Xiaomi’s unveiling of its first, astonishingly cheap drone last week marked a symbolic milestone for the fledgling technology.
In recent years, the Chinese electronics company’s entrance has signaled a new technology’s turn to the mass market. In 2011, “the Xiaomi effect” hit smartphones when the company took advantage of decreasing smartphone component costs to make low-cost devices, and went on to become the world’s top smartphone vendor (for a time), squeezing companies like LG, HTC, Sony out of the market. In 2015, it did the same to wearables, with its $15 wrist-worn fitness tracker the Mi Band.
But the release of Xiaomi’s drone, which starts at just 2499 yuan ($380), begs the question—can drones ever be mass-market products, fit for every household
Drones have been widely deployed by military units, logistics providers, and other large enterprises. In the realm of the consumer, however, the higher-end models have largely been popular only among gadget nerds and photography enthusiasts. The Consumer Technology Association estimated that only 700,000 drones would be sold globally in 2015
Even within the industry, some are skeptical that the drone will ever become a mass-market product.
Derrick Xiong, co-founder of eHang, a drone company that launched two years ago, says that the consumer market will only make up about 10% of the total drone market, maximum. He can’t see consumer drones becoming more than a niche product.
“When the iPhone came, a lot of people abandoned their DSL camera or digital camera,” he said. “But it’s hard to persuade people to say, ‘Hey, we should take an aero selfie.’ Maybe they will once a week or twice a week, but it won’t be a daily basis.”
His company remains focused on selling to amateur photographers and gadget nerds.
“We’re not saying we want to sell it to everyone on the street,” he said. “We want to sell it to people that want to fly a drone.”
Still, some drone companies are entering the market with products specifically designed for average consumers. They aim to make drones that are more portable, safer, and easier to use than the drones made by companies like DJI, eHang, and Parrot—three of the world’s top drone makers.
MQ Wang, founder of Zero Zero Robotics, says that the drone industry is searching for a “minimum viable design”—a form factor so simple that anyone can use it. He argues that drones have the potential to become a new kind of selfie machine or hands-free camera.
“What is the most minimally acceptable design for the mass consumer, so that a teenage girl can just grab it off the street and instantly use it?” Wang said. “If a drone can do that, then we think the market will open.”