Mavic Pro

Last year at CES, it was clear that virtual reality was the one market that every company was vying to show allegiance to, with random VR booths placed seemingly everywhere. This year, drones played that role. To a certain degree, these drones are an unlikely mascot for cutting-edge tech, given how closely they resemble the gifts that ended up in so many eager kids' hands this holiday season. But it's clear that drones are much more than mere children's toys. Indeed, they are very big business, so let us count the ways.

First, you have the photography and videography markets, where high-end drones have established themselves as practically essential. DJI, a crafty company based in Szenzhen, China, is the clear leader, having been founded in 2006 and pulling in $1 billion in revenue in 2015 (and no doubt much more in 2016). In establishing itself as a premium brand in a market full of copycats, DJI has been able to sell its products at huge premiums, locking in retail prices that further buttress its claim to quality. Its two newest models were prominently on display at CES, and DJI had rented floor space in multiple halls of the convention center to make sure they weren't missed! First you have the Phantom 4 Pro, the $1,500 tool for 4K videographers, and  then you have the $1,000 Mavic Pro, which DJI is marketing as a hobby drone, i.e., it operates a lot like a much bigger version of the toy drones so many kids have been bouncing off of their bedroom walls for the past few weeks. We had the chance to take the Mavic Pro for a spin, and indeed, it's an ultra-athletic little beast, responding instantaneously and making even amateur pilots look good from the start.

DJI

Vivitar

But while DJI had the most dedicated floor space of any drone manufacturer (with its competitor Yuneec following close behind), there were plenty of other companies hoping to demonstrate that they too had true drone chops. We saw a number of imaging companies showing off drones, potentially trying to ignite some new passion for the imaging industry in light of the steep dropoff in interest in camera tech more generally. Vivitar was one of these companies, showing off their own DJI knock-off paired up with a set of Vivitar-branded VR goggles.

Similarly, we saw a number of companies showing off commercial drones, the most interesting being the agricultural sprayer pictured below, which looks like it could come straight off a movie set. Indeed, robotic crop dusters were featured prominently in both the 2012 time travel film Looper and the 2014 blockbuster space travel film Interstellar. Well, apparently, we won't need to wait another 25-50 years, as predicted in those movies, for robots to take care of our crops for us!

sprayer

MB

And while drones were at practically every booth, perhaps the most surprising drone spotting was at the dignified booth of luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz, which was showing off its uniquely-sci-fi Vision Van, equipped with two autonomous drones that could be dispatched by mobile operators and then returned to their rooftop perch when their mission was complete. While M-B has marketed this concept for purposes of package delivery, we can think of a more likely application: film makers looking to shoot action scenes over large distances without the need for helicopters. Whether a company like Mercedes-Benz is really best-positioned to market a product like this remains to be seen, but there would surely also be demand among police departments and other security agencies.

As for package delivery by drone, we're still waiting for Amazon, which has talked up the concept on multiple occasions, to prove there's a need for it. In reality, delivery-by-drone may in fact find its footing once AI vehicles become more than proof of concept. An autonomous delivery truck can get a package most of the way to its destination, at lower cost and lower risk than aerial drones. For front door delivery, however, the combination of large autonomous vehicles and small autonomous drones may leverage two seemingly disconnected technologies in one very coherent application.

So, in the end, we think it's pretty clear that 2017 was the year of the drone, a most unlikely mascot for a sprawling tech industry. While most consumers probably still think drones are nothing more than disposable gimmicks to be used once and then tossed in a drawer (likely having suffered irreparable harm in a collision with a wall, tree, or deck chair), plenty of companies big and small are spending significant amounts of cash in a valiant attempt to prove that drones can and should play a very central role in our lives in the near future.

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