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Why Drones Are Ditching Their DIY Roots

Industry leader 3D Robotics pivots toward mass market-friendly models capable of taking a dronie with just one click.

Why Drones Are Ditching Their DIY Roots
[Photo: Flickr user Dronepicr]

When hobbyist drone pilot Michael Kolowich ordered his Cinestar-8 octocopter in 2013, he traveled from Boston to Montana, where it had been assembled, to pick it up. “I went up there for four days of training in how to fly it safely, how to get great shots with it, the ins and outs of the platform,” he says. “It really did take that much training to get the most out of it.”

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How the world has changed in just two years. “Almost every serious video drone then was somewhat custom-built,” he says. Now, for a fraction of what Kolowich paid, aspiring drone pilots can pick up a “serious” drone at their local Best Buy. The drone community, circa 2015, is at an inflection point, with DIY tinkering giving way to mass-market distribution.

“A year or two ago it was far more custom builds. Now you see it standardizing quite a bit,” says Dan Burton, CEO and cofounder of Dronebase, an online platform for booking commercial drone services. Burton was first introduced to drones while serving in the Marines; after returning to the U.S. and attending business school, he began helping commercial drone pilots manage their financials. Dronebase, which effectively allows pilots to outsource their sales and operations, is a natural extension of that hands-on experience.

Burton describes the drone community as comprised of “very passionate hobbyists.” But increasingly, the community’s creative, maker mindset is directed toward the cinematics of operating the drone camera, rather than toward the construction of the flying robot itself.

No company represents that shift better than 3D Robotics. Founded by former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who literally wrote the book on the maker movement (Makers: The New Industrial Revolution), 3D Robotics launched as the e-commerce counterpart to DIY Drones, an Anderson-led community forum. Early posts on DIY Drones reflect the community’s “maker” bonafides, with tutorials on topics like creating basic autopilot functionality that require a working knowledge of microcontrollers and servo motors.

But these days Anderson is touting the capabilities of Solo, 3DR’s new “smart” drone. He stopped by Fast Company last month for a demonstration.

“The first phase of our little adventure was getting robots to fly. That was super hard, but we got there,” he says. “The next phase was putting cameras on them, and stabilizing with a gimbal. That was pretty hard, but we got there, too.” What we’re missing, he says, is “the aesthetics of a good shot.”

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Solo, in concert with GoPro, is designed to deliver that perfect shot, with very little technical skill on the part of the pilot. “There are these well-established Hollywood conventions about what makes a great shot; they have this combination of classic framing and paths, which are typically done by teams of professionals,” he says. “We turned all that into software.”

Press a button for one of those classic shots in the controller app—say, “dronie”—and Solo will execute the flight. All for $1,000, plus the cost of a GoPro and a gimbal.

Anderson acknowledges the company’s change in direction. “We started as a hardcore technology company,” he says. “Then we realized, in part because the Chinese were moving so quickly, that this is very quickly going from a kind of hobby thing to a mainstream thing. It was less about the drone and more about the camera.”

The Chinese, in this case, are the engineers at DJI, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies. DJI’s sleek drones dominate the market—the Inspire 1, for example, has sparked a vibrant grassroots forum of its own for Inspire pilots. Recent discussions include advice on which accessories to purchase and frustration regarding fellow pilots’ bad behavior.

As for octocopter enthusiast Kolowich, who is also a successful entrepreneur and licensed airplane pilot, he principally flies the Inspire 1. “In the early days, you had to learn by trial and error,” he says. Now companies like 3D Robotics will do that hard work on your behalf.

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About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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