Sony Airpeak review: Sony’s Alpha cameras can fly (just not for very long)

Maybe you’re seeking a way to fly the Sony Alpha full frame cameras. Perhaps you need an ultra-reliable drone for enterprise operations that has obstacle avoidance and holds up in high winds. Or you’re you’re seeking a drone that’s specifically not made in China (or just that doesn’t come with DJI). The Sony Airpeak drone checks all those boxes. So with that, here’s my Sony Airpeak review of the Airpeak S1 drone:

A brief history of the Sony Airpeak

The Sony Airpeak S1 was first teased at CES 2021 as the world‘s smallest drone that can carry a full frame Alpha series mirrorless camera. It initially targeted serious photographers given its capability to carry the company’s beloved line of Alpha mirrorless cameras. Sony is one of the largest camera makers in the world, and its line of Alpha series is largely considered one of the best.

But until 2021, there was a void: no great drones could hold the Sony Alpha camera and hold the integration in controls within the pilot’s fingertips. There were other heavy-lift drones out there that could carry cinema-quality cameras like the RED Digital Cinemas, but most had a relatively high degree of DIY-droning involved — cobbling together parts from different manufacturers and hoping they worked together (if they were even available).

Then there were workhorse drones like the Inspire 2, which is an incredible high-quality, powerful quadcopter that’s still fairly easy to fly — and also not quite as large as many competitors. But the Inspire 2 only supports DJI in-house cameras, such as the Zenmuse X4S, Zenmuse X5S and Zenmuse X7. For folks seeking to fly something different, that wouldn’t work.

The ability to hold the Alpha in an integrated mid-size, heavy-lift package promised to be a game-changer. So is it actually a game-changer?

Sally French, The Drone Girl, testing out the Airpeak S1 for a Sony Airpeak review.

I flew it for myself for the first time in March 2023. I spent a weekend with it, using it for test flights representative of all sorts of applications. I took it out over the water to film some jet ski athletes, and I used it to make a LiDAR map. I flew it in sun and in light drizzle. So with that, here’s my full Sony Airpeak review:

Sony Airpeak review: the S1 drone itself

The Airpeak is a quadcopter drone weighing nearly 7 lbs (and that’s before you strap on gimbals, batteries or the camera). It’s designed to carry the Sony Alpha series of full frame cameras, and can fly payloads up to 5 lbs and 9 ounces.

Some folks find the quadcopter style of this heavy-lifting drone to be a turnoff. That’s as opposed to something like a hex or octcopter, which provide for redundancies if one of the rotors dies off. While I found the drone itself to be robust and powerful, that is certainly a risk, considering that the drone is usually worth closer to $20,000 once the gimbal and camera get wrapped in (and you likely don’t want to crash your Sony Alpha series camera).

Cost

$17,000? On the surface, the Airpeak drone itself costs $9,000, but that’s hardly what you’ll pay for it. You’ll need your own camera and lenses. Should you need a gimbal, that’s also not included.

I’ll outline more later what sorts of cameras this drone is compatible with, but expect to pay an additional $2,000+ for the gimbal, between $1,800 and $6,500 for the camera body, and we’ll say at least $1,000 for the lens.

This is not the drone for a casual photographer seeking an alternative camera drone to DJI. That is, unless you’re ultra-rich and money is not an object at all.

Given the price point alone, this drone is clearly for serious photographers taking cinema-quality footage (perhaps for films, TV commercials or billboard-type advertisements. On the enterprise end, it’s for high-budget businesses, especially those looking for the highest-quality drone at all costs (and particularly a non-Chinese made drone).

How it flies

For folks who have never flown a heavy-lift drone before, the Sony Airpeak S1 might look intimidating. With a 25.5 inch diagonal wheelbase (and that’s without propellers) it’s certainly a huge drone. The propellers themselves are 17 inches, which is almost twice as big as the propellers on the DJI Mavic 3 series (the propellers do not fold either).

But once you get your hands on the sticks, you’ll realize it’s actually one of the easiest drones to fly — in a sense feeling like a small, manageable drone. This drone is really confidence-inspiring for hesitant pilots. Takeoff and landing feel basically automatic. The drone has landing gear that raises and lowers automatically. Once in flight, the maneuvers are the same as any other drone, and there are toggles to even fly it FPV style.

It remains stable in enclosed spaces or when out of range of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).

The controller is included.

The drone flies through a controller, which has customizable buttons. The controller works with the “Airpeak Flight” app to control the drone (and see what it’s seeing) in flight. There’s also an “Airpeak Base” web app for integrated management of flight plans, flight logs, and equipment.

Powerful in heavy winds

I flew in San Diego in February during California’s unexpectedly turbulent storms, and the drone held up with no problems. It has a maximal wind resistance of 44.7 mph (that’s 20m/s, and also assumes no payload), which is more than what you’ll find on the Matrice 300 RTK (the DJI Matrice 300 RTK has a max wind resistance of 33.5 mph or 15 m/s).

