After weeks of building up anticipation via cryptic tweets and the occasional leaks to gadget blogs, Hong Kong-based DJI launched a new quadcopter model, the Inspire 1. A sign of how drones are becoming mainstream is that DJI staged, and live-streamed, a US launch. They had the Mythbusters team on stage at the event!
The Inspire 1 sports a characteristic aero-dynamic housing that looks a bit like a mix of the Sony Aibo and I, Robot. (Both contributed significantly to robotic design lore at the time.) This gives the drone the look of a good-natured pet, not a bad visual association for a civilian drone.
With the Inspire 1, DJI is pushing into a new market segment in the rapidly evolving civilian drone market. It is a pro-level, ready-to-fly rig that includes a camera on a gimbal. For this level of sophistication, the choice was previously to go for after-market modifications of modular rigs or small-volume providers of specialty rigs. The pricing reflects the enhanced spec starting at $2,900 (compared to $1,300 for the top-of-the-line Phantom model). DJI are currently accepting pre-orders for the Inspire 1. Shipments are due to start beginning of December.
I haven’t flown the Inspire 1 yet, but I am excited about some of the new features and capabilities.
Body shape transformation. Ever had problems getting the propellers in the top of the frame when you recorded video or stills? After take-off, the Inspire changes shape to maximize the vertical distance between camera and propellers.
Vision positioning. While the Inspire users GPS for positioning like most other drones, it is equipped with a downward facing camera linked to an image processing circuit. This comes in handy when flying low (up to 5 m), enabling the drone to use patterns visible on the ground to maintain accurate position. It also helps the drone to maintain accurate position when operated out of range of GPS, e.g. indoors.
Sonar. Adding to the remote sensing capabilities, Inspire is equipped with downward facing sonar. This helps produce accurate altitude measurements when flying low, and I suspect the sonar triggers the transformation of the rig back into landing shape to prepare for touch-down and to protect the camera.
Dual remotes. This is definitely a pro features. One remote controls the craft, the other controls the camera. Both have the option of first-person video streamed live from the drone. Remember the impressive SpaceX Grasshopper test video? It was shot with separate pilot and camera operator on each their remote controller. The Inspire can also be controlled with a single remote for flight maneuvers and camera operation. An extra remote is $500.
Interchangeable gimbal. DJI states that the camera gimbal is a modular design and that both the camera and the gimbal can be exchanged. I don’t know if DJI has made the specs available to make it easy for third parties to design options for gimbal/camera, but I expect there to be a demand for mounting a GoPro 4 camera to the rig, and perhaps mirror-less still cameras for great-looking undistorted photos.
The camera included with the Inspire is a DJI FC350, suggesting it is a new model of DJI’s designed-for-drones camera system. With a 1/2.3″ sensor it shoots 12 megapixel stills in JPG and DNG format (getting DNG directly from the camera is a very useful feature that is also supported by the FC200). It does 4K video at up to 30 fps (example footage) and 1080p video at up to 60 fps.
SDK and API. DJI also announced the availability of a software development kit and access to a documented application programming interface. The tools are not openly available, you have to apply and attach a project proposal. The basic tools are free to use once your application has been approved. For the full set of features there is a fee. For more information go to DJI’s developer site.
The Inspire comes standard with a 99.9 Wh battery, the “TB47”. A higher capacity 130 Wh battery, the “TB48” will also be available. The batteries are 6 cell lithium polymer (LiPo 6S). Inspire owners in the US who plan to travel on airplanes with their drone might want to stock up on TB47 batteries only in order to avoid potential trouble at the security checkpoint: TSA policy only allows two LiPo batteries larger than 100 Wh in your hand luggage, and LiPos are altogether banned from checked luggage. I don’t know the price of the batteries, they are not yet listed in the DJI shop.
Inspire 1 is being launched as an aerial system for film makers. If that target group becomes comfortable with the proprietary camera it is certain to be a commercial success given the growth in the market for civilian drones and DJI’s already impressive product range and reputation. But that is kind of a big if. After-market camera and gimbal options could significantly accelerate the adoption rate.