DJI will announce a new product on Tuesday. Based on the short teaser published a few days ago, we know that this product will be a foldable drone. Everything beyond that is unknown. However, we can analyze DJI's past strategy and actual technological development to estimate the possible specifications and features that this new drone may offer.
Unlikely to Happen
New Phantom or Inspire
The title of the teaser is "Adventure Unfolds" suggesting that this new drone will be in the Mavic league (foldable and portable). The DJI Inspire 2 is a professional product with a longer life cycle. It was only announced in November 2016 and DJI offered a significant camera upgrade option (X7) a few months ago. The Inspire 2 is not due for replacement until at least late 2018 or 2019. As for the next Phantom, I don’t expect any announcements before spring or summer 2018, perhaps even later.
Mavic with One-Inch Sensor
DJI implemented a one-inch sensor for the first time on the Phantom 4 Pro which was a massive upgrade from the previous Phantoms fitted with a small 1/2.3-inch sensor. The image quality improvement was significant and the Mavic became the standard 1/2.3-inch sensor drone in the DJI lineup. Based on this upgrade, some people hope that DJI will upgrade the Mavic with a larger sensor. However, as much as I would like to get a one-inch sensor on a small drone package, this feature is very unlikely to be added due to physical restrictions. The Mavic camera and gimbal are extremely small and there is no room for a one-inch sensor. Integrating this type of camera would require a large piece of glass, and larger and more powerful motors to handle the load, hence longer skids with higher ground clearance. The gimbal dampening system would have to be reinforced as well. The difference of weight and balance would also impact the frame design. In other words, making a small drone with a large sensor is very challenging. Finally, it seems that DJI now has a complete range of drones with dedicated specifications. The Inspire for professionals with the choice of a Micro Four Thirds (X5S) or APS-C camera (X7). The semi-pro Phantom 4 Pro is equipped with a one-inch sensor while the Mavic and the Spark take the entry level spot with their tiny 1/2.3-inch sensors.
Small Toy or Racing Drone
The low end of the market segment is already very crowded, but DJI just announced a partnership with Intel and another Chinese manufacturer, Ryze Tech, to launch the Tello. This $100 micro drone is a cheap toy that can perform aerobatic moves. The range is limited and the fixed camera can only record 720p video and 5-megapixel pictures, just enough to share low quality content on Instagram or Facebook.
I also don’t believe that DJI will release a racing drone this time. First, because racing drones must be basic and sturdy to resist the multitude of crashes and impacts inherent to that type of flight. A fragile folding frame contradicts this philosophy. Finally, the DJI teaser shows what seems to be a collision avoidance sensor. That type of sensor would be a waste of space and money on a racing drone. It would also be very fragile and susceptible to damage in case of a crash.
Likely to Happen
A New Mavic
The Mavic Pro was announced over a year ago in October 2016, an eternity ago in the fast-moving world of drones. Spring and summer are the seasons for outdoor drone use, as the weather is nice and people travel for vacation. Drone sales tend to increase at this time of the year and a new Mavic could boost the financial results. Another reason to upgrade the Mavic is the incoming competition of Autel which just announced a Mavic copycat at CES. Dubbed EVO, this foldable and portable drone comes with a 4K60 mode while the Mavic only reaches 4K30. Autel aligned its price to match the Mavic’s $999. However, Autel didn’t indicate a release date for the EVO and little is known about its specifications and features. DJI could simply update the Mavic to stay ahead of the competition and maintain its leadership. A new Mavic would probably offer a higher frame rate at 4K60 and a much needed bitrate boost. The current 60 Mbps is very limited for 4K video. As with the Phantom, the new Mavic will probably feature 100 Mbps in h.264 or h.265. Making a water-resistant aircraft could be interesting for certain type of usage around water and ocean. However, the shape of the new drone exposed in the teaser suggests that the frame will be different. If you go to the URL "www.dji.com/mavic-air," the website currently sends you back to the DJI announcement page. Coincidence?
Mavic Light or Spark Plus?
At the moment, the Spark drone is available at $370 and the Mavic comes at $860. Perhaps, DJI wants to fill the gap and introduce a new product between those two. The Spark is good enough to produce short videos but the camera is limited to 1080 resolution stabilized on two axis (the yaw stabilization is missing). On the other end, the Mavic can capture 4K video on a fully stabilized platform but the price and size are too much for some customers.
I personally believe that the consumer drone market is starting to get saturated. Current Mavic owners are satisfied and don’t see the point of spending another $1,000 to get a few extra features like higher bitrate or additional flight time. GoPro was in the same situation after the initial action camera surge. Why purchase a GoPro 5 when the GoPro 3 still does the job? Fortunately for DJI, smartphones don’t fly yet but the Shenzhen Company has to face a similar challenge: convince existing customers to upgrade and attract the last bit of non-drone users.
A new product in the $600-$800 range could do the job. Something with better photo-video features than the Spark but smaller and cheaper than the Mavic. The main question is to know if this new aircraft will be Spark Plus or a Mavic Light. Implementing a three-axis gimbal on the Spark (only two axis today) will be enough to move this drone in the upper segment and justify a price increase. With a maximum resolution of 1080, it would not compete with the actual Mavic shooting in 4K and able to fly for 25 minutes against 13 minutes for the Spark.
A smaller Mavic Light or Air with the same image feature (4K, three-axis gimbal) would cannibalize the sales of the actual Mavic Pro and Mavic Platinum. DJI would have to downgrade some features on this new drone. They’ve already done that in the past with a great variety of Phantom versions. We had the Pro, Advanced, Platinum, Obsidian Standard, 4K, Plus, SE, Vision, and so on. The creativity of the marketing department is endless. Some features of the new drone would be removed or limited. For instance, DJI can play with the radio control link (reduced range, different frequencies), the maximum resolution and frame rate (4K versus 1080), flight time, or maximum speed to differentiate the products from one another.
Another solution to avoid product cannibalization is to make several announcements on January 23: a new drone plus an upgraded version of the Mavic. The small inventory of actual Mavic or Spark would be discounted. The price of these two drones dropped recently.
As for the release date, I would say March because the traditional Chinese New Year celebration coming next month will disrupt the entire production lines of the Chinese factories. For what it’s worth (not much), this is my guesstimate of the new DJI drone. The official announcement will take place in New York on Tuesday at 10 a.m EST. Stay tuned.