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Watch Your Heads!

Drones of all types will be flying high at CES 2017 after selling 1.2 million units during the 2016 holidays, a 112 percent increase over 2015, per CTA. Drone sales hit record heights last year, topping 2.4 million units and $799 million in shipment revenues (an 80 percent increase from 2015). CTA’s forecast also broke down expected U.S. drone sales for units below and above 0.55 pounds, the FAA’s division for mandatory drone registration, expected to reach 1.6 million (below 0.55 pounds) and 825,000 (above that weight to a maximum of 55 pounds).

You really don’t have to watch for errant drones (a.k.a. unmanned aircraft systems) in Las Vegas since they’ll be safely ensconced in consumer-friendly protective displays. To see the latest models in action, stop by LVCC South Hall 2 and Sands, Level 2, Halls A-D. Close to 40 companies will be showing their wares.

The drone market is a classic case of an innovative product that seemingly came out of nowhere to become mainstream with headlines—some good, some bad—regarding their impact on society. We’ll leave that subject to the professors but we can state without debate record numbers were purchased in 2016. With falling prices and more value-added features, sales are expected to sizzle in 2017 and beyond. From a hobbyist category drones became staples among many top retailers including Best Buy which highlighted drones in their Sunday flyers before the holidays, with prices ranging between $399 and $1,499.

New to drones? Don’t expect to see many well-known global electronics brands in the thick of the competition. Top names include DJI, Yuneec, Autel and Parrot. GoPro’s Karma made a foray into the market last year and crash landed after being recalled for technical flaws. A question at the show will be whether the Karma will be re-released in 2017.

The drone market is broken into distinct segment as can be seen in Las Vegas. There are the lightweight quadcopters that are more like RC toys. They typically sell for $30-$300. At $400-and-up price points, drones add critical capabilities such as built-in cameras with gimbal mounts and GPS for more accurate navigation. In this category, drones require $5 FAA licenses for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). To be specific, the licenses are for hobbyists–not commercial use—targeted to drones weighing between .55 and 55 pounds.

This later area has seen strong growth as prices have dropped and features have improved particularly in camera/camcorder specifications. For example, DJI’s new Phantom 4 Pro ($1,499) features a 1-inch 20MP Sony Exmor R CMOS sensor, the kind found in that company’s RX100/RX10 series of enthusiast cameras. The Pro not only takes high-quality stills and 4K videos, it can automatically avoid obstacles, track moving subjects and has a 30-minute flight time.

DJI will be here and so you can see this and its other popular models in action. The highly-anticipated Mavic Pro, with a scheduled January 15th release date, takes 4K videos and has a 12MP still camera mounted on a 3-axis gimbal for smoother results. It has 27 minutes of flight time, a control range of 4.3 miles and can zip along at up to 65 mph. According to industry scuttlebutt, the foldable, lightweight Pro has massive pre-orders. Whether this is true remains to be seen but it gives an indication of the demand for these sophisticated devices.

Yuneec may not be the most recognized brand in the world but it’s hot among drone cognoscenti especially its Typhoon series here at the show. The Typhoon H with RealSense ($1,399) is one of the first consumer drones to feature this technology which was demonstrated at the Intel keynote at CES 2016. We saw that demo and were amazed as the drone zipped around obstacles on stage. Now consumers are buying and using this technology. The Typhoon H not only has this avoidance technology, it has 4K UHD camera with a 3-axis gimbal, takes 12MP stills and has 25 minutes of flight time.

These models are at the high-end of the consumer drone market and the major brands offer a variety of less expensive models, targeting beginners through serious, experienced aviators. One of the most popular models of 2016 was DJI’s Phantom 3 Standard ($499) which was Amazon’s #1 seller in the category. It doesn’t have all the bells-and-whistles of the Phantom 4 Pro but it has a built-in GPS and a camera mounted on a 3-axis gimbal that captures Full HD videos.

Drone manufacturers have created an entirely new, innovative category many online and brick-and-motor retailers have embraced. And you don’t have to keep your head down when you check them out …