movie audience member generally doesn’t realize how much of a production is actually shot by a drone, but the astute viewer can already see drone footage being used everywhere in popular TV shows and movies (sorry FAA).  A growing share of Hollywood blockbusters and TV programming involve UAS footage – Oblivion, Man Of Steel, The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises – to name a few. Perhaps the most famous is this scene from the James Bond movie Skyfall:

Drone cinematography is still in its embryonic stage. Multirotor drones that hold cinematography-grade cameras have only a range of up to a mile, and their battery only lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. Still, they give filmmakers a definitive edge over traditional methods. Drones allow directors to pull off mind-boggling, acrobatic camera stunts that would otherwise have been possible only through CGI or maybe not at all. This incredible sense of power and cost savings are the reasons many filmmakers continue to lobby for the commercial use of drones and one of the reason why my research finds this market the largest.  Case in point. The FAA just announced on June 2nd that seven aerial photo and video production companies (not any farming or precision agriculture companies) have requested regulatory exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which would approve commercial drone operations for TV and motion picture work. This is the first industry to do so on such a scale.  While beyond the scope of this post, the photojournalism industry is another major force lobbying for drone usage, based on similar logic; getting the shot that keeps the audience riveted to the screen while ridding themselves of the enormous cost of operating manned helicopters.

Photography & Video – Film’s nearest cousins

When you look at the ‘film’ market for drones, there is no clear way to delineate film from video from photography.  Aerial photography and video platforms are mostly the same and vary mainly in size, camera-carrying capacity, and technical capabilities that result in each platform being best suited for a certain grade of user (ranging from hobbyist to professional videographer). As I have written in The Democratization of Aerial Photography, technical and financial barriers to entry into the aerial photography, video and film services market are low, so it makes sense there are more players now and there will be more in the future. If a lightweight US$400 GoPro camera can shoot cinematography grade 4K video, and you only need US$1200 to get it up in the air with a small drone, and you can charge a US$1000-$2000 day rate for its use, and audiences are enamored of the resulting images, then it’s no wonder this market is exploding. Besides film and TV, here are some other aerial photography and video-related applications:

  • REAL ESTATE – showcase homes, marquee properties, commercial buildings, and structures
  • LEGAL – support forensic investigations, insurance claims, and property assessments
  • CONSTRUCTION – progress reporting for commercial, residential, and civil engineering
  • LAND – landscape architecture, land development, and research
  • SPORTS – player and team position analysis

That’s my argument for why I believe aerial cinematography / videography / photography will dominate the early sUAS business market.  To put a bow around it all:

  • Studios and audience are enamored of the footage / images that can be captured by drones, so there is clear demand for the final product that drones can create.
  • The financial and technical barriers to entry are low for many applications, making it easy for businesses to begin offering sUAS-based film and photography services.
  • Where the technical and financial barriers are higher (for example, studio quality film production) a technically astute and well capitalized film production industry is eager to get their hands on new technology like drones.
  • A lot of filming occurs in a tightly controlled environment on private property, where safety can be ensured and where a compelling case can be made for regulatory exemptions.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll make my case for why I don’t think farming and agriculture is largest market. Later I’ll be releasing some research in conjunction with Aironovo Advisors on the economics of UAS in agriculture. As always, I’m interested to hear what you think—share your thoughts in the comments below or contact me

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Democratization of Aerial Photography

From earliest times, humans have held a fascination with the “bird’s eye” view from above. Therefore it’s not surprising that, not long after the invention of photography, pioneers began to turn their attention to the aerial view.

The first to successfully accomplish this feat was Gaspar Felix Tournachon or “Nadar” in 1858 when he photographed the houses of the French village of Petit-Becetre from a balloon tethered at a height of 80 meters. In the years that followed, that craft benefited from advancements in aircraft, rocket, camera, and film technology. But even as image resolution and coverage improved, the craft of aerial photography remained specialized and only in the hands of those who knew how to aggregate expensive technology – if you will an oligarchy.

Fast forward to 2014, and here we are in a time when just about anybody can do it. All you need is $1,200 US, and you can buy a small ready-to-fly remote control (RC) drone like this one with a high-quality digital camera affixed to it. Turn it on, put it into the air and, viola!, you’re an aerial photographer.

This radical development came from the convergence of two technological advancements:

  1. smaller lightweight higher resolution consumer cameras, and
  2. more reliable and durable multirotor RC helicopters.

I call this convergence the democratization of aerial photography, and in this post I discuss the advancements and implications.

Consumerization of professional cameras.  For years people associated certain types of cameras with professional photographers. For the most part professional cameras were something outside the reach of consumers, and too complex for them to want to use anyway. For example, the Nikon F4 35mm single-lens reflex film camera apparently looked butch enough to other people that they assumed its users were being paid to use it professionally. I know, I had one. And in the digital age the same is true. Most DSLR cameras look exactly like their older film counterparts – even though they don’t always need to from a technical standpoint. Notwithstanding, lens and camera specifications do matter. A better image sensor and a better lens means a better picture.

