On the heels of DJI announcing a further pivot into cinematography drones with the launch of its Inspire 3 drone, a major competitor has done the opposite. Today, the Sony Airpeak drone got a makeover of sorts that transforms the aerial cinematography star into an enterprise applications workhorse.
Sony today announced a roundup of new upgrades available for its Airpeak S1 drone that solve issues with the originally-launched product while also unlocking new features that should be appealing to folks using drones for industrial applications like mapping or inspections.
The newly-announced highlights include a:
- More powerful battery.
- Real Time Kinematic Kit.
- New, more-advanced and lightweight gimbal.
Here’s what you need to know about the new add-ons, how much they cost, and why today’s news is a game changer not just for the company’s own trajectory but for commercial drone pilots seeking an alternative to DJI (and an alternative to any other Chinese-made drones, for that matter):
3 major new product upgrades for the Sony Airpeak drone
There are 3 major announcements to come out of Sony around its Airpeak drone:
A better battery
Easily one of the top complaints from users and in my own Sony Airpeak review is the abysmal battery life. While Sony at launched touted 22 minutes of battery life, it felt a little disingenuous, as that was a figure without a payload. Add in a common payloads, say an Alpha camera and gimbal, and the battery life drops down to 12 minutes.
But Sony’s trying hard to fix that with today’s launch of a new LBP-HM1 Battery, which allows for significantly longer flight times.
The Airpeak S1 with the better battery can now fly for up to 30 minutes without a payload (up from 22). Throw in a standard payload like, say, the new RTK Kit, PX1 gimbal, an A7RIV, and the Zeiss 35mm F2.8, and you can expect flight times up to 20 minutes (up from the formerly-paltry 12 minutes).
Sony also tested out flight times for a sample configuration with the T3 gimbal for Airpeak, A7S III and a 24mm F1.4 G-Master lens, and you can expect up to 17 minutes. That’s still far less than the 28 minutes that DJI promises on its Inspire 3 drone using hot-swappable TB51 intelligent dual batteries, but it’s a big improvement over the original Sony Airpeak battery. (Of course, with any drone battery, actual performance varies based on settings, environmental conditions, storage, and usage.)
Many users have said battery lives under 15 minutes is non-negotiable, so the 17 minute battery life with that camera configuration could finally make the Airpeak a realistic choice.
Alongisde the actual 3,938mAh enhanced battery, Sony also invested in the drone’s intelligent battery management system, which uses the Airpeak Flight App to provide real-time information about the battery’s status. The physical battery also shows four LEDs to display information on charge level. The high-capacity battery is model
If you want the new battery, you’ll need a pretty penny and some patience. Each 3,938mAh Enhanced Battery will cost $399.99. That’s more than the standard Airpeak drone batteries, which cost $230 each.
And, the batteries are not expected to arrive in customers’ hands until June 23, 2023.
RTK GNSS system for Airpeak S1 with high-precision positioning capability
RTK, short for Real Time Kinematic, is a crucial tool for many industrial applications. RTK systems allow drones to achieve far more precise positioning than they would be able to without it (typically meaning centimeter-level accuracy). That’s crucial for applications like mapping, where a drone cannot afford to be off by an inch or two in its waypoint. Sony’s RTK also promises no lag.
This announcement should be a huge win for the growing community of enterprise users turning to Sony drones. With RTK, the drone is better able to maintain a stable flight path and gather precise data to geotag images for inspections and other applications. And because the RTK has a networking port, it might turn out to be useful to pilots seeking to sync image and mapping data.
RTK works via a base station that receives satellite signals from the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). Pair it with an Airpeak mounted receiver, and the drone can determine its position, making for stable flight even in environments with strong magnetic field interference. By comparing the signals from multiple GNSS satellites, the system can calculate Airpeak’s precise location, velocity, and orientation, providing centimeter-level accuracy in positioning and reproducible flight. This provides centimeter-level accuracy in positioning, allowing the S1 to maintain a stable flight path and gather precise data for inspections and other applications.
Alternatively, to the use of the base station, the RTK system can be connected to the internet and make use of a GNSS correction data service to achieve centimeter-level accuracy supporting various work environments. The accuracy of the data is calculated in the module so it can determine exactly where the sensor is, the position its facing and track the timing of the RTK and geotagging data.
RTK data can be taken off the Airpeak through one of two options. The first, available now, is taking the SD card out of the RTK interface model, and then taking the images off the SD card on the Alpha, and then running it through a third-party software like Pix4D which will merge the geodata with the images.
