2018 was an interesting year in the consumer drone industry. DJI reinforced its domination at both ends of the market with the Mavic Air and the new Mavic 2 Pro; Parrot launched a solid contender in the shape of ANAFI, despite cutting its workforce after disappointing sales. And, of course, Skydio’s R1 finally hit the market to much acclaim.
So what could 2019 bring? Will we see more of the same? What surprises could be around the corner? Here are a few predictions for the coming year.
More barriers to recreational entry?
2019 is the year that regulations will begin to catch up to the advances drone technology has made in a few short years.
Registration for recreational pilots has been an ongoing issue in the US. But in the UK and Australia, registration and safety tests are set to become mandatory for hobbyists. This is part of an effort to increase accountability and improve the general awareness around what drone pilots can and cannot do.
It’s hard to say how these new laws will impact sales and the number of pilots out there. On the one hand, these new rules are another barrier to entry, particularly if they include age restrictions and tar all pilots with the same brush: that their hobby is dangerous, a nuisance and something that needs to be better regulated.
On the other, tighter rules could serve to lessen media hysteria when a drone is involved in an incident. This would put the emphasis on the pilots at fault rather than the technology as a whole, which can only be a good thing.
However, should unfair new rules be introduced in light of the Gatwick airport fiasco, for example, it would be hard to avoid the feeling that regulators are attempting to appease the public rather than educate them.
After all, existing laws already make dangerous and disruptive behaviour behind the controls illegal. It’s a case of enforcing those measures, something that technologies such as Remote ID could help with.
Drone regulation will continue to be a delicate balancing act. Particularly as the pathway from recreational to professional pilot is so well trodden. Not to mention the money raised through consumer sales supporting the important work of DJI Enterprise, for example.
Smaller and more portable
When the original Mavic Pro entered the market, it was a sign of things to come: A shift toward smaller drones with adequate battery life, small form factors and plenty of built-in technology. Then came the Mavic Air and the Spark. And after, the new Mavic Pro 2.
DJI’s drones could continue to grow more compact as part of a wider trend in which manufacturers increasingly streamline their ranges.
After all, if you can pack a fantastic camera, leading obstacle avoidance technology and portability into the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom, why would you choose to create bulkier models for the recreational market?
This could be the reason why we won’t see the long-awaited DJI Phantom 5 in 2019 or any time soon. It’s not immediately clear who it would be for and why it would be preferable – flight time aside – versus the improved Mavic range.
Traditionally the reasons to go for a Phantom have been about power, camera quality and safety features. But the margins between the two have been shrinking as the Mavic range catches up.
The line between professional and consumer drone is going to become increasingly blurred as capabilities are shared throughout both ranges. So expect more of the same in 2019.
Weather-proof consumer drones?
It’s well known that manufacturers such as Apple like to hold back on putting developed technologies into new products and instead iterate at a deliberately steady pace. That philosophy has been a successful part of the hype cycle of smartphones and a major driver in the annual race to grab the latest model.
But drones are expensive and not yet offered as part of long-term monthly contracts. They are also not the kind of thing you want to be replacing every year or 18 months. Which is why the choice from several drone manufacturers to iterate as well as transform has been interesting to watch in recent years.
No doubt the decision is supported by the fact that drones, unlike phones, are yet to reach peak adoption. There are also technical limitations at play, so manufacturers can afford to make steady changes rather than drastic ones.
But maybe 2019 will be the year that we see major progress for recreational pilots in the realms of computer vision, battery life or, as we are predicting today, weather-proofing.
Skydio and, to a lesser extent the new Hover 2 drone, have shown that computer vision can do more than obstacle recognition. So maybe it’s time for DJI and other manufacturers to bring weather-proofing tech traditionally reserved for enterprise drones into the mainstream.
Currently, recreational pilots are grounded in wet conditions, see their battery life suffer in the cold and are restricted by heavy winds. 2018 cemented progress in portability, computer vision and camera technology. Maybe 2019 will show us how all-action and all-weather aerial photography can really be.
DJI’s stranglehold will tighten
Watching DJI continue to innovate and push out exciting new drones – not to mention a range of other photography equipment and camera tech – is a thrill.
But there’s also a sense that it’s not ideal for the industry. DJI has already cemented its position as the go-to platform provider for recreational and professional pilots. There’s no reason to think that is going to change anytime soon.
And competitors continue to struggle by the wayside. Towards the end of 2018, Parrot announced personnel cuts amid lower sales than expected and a contraction of the consumer market. Yuneec and Autel have fallen away. GoPro is gone. Skydio is still out of the reach of your average Joe, despite recent price cuts.
All of which makes it difficult to imagine anything other than more DJI domination. Luckily the Chinese manufacturer is at the top for a reason: They produce industry-leading products for reasonable prices. But we can’t help but feel that competition would be healthy, so here’s hoping some new companies come to the fore in 2019.