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Here's why GoPro wants to make its own drones

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A fast-growing market in a complimentary product is an opportunity it can't afford to miss

Drone with gopro
Drone with gopro

GoPro, the maker of the popular action cam, is reportedly working on its own line of consumer drones with plans to launch sometime next year. The unit will be priced somewhere between $500 and $1,000, putting it into competition with drones from DJI, Parrot, and 3D Robotics.

Why is GoPro bothering to sell its own drones, as opposed to simply partnering with one of the existing players? After all, lots of drones already have a mount for GoPro cameras, and those that don’t often work with custom gimbals to which a GoPro can attach. Wouldn’t GoPro be better off sticking to its roots and enjoying the spoils by proxy?

Drones and cameras are complimentary products

Flush with cash from its recent IPO, GoPro can afford to take a gamble on a new product line in an effort to diversify its revenue streams. Drones are also a marvelously complementary product: buy a drone, and suddenly you will have a lot better reason to upgrade to their next camera, or vice versa. And as companies like DJI and Parrot introduce drones with their own built-in cameras, GoPro wants to avoid getting cut out of the action. GoPro also has ambitions of being a media company, helping to shoot and distribute real-life adventure footage. Drones already play a big role in shooting insane video of skiers, surfers, and other outdoor athletes, and it stands to reason that GoPro would want to be a one-stop shop for getting those shots.

Fortunately for GoPro, it won’t be that tough for it to build a highly competitive unit. Drones, in some ways, are just like the remote control helicopters people have been flying for decades. Add a couple extra rotors, strap on a camera, sure — but at their most basic level, they’re just RC quadcopters. The additional smarts packed inside drones are, for the most part, commodity hardware born of the mobile era.

Drones are the peace dividend of smartphone wars

"The components in a smartphone -- the sensors, the GPS, the camera, the ARM core processors, the wireless, the memory, the battery -- all that stuff, which is being driven by the incredible economies of scale and innovation machines at Apple, Google, and others, is available for a few dollars. They were essentially ‘unobtainium’ 10 years ago. This is stuff that used to be military industrial technology; you can buy it at RadioShack now," explains Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired who left to start 3D Robotics. This transformation, what Anderson calls the peace dividend of the smartphone wars, makes it possible for GoPro to create its own drone in just a year or two, without breaking the bank on R&D.

Getting into consumer-focused drones is a whole lot easier than commercial ones. Google and Amazon, who both have ambitions to own your shopping experience, are looking into the potential for drones to act as autonomous aerial delivery services, but the FAA has yet to provide clear rules about how such drones can be used, keeping new business ventures on ice. The largely unregulated market for consumer drones, on the other hand, is exploding. In the last month, exciting new units have arrived from DJI and Parrot, while 3D Robotics has hired DJI’s former North American CEO Colin Guinn and is promising its own consumer competitor soon.

GoPro is flying into an increasingly competitive market

GoPro, therefore, is stepping into a crowded playing field. Its well-established brand and credibility in the very markets it’s trying to capture will surely help it to move some units, especially if GoPro’s athletic celebrities help with the marketing push. Over the long term it will have to compete with these other companies on specs, price, and performance, but for now, the drone market is far from saturated. There is still plenty of room to introduce consumers to the space for the first time and to delight them with a unit, which — considering the price — might not be the most powerful offering.

The CEO of DJI, speaking recently at the launch event for its new Inspire One, called the unit not a drone, but an "aerial camera." His perspective makes sense. We call these new devices drones, for lack of a better term, but they are really aircraft, cameras, and a smartphone bundled into one. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what they will allow us to do yet, or how big the consumer market for them could get. GoPro wants in on that action.