360° Camera Drones Are Coming!
360° Cameras have been around for several years now, but they have yet to be implemented in a commercially successful drone. These cameras capture everything in the world around them. There are a few reasons for the slow adoption of these cameras, but that is changing as technology improves. The cameras and software that supports the cameras are both getting better. We are also seeing innovations in the drones themselves that will enable better integration with 360° cameras. Drone manufacturers, like DJI, are clearly showing interest, and it is just a matter of time before we see a successful 360° camera drone. New inventions from Half Chrome provide further hope that 360° camera drones are right around the corner.
We have stuck a 360 camera on the top of almost every drone we can including a DJI Phantom 3, DJI Mavic Pro, Mavic Air, MJX Bugs 2 and Bugs 3, and even the tiny DJI Spark! The results are always fun, but an integrated camera can do so much more. We processed the video above using free software from Insta360.
If you want to see what it’s like to pan a 360 video around yourself then check out this video. This video is uploaded to YouTube in the original 360 format, so you can spin it around. Unfortunately, you can’t zoom out to create tiny planet views in YouTube’s viewer yet.
Why 360? Why on a Drone?
In many ways, a drone is an ideal vehicle for holding a 360° camera. A drone solves one of the major issues with 360° cameras – the fact that you can see the photographer holding the camera. If implemented properly on a drone, the camera would see only the world around it, not a tripod, not a photographer, just the world.
Several people have put 360° cameras on drones (we love to do this), but you can inevitably see the drone in the footage. While this does produce a really cool effect, it does not produce fully unobscured footage. Integrating a 360° camera system with a drone could allow for full spherical video and photo coverage anywhere in space.
See the World, not the Drone
1. Retractable Legs
We have seen drones with lifting legs before. Most notable are the DJI Inspire series of quadcopters and the Yuneec Typhoon series of 6-prop drones. We also saw DJI release a teaser video on the “Phantom X,” which features a Phantom-looking quadcopter with retractable legs. We believe that the Phantom X is actually a preview of a 360° camera drone – more on that later.
2. Stowable Camera
Slimmer drones are all the rage today, with the DJI Mavic Pro, DJI Mavic Air, DJI Spark, and Autel Evo to name a few. These drones position the camera very close to the ground and forgo long legs of taller drones like the Phantom series drones. Another way of dealing with a bottom-hanging camera system is to stow the camera system for takeoff and landing. This can also be really handy for storing and transporting the drone. In one patent-pending concept, we have a bottom and top viewing camera system that retracts upwards into the body of the drone, thereby protecting the bottom-facing cameras. The camera could even be removable for use outside of the drone.
In another concept, the camera system rotates into the drone, protecting both the top-facing and bottom-facing cameras. This concept takes up a bit more real estate on the body of the drone, but it allows for more compact storage of the drone.
A rotating concept could also be combined with two other rotational motors to provide a fully-stabilized gimbal. Electronic image stabilization is also very feasible, but there are advantages to mechanical stabilization.
2. Central Propulsion
The obvious solution to eliminating the drone from the field of view is to just position cameras all around the body of the drone. This approach does have some challenges, one of which is the fact that the cameras are far apart. Separating the cameras creates more parallax and makes it harder to stitch images together. We have a possible solution – central propulsion. Central propulsion makes the total size of the drone much smaller, which allows for multiple cameras positioned around the drone but not too far from each other.
A single-axis propulsion system does pose other challenges, like how to control the roll and pitch of the drone. Roll, pitch, forward and backward motion, and lateral motion can be achieved with adjustable fins in the flow path of the propellers. Another possible solution is to include multiple internal balance weights.
A key challenge with 360° cameras is their huge field of view. The entire world around the camera is often captured on just two image sensors. That means that the resulting images are often pixilated because of insufficient coverage of pixels over the full field of view. What’s the answer? More pixels. Luckily, image sensors are getting more sensitive and denser all the time. Every year the possibility of super-crisp 360° cameras becomes more real. We already see great results from some of the more expensive compact systems, like the Garmin Virb 360 and Kodak ORBIT360. For a summary of less expensive options, check out our article dedicated to 360 cameras under $360. You can get some wonderfully fun cameras for under $100 now. The LG 360 Cam can even be found for less than $100.
Similarly, write speed and memory size becomes an issue. Thanks to Moore’s law, we are in good hands there as well. Compact memory is always getting larger in bytes, smaller in size, and faster in speed.
One last thing that is a great help to 360° camera drones is decreasing battery size. These drones will need smaller batteries with more energy density because of the larger size of the camera and the need for many designs to have an ultra-thin body. Luckily we see progress in this arena as well, with LiPo batteries getting smaller and more powerful in the last year.
Check out our latest 360 drone video – we used the Mavic Air.
New Use Cases
New technologies almost always spur new use cases. Often these new uses may not have been obvious when the technology was first conceived. We see one potential application to be real estate videography. A 360 camera drone could cause a transition from the drone being used exclusively for exterior footage to a tool for capturing interior spacer as well. Learn more about this concept in our article dedicated to this concept.
360° cameras on drones can also enable completely new ways of controlling drones. We have a vision for that as well – one where the pilot can fly the drone in whatever direction they are looking. For more details on that concept, check out our dedicated article.
DJI’s Adoption of 360
These days DJI seems to capture all of the drone headlines by constantly out-innovating the competition. While DJI has yet to release a 360° camera, let alone a 360° camera drone, they have been making some moves in that direction. Don’t confuse some of their tiny planet or pano modes for full 360° coverage. The images these drones capture today are stitched images. Their capability is definitely limited and could be much better with a true 360° view. A true 360 camera is the only way to see up above the drone and also the only way to capture 360 videos.
We have an article dedicated to the topic of DJI’s 360 ambitions, but here is a quick rundown on what they have already done.
- 360-degree pano shots on the DJI Mavic Pro, DJI Mavic Air, DJI Spark,
- Full support of 360 in the DJI Go 4 app
- Full support of 360 in the DJI Goggles RE
- Astroid mode on the new DJI Mavic Air
- The Phantom X teaser video showing a camera that almost has to be a 360° camera
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