Up close with the powerful DJI drone that could change business

Drones are becoming big business. Now they’re on the precipice of becoming part of business big and small.

DJI — a company that has built drones for entry-level fliers (the Mavic Pro), prosumers (the Phantom line) and  photo and cinematography professionals (Inspire) — is hoping to ignite the drone-in-business revolution with its first business-class drone, the M200. 

The company unveiled its new M200 line of enterprise-class drones at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain on Sunday. However, DJI gave Mashable a tabletop preview of the drone weeks earlier at its offices in Manhattan. 

When we saw the drone, it was still in development (by the time you read this, it’ll be flight-ready and examining a cell tower in Barcelona). Even so, it was clear that the M200 is a departure from DJI’s consumer and pro-sumer drones. Yes, it’s built around parts similar to what you’d find in the Inspire 2. However, this drone won’t win any design awards. It’s big, rougher around the edges and only partially foldable (you can remove the legs and bend the rotor arms in), none of which is a problem for a drone designed to serve businesses as opposed to consumers.

DJI's M210 RTK business drone

DJI’s M210 RTK business drone

Image: lance ulanoff/mashbale

“We designed and built this based on customer feedback,” DJI Communication Director Adam Lisberg said.

Drones are already in business, but not integrated into the workflow. Usually, someone in the office, company or department realizes a drone might be good for a task and then the resident drone hobbyist offers to pitch in and does, for instance, a flyover project inspection.

Lisberg told me that, with M200, DJI hopes to help businesses make drones part of the workflow. They’re also hoping that businesses can get serious about turning certain tasks over to drones for the sake of efficiency and safety. Cell-tower inspection, for instance, is incredibly time-consuming for people: Inspectors must climb all the way up a tower just to look at the antennas and wiring and to find out if birds are building nests among the cells. The job is also dangerous. A drone like the M200 and its siblings, the M210 and the M210 RTK (pictured), can do the same inspection in a matter of minutes while the pilot stays safely on the ground.

The M200 drone remote.

The M200 drone remote.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

Three choices of cameras. One is a thermal imager.

Three choices of cameras. One is a thermal imager.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

The M200 drones add several features that will appeal to DJI’s business customers in addition to the expected features like proximity sensors on the front, bottom and even the top of the drone and support for all DJI Go app’s intelligent features, including Spotlight (lock camera on subject), Point of Interest (circle the subject), Tripod (safe navigation in somewhat enclosed environments) and ActiveTrack (follow and keep person in frame).

First of all, there is some weather proofing. The M200 can handle light rain and snow, but probably not a driving rain storm. Even so, when the M200 makes it to a rescue mission, it won’t be grounded at the first sign of rain.

The M210 adds a second gimbal so pilots can have dual cameras. For example, building inspectors might want a telephoto lens next to a thermal imaging one (so they could see visible structural issues and hidden ones like heat leakage). On the ground, the drone pilot can have both cameras on screen, with one in a picture-in-picture view. There’s also a first-person view camera if you want the pilot to operate the drone while someone else manages the feeds from the other two cameras.

The M210 will also be DJI’s first drone with an upward-facing camera, which should come in handy for examining the underside of bridges. It is, though, a separate device that you place on top of the drone’s main section. Doing so blocks the drone’s internal GPS, which is why the top-side camera comes with its own GPS add-on.

The RTK model also adds a pair of white dome sensors that, according to DJI, will provide centimeter-level positioning accuracy. 

Because DJI expects these drones to operate in sometimes complex environments where rescue planes, helicopters and even water-dropping airplanes are operating, the drones are equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) receivers that will pick up any chatter between standard aircraft and alert the drone pilot to, basically, get the heck out of there.

These dome sensors give the M210 RTK drone an insane level of positioning accuracy.

These dome sensors give the M210 RTK drone an insane level of positioning accuracy.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

The drone has a range of about 4.2 miles and can fly, with the system’s optional and more powerful 174 Wh battery, up to 38 minutes.

The M200 series will also be compatible with DJI’s software development kit, which Lisberg believes is a crucial component for business application. “Drones are the next application that will generate terabytes of data,” he said. Having software that can keep track of and analyze incoming data is crucial for businesses, and groups trying to ensure that they’re using their drones efficiently.

In a search and rescue, for example, you want to know where the drone has searched and where it has not. More importantly, you want to integrate the drone’s search activities and findings with other systems on the ground and in the air; all things that might be possible via development with the DJI SDK.

The M200 can be configured with a series of different Zenmuse cameras, including the 20 MP Zenmuse X4S, the 20 MP, Micro Four-Thirds Zenmuse X5S, and the Zenmuse XT, a thermal-imaging camera powered by Flir.

Pricing and availability for the DJI M200 has not been set, but it will most certainly cost thousands of dollars.

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