It can fly in temperatures as cold as 14℉ and as warm as 104 ℉.

Sony Airpeak drone safety features

This drone can cater to any pilot, whether absolutely beginner or seasoned pros. A huge reason for that is what’s considered the most crucial safety feature: multi-directional sensing, coupled with an obstacle braking function (so if the drone senses an object in its path, it’ll hover but not crash into it). But it doesn’t just brake abruptly, as is the case with many other drones. The Airpeak’s vision sensors enable it to see roughly 180 feet (55 meters) away. Given that, the drone is able to sense and object and slow down rather than come to a sudden halt.

Depending on the use case, advanced pilots might choose to turn off those sensors (the vision sensors are a stereo camera in front, back, right, left and downward directions).

Sony Airpeak battery life

This is the biggest area where the Sony Airpeak falls flat: battery life. While Sony touts this drone as having 22 minutes of battery life in most of its marketing materials, it’s actually far from that. That’s without a payload, which is an unlikely use case. Add in most common payloads, like an Alpha camera and gimbal, and the battery life drops down to 12 minutes. Account for time to fly the drone from its takeoff site to where it actually needs to gather images, plus some safety buffer time, and that’s painfully lacking flight time.

While the battery life itself is atrocious, there is some good news: batteries are hot swappable. That basically means you don’t have to completely power down the aircraft to change batteries.

Typically when you buy the Airpeak, it comes with two batteries. You can buy spares for $230 each. But the cost is hardly the annoyance here; it’s that individual flights are dramatically limited.

When I fly drones on my own, my extremely cautious self typically perceives the 10-minute mark as the time to start returning to home. With the Airpeak, the 10 minute mark occurs when you’ve just gotten started.

The Airpeak would be an excellent tool for filming many types of action sports.

Using the Sony Airpeak drone for cinematography

DJI started off making drones that didn’t have cameras, so it had to learn how to become a camera company after becoming a robotics company. On the other hand, Sony had an interesting leg-up. Most folks agree that the line of Alpha cameras is a great product, so — when Sony made the decision to build a camera drone — it really only had to build the drone itself as the camera was already made.

The Sony Airpeak is compatible with the following Sony cameras:

It’s compatible with the following lenses:

  • SELP1635
  • SEL14F18GM
  • SEL20F18G
  • SEL24F14GM
  • SEL24F28G
  • SEL28F20
  • SEL35F28Z
  • SEL35F18F
  • SEL40F25G
  • SEL50F25G
  • SEL50F18F
  • SEL50M28
  • SEL55F18Z
  • SEL85F18

Though note that when using some wide-angled lenses, the aircraft itself can occasionally partially obstruct the shot, particularly when sharply moving. It’s also compatible with lenses up to 100mm; that’s to avoid the lens accidentally contacting the landing gear or the ground.

I’ll spare you the review of each individual Sony camera (the other big camera blogs can give you far more comprehensive reviews of these cameras than I can). But know that, because the Sony Airpeak supports all of the above, there are so many kinds and combinations of cameras and lenses you can use with this drone, unlocking massive potential in the kinds of photos and videos that this drone can take. Choose the camera you want with the lens you want to enable your vision to shine.

There are a few other notes on using the Sony Airpeak drone for photography:

  • The entire camera system, including body, lens and potential extras like lens filter or hood, cannot weigh more than 1.1 kg.
  • You can fly this drone via dual operator capabilities, so one person can focus on flying the drone while the other person can maneuver the gimbal.
For most use cases, you’ll want a gimbal. The Gremsy Gimbal T3 for Airpeak S1 drone costs an additional $2,200.

The Sony Airpeak gimbal

For now, the Sony Airpeak S1 drone is only compatible with one gimbal, the GBL-T3 from Gremsy. Gremsy is a Vietnamese gimbal maker that is known for gimbals including the Gremsy T3, Gremsy S1, Pixy F, and Pixy U. Its products are used in a variety of enterprise and cinema drones, including German-based Digicopter and some Auterion-powered drone platforms.

And it integrates seamlessly with the Airpeak, too. It’s easy to use, conveniently connecting to the Airpeak S1 via a quick release mechanism. It offers 345° of panning and 120° of tilt adjustment.

The kicker is that it doesn’t come with the drone; it comes at an additional cost. The Gremsy gimbal typically sells for $2,200, and it’s a must-have if you intend to use this drone for aerial videography.

The gimbal itself weighs 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg), or 3.1 pounds (1.4 kg) when you factor in the damper plate and cables. Assuming you’re using the gimbal, you’ll have to factor that weigh into your (already-limited) flight time.

