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DJI launches new Zenmuse Z3 drone camera with built-in optical zoom

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Built for industrial applications, like search-and-rescue or surveying

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Drone maker DJI has launched a new aerial camera for its range of UAVs — the first from the company to offer a built-in optical zoom. The Zenmuse Z3 costs $899, weighs 262 grams, and has the same Sony-built 1/2.3-inch camera sensor found in DJI's Inspire 1 and Phantom 4. It can shoot video at 4K at up to 30 frames per second and captures images at a resolution of 12-megapixels. And, of course, there's that zoom.

The Z3 has up to 7x zoom, combining a 3.5x optical zoom and a 2x digital zoom. DJI is positioning the Z3 primarily as a tool for "industrial applications." If you use a drone for surveillance or surveying, then normally the only way to get a closer look is to physically fly closer. "Now," says DJI senior product manager Paul Pan, "pilots in a search-and-rescue situation, or conducting surveys or inspections, can maintain distance and still zoom in for sharp, detailed images."

The Zenmuse Z3 is compatible with the Inspire 1, Matrice 100, and Matrice 600 drones. It uses DJI's Lightbridge and Lightbridge 2 video transmission tech, which the company says can send live HD video up to a distance of 3.1 miles (5 kilometers). The zoom is controlled by swiping on DJI's standard app and the camera has a custom "reaction wheel" on its yaw control, allowing for more precise and controlled movement when the camera is zoomed in.

DJI isn't the first company to offer a drone-mounted camera with zoom, and the Z3 isn't the most powerful available (the Aeryon HDZoom30 for example, offers a 30 x optical zoom). But DJI is still the biggest player in the market, and widening its range of products to cater for professionals as well as regular consumers is a smart and expected move. It's also worth remembering that features like this are only going to become more common for drones, which will almost certainly raise further worries about privacy and surveillance.