Why Sony’s new Airpeak drone is a big deal

Sony unveiled its new Airpeak drone yesterday. There aren’t many details yet, and the company hasn’t released specifications. But this is, in our view, very significant news.

There had been rumblings about this drone for a while. And also a tease, back in November. Now, the company has released a video and some information about its new product. The Airpeak is designed for cinematographers and is optimized for the Sony Alpha camera system – a proven platform with devotees around the world. We don’t yet know when the new drone will be available for sale.

But we do know that this is a signal – and from a massive company.

A single drone…or a line of drones?

Sony didn’t release much written material when it unveiled the drone. But there are some nuggets if you’re into parsing those few lines. For example, the company says Airpeak is “part of its drone project in the area of AI robotics.”

The Sony Airpeak. Is this the first in a series?

Obviously, the AI interests us – though there’s not yet any indication of what AI the new drone carries (although there are obstacle avoidance sensors visible). But we’re more interested in reading that it’s part of a drone “project.”

We’re not sure exactly what to read into “project” – but it does make us think that perhaps this is merely Sony’s first drone. That’s somewhat bolstered by the company referring to the word Airpeak as a brand rather than as a single product. Could this be similar to how DJI’s “Mavic” is a brand? Probably too early to say, but intriguing.

DJI is big, Sony is way bigger

Global drone leader DJI is a large company, with something in the order of 14,000-15,000 employees. Back in 2015, the privately held company was said to be worth around $10 billion.

Compared to Sony, that’s small. That company, according to Wikipedia, has some 114,400 employees. It had a net income of nearly $9 billion in 2019. It’s the largest video game manufacturer on the planet and has a multitude of mature business units, including:

  • Electronic products and solutions (audio, video, computing, robotics, phones, etc.)
  • Imaging and sensing solutions
  • Game and network services
  • Pictures and Music (movies, music, anime, and more)

So it makes you wonder. Is Sony going to make drones a significant part of its business going forward? Probably too early to say, and the reception Airpeak receives on release may play a role here. But there are certainly some other major Japanese companies that have been more than dabbling in the drone world.

Yamaha

This Japanese company is no stranger to drones. It released its RMAX remotely piloted helicopter back in 1997, and it’s been widely used in Japan for precision agriculture spraying. In 2017, it was being used in California’s Napa Valley:

Yamaha released the first version of this product in 1997…

Yamaha never hit the recreational market, but it does have other offerings on the industrial side. Here’s another one, again built for industrial and agricultural purposes:

Yamaha’s YMR-08 drone, an industrial model that can be used for agricultural spraying…

Kawasaki

Like Yamaha, Kawasaki is also starting to play in the industrial drone space. Check out this K-Racer IV helicopter, which uses a Ninja H2R motorcycle engine and two puller props. (Kawasaki actually builds a manned helicopter, so this might not have been too much of a stretch.)

The company is also looking at markets for underwater industrial drones. Check out its SPICE – The Subsea Precise Inspector with Close Eyes. Apparently, there’s enough of a market for this to justify what must have been a significant R&D expense:

SkyDrive

If autonomous passenger-carrying drones are more your speed, check out the SkyDrive SD-03. It looks like a contender as we transition to a world of Urban Air Mobility:

We’d like to see some prop guards. Other than that…cool!

Prodrone

I saw these guys back at an AUVSI conference. This Japanese company produces some super unusual drones, meant for specific use-cases. They have a drone, for example, with arms that can grapple and pick up an object for transport through the air. Have a spin through their reel, which highlights a number of their products:

Prodrone makes some really unique drones

Plus there are others…

We don’t want this to become a mega-post, but we did want to give you a sense that Japan is rapidly becoming a significant country when it comes to drone production.

However, we haven’t seen the really big Japanese companies yet truly dive into this sector. Yes, Yamaha and Kawasaki have been testing the industrial waters, but none of these companies has the kind of product line and reach that DJI does.

But if they decided to…could they?

Competition?

On the surface, there aren’t really a lot of products on this list that would cause DJI to truly become concerned. Most of the drones we’ve listed are highly specialized products. Sure, Yamaha might eat into the Agras sales somewhat…but the Yamaha RMAX was on the scene long before DJI built its first flight controller. And the market for an agricultural sprayer is likely a thin sliver of the overall consumer and Enterprise drone market, which DJI has a solid lock on. I mean, just look at all the products the company makes.

And yet…

DJI worked hard to achieve its position of market dominance, and it’s not about to let that erode without a fight. The company has been known to react quickly (some might say over-react) when it sees a product it regards as a threat to any of its own.

DJI’s Inspire 2. Will Sony grab a market share?

But now along comes Sony. And it’s producing a product in the pro sphere that will arguably directly compete with DJI products like the Matrice 600 and the Inspire 2 (and, potentially, Inspire 3). The Airpeak could even, though we can’t say for certain, be just the first of multiple drones Sony could release in the years to come. The language in Sony’s announcement is vague. But it’s reasonable to assume the company would be willing to pursue a new sector if it feels there’s a return there.

As we’ve pointed out before, DJI paved the way. It did a lot of the hard work in figuring out exactly what a consumer and enterprise drone should be — and competitors have benefited from that work. It’s a lot easier to reverse-engineer something than to build it from scratch. And we can see, in some aspects of the Sony product, some features that DJI certainly brought to the market first.

Some of the Airpeak’s features have been seen before in DJI models…

At the moment, DJI has a commanding market share and little to worry about. But the signs are there, not only in Japan, but in China, the US, and elsewhere: There’s competition that never used to exist. And that competition will, over time, find some traction.


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