What we know about the Airpeak drone

Sony teased its plans to enter the drone market for months, but we had few specifics until recently. Finally, this week, the company revealed several important details about its first model, the Airpeak S1, which gives us a look at the features and design philosophy Sony has prioritized.

The S1’s expected price tag of $8999 (before adding a camera or gimbal) tells us a lot upfront: notably, that it’s not aimed at consumers or even prosumers. However, it’s interesting to look at what Sony has in the works as it can give us hints about its intentions in the drone market.

Target audience

Sony says the Airpeak S1 is a professional drone aimed at creatives like cinematographers or other commercial content creators. In fact, it looks like Airpeak isn’t just a drone, but a drone with support tools aimed at professional users and even fleet managers.

From a competitive standpoint, the S1 falls somewhere between the DJI Inspire 2 and a larger model like the DJI Matrice 600 series. It’s similar in size to the Inspire 2 and X7 camera module, which has a Super35 sensor, but Sony says it has the heavy lifting capacity to compete with the Matrice.

However, Sony calls out five key areas where it believes the Airpeak S1 bests the competition with regard to pro-oriented features: performance, flight stability, camera and lens compatibility, intuitive control and workflow efficiency. We’ll take a look at each of these areas and more on the upcoming slides.

Performance

Sony says the Airpeak S1 has the fastest acceleration in the industry, going from 0-80 km/h (0-50 mph) in just 3.5 seconds, compared with 5.0 seconds for the DJI Inspire 2, and has a maximum speed of 90 km/h (56 mph). Notably, Sony cites these numbers with ‘no payload attached’, meaning no cameras or gimbals were attached to the drones. Still, in a side-by-side video the company shared at a press briefing, the S1 easily out-accelerated the Inspire 2.

Sony also claims the S1 can remain stable in winds up to 72 km/h (45 mph), which is impressive. It’s possible to see this in a wind tunnel test (YouTube link) the company performed at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The S1 definitely benefits from its large 17-inch rotors and its ability to pitch up to 55º in flight.

The elephant in the room is flight time. With the gimbal and camera attached, the S1 can only stay in the air for 12 minutes. That may not seem long compared to many consumer models, but in a commercial setting, it may be enough time to get in the air, shoot a take, then return to base while everything gets set up again for the next take – which isn’t so bad if you have a bank of batteries on hand to swap out.

Flight stability

The Airpeak S1 draws on Sony’s real-time sensing and imaging technologies, not just from its camera division but also from its experience in other robotics and imaging areas.

The drone includes five sets of stereo cameras and two IR range sensors. When combined with Sony’s image processing technology, the drone creates a 3D map of its position and orientation and any nearby objects to create an obstacle avoidance system that Sony calls a ‘surround obstacle brake’.

Sony claims the system works well enough to provide extremely stable flight, even when indoors and without a GPS signal. When combined with its exceptional wind resistance, it has the potential to provide a very stable platform to shoot from.

Camera and lens support

The Airpeak S1 will support most of Sony’s newer full-frame camera models, specifically the a1, a9 II, a7S III, a7R IV and the FX3. Additionally, it will support Sony E-mount lenses ranging from 14mm to 85mm, though it did not provide a detailed list.

The only part of the Airpeak system that Sony doesn’t make is the gimbal. Sony has opted to partner with Gremsy, a gimbal manufacturer, to make a bespoke gimbal for the Airpeak drone. According to Sony, it’s based on the Gremsy T3, which currently retails for $1750 in the US. Once mounted, a camera will connect to the drone using two interfaces: a USB connection for camera control and an HDMI connection for video.

It’s interesting to compare the design philosophies between Sony and industry-leader DJI in this area. DJI built its Zenmuse X7 camera from the ground up to be a lightweight aerial system, with no external controls and lenses built from carbon fiber. But DJI didn’t have a legacy line of cameras to support. In contrast, Sony has a line of existing cameras and lenses and has designed a way to get them into the air.

