Sony has finally unveiled its foray into aerial robotics and announced the Airpeak S1. The $9,000 professional-level drone promises to feature exceptional flight performance, obstacle detection systems, and “heavy-lift” capability in a device that is just slightly larger than a DJI Inspire 2.
Sony is touting the Airpeak S1 as the smallest drone that is capable of handling the load of a full-size mirrorless camera and associated large prime lens, which is a combination typically reserved for larger “heavy-lift” quadcopters like the DJI Matrice 200. The S1 is capable of carrying up to five pounds of camera equipment and can accelerate from zero to 50 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds with a top speed of 55.9 miles per hour. Sony says this is a faster acceleration than DJI’s Inspire 2, and the top speed is beyond DJI’s heavy-lift-capable Matrice which caps out at 50 miles per hour.
Much of what Sony has accomplished here it says is due to its tightly integrated system. Because of the breadth of expertise across a wide range of electronics, the S1 utilizes a proprietary motor, propeller, control system, and sensing technology. The S1 will be supported by a standalone controller as well as a dedicated app (which will launch for iOS only, with no word on if or when it will come to Android) and includes onboard obstacle detection.
[Airpeak S1’s] newly developed propulsion system focuses on the responsiveness of the aircraft for the most intuitive flying for professional creators. Airpeak’s system is optimized to ensure stable flight even in strong winds.
As demonstrated in videos in the past, Sony touts that the S1 is the most stable drone in its class even in adverse conditions. It has a maximum pitch angle of 55-degrees which allows it to perform extreme banking angles with high levels of maneuverability. Additionally, it can resist winds of up to 44.7 miles per hour.
Specifically with regard to wind resistance, Sony says that the Inspire cannot keep a level angle or pitch in the same environment, and the Matrice 200 — while far more stable than the Inspire — cannot keep a fixed position at wind speeds than where the S1 remained fixed. Therefore, Sony argues that the S1 outperforms both.
All that speed, power, and stability do come at a cost, however: the S1 is only rated for a maximum flight time of 22 minutes without a payload and just 12 minutes when equipped with an Alpha 7S Mark III and a 24mm f/1.4 lens.
An Array of Sensors
For collision detection, the S1 is equipped with Sony image sensors at five key locations: front, back, left, right, and bottom of the aircraft. Sony says that its “Vision Sensing Processor” processes camera data at high speed and with low power consumption and when combined with its proprietary algorithms can accurately estimate the aircraft’s spatial position and orientation in real-time. The company says this enables stable flight even in environments where Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) reception may be hindered, such as indoors or under bridges.
Sony says it uses the five directional cameras to define the 3D space in which the drone flies for optimal control and stability.
The Airpeak S1 is also equipped with a unique, in-house, high-performance flight control system that Sony claims integrates all sensor information such as that gathered from the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), direction, barometric pressure, and infrared ranging to optimize its flight and propulsion.
The sensors and onboard electronics work together to give the S1 multi-directional obstacle braking. This language appears carefully crafted, as Sony does not claim it can avoid objects, but rather prevent collision with them, which separates it from the expectations of collision avoidance that have been set by industry leader DJI. Still, Sony says that those stereo cameras and an infrared range-finding sensor that is mounted on the top of the drone recognize obstacles in the vicinity of the aircraft and allow it to automatically decelerate and stop according to the behavior of the aircraft and the surrounding conditions.
Sony will launch the Airpeak S1 with the Airpeak Flight app, an iOS and iPadOS-only application (at launch) that connects to the drone and allows control of its camera and gimbal and also lets an operator monitor status information such as flight distance and remaining battery power as well as change various operations and settings.
Along with the app, the S1 is controlled by an included controller. In this way, the drone supports dual operation mode so that one user can operate flight while another can focus on camera control. A camera mounted on the nose of the aircraft can be tilt operated from the remote controller so that the pilot is able to better keep track of surroundings and the flight path.
Sony is also launching the Airpeak Base Web application, which allows for integrated management of flight planning, fleet management, and a logbook viewer.
Operators can create advanced flight plans and automatically fly the aircraft along the same course repeatedly in an “on rails” experience. The drone’s position (latitude, longitude, and altitude) and speed can be pre-programmed along a timeline and the pilot can even specify the orientation of the gimbal and the timing of video or still image capture process. Flights can be reproduced identically to previous flight logs, which allows for multiple takes in professional scenarios and also alleviates the stress of the short battery life — the S1 can be landed, outfitted with a new battery, and sent back on the same capture path.
Sony has also announced Airpeak Plus, which is a cloud-based service that will allow the use of AirPeak Base and includes a protection plan that covers accidental damage to the drone.
Sony says that the Airpeak S1 will be compatible with a number of Sony Alpha cameras including the Alpha 1, Alpha 9 Mark II, Alpha 7S Mark III, Alpha 7R Mark IV, and the FX3. It will also work with a number of lenses from the 14mm through the 85mm focal range. When connected to the S1, both the USB port and HDMI are plugged in.
Sony has not tested or published any information on the use of a third-party camera. Sony notes that compatibility is not necessarily impossible, but is not providing any further details at this time. A Sony representative noted that the ability for the app and controller to send data to the aircraft and then through the gimbal to the camera is theoretically the only limiting factor, as the drone itself and the gimbal would likely be able to handle a third party camera physically.
The Gimbal is Not Included
The gimbal is the only part that Sony is not specifically manufacturing, and is a custom Gremsy Gimbal T3. That Gimbal is also not included in the purchase price, and while that specific gimbal is listed for $1,750 on Gremsy’s website, Sony says that some custom work that has been done to it may make its final S1 design price different, which was not provided at the time of publication.
Sony has not tested the Airpeak S1’s signal range, and as such has not provided any expectations at the time of announcement. The company also was not able to answer if the drone was capable of returning to its liftoff location automatically in the case of a lost connection. Sony representatives did note that the drone does feature a “return to home” option, so if it is not an automatic feature at launch it could theoretically be added via firmware update.
Also notable is that Sony does not plan to geo-fence the drone at all. The S1’s ability to fly in any airspace is not locked by the manufacturer, and at the time of publication, Sony was placing the onus of flight location squarely on the pilot. This is in direct contrast to DJI, which has by default prevented flight over certain locations such as airports unless specifically unlocked by the company with proper clearances from the FAA.
Finally, Sony specifically noted that the Airpeak S1 will be made in Japan. The company says this may help alleviate some concerns that are associated with products manufactured in China.
The Airpeak S1 will retail for $9,000. It will be available for pre-order and will ship to customers in the fall of 2021. It will ship with the main aircraft, four propellers, a remote, two batteries, and a charger. Additional propellers will be available in packs of two along with spare batteries and chargers. As noted, the gimbal will also be sold separately. No pricing for any accessories or replacement parts was provided at the time of announcement.