This year at both CES and NAB, drones were the hottest topic and could be seen on display in every show hall. Just a year ago there were only a handful of them at either show. So it is obvious that the consumer drone market has grown quickly, and is starting to disrupt the markets that they will be used in professionally. Spaces like Broadcasting, Agriculture, Resource management, Logistics and analytics, Facilities operations, and Science are being affected in different ways already. This is the NAB Show so lets talk about the broadcasting aspects of this aerial technology what the future looks like. Broadcasting has had all the features that are being built into drones for use on the ground. The technologies like gimbals and remotely operated mechanical cameras have been around for a very long time. Helicopters have stabilized remote controlled gimbals with FPV. Even the new streaming features being sold in drones has its roots in the Broadcasting industry. Very little of drone technology is new, but it is rebuilt from the ground up to be smaller, lighter and cheaper.
In the drone world we have two varieties of products. We have consumer drones and professional drones. Prices range from $1000- $3000 on the consumer side, while the professional models range form that same $3000 dollar model to well over $50,000 for ones that can carry a Red Epic. Those two worlds already crossed over last year when DJI released the Inspire 1 platform. That drone is used by professionals and consumers alike. The quality and reliability of it were proven during a live national broadcast from Iceland. Eric Cheng and Ferdinand Wolf flew two Inspire 1’s over an active volcano from a great distance away. The fact that it was done during the harsh unpredictable Icelandic winter was a feat in itself, but to have both drones, and a prototype Phantom 3 make the trip and return home was an incredible show of reliability. The broadcasted imagery was better quality than most people expected, and looked as good as anything else I saw on TV that day.
So since we have both the Pro and Consumer variations of these technologies already in existence, and they are not made by the same companies, which group, the broadcasting OEM’s or the Drone OEM’s, will bridge the gap of price and quality? Right now it looks like companies such as DJI and 3DR are innovating the next level of broadcasting equipment and could soon start taking business from their broadcasting OEM counterparts. Many broadcasting technicians here have asked me about the HD FPV stuff we are doing, and they cannot believe the prices are so low. The first remark is usually one asking about reliability and then they figure out that you could buy 10 of these cheaper systems that have almost the same specs for the price of one from their normal sources. The realization that this has all happened in less than one year is mind boggling. Last August, I worked with Eric Cheng to do a proof of concept for their Lightbridge HD transmission system which had just been released. Now there are quite a few drones with this ability either built in or on the way soon. Before lightbridge was made, HD transmission technology was advancing very slowly. Now that there is a cheap alternative the game has changed and the broadcast quality OEM strategy will need to be rethought. I talked to several of the companies working on HD transmissions and they all admitted that it will affect their business.
What should we expect to see happen in this realm over the next two years? Well, I think we will see cheaper HD transmission technologies emerge soon. 4K is the level of resolution that will be sorted out and I would expect to see that come to the prototype stage in under 2 years. The normal cycle of hardware is 18-36 months. In that time we have seen drone technology outpace broadcast technology by a wide margin. The drone OEM hardware cycle is speeding up and now sits at around 9-12 months, I am not sure that a well made product can be delivered in less time, but not all drones are well made products. The future of commercial drone use being legal looks to be coming in the next year or so. The FAA will drag its heels as usual and then there might even be some comments by the FCC as these broadcasting technologies are growing so fast. Production companies are already using these setups even though the laws are in limbo. Expect to see 360 VR and better camera lens combinations to be showing up on drones before the 4K as those technologies are already beyond the prototype stage. Other features for broadcasting that are in testing or already launched are collision avoidance, 3D modeling,. mapping, camera and lens options.
The NAB show was a great barometer to see how far we have come in just 3 months, since CES. During the last week we have had 2 new drone models announced and start pre sales, DJI’s Phantom 3 and 3DR’s Solo. Several of the largest consumer drone OEM’s from CES, showed up at NAB like DJI, 3DR and Walkera. While they were popular booths, this show really highlighted many of the heavy lift drone makers that can carry large cameras. Groups like Freefly Alta, Skyhighmedia Monster, DJI S1000, Aerialtronics Altura, and XFold all were all being showcased at the NAB show. These groups are spearheading the ability to carry heavy loads and sophisticated video cameras. Broadcasters and filmmakers are the customer for these amazing beasts.
The next technology to watch for on drones will be the 360 VR abilities you are seeing now from groups like 360 labs and 360 Heros. They use 6 or more GoPro cameras mounted in a ball shape to record 360 degree video. The 6 or more separate videos are then stitched together and presented in a virtual reality form that allows you to look around all 360 degrees while the video is playing. In most cases, goggles or other viewing devices like a tablet or phone, actually control the direction you are looking at the video. Drone manufacturers are working on different versions of this technology using their own cameras and lenses. The form may not be settled but we will see some type of 360 degree video option soon for consumer drones.
imagery and article copyright 2015 by George Krieger – firstname.lastname@example.org
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