Interview with Autel’s Maxwell Lee about the company’s new drones and future

We had the opportunity to speak with Autel’s owner and general manager Maxwell Lee while at CES. At the company’s booth, he walked us through what Autel went through to bring its newest drones, the Nano and Lite, to market.

EVO Nano and Nano+

Autel is stepping into the new space of small consumer-oriented drones with its sub-250 gram EVO Nano and Nano+. Lee is pretty confident in these drones being the best on the market, and for a good reason. The Nano brings a wide range of features that its competitors, like DJI, don’t offer.

Obstacle avoidance

One of the most prominent features added to the Nano and Nano+ is obstacle avoidance. Autel is the first company to put this sort of tech on a sub-250 drone, and when we asked Lee why the company felt it needed it, he said, “There’s a natural progression of technology.”

EVO Nano+ flying in Autel’s cage at its CES booth. Credit: Autel

You know DJI came out with their mini-series, and you know, they’re the first on the market with it, and over time I think customers expect is that evolution, right? We’ve seen obstacle avoidance on so many products; now, I think it’s the right time to bring it to the smaller drones. And especially since most of the users are relatively new. When they grab something like this, they need all the protection they can get.

Maxwell Lee, owner and general manager, Autel Robotics

The Nano and Nano+ feature forward, backward, and bottom obstacle avoidance sensors, running out of room for the side sensors. While it won’t be the best out on the market, something is always better than nothing. Additionally, DJI is rumored to be bringing a new Mini drone to the market this year, and seeing them add this to compete with Autel wouldn’t be a nice surprise.

One of the features Lee is highly confident in is Autel’s SkyLink video transmission system. It works through three different bands, 2.4, 5.2, and 5.8 GHz, and plans to send back a crisp video single no matter if you are right next to the drone or flying at its max distance.

I can pretty much confidently say that we’ve done our internal testing. This will perform better than that of our competitors. So for all those influencers out there, you’re welcome to try to test out the image transmission against that of our competitors.

SkyLink will be coming in part of both Autel’s Nano and Lite series, so no matter which you purchase, you should be able to get the same quality of video transmission Autel claims.

Camera system

The Nano and Nano+ share the same features, but that changes regarding cameras. Lee talked about the importance cameras have always had at Autel, starting with the original EVO line.

We’ve always put a very strong emphasis on the camera quality, The EVO I’s, the EVO II’s, you’ve got 6K, 8K, you know, we always import German glass onto the lens. They are never acrylic or plastic or anything like that. So what you’re seeing here, is a half-inch sensor for the Nano, right? The most affordable, but by even the most affordable one has a better sensor than that, of the other ultralight drones.

Close-up of EVO Nano+. Credit: Seth Kurkowski / DroneDJ

The Nano+ brings a new sensor technology, an RYYB color filter, to the drone industry. This will come to the Nano+ and Lite drones and promises to improve low-light capability out of the nearly one-inch sensor.

Essentially, it lets in 40% more light. It’s different from RGB technology completely—the filter array lets in yellow light, which has a wider spectrum. So what this means to the average user to us is that night shop performance will be just outstanding.

So this [sensor] is 1/1.28 or 0.8 inches. That will pretty much beat a lot of the one-inch sensors that are currently out on the market. So [the Nano+] will be like your super-compact, you know, for those photographers who want to bring a compact drone, they want the video quality, they want the camera quality, but they don’t necessarily want to bring something as bulky as the Lite series or the EVO II, or any drone of that category.

The EVO Nano will start at $649, $200 more than DJI’s Mini 2. Let us know below if you think the higher price is worth it.

EVO Lite and Lite+

While the EVO Nano series focuses on the broader consumer market but still offers excellent video specs, Autel’s Lite drone brings similar technology to a more prosumer platform. One of those new features is the addition of a four-axis gimbal. We asked Lee why someone would get the Lite over something like the Nano+, which has a similar sensor.

Why get the Lite over the Nano+?

So up against a Nano+, is that you know, you get a four-axis gimbal, you get the better flight platform and the more powerful chips, the better bit-rate, and you get the better flight time. So we have a 40 minutes of flight time, and we have 7.2 miles of range on this unit, triple-band with Skylink image transmission. Finally, we have the ultra-wide obstacle avoidance sensors. These have 105 degrees of FOV. We’ve seen you know, the DJI units, they are kind of very brutalist. They just put like two sensors. So one on top of each other, this, you get the same performance.

