A boom in consumer drone sales has spawned a counter-industry of start-ups aiming to stop drones flying where they shouldn't, by disabling them or knocking them out of the sky.
Dozens of start-up firms are developing techniques - from deploying birds of prey to firing gas through a bazooka - to take on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being used to smuggle drugs, drop bombs, spy on enemy lines or buzz public spaces.
The arms race is fed in part by the slow pace of government regulation for drones. "There's a bit of a fear factor here," says Kyle Landry, an analyst at Lux Research.
"The high volume of drones, plus regulations that can't quite keep pace, equals a need for personal counter-drone technology."
The consumer drone market is expected to be worth US$5 billion by 2021, according to market researcher Tractica, with the average drone in the United States costing more than US$500 and packing a range of features from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS, predicts NPD Group, a consultancy.
Australian authorities relaxed drone regulations in September, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification.
Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices - and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.
Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot.
Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are increasingly using off-the- shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a consultancy on weapons.
A booby-trapped drone launched by Isis (Islamic State) militants killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul.
The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread, says Jenzen-Jones. "There's an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones," he told Reuters.
This is feeding demand for increasingly advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones.
At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a start-up called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky, its CEO and founder Sjoerd Hoogendoorn said.
Other approaches focus on netting drones, either via bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute via compressed gas. Some, like Germany's DeDrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors - camera, acoustic, Wi-Fi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners - to passively monitor drones within designated areas.
Newer start-ups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone's direction and payload to then take it over and block its video transmission.
Singapore's TeleRadio Engineering uses RF signals in its SkyDroner device to track and control drones and a video feed to confirm targets visually.
DroneVision Inc of Taiwan says it is the first to anticipate the frequency hopping many drones use.
Founder Kason Shih says his anti-drone gun - resembling a rifle with two oversised barrels, coupled with a backpack - blocks the drone's GPS signals and video transmission, forcing it back to where it took off via the drone's own failsafe features.
High Definition Lighted Drone does more than just record video
Drones do seem to be extremely commonplace these days, and the entry level price continues to drop with each successive generation. Having said that, there are definitely many different kinds of drones out there in the market, and you might be spoilr for choice — to pick from a pocket-sized drone, or something that is more heavyweight? Regardless, the camera quality would definitely play an important factor in the choice of drones. If you want something that is off the beaten path, then the $299.95 High Definition Lighted Drone is worth considering.
This particular drone, as its name suggests, will be able to capture high-definition, live streaming video while making sure those around are aware of its physical presence thanks to an array of highly visible LED lights. The one-key take-off and landing button located on the 2.4 GHz radio remote makes it extremely easy to use, and it will immediately synchronize the drone’s four 6″-long high-efficiency propellers and six-axis gyro stabilization to launch it into stable flight. With its integrated HD camera, it can record and transmit 720p HD video to the remote, with all media stashed away on a SD memory card. The drone can move forward, backward, up, down, or hover in-place; while trim controls allow an operator to precisely dial-in the drone’s flight performance for both indoor and outdoor conditions. A full charge delivers up to 15-minutes of flight time, while the remote runs on half a dozen AA batteries.
DJI exec hints at future pocket-sized camera drones
It's a simple question: How would you sell my Dad a drone? Right now, most drone buyers are professionals, hobbyists or video enthusiasts. That leaves a pretty big number of people not currently browsing for a quadcopter. At least, not yet. My Dad is one of those people, so if you can sell him one, you're onto something. When I asked that question to Adam Najberg, DJI's Global Director of Communications, his answer was simple: "Size is going to be an issue. Also ease of use." So something smaller and simpler. No surprises there. But Najberg represents one of the biggest names in drones, so when he tells me what such a drone might look like, I listen.
"If I can take it out of my jacket pocket and throw it up into the air, or just put it on the ground and push a button, and it goes up and it takes a photo [...] that's the kind of functionality." Right now, DJI makes no such product. Its current consumer series, the Phantom, is probably what most people think of when they imagine a quadcopter. It's portable, with a backpack, but not small by any measure. The flagship Phantom 4 is easy enough to fly, but my pops is unlikely to get past the manual. There are already several "selfie drones" available or in production, but nothing that's really nailed it. DJI is well placed to change this.
It was here at IFA, that DJI chose to announce the $300 Osmo Mobile. A hand-held steady grip for your phone. This is the first product DJI has made aimed at, well, everyone. Previous Osmo grips came with a 4Kcamera built-in, and were priced way out of the casual user's range (until recently, starting at over $700). DJI already has enterprise solutions, and caters to the build your own crowd, so it only follows that the next audience to tap is, well, that elusive everyone else.
A current trend in consumer drones is the use of 360-degree cameras andVR headsets. These are two hot technologies right in general, but I'm not sure how practical they are for mass-market drone appeal. After all, 360 video and VR don't really gain much by adding a drone into the mix, at least not for most people. Najberg agrees. "We're hearing that people want this, but we need to hear it from a big enough swath of the market."
The biggest clue as to where DJI is looking next, perhaps, might not be the Osmo Mobile, but the phone it holds. Much like both VR and 360 cameras, the key to getting people excited about them is make it work with tech that we already have. Google's Cardboard/Daydream, Samsung's Gear VR or the latest mobile-friendly 360 cameras, they all have the phone at their center. DJI realized that the phone in everyone's pocket made them a potential customer for the Osmo Mobile, so why not its drones?
Parrot, Ghost and (my new friend) Dobby all make drones that replace the traditional hand held radio controller with an app on your phone, so when Najberg tells me "What it comes down to is, if you have that phone in your pocket, it can become a controller for a lifestyle drone... then why not?" It's hard not to imagine where this could be applied to DJI. For now though, the company's keeping my old man guessing.