The gimbal is excellent in terms of quality, able to rapidly respond to quick turns. I conducted a test flight where I admittedly, intentionally flew like a maniac, tilting the drone from side to side in rapid succession, and you could see no difference in the footage. It’s impossibly smooth.

The downfall is that, with just one gimbal to choose from, the GBL-T3 from Gremsy, you have no options in terms of a lower price nor a lighter weight. I have a feeling Sony will eventually allow for more compatible gimbals to integrate with its drone, but for now this is it.

A LiDar unit from Inertial Labs turns this drone into a remote sensing powerhouse.

Using the Sony Airpeak drone for enterprise applications

Sony originally marketed its Airpeak drone heavily toward professional photographers. I get the sense that even Sony was shocked by how rapidly it was adopted by the enterprise and industrial side of the industry.

There are a few reasons why the Sony drone is so great for enterprise applications. Given features like ultra-high wind resistance (that’s higher than most competitors) and sense and avoidance, the build of the drone itself is excellent. It’s reliable in all sorts of ways. For example, the compass on the Sony Airpeak cycles on its own so — if flying in areas that might otherwise cause electromagnetic field issues — the drone’s compass remains robust and reliable.

Then there’s the crossover between Sony’s Alpha series of cameras and other industrial imaging applications. In February 2020, Sony launched a new SDK (software development kit), giving third-party developers the ability to create tools to control cameras including the Sony α7R IV and α9 II cameras. That’s enabled more applications including real-time visualization, augmented and virtual reality solutions, photogrammetry and 3D scanning.  (In fact, I used Sony’s drone to make what was my first-ever LiDAR map in an experience I’ll detail in a future blog post).

And then there’s one more reason why Sony is wildly popular in industrial applications — that Sony kind of lucked into: Sony is not a Chinese company.

Many in the drone industry have pushed back hard on Chinese companies. While many folks prefer drones made in America (Sony is a Japanese company), at least Airpeak is not made by a Chinese company — and it’s definitely not made by DJI.

In fact, Congress in 2019 passed legislation specifically banning the Department of Defense from purchasing and using drones and components manufactured in China.  At the end of 2020, the U.S. government put dozens of Chinese companies, including DJI (and others such as China’s top chipmaker, SMIC) on a restricted trade list.

Rules have gone back and forth on whether or not the government can purchase drones (it can vary by agency and whether those agencies have waivers). But the proposed American Security Drone Act would prohibit all U.S. federal agencies from purchasing Chinese-made drones. (As of December 2022, the bill is sitting with the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs).

Alas, for companies looking to buy a drone certain they can use, skipping Chinese-made drones seems to be the move.

The Sony Airpeak S1 without a gimbal or payload.

Sony Airpeak review: is it worth it?

For folks specifically seeking to fly the Sony Alpha series of cameras, this drone is the one to do it. Sony already shines in the brand-recognition of its cameras, and the integration with the Alpha camera guarantees unparalleled image quality.

No other drone offers the integration that Sony does between the Alpha camera and the pilot. It’s ideal for cinematographers who want to incorporate drone footage into their films, while still maintaining the aesthetic of their other shots. Sometimes other drone cameras like the DJI drone offer what is simply a differing image quality. That can sometimes stick out like — not necessarily a sore, but — a different thumb.

The Sony Airpeak S1 drone is also proving its own in many enterprise use cases. It’s capable of thermal imaging, high-powered zoom and mapping. I used it to make a Lidar map, and for mapping applications this is one of the best payloads in the business.

That said, the flight time is atrocious. If flight times under 15 minute are a dealbreaker for you (and they are for many folk) skip this drone until Sony solves that problem. For what it’s worth, I get the sense that improving battery life is a high priority (and perhaps a top priority) in the second iteration of Sony’s Airpeak drone.

Besides the battery life, the Airpeak needs to solve having a fully-integrated camera payload. The Gremsy gimbal works great, but it’s still rough to spend time on a third-party gimbal.

There are some clear opportunities for improvement in the next generation of Sony Airpeak. Given that, it might be worth waiting for the second edition, before picking up this one. But for folks needing the best way to integrate a Sony Alpha camera into their flights (and for folks seeking a robust, reliable DJI alternative), the Sony Airpeak S1 is absolutely a winner — as long as they don’t mind the rough battery life.

Editor’s note and FTC disclaimer: My Sony Airpeak review is based on my experience flying the drone at the Sony Airpeak Summit in February 2023 in San Diego, which was an invitation-only gathering hosted by Sony. Typically I review drones solely on my own — on my own time and at my own expense. But given the nature (and high cost) of this product, it was only possible for me to review this product under the purview of Sony itself.

While Sony did not pay for me to review the Sony Airpeak S1 drone, the company did cover accommodations in San Diego which was necessary for me to participate in their summit (and was the same place I reviewed their drone). Sony did not influence this review and did not see the contents of the Sony Airpeak review before it was published.

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