Both strategies have pros and cons. DJI’s solution is tightly integrated and efficient, though you’re effectively limited to the X7 camera. Sony’s approach is a bit less elegant, but you’ll presumably be able to put any new alpha model that comes out on the Airpeak drone.

Controls

The Airpeak’s physical controller pairs with an iPad running an app called, appropriately enough, Airpeak Flight. According to Sony, Airpeak Flight will be iOS-only for now, given the iPad’s dominance in the market among professional users. Dual-mode operation is also available, allowing one operator to fly the aircraft using the forward camera while a second operator with a separate controller operates the camera and gimbal.

The hardware on the Airpeak controller doesn’t break any significant new ground, but as we’ll see, the Airpeak Flight app integrates into the workflow for planning flights.

Workflow

Part of the Airpeak ecosystem is a web app called Airpeak Base. Airpeak Base can be used to pre-program flight paths on a map, including specific latitude, longitude, altitude, gimbal orientation, and video or stills capture, which can then appear in and be executed through the Airpeak Fly app. This could be useful when planning an exact sequence that has to be flown repeatedly, such as on a choreographed shoot.

In addition to flight planning, the Airpeak Base app can also be used to manage a fleet of drones and to view logbooks, which is important to commercial operators.

Finally, Sony says the Airpeak will support automated flight modes, though it didn’t provide specifics.

Size

With a diagonal size of 644mm (25.4 inches), the Airpeak is physically similar in size to the DJI Inspire 2 (pictured above), which is just slightly smaller at 605mm (23.9 inches). However, despite the relatively small difference in dimensions, there are important differences in design.

Whereas the Inspire 2 is designed to lift dedicated, drone-specific cameras (the Zenmuse X7 or X5S), Sony describes the Airpeak as a ‘heavy lifter’ and likes to compare it to the much larger DJI Matrice 600, which is frequently used to fly heavier tools like pro cinema cameras. Sony says the Airpeak has a lift capacity of 2.5kg (5.6 pounds). Of course, the only payloads we know of today that it will carry are its custom Gremsy gimbal and a compatible Sony camera, but that could change in the future.

Geofencing

One of the first questions we get about every new drone is, ‘Does it have geofencing’? According to Sony, the Airpeak will include a geofencing feature similar to other drones, but a spokesperson for the company said, ‘It will likely be a user decision to unlock geofencing if they believe they have permission to fly somewhere.’

We get the impression that Sony is still working out details on some of these things, and that’s not surprising given that a formal product launch is still several months out. So we’ll probably have to wait a bit to find out exactly how Sony’s geofencing system works.

It’s made in Japan

We wouldn’t normally make a point of calling out where a product is manufactured, but in this case, we’re doing it because Sony itself made a point of calling it out.

Sony was very clear that the Airpeak is designed and manufactured in Japan. While not specifically mentioning DJI or its country of origin, this point seems aimed at recent concerns about data privacy and whether one’s drone data may be transmitted, stored, or used in ways an owner might oppose. For what it’s worth, the Pentagon recently cleared DJI’s drones for use after a temporary suspension and review.

Price and availability

The Airpeak S1 is expected to arrive in the fall of 2021, but if you want to fly it, it won’t be cheap. The drone itself will be $8999, to which you’ll need to add a gimbal and a Sony camera. We don’t yet know Sony’s custom gimbal cost for the S1, but the similar Gremsy T3 is $1750, so that’s probably a good guide.

Along with the drone, you’ll get two batteries, a charger and two sets of propellers, but you’ll be on your own for the iPad.

We expect Airpeak will appeal mainly to commercial users who have a business case for using it. However, if you want the ultimate photo drone, it’s one way to put your favorite Sony full-frame camera in the air – at least for short periods of time. What will be interesting to watch is where Sony goes from here, but we hope to see some of this tech trickle down into more consumer-oriented products.

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