RJI@CES 2020: Drone makers roll out alternatives to DJI for news flights
Nearly every drone in most newsroom bears the DJI nameplate, but several drone companies on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas are making the case drone journalists should make a switch.
Drone Industry Insights, an industry information company, reported in 2019 that DJI holds more than 76 percent of the U.S. drone market. Yet nearly a dozen drone manufacturers positioned near DJI at CES hope their latest aircraft offerings can take a bite out of that sizeable market lead.
Micro Drone 4.0
Chris Burgin of Extreme Fliers has a small booth with just one product to show, the Micro Drone 4.0. This palm-sized drone offers 1080p video, tracking features and smartphone control—all at a lower weight and half the price of its DJI counterpart, the Mavic Mini. “They’ve got 50 products. We’ve got one,” Burgin said. “We can focus and we can move a lot quicker than the committees that they have in that business.”
Does Burgin’s strategy pay off for newsrooms? The Micro Drone 4.0 won’t be an everyday aircraft for any of us. But as I noted with the launch of the Mavic Mini late last year, having a cheap, pocket-sized drone on the street with all of a newsroom’s journalists might make economic and competitive sense.
The Micro Drone 4.0 is a pretty basic platform, good enough to produce broadcast or web-quality images. The biggest limitation is the range. It will only travel about 700 feet from a pilot using a controller and less if flown using just a smartphone. But a price tag under $200 might make buying one of these for a trial worth a shot. Right now, the drone is only available to backers through Indiegogo. Full retail sales through retailers such as B & H Photo-Video is expected soon, which Burgin also sees as a plus over DJI because it offers a better margin.
Also located near DJI at CES is PowerVision, the makers of the new PowerEgg Autonomous Personal AI-Camera, a convertible drone that has a waterproof housing option that lets it fly in the rain. PowerVision spokesman Keith James sees greater utility as the key for his company’s competition. “A lot of our pilots are really excited they can fly in inclement weather,” James said. “Because some of the best photography is before it rains, after it rains and they don’t have to hurry and leave.” The PowerEgg is one of a number of models offering rain and weather resistance at the show this year, so PowerVision isn’t selling that feature as its only plus.
The company hopes the convertibility will win over consumers.
“The goal of making it more all-in-one is to broaden the market where you can have more than just once a week, once a month using your drone or store it away in the closet,” James said. “Now you can take it to a soccer game and record then.” That statement clearly targets consumer and not professional users, but the strategy could appeal to newsrooms.
In its non-drone form, the egg-shaped device is a small, handheld camera with impressive stabilization and tracking capabilities. One again, putting these in the hands of as many journalists as possible would mean higher quality images from the street and the air.
The specs are more impressive here than on the Micro Drone 4.0. The PowerEgg sports a 12-megapixel camera with a 27 mm-equivalent lens that delivers 4K video at 24 to 60 frames per second recording in H.264, H.265 or MPEG-4 AVC modes. It has a maximum flight speed of 40 mph with an average 30-minute flight time. For all these additional features, the price is steeper than the Micro Drone 4.0, with the drone alone costing $899. Add the waterproof housing and pontoons and it jumps to $1,249.
SwellPro SplashDrone 3+
Still in the fully waterproof drone market, the SwellPro SplashDrone 3+ hopes its amphibious design can take a corner of the market DJI can’t come close to touching. “We target a different market. We target to fishing, to rescue, to the photographers who ask for waterproof (drones),” said Joyin Zou, a sales consultant for SwellPro.
I wrote about this drone in a previous article on RJIOnline.org, but a quick review of this model shows it is unlike any other on the market. Fully waterproof up to about two feet deep in fresh or saltwater, the drone can right itself if it lands upside down in the water and take off again. Add the GC3 waterproof camera that hangs below the drone, and a pilot can skim along the top of the water, still flying, while dragging the camera below the surface for impressive underwater stills and video.