Still, despite form factor differences between professional cameras and consumer cameras, they have become homogenized in many ways. Consumer cameras are lightweight and compact. You get a camera and lens in one unit that allows you to “point-and-shoot”.  Problem is these cameras now produce the same great images as larger ones do – as does this one. And for professionals not only has the price of DSLRs come down into consumer range, but the addition of automatic scene modes and programming capability has effectively transformed the DSLR into a high-quality point-and-shoot device (with more advanced modes still available if you want to use them).

Enter the GoPro and the culture of ‘Good-Enough’.  While professional-grade cameras are without question exceptional, some point-and-shoot cameras now produce images suitable for professionals. Take for example the GoPro HERO camera. It started out as a consumer camera. But in only a matter of five years it has become the staple of professional camera crews around the world. From NASCAR racing to Felix Baumgartner’s incredible space jump, the wide-angle, first-person view offered by a GoPro has become a popular filming technique. Consumers love the camera too. They are lightweight and easy to use. You simply turn it on, press record, and out comes great high-definition imagery.

At first, professional photographers bristled at GoPro images. Who wants to see a video or a still shot with a lot of wide-angle distortion?  After all, the profession’s most cherished value-added service is to remove those anomalies so the customer gets clean, realistic looking imagery. But who cares anymore? It seems consumers don’t. Apparently, we are all anesthetized by the distortion defect (our eyes don’t see real life that way) as witnessed by the 15.4 million GoPro videos on YouTube. So, it is in once sense odd, but it must be acceptable.

Apply this same sensibility to photographs, and you can see where we have another problem. With the huge growth in smartphone-captured photos, we have adjusted to seeing (mostly) lower quality pictures rather than studio-quality images. Have we gotten so used to these images and their flaws that we now cannot see beyond that? And if my new phone comes with a near professional grade camera, why do I need a professional to take photographs – especially if all I do is upload them to Instagram and share them with the world? (Heck – even professionals do that.)

It may be that we are now the culture of ‘Good Enough’ and have numbed ourselves such that we no longer recognize or appreciate the value of a good-quality image. I suspect this regression applies to aerials shots as well, as witnessed by the growth in popularity of  Dronestragram.

Democratization of drones. A few years ago, remote-control multirotor helicopters were only the purview of hobbyists and makers – another oligarchy. Almost all drones come from a model aircraft background (for that matter ALL of aviation did) – and, because they were model aircraft, newbie’s wanting to join the drone revolution were required to climb a steep learning curve. Back then (only four years ago!) you had to become an expert on multiple topics – like electronics, hardware, assembly, remote control radio, flight control programming – to build and fly a drone. As the revolution began to take hold, specialized on-line global forums like RC Groups and DIY Drones flourished and droning went viral as the community cross-breed innovations.

In some ways droning was – and still may be – the Wild West.  Here’s what Bart, founder of MultiRotorForums, says in his welcome to the forum post:

“I’m writing to tell you, for all the great success you may see going on around you, multi-rotor helicopters don’t assemble themselves and there are a lot of challenges that come up well after you click the first two parts together. Before you buy, before you send [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][sic] a dime, keep in mind that these things don’t assemble themselves. Even an RTF (Ready to Fly) will become a do-it-yourself project the second you crash…”

You can read for yourself the crash and fly-away war stories on any of these forums and appreciate his words. Still, if you spend a lot of money for a drone or drone kit, it shouldn’t be money lost. The manufacturers get this. In the past four years there have been significant advancements made by companies like  DJI and 3DRobotics to improve product reliability and lower the overall learning curve such that savvy consumers can now use them. As I write here, RTFs with automated flight planning software are becoming commonplace. Nonetheless, as Bart goes on to say “…there is still a fair amount of good decision making to be done in the process of making any of them fly.”

When camera meets drone. Take a look at this latest promotional video from DJI to see what I mean when I say we are now in the age of the democratization of aerial photography. As the video alludes, taking to the sky and doing aerial photography is as simple as a motorcycle ride down a country road, It’s “fly-and-shoot” (it isn’t, but you get the point). Ready-to-fly drones like the Phantom 2 Vision and 3DR IRIS have made it possible for consumers to conduct low-altitude aerial photography at low cost. And the quality is so good that professionals like Philip Bloom use them. Even Adobe has gotten into the act. They have a Creative Cloud instructional workflow specifically for drone / GoPro users. Notwithstanding local governance on commercial use, what more do you need? The drone is cheap. The camera is cheap. The correction software is cheap.

Now I am not recommending these products, but I share all this to make a point. Advances in drones – especially multirotors – have made them the platform of choice for aerial photography. Their ubiquity has lowered the barrier-to-entry for aerial work like real-estate advertising, where a bird’s-eye view of commercial or residential properties is valued.  And so, the question now becomes: why do you need a professional when you can do it yourself?

Feel free to comment with your answer and thoughts.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia Commons – Brooklyn Museum[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]