EVO Lite (left) and EVO Nano (right) unfolded. Credit: Seth Kurkowski / DroneDJ

The Autel Lite and Nano drones resemble DJI’s Mini and Mavic series of drones. We were told this is just due to physics. However, the difference on the Lite is only having one pair of sensors on the front makes it look way more elegant than DJI’s alien-like duel sensor pairs.

Is the Lite+ replacing the EVO II 6K?

A big question we had was if Lee expected the Lite+ to replace the EVO II 6K. Like when DJI came out with its Air 2S, many pilots switched to the new drone from the Mavic 2. While Leel agreed the Lite+ is an upgrade with a new sensor and updated post-processing, the Nano and Lite drones will be under the Autel’s Sky app’s control rather than its more professional-oriented Explorer app.

Currently, the Sky app is kind of a bare-bones consumer app, and that’s where we are placing it for now. Only the EVO II gets the mission planning, only the EVO II gets to true omnidirectional obstacle avoidance.

Of course, the Lite series will come with far fewer sensors than Autel’s EVO II, hence why omnidirectional obstacle avoidance won’t be coming to the Lite. Hopefully, Autel won’t lock down specific premium software features to the EVO only because it isn’t supported on the Sky app. If the processors on the Lite can support those features, Autel should consider adding them in future updates.

Autel’s table of EVO II’s at its CES booth. Credit: Autel

While DJI announced both the Air 2S and Mavic 3 in the same year, don’t expect an EVO III to come any time soon. In a previous DroneDJ interview, Lee stated the “EVO III is still a ways out. It got leaked pretty early, but those are not the final specs,” but at least we know it’s coming.

Mini and Lite Series Controller

While I didn’t get a chance to fly the Mini or Lite drones, I did get to hold the new controller. Compared to the DJI Mini controller I’ve used in the past, it’s leaps and bounds better and feels way more natural in the hands. When talking with Lee about the process of designing a controller, I described it similar to the classic (I feel old saying that) Xbox 360 controller, in my opinion, the best controller ever made.

We’ve made the foldable controller before; customers just may not have liked it so much due to ergonomics. Then we referenced the tried-and-true video game controllers. Like it just works, it feels nice, and then the internal structure is like, everything is laid out. This thing has been on the market for years and years. If it ain’t broke…

Autel 5 years from now

I talked to many companies while at CES, and each time I tried to end it the same way: “Where do you see your company in 5 to 10 years?” Many startups just wished to have funding still, and some had some bold ideas to improve their products. Lee’s plan for Autel is to continue improving on what they have already done.

We will be continuing to make consumer drones. What you’re seeing is the maturity of our base technology. So we’re going to expand it, make it bigger, and make it smaller. So you will see more Nanos, you will see more Lites, you will see more EVO II’s, and drones of that caliber.

Autel’s enterprise side is where things will start to get interesting. Already Autel makes a great product with the Dragonfish drone lineup. What Lee expects is more autonomous features to come to its products.

As for the enterprise stuff, that’s where we will really go into the autonomous, like L4/L5 autonomy for drones. That’s what you see with our EVO Nest, out in the back, complete autonomous self-charging drone swarms doing autonomous patrol, autonomous mapping. That’s where we would like to be in five years.

EVO II on Autel’s EVO Nest at its CES booth. Credit: Autel

Finally, Lee touched on the drone industry as a whole. While the number of exhibitors was cut back due to COVID-19, drone technology didn’t have a significant presence this year. Lee welcomes the competition and hopes more players enter the space to drive innovation.

We will remain competitive against everybody here on the market, even though there’s less companies out there now for drones. I would like more to join, to see what everybody is doing to expand the market. Competition is great. It gets a bit lonely here at CES being the only manufacturer. Where’s everybody else? What happened to South Hall when we had a whole floor all with all the interesting ideas? So I missed these guys, I do, I truly do.

Both the Nano series and Lite series are available to purchase now on Autel’s website and should be shipping soon. Hopefully, we should soon get you a hands-on review of the drones to help make your decisions easier.

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