Let’s face it – when it comes to high-end drones, DJI is the only name that matters. Sure, we at Dronethusiast are big fans of the Yuneec Typhoon, and 3DR and Parrot are still kicking around, but most of these companies are barely hanging on. In the last year, Yuneec lost 50 million dollars, 3DR downsized and stopped manufacturing drones, Parrot lost 35 percent of its workforce, and companies like 3D Robotics and Lily – both of which promised they were going to take DJI down – closed shop before they could even make an impression on the market. Meanwhile, DJI is on track to make $11 billion USD by 2020. DJI makes huge strides in innovation with each new product, practically making the rest of the industry obsolete every time they release a new product – and they compound that success with global branding efforts (rare for a Chinese company) and fairly reasonable prices for the high-end market.
But there’s a new challenger to DJI’s drone throne: Skydio, a California-based company that’s the pet project of MIT graduate Adam Bry. What do they have that DJI doesn’t? Well, to hear Bry tell it, their main focus is making a product that anyone can use. No more fiddling with mobile apps. No more complicated remotes with a billion buttons. In fact, no method of direct input at all – the Skydio R1 takes the Phantom 4’s obstacle avoidance technology a step further and can fly entirely on its own. It takes off on its own, finds you, tracks you, and dodges obstacles – it even handles tree branches pretty well, which is something most obstacle avoidance drones still struggle with.
The R1 was built entirely from American labor and American parts and has a durable carbon fiber and aluminum body. It has about a 16-inch diagonal, a 4K camera, a 16-minute battery life and a top speed of 25 mph (full stats here.) That means that the DJI drones can do almost everything it can do – even the $400 Spark. But there’s a bigger problem: the R1 costs $2,499. From where we’re sitting, it seems unlikely that there exists a large customer base that A) doesn’t understand drones to the point that they want something that has no manual inputs and B) is willing to drop two and a half thousand dollars on an untested quadcopter.
But who knows? The Skydio has attracted a pretty impressive crop of investors, including NVIDIA (whose technology powers the R1’s autonomous systems), the creator of Android, and – if you can believe it – Super Bowl halftime star Justin Timberlake. And there’s no denying the Autonomy Engine is something special – watching the R1 fly on its own feels like something out of a far-future sci-fi movie, and yet in 2018 it’s already a reality. Only time will tell whether or not Skydio becomes the legendary “DJI killer”, but one thing’s for sure: this is a company to watch.