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Will DJI announce a 360 drone? Advantages and disadvantages of a 360 camera drone

DJI's 360 camera drone?
DJI’s 360 camera drone?

Tomorrow, August 23, DJI will be announcing a new drone.  Could it be a 360 drone, and if so, why would it be revolutionary?

Last week, DJI posted a teaser about an announcement on August 23, 10ET in New York.  Here is their teaser trailer:

“For more than a decade, we’ve taken the dimension of space to give you freedom of flight.  But did you think we’d stop there?” asks the narrator.  “Let us take you beyond the horizon, where something incredible awaits.  It’s about time.”   The video then shows the slogan, “See the bigger picture.”

Many people in the drone community believe that the announcement will be a consumer drone with an optical zoom.  Until now, optical zoom was a capability reserved for professional cameras such as the DJI Inspire.  There is evidence for this in the video, which includes a segment with a dolly zoom, which is accomplished by zooming in as the camera moves back (or vice-versa).

However, the video seems to imply that the drone will be revolutionary, and adding an optical zoom would be welcome, but not really as groundbreaking as the video suggests.

In the 360 community, there are whispers about whether the new drone could be a 360 camera drone.  If so, that would indeed be amazing and could revolutionize the drone industry.  Here’s why.

Advantages of a 360 camera drone

1. No gimbal.  The most immediate benefit of a 360 drone is that it would eliminate the need for a gimbal.  Instead, the virtual camera would be panned and tilted electronically.

2. Super stabilization.  360 photos and videos can rotated to stabilize a video without loss of image quality from electronic stabilization.

3.  Never miss a thing.  Since a 360 camera captures everything, you’ll never miss a shot, as long as the camera is rolling.  It’s great for photos and videos of the unexpected.

4.  Track multiple subjects.  Because 360 cameras see everywhere around them, they can be use to track multiple subjects.  For example if there are two snowboarders riding down a mountain, a 360 drone could track both of them, no matter how quickly they move.

5. Single operator.  With a conventional drone, it is difficult to both fly the drone while controlling the camera.  Indeed, some drones allow the drone to be controlled by two users – one to pilot the drone while the other controls the camera.  With a 360 camera, a single operator will be able to control the drone.  The camera can be ‘controlled’ in postprocessing.

6.  Instant tiny planets.   With a 360 camera, you can capture tiny planets instantly, and even create tiny planet videos.

7. VR.  With a 360 camera, the aerial video could be viewed on a VR headset to provide an immersive view.  Here is an excellent sample of an aerial 360 video, which you can view in a VR headset:

8. Potentially “invisible” drone.  In the aerial video above, the drone was made invisible through masking.  But a 360 camera drone can be designed to make the drone appear invisible with minimal postprocessing.  All you’ll need is to put one lens above the drone, and another below it.  Because the drone is between the lenses, then it doesn’t appear in the shot.  Here’s a DIY version of a 360 drone that I made using two 360 cameras.:

Here is a 360 video from a drone that uses Kodak’s Aerial kit with two hemispherical 360 cameras, which looks like an invisible flying camera.

But is this wishful thinking?  Is there really evidence that the new drone is a 360 drone?

Why the new DJI drone may be a 360 drone

One of the strongest proponents of the 360 drone theory is a drone review website called Half Chrome.  They’ve even designed their own 360 camera drone.  Here is their video:

As Half Chrome stated, DJI produced a video for a drone concept they called Phantom X.  Most people in the drone industry focused on the fact that the drone could be launched by throwing it, or the fact that it could be controlled by hand motions, or that you could use several of the drones for a multi-cam shot.   But the concept also shows that the Phantom X doesn’t have a gimbal and instead appears to use a 360 camera.

The Phantom X video was posted 3 years ago, and it could be that DJI has finally decided to create a 360 drone.

Half Chrome also pointed to the DJI Spark’s Sphere Mode as a possible precedent for DJI.  Here is a video by my friend Ben Claremont showing the DJI Spark’s Sphere Mode:

I agree with Half Chrome’s reasoning.  In addition, the slogan “Bigger picture” might be referring to the wider angle of a 360 camera.  There are also scenes in the video that seem to allude to a 360 photo.

A scene from DJI's teaser
A scene from DJI’s teaser

And although DJI is a global company, 360 is huge in China, where it is based.  Many people in China are aware of them, and there appears to be a healthy demand for 360 cameras in China.  So much so that a legion of small 360 camera companies have sprung up to create their own branded version of a 360 camera.

Possible disadvantages of a 360 drone

A 360 camera drone is not without weaknesses.  One likely disadvantage is the lower image quality compared to a conventional drone camera.  That’s because when you view a 360 photo or video, you are usually seeing only a small crop from the entire photo or video.  As a result, 360 videos are less detailed than most non-360 videos.

Another disadvantage is the longer workflow.  Most 360 cameras have two or more lenses, and the images from the lenses have to be combined (“stitched”) into a 360 photo or video.  Depending on the resolution and the stitching method, stitching can take a while, and for some 360 cameras, can only be done on a desktop or only on a smartphone.

Stitching is also quite challenging and requires its own expertise.  Some 360 camera companies have yet to produce decent stitching software.  DJI has never created a 360 camera, so we don’t know if they can develop an expertise for stitching.  Their DJI Spark stitching suggests that they haven’t mastered stitching technology.

A 180 drone?

There is one more possibility.  The new drone could use a single hemispherical camera.  Such a drone would have several of the advantages of a 360 camera drone, except that the video wouldn’t be as stable.  No gimbal? Check. Track multiple subjects? Check.  Tiny planets? Check.

At the same time, a hemispherical camera would avoid the need for stitching and would cost less to produce, thus decreasing the economic risk of producing such a drone.  One challenge is that the drone will pitch and roll in order to move.  If so, the video would be quite unstable and with only a hemisphere to work with, it would be difficult to stabilize it.

What do you think?  Will DJI’s new drone be a 360 drone? A 180 drone? A drone with optical zoom? Or something else?  Let me know in the comments!  (IF indeed the drone is a 360 or 180 drone you I’m going to do everything I can to review it!)

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Mic Ty

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