Readers of the New Yorker magazine picked one word in 2012 they would like to see eliminated from the English language. That word was “moist,” and any drone pilot knows it’s a word that can make us cringe, too. The last thing we want is a moist, soggy or damp drone—any word that indicates it’s wet.
We all know that drones that get wet don’t fly—at least so we thought. But a number of manufacturers at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) are teaching drone pilots a lesson about just how wet a drone can get.
Even while working within FAA rules on weather conditions for flights, our drones can get caught in the rain or, worse yet, go for an unintended dunk in a river or lake. Unlike filmmakers, journalists work in conditions beyond their control, and the new generation of water-resistant drones should be a welcome addition to our fleets.
At the most basic level are new designs that create moisture resistance to give these drones a fighting chance to get out of the rain and back home before they stop flying. Top among these drones is the new Evolve 2 drone from XDynamics. Hitting the market this spring, the drone opts for a one-piece carbon fiber case that acts as a shield against the elements. It also sports closed-top motor housings that prevent water entry. The drone is not built for extended flights in the rain—there are air vents on the side that will take on water eventually, and the camera itself is not waterproof.
Other drone manufacturers had similar approaches. Manufacturer Autel Robotics, maker of the EVO line of drones, knows wet weather—it operates a North America office out of Seattle. While the new EVO II series touts wind resistance as its major strength—the drone is rated for 50 mph winds—it also can handle some rain and other moisture. The top of the drone and its motors are generally water resistant. The Achilles heel is once again an air vent system on the side of the drone. Greg Mares, a company spokesperson at CES, said pilots can cover the vents for short flights, but overheating can occur if they fly too long.
Two drones on display at CES have taken the next step up to being waterproof. Both models are attractive for journalists who work around large bodies of water where losing a drone is a real possibility.
The lesser of the two models is the PowerEgg X. I consider it the less attractive option for journalists because it tries to be too many things. PowerVision, the drone’s manufacturer, calls it a “autonomous personal AI-Camera.” What that boils down to is a smart camera that has Inspector Gadget-style add-ons to turn it into a waterproof drone. Its basic form is an egg-shaped camera with an impressive gimbal that can be used on a tripod or in one’s hand. Snap on the rotor arms and you have a drone ready to fly. Add on the waterproof housing and pontoons and your drone is now weatherproof and able to land on water. The manufacturer calls the waterproof option just part of the plan to expand the multipurpose nature of the camera. “When you get inclement weather, everybody puts their drones away,” said company spokesperson Keith James. “We had a lot of demand and customer feedback to develop (this),” James said.
The stronger of the two waterproof drones is SwellPro’s SplashDrone 3+, which the company claims is the world’s first waterproof drone. And “waterproof” might be an understatement: A video on display at the SwellPro booth showed the drone not only landing in the water and remaining in working order, but actually flipping right-side up and taking off again right out of the water.
SwellPro sales consultant Joyin Zou said “(we) barely have company making waterproof (drones), especially for consumers.” The drone is designed not only to float (careful, the controller—which looks like the same float material—is not), but the drone can also be submerged up to two feet deep for short periods of time. As with the other cameras, the one mounted here is fine for television or web video, delivering 4K video at 30 frames per second with a 16-megapixel camera. For those who want to take the camera a bit farther, the Splashdrone 3+ comes with an underwater attachment that allows the drone to fly at the surface of the water, dragging the camera underwater for a below-surface view.
Deep diving drones
That underwater view leads us to the final class of drones on display at CES 2020—true underwater drones. These are vehicles meant to record video entirely underwater. No fewer than five companies had underwater drones on display, designed to shoot video below the surface—sometimes with a rider tagging along. Admittedly, journalistic use of this sort of drone is pretty limited, though investigative work into decaying bridges or dam structures would be a great use.
The best of the bunch in my book is from the manufacturer Chasing, called “Dory.” The drone can go up to about 50 feet deep, controlled by your smartphone. Since most radio waves don’t travel underwater, the Dory (and the other underwater unmanned drones) use a cable tether to control it, communicating through a floating buoy.
PowerVision is in this market, too, with its PowerDolphin and PowerRay drones, both of which can record underwater footage in 4K resolution. The company is selling them mainly for the fishing industry, but the same journalistic uses mentioned above would apply here. And if you want to send a photographer down with your drone, there’s the Seabow from Sublue and the Biki from Robosea that consider themselves underwater photography platforms—like a drone on which you ride along. In the case of both of these underwater drones, since you’re along for the ride, there’s no external controller or cable needed, allowing the drone to go much farther. The pilot needs to be an accomplished diver if you plan to go more than a few feet deep, so keep that in mind before buying.
For pricing on these drones, the Evolve 2 drone tops the list at around $3,700, including a two-screen controller and innovative case. The EVO II was announced at the CES show and will run around $1,495 for the base model and accessories. The PowerEgg X sells for $899, but if you want to add the waterproof housing and pontoons, the price jumps to $1,249. The Splashdrone 3+ starts at $1199 for drone, controller and accessories. The Chasing Dory sells for $499 at B&H Photo-Video. The PowerDolphin starts at $799 while the PowerRay lists for $1,399, though it is on sale now for $999 on the company’s website. Finally, the Seabow sells for $999 while the Biki is not yet priced.