From cheap toy robo-balls to expensive camera-mounted octocopters, unmanned aerial vehicles swarmed the nation's preeminent orgy of electronics; drones of every stripe haunted the halls of CES this year. UAVs were around every corner, not only on display at drone manufacturers' booths, but touted by photography and outdoor recreation companies, too. Doing drones is officially a symbol of not just techie but mainstream consumerist cachet.
Not only that, but CES is the cream of the crop for consumer electronics—the top drones you'll find on display here are the best that money can buy.
The two best known consumer drones, DJI's Phantom and Parrot's AR.Drone, were there, sure. DJI showed off its Phantom 2 model, which comes equipped with a wi-fi-enabled HD camera, while Parrot had a small fleet of AR.Drone 2.0s dance in unison in midair. The Phantom 2, a more serious hobbyist model that can soar up to nearly 1,000 feet in the air, starts at $869, while the AR 2.0, which you can control via an app on your smartphone, is $369.
There was also a curious dark horse competitor, a Phantom-like drone called the Toruk made by a Chinese company called AEE. It boasts a stabilizer that allows flight in the rain, and four 3300mAh batteries, with 25 minutes flight time each. It was listed for $900.
DJI's more heavy duty models, like the S800 EVO, are designed to lift powerful camera equipment into the skies—the BBC just bought one to use in reporting, a representative told me—and cost upwards of $4,000. There's a new octocopter variant, the Spreading Wings S1000, on the horizon too.
The S800 EVO, Image: DJI. Inset image: the AEE Toruk/Derek Mead
Elsewhere in drone toydom, a company called Sphero showed off fast-rolling cylinders that are essentially remote controlled orbs. CES-goers were encouraged to take control of them in a sort of obstacle-laden ball pit, using a smartphone app.
But the biggest stars of the drone show, naturally, aren't commercially available yet. Parrot's two brand new offerings, the Mini Drone (pictured above), and the Sumo Jumper, were the most inventive of the lot.
We'll have more on the French company's drone feats soon, but suffice to say that their drone toys are head and shoulders above the rest—mostly because they're controlled entirely by a responsive, intuitive smartphone app.
The Sumo Jumper isn't airborne at all—it's a two-wheeled ground drone that you can steer with a tablet. Its camera also gives you a drone's eye view of where it's going on your screen, and steering it through the lens feels like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meets Mario Kart. Actually, Parrot's engineer says he built the Sumo explicitly to mimic the play mechanics of the Mario games—as such, pressing a button spurs Sumo to leap two feet into the air.
Parrot's Sumo Jumper, Image: Derek Mead. Inset: Sphero's orb-like drones' obstacle course.
There's clearly a drone craze on, and while it's still primarily the province of hobbyist tech enthusiasts, the degree to which companies strive to innovate or simply be associated with drones is only expanding. The big question now is where it can go from here, from a consumer standpoint—drones are fun to fly and they're good for aerial photography and mapping, and maybe they'll deliver stuff, eventually. But few of the representatives had many ideas for the next applications for consumer drones that might be on the horizon (that they were willing to share, anyway). And toys and flying cameras are fun, but hardly integral to the fabric of society, future or no.
Which makes sense—drones are the functional descendent of the thoroughly nerdy RC plane; they got an injection of edginess due to their big brothers' militaristic misdeeds. Time will tell if drones will be an important and dynamic consumer force, or an interesting iteration of a passing recreational fad. Right now, though, judging by the crowds and the still-awed looks as they buzz overhead, everyone wants one. For the moment, we're droning on.