The consumer drone industry is at an interesting point in its evolution in 2017. It’s hardly a crossroads, but there’s certainly been a slowdown of sorts over the last twelve months. On the one hand, the market for recreational sales continues to grow, but on the other, a number of major manufacturers, including GoPro, Ehang, Yuneec, Parrot and 3D Robotics, have had to cut staff after failing to meet expected sales targets.
In part this is down to the continued domination of DJI, but there’s also a general rise in competition, as well as the sense – especially with the likes of 3DR, Ehang, Yuneec and Parrot – that the consumer industry isn’t worth the effort required while the commercial sector has significantly more potential.
It’s likely that DJI’s continued progress, aggressive pricing, unflinching cannibalization and product superiority will heap more pressure on its rivals this year. But what can we expect in return from the major contenders and the new kids on the block in 2017? Who will make it out of this year in one piece?
Perhaps better known for its ambitious passenger drone plans, Ehang is another Chinese manufacturer trying to take a slice of the consumer industry.
While the futuristic 184 continues to make headlines around the world, 2016 was mixed for Ehang on the consumer side.
Its Ghostdrone 2.0 has received a mixed reception, although on the face of it the range offers good value for money and some interesting technical features. Interestingly, the biggest selling point of Ehang’s consumer models is probably nothing to do with the drones themselves. Instead, the company offers an unparalleled level of customer service element, which culminates in a ‘You Break It We Fix It’ one year warranty.
The Ghostdrone 2.0 seemed to be a case of Ehang trying to incorporate too much into a single product and suffering as a result. Complete smartphone control, gesture recognition, VR piloting… the list goes on. And they are now selling for half the release price from April 2016.
So what’s in store for 2017? Ehang’s next consumer drone, if there is one, would do well to be simplified and more focused. With customer service arguably DJI’s biggest weakness, Ehang’s unrivalled warranty combined with a workable, value-for-money alternative could be enough to increase its market share.
Yuneec is an interesting drone company to delve into. Despite laying off a large number of its US staff, it appears to have everything in place to effectively challenge DJI across the consumer market. The high-powered, highly-respected Typhoon H could be due an upgrade in 2017, while the company’s continued use of Intel’s RealSense technology puts it on the cutting edge of innovation.
The Yuneec Breeze also suggests that the company is keen to target the cheaper mass market, which is arguably 1. the fastest growing and 2. the one area DJI is yet to dive into.
We don’t really know what to expect from Parrot in 2017. The French tech company was responsible the first recognized consumer drone back in 2010, but it’s struggled to keep up with challengers from Asia and the US since then.
After announcing lower profits than expected, Parrot, like many consumer manufacturers, has started to focus more on the commercial side of the drone industry. Its Bebop range is being increasingly challenged by emerging mass market manufacturers and its Disco drone is perhaps a bit too niche, despite it being an incredible piece of engineering.
We expect there to be some new consumer releases from Parrot this year, whether that’s an upgraded Bebop drone that looks to dominate the beginner level sector, or a new Disco that is more accessible to drone enthusiasts.
Where to start with GoPro? The company’s shambolic Karma release has hit hard, with profit warnings and job cuts offering a sudden, dramatic insight into the ruthlessness of the drone industry.
But all is not lost for GoPro going into 2017. Sure, it has a lot of work to do to regain the trust of drone pilots. But that’s not impossible. If the company can learn and build on the mistakes of the past, there’s still an opportunity in the market for a foldable, modular drone that appeals to action cam and adventure enthusiasts.
Might we see a GoPro Karma 2 towards the end of 2017?
New Kids on The Block
The first time many pilots will have heard from Autel will have been toward the end of 2016, when it emerged that the company was being sued by DJI for a patent infringement. And it’s easy to see why. Autel’s range of consumer drones look suspiciously like DJI Phantoms. Unless you get a bright orange X-Star Premium, like in the video below.
2017 will be an interesting year for Autel. On the one hand, its latest drone, the X-Star Premium, undercuts the latest offerings from its prosumer rivals while providing similar specs. But on the other, it still faces competition from DJI’s cannibalized Phantom range, with plenty of top-quality Phantom 4s and 3s still available for sale.
But the company has three things on its side. First is customer service. With a US-based customer service team, it should have no issues handling queries and dealing with customers far more efficiently than DJI has a reputation for.
Second is modularity. Autel’s latest drone has been designed to be upgraded in the coming years, which could be a key factor for pilots put off by DJI’s relentless (and expensive) product releases.
The third is interesting promotions, such as Autel’s announcement back in August 2016 that it would pay for its buyers Part 107 tests.
Hover is representative of an emerging sector in the drone industry. It’s targeted at selfie lovers, not people who want to fly for professional photography. Because of that, its genius is more in portability and stealth than features and power.
However, $599 makes it a very expensive selfie camera, even if it does fly and give you a few more angles to upload to social media.
With the price as it stands, it’s difficult to see Hover taking a huge chunk of the market away from Yuneec’s Breeze or even DJI’s older models. Having said that, as the price inevitably begins to fall the longer 2017 goes on, it might become a realistic option for the seflie obsessed.
We might even see a new iteration released later this year, just as has happened with Dobby, another selfie drone.
Way Out in Front in 2017
If 2016 was anything to go by, we can expect continued dominance and several major releases from DJI this year. It’s likely that 2016’s launches of the Phantom 4, Mavic, Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2 won’t be enough. The question is, can DJI keep releasing products at this kind of rate while still offering value for money to customers?
And will its customer base be willing to accept minor iterations of the same concepts every year? In many ways it doesn’t matter for DJI. As long as it continues to release new consumer drones around the $1,000 mark, its old models will slide down the market and still represent strong value for money against new rivals.
The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but there’s no doubt that DJI is an as strong a position as it could wish for at this stage in the industry’s evolution.
Malek Murison is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for tech trends and innovation.