Camera-equipped drones are everywhere these days. You can see them on the weekends in San Francisco's Dolores Park, buzzing high up above picnickers and Frisbee throwers. (You can even rent them by the day, from a company like Photojojo.) At my college reunion last summer, my classmates watched in awe as a $500 DJI Phantom drone zipped over the crowd, shooting still photos and video with the GoPro attached to its underside.
Easy-to-fly photo drones are becoming cheaper every day. Parrot sells a line of sub-$500 mini-drones, and the auto-flight features on 3D Robotics' $750 IRIS+ drone have made it a favorite of hobbyists. But despite the growing low-end drone market, there still isn't a good mid-range option for those who want to use a drone for professional-quality TV and film production, but don't have the budget for a $50,000 custom rig. That's about to change.
Last night, at a demo event on Treasure Island, DJI unveiled its latest drone: the Inspire 1 (pictured above). It's a way more capable drone than the Phantom, and it's accordingly more expensive – around $3,000 for a basic kit. At that price, the Inspire 1 probably isn't going to end up under a lot of Christmas trees this year, but the drone (and similar models being developed by DJI's competitors) could open up a whole universe of possibilities for professional photographers, filmmakers, agriculture and mapping companies, and news organizations.
I got to test the Inspire 1 earlier this week, at the San Mateo home of DJI aerial imaging chief Eric Cheng. A few things jumped out at me. First, it's easy to fly – if you've ever played a first-person shooter game or done a flight simulation, you'll get the hang of the two-joystick setup in no time flat. Second, the camera on this thing is insane. It's 4K, which means it has better resolution than most TVs can even display. (The iPad mini I was watching our videos on didn't do it justice.) Third, it's a shapeshifter – when the Inspire 1 is airborne, the pilot can fold the drone's landing legs up above the body, Transformer-style, so that the camera can have a clear, unobstructed 360-degree view. (This feature has been available on high-end drones like DJI's Spreading Wings series for a while, but it's new to mid-range drones.) Fourth, the Inspire 1's dual-controller setup is a big deal for photographers and videographers. On cheaper drone models like the Phantom, a single person has to both fly the drone and control the onboard camera. But with the Inspire 1, one person can fly the drone while the other person focuses entirely on getting the best shots.
But the killer feature – and the one that could make the Inspire 1 truly transformative – is wireless HD video streaming. Thanks to DJI's Lightbridge platform, users can transmit high-definition video from the drone to a base station from up to a mile away, then out to viewers around the world in real-time using a service like Ustream. You can imagine the possibilities a high-def, streaming video drone could unlock – a drone that let people in mainland China watch the Hong Kong protests live from a bird's-eye view, for example, would be a powerful thing. Streaming video has been possible on high-end drone rigs for some time. But with a lower price tag and controls even an amateur could master, you can imagine drones like the Inspire 1 becoming a staple of live news coverage, sports games, music festivals, and other live events.
Of course, a lot will depend on whether the FAA allows drones to be flown in interesting places at all. (Right now, federal regulators and local officials aren't too keen on drones in stadiums and other crowded public spaces, and most commercial drone uses are still banned.) But the technology is there. With high-powered, mid-range drones like the Inspire 1 hitting the market, it's only a matter of time before TV-quality drone video is part of every big-ticket event – whether you want it or not.