Exploring the future of drones


(CNN) – In the world of tech innovation, China, many would argue, is a follower. But there’s one field where it is undeniably a leader: drones.

CNN went to the home of the world’s biggest commercial drone developer, DJI, to find out what’s the next big thing in an industry where literally the sky is the limit.

The futuristic flagship store in Shenzhen is a monument to just how far and just how fast drones are developing.

In December 2012, the company launched its breakthrough Phantom 1 Drone, without a camera. Just 3 ½ years and 3 models later, the Phantom 4 Drone can produce high definition video, live-streamed onto your smartphone or tablet from a distance up to 5 kilometers, and users will tell you, it’s simple to operate.

DJI leads the pack with an estimated 70% of the world’s commercial drone market, currently worth just over $3-billion. Within 5 years, that could explode to $27-billion, say market experts.

Michael Perry, Director of Strategic Partnerships at DJI, said, “We’re very excited about the future. I think we will continue our monumental growth.”

(Michael in 10 years’ time, what do you think that drone is going to look like?) Perry replied, “I think there’s a wide variety of possibilities and the form will follow the function. It depends on how people start incorporating it into their daily lives, but overall we hope to see units that are lighter, smaller, and easier for people to use.”

Quantum leaps in drone technology may now be a thing of the past. Camera and navigation systems will continue to improve, although already some of the industrial drones can fly to within centimeters of their target.

Battery life is being extended, and sensors are already being built in so drones automatically dodge objects both on the ground and in the air. The real breakthroughs now are what the technology will be used for.

Perry said, “One of the most exciting ones for us recently was we saw a team of whale researchers use our systems to fly over whale pods and collect their snot so that they can do advanced analytics to determine their health.”

Those researchers, the Ocean Alliance, call it the “Snotbot,” a drone that gathers mucus from a blowing whale. And that’s just one out-of-the-box application.

DJI has developed a model that can accurately spray crops in difficult-to-reach areas. It’s also talking to Europe’s biggest emergency response network about how to use drones in search and rescue, firefighting and surveillance.

The options, say Perry, are limitless; “We’ve put the technology out there and what’s been really exciting is the creativity and innovation that people bring to their platforms. There are a million different use cases.”

For DJI, their challenge is to continue making drones easier to use so that the next generation can be captured all over again by the wonder of flight.

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