The next option will require a dongle. A company spokeserson said the team is woking on a tool through the Airpeak flight app that will take the data it has captured off the RTK unit and then write that data to the images on the SD card, though that’s coming later.
The RTK Kit w/ Base Station (RTK-1) will cost $3,999.99. It’s expected to be in customers’ mailboxes by June 9, 2023.
Gremsy Gimbal PX1 for Airpeak (GBL-PX1)
Here’s a lightweight, easy-to-use gimbal designed for enterprise applications. How light? It’s 40% lighter than the GBL-T3 from Gremsy that was originally built for Airpeak (also serving as a key factor in reducing flight times).
The gimbal, named the Gremsy Gimbal PX1 for Airpeak (GBL-PX1), is compatible with Sony’s full-size mirrorless interchangeable lens α cameras such as Sony’s A7R V, A7R IV, or the A7R IVA cameras. Likewise, it supports various lenses such as the Zeiss 35mm F2.8, the 24mm F2.8G, 40mm F2.5 G, or the 50 F2.5 G. The gimbal also integrates with the remote controller (and the Flight app), so you can control the gimbal’s movements and adjust camera settings in the air.
The app also allows for gimbal customization, as settings can be changed without touching the camera. It also supports touch-operated focus area setting and selection of focus position, which can be flexibly changed on the mobile app for more accurate capturing.
It goes hand-in-hand with the RTK Kit, literally, via a Hot Shoe Cable, which can even-more precisely record positioning and log orientation to capture data.
Though, this gimbal will not come cheap, priced at $3,999 (the same price as the RTK-1, and more than the cost of the initial, heavier T3 gimbal.). Of the three major new products, this one has the earliest estimated delivery data that’s just about a month away: May 19, 2023.
A firmware update
Whether or not you’re shelling out thousands of dollars for these three new products, all Airpeak users should expect a free update to their drone.
Sony this week launched an update for the Airpeak system software to version 2.0.0 for the aircraft and controller. While it’ll obviously support the newly released products, it provides a few other updates that should solve a few existing pain points for users, including gimbal camera shake correction in combination with the FX3 camera. There are also better display and notification functions to improve usability during shooting.
How today’s news might contribute to the rise of the Sony Airpeak drone in enterprise use cases
The new products should boost efficiency, productivity and overall functionality of the drone, especially in the eyes of enterprise users.
“When we first launched (the Sony Airpeak), we came from the photo cinema side, yet we always had intention to move into the industrial and enterprise space,” said Gabriel Johnson, a marketing manager for Sony Airpeak. “With the coming announcement of these new accessories, we’ll expand our focus into the enterprise space in a more fervent way.”
The team is calling today the beginning of phase II of the drone, which originally was heavily marketed at cinematographers. Sony dominates the camera space with its mirrorless line of Alpha cameras, so it feels nature for Sony to take those cameras and put them in the air — especially as opposed to a company like DJI that was an expert at flying robots first and then had to build cameras at a caliber that could match the high quality of its drones.
Phase II expands the Airpeak into the enterprise space, which has proven to be a surprisingly successful avenue for the drone.
Enterprise users have praised the Airpeak for features like ultra-high wind resistance (that’s higher than most competitors) and sense and avoidance. The Airpeak’s compass cycles on its own so — if flying in areas that might otherwise cause electromagnetic field issues — the drone’s compass remains robust and reliable. It offers high-resolution (full-frame up to 61 MP), ultra-light lenses, hot hot swap batteries and third-part integration.
Now given the improved battery life and RTK kit, the Sony might be a more appealing bet for enterprise users.
Why the industry should be watching Sony right now as a key non-Chinese drone
DJI has seen success with its enterprise drones like the Matrice line, but it’s increasingly running into roadblocks in acquiring new commercial users given the uptick in concern around Chinese-made drones.
NDAA-compliance is one of the hottest buzzwords in drones right now. (The National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the use of equipment manufactured by a limited set of Chinese manufacturers.) But the Airpeak is made in Japan, as are all the critical components for NDAA compliance.
Meanwhile, many commercial users are ditching DJI to appease their customers who demand NDAA-compliant gear, which has opened a door for the Airpeak to thrive. But it’s hard to ditch a drone when there are few good alternatives.
With today’s news, Sony is coming in ready to shine in the enterprise space — perhaps with even more experience and knowledge than when Airpeak first launched as an attempt to disrupt the aerial cinematography space.
Will the improvements like RTK and better battery life make the Airpeak a go-to for enterprise users? Or are the improvements still not enough? After all, 20 minutes of flight time with the new battery still isn’t a ton.
It remains to be seen, but the industry should be watching the Sony Airpeak drone — especially with these new products.