Aside from the larger SplashDrone 3+, SwellPro has a smaller Spry+ model that uses an integrated camera that doesn’t shoot below the surface, but offers a waterproof controller, too, allowing pilots to use the drone while swimming or surfing. The specs on both drones compare to the PowerEgg drone mentioned above, with the SplashDrone 3+ listing at $1,199 and the Spry+ selling for $987.
The most sophisticated non-DJI drones at CES came from two companies, Autel Robotics and XDynamics.
Autel arrived at CES with a new version of its main drone workhorse, the EVO II drone. The EVO II is surprisingly heavy in the hand, giving it a sturdier feeling than the DJI drones. That weight is even more surprising when you learn the drone boasts an excellent flight time. “We have a 40-minute flight time, so a longer flight time. And nine kilometers of range,” said Greg Mares, a spokesperson for Autel Robotics. That’s a longer flight time than any other drone of its size at the show and a big benefit for news assignments. The drone sets itself apart from others on the floor with a standard 8K camera that offers 48-megapixel still images. Both of these capabilities are far above the need of broadcast or standard publication, but show the manufacturer is looking to put some distance between itself and the competition from DJI.
Autel is actually launching three models of the EVO II: the base model, the Pro model, which sports a 6K camera with a larger sensor and the Dual model that combines a thermal sensor with the 8K camera and is aimed largely at first responders and those who fly for inspection purposes. The official price for the EVO II wasn’t available in time for CES, but Mares said it would run $1,495 for the 8K standard model, with the Pro model selling for $1,795.
For me, the most exciting competitor for DJI at the show is Hong Kong-based XDynamics.
A relative newcomer to the drone market, having entered the field in 2015, XDynamics’ drone offering at CES had the most impressive specifications—and looks—on the show floor. The Evolve 2 drone (which does not yet have full specs online) has the appearance of a bird of prey—and that’s no accident. Maury Covington, Jr., an executive in product development at XDynamics, said the designers of the Evolve 2 drone looked at peregrine falcons to develop its swept-wing design.
The most advanced non-DJI drone at CES, the aircraft’s most impressive features are a water-resistant design, 33-minute flight time, a durable construction and a controller that has dual screens to eliminate the need for a pilot to use a personal phone or tablet.
“Everyone else uses a phone,” Covington said. “So we eliminated the phone. That’s got your personal information on it. You might get a text. You might get a call, (or the) battery’s running out on you.” The controller also allows external antenna connections, extending the drones flying range up to 11 kilometers.
The drone’s durability is a major selling point for journalism work. It has an all-in-one carbon fiber chassis that not only keeps moisture out, but is built to withstand impacts. “We’ve done crash tests with these—purposefully—where they hit the ground, do a cartwheel through the air,” Covington said. “They’re really scuffed up. You’re going to lose the legs, maybe. But you’re not going to break an arm. No other company can boast that.”
In terms of its camera, the Evolve 2 carries a Micro Four Thirds-based, 12-megapixel camera system that allows pilots to swap out the included stock lens with any MFT lens. The camera shoots in 4K with frame rates up to 120 fps and records in H.264, H.265 or Apple ProRes for the highest video quality, using SD or CFast cards.
While the drone is clearly designed to compete with DJI’s professional-grade Inspire 2 model, it comes in a much smaller package. “It does what an Inspire does, but it’s smaller and you can get it on a plane,” Covington said. “(The) set-up time is a lot faster.” The drone includes a carry-on-sized hard case that holds everything safely for travel. The Evolve 2 is about 14 inches long, 18 inches wide and 10 inches tall. Compare that to DJI’s Inspire 2 which measures 17 inches long, 17 inches wide (plus propellers) and more than 12 inches tall.
All these features and impressive looks come at a price. The Evolve 2 will hit the market this spring selling for about $3,700, far more than the other drones listed in this review, but competitive with some of the lower-end Inspire 2 configurations.
It was clear walking the floor at CES that DJI is not the only option for journalists who want to add a drone to their toolbox. These competitors are realistic in their approach to taking on the drone giant. But they’re also optimistic, hoping consumers will see there are features on the market now DJI still can’t touch.