Why the Small Unmanned Aerial business never took off

Small UAV businesses an unviable proposition?

The beginning.

It was not so long ago, that small commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles commonly known as Drones, started to emerge and become more readily available. Early adopters of this technology still had to construct the drone themselves by building the frame, sourcing all the various parts from different manufacturers and then program a lot of the settings just to get it into a stable hover.

GPS units were optional and relatively unreliable causing the common ‘Toilet Bowl Effect‘ dreaded by many drone pilots. It was later discovered, that turning the GPS unit a few degrees according to your geographical location may sort some of these issues, but not before a lot of mishaps.

These mostly ‘botched together’ flying machines had their limitations and the race was on to get them to fly as long as possible. Early adopters soon realized that they could strap a small camera to the bottom and then view the footage of their flight at a later stage. There were no reliable video downlink systems available yet  so the footage was mostly a ‘hit and miss’ affair.

Videos of shaky drone footage started appearing on YouTube and the community started to grow at a rapid rate.

Stabilization.

Basic video stabilization started to appear with servo driven gimbals enteing the market. These basic units still missed one key ingredient though and that was the stabilization board to keep the camera level. Some reverted to helicopter Gyros in the beginning . Other manufacturers realized a gap in the market and 3 axis, servo based units started appearing. These units, at the best of times were slow to react or had problems keeping the actual camera level. Besides their initial limitations, they needed an additional power source to keep them alive which added to the weight of the drone.

 

Brushless motor marvel.

It was around this time, that some very clever hobbyists started experimenting by converting their servo driven gimbals to brushless motor units. These were mostly hand-wound motors suitable for the job. This feat was a major leap forward to gimbal stabilization and soon commercial units started popping up and the brushless gimbal as we now know it was born.

Seeing is Believing

So, where are we now? We have a drone, we have a brushless gimbal and we have a small camera, but how do we see what we are doing?
Early visual feedback systems consisted of small transmitters (still used today in FPV racing) usually of the 5.8GHZ variety. These also needed an individual power source so usually an additional small battery was strapped to the quad, adding yet more weight to an already overladen system. Pilots were eagerly awaiting technology to catch up and it came in the form of Drone manufacturer DJI

A drone for Everyman

DJI to the rescue with their 3rd incarnation of the very popular Phantom series and their Lightbridge technology. This system was already available as a stand alone unit destined for their bigger commercial drones, but very expensive to purchase and out of the reach of most hobbyists or semi commercial operators. DJI in their wisdom decided to incorporate this technology into their Phantom 3 series of drones and we were suddenly on a different planet. Gone were the days of shaky footage that needed massive amounts of pre-production stabilization. Suddenly everyone could produce smooth footage.

An industry born, an opportunity died.

Well, that was the turning point for small UAV operators according to this writer. It was this Phantom 3 variant with it’s updated technology that changed things as we knew it. Gone were the high tech junkies that managed to somehow deliver smooth footage and crisp photos for low level aerial opportunities. With their massively invested equipment and months of research, now that technology, was in everyone’s reach. From teens, to seasoned pilots, we could all ‘deliver’ the same ‘stuff’. The uniqueness was gone, the skills required were gone and the sheer bravery to fly the machines of old were gone, making this, a once emerging opportunity, a flooded market with too many drones and for to not enough jobs.

The fact that new laws and regulations needed to be implemented to control this ‘influx’ of drones in the skies above, adds yet another dimension to the demise of the small UAV operator. One could argue that millions of cameras have been sold and yet Photographers survive. Millions of cars have been sold and yet Taxi Drivers survive. However, and in my view, the personal drone, opened up a new market, for realtors, hobbyists and professional video production companies alike, so that the scope of their use, by their own design, added to the demise of the drone industry. Starting a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle business is therefore no longer a viable proposition…

Read my take on the solution in next weeks article….

 

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