Drones have always appealed to photographers, but until very recently, they hovered beyond the reach of the average consumer.
The outsize price tags and dizzying array of skills required to pilot the aircraft made them a niche product. But those days are gone. If the product demonstrations at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas have confirmed anything, it’s that the age of the selfie drone has officially arrived.
Price cuts and innovations are coming on fast. In November, industry leader DJI released the $999 Mavic Pro. At the time, that was a nice price for a drone with a broad selection of autonomous options, including the ability to take off and land on its own. It comes with a 12-megapixel camera capable of capturing ultra-high definition 4K video. And it folds up into a small brick that can be stowed in a backpack.
That's still an impressive machine. But barely two months later, we're seeing drones that fit in your pocket and could soon be priced as low as $299.
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Two stars of this year’s show are ZeroTech’s $399 Dobby and Zero Zero Robotics’ $599 Hover Camera Passport. Both drones are capable of orbiting your head and tracking your movements from above. And both are nearly as easy to use as a point-and-shoot camera. The Passport literally takes off at the push of a button.
“We think of it as your personal photographer,” says Zero Zero’s Beijing-based CEO Menqiu Wang. “It helps you capture the best moments with your friends and family—without excluding anyone from the picture.”
The Passport weighs about 8.5 ounces and folds in two to roughly the size and thickness of a daily diary. Because the four rotors are safely tucked inside a box-like carbon fiber mesh frame, you can cart the drone around like a paperback book.
The Dobby is even lighter (7 ounces). When its rotors are folded up inside the plastic frame, the drone is about the size and shape of an eyeglass case—one you can easily stow in the pocket of a jacket.
The models both slip beneath a 0.55-pound limit set by the Federal Aviation Administration, above which drones need to be registered before being flown outdoors. And both models are nimble and compact enough to fly indoors.
Those trim profiles do have some drawbacks, though. The drones are likely to struggle in a stiff wind. And the batteries yield only about 10 minutes of flight time per charge. By comparison, DJI promises 27 minutes for the 1.6-pound Mavic Pro.
But keep in mind that the Passport and the Dobby are not designed for documentary filmmakers and adventure seekers. They’re made for people who want to post a video or a snapshot featuring their friends on Facebook.
“A majority of our users are first-time drone owners,” says Wang. And casual users like those don’t need much more than 30 seconds to capture the footage they want.
Even so, both drones offer spare batteries that quickly snap into place. The Passport comes packaged with two. The Dobby lets you purchase backups as accessories.
The Dobby and the Passport can be controlled by mobile apps with straightforward interfaces, but the easy-to-activate autonomy the drones afford is what makes them truly impressive. And there’s a certain magic in watching them hover under their own power right before your eyes.
“We’re making this experience as simple as can be,” says Wang. “I don’t want to fly the drone. I just want it to capture the moment.”
To launch the Passport, you simply hold it by its spine, press the power button, wait a moment for the rotors to kick in full force, and release the craft. It will float in the air right where you place it. You can even toss the Passport out in front of you Frisbee-like and watch as it gets its bearings and finds its way back to you.
The Dobby fires up in your palm and remains there at the ready until you pull your hand away.
The two selfie drones offer pre-set modes that allow them to spin 360 degrees or, say, orbit the room when you sit down with the family for a holiday meal. They use facial recognition software to not only track your motions, but also move in close—floating at eye level less than an arm’s length away.
When you raise your hand, a tiny red light on the front of the Passport ticks off a count of one, two, three and the camera snaps your picture, putting you in the center of the frame.
Don’t worry: It leaves room for friends, too.
If you take a step forward, the drone retreats. Take a step back and it moves toward you. Walk about and it will circle around looking for your smiling face.
The Passport’s rotors stop the moment you reach out and pluck the drone from the air. The carbon fiber mesh frame keeps your fingers—and the fingers of little ones—safe from harm.
Both of the drones are outfitted with 13-megapixel cameras. The Dobby records 1080p video. The Passport gives you the choice of high definition (720p), full high definition (1080p), or 4K.
Without evaluating the two drones in our labs, it’s hard to say if they fully deliver on their promise, though they appeared to be very easy to operate and the video clips produced by the manufacturers looked good to me.
And both models continue to get better. Several of the autonomous features on the Dobby and the Passport were added via software updates after the models were released this past fall. According to Wang, the Passport’s early adopters can expect to see a new update later this month. It will include the gesture control and facial recognition functions described above.
And consumers are about to get even more choices. Keyshare Technology has unveiled a $400 selfie drone called the Kimon and Sim Too plans to release a $300 model in the spring, the competition is clearly heating up. That means we’re certain to see improvements in price and functionality in the year ahead.
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