Having just returned from the vast Consumer Electronic Show (CES 2016), I have a wealth of material to post - including pics, video and soon-to-be opinions and articles on the state of the civilian drone market.
First, however, it might be instructional to describe the current scope of the civilian drone market - in the hopes of helping the public and trade understand the various segments.
For ease of understanding, this article breaks down the civilian drone market into 6 segments. As will be noted, these segments can overlap - especially those above the toy/fpv category.
The diagram above notes 6 basic types of drones. These are separated by size, price, mission, reliability and flexibility - that is, the ability to add various options and equipment. An overview as well as some examples of the breed follows;
1. Toy Quadcopters - This covers models selling from as little as $15 to as much as $450+. The lower priced models can be considered disposable as they will often break or burn out motors within a hour or two of operation. At the higher end you get additional features such as cameras and/or brushless (longer lasting) motors. These models function as novelty items, gifts and learning platforms. Some of the upcoming models are glorified selfie sticks - such as the "flying soccer ball" Flyeye at http://gofleye.com/.
Due to the light weight of most of these units, no FAA or other registration is required. Most are for flying indoors or around your yard or a local small park.
Although these are called "drones", they are usually not autonomous - so the term is more of a marketing trick than truly descriptive. However, as prices for various components drop, it's likely you will see more intelligence built into even these models.
2. FPV/Racing - As with the toy models, these are also not true drones - in fact, most models are purposely very manual in their control and operation. These require various levels of skill to fly - and there are competitive events where users can run courses. As with the toys, FPV pilots get a good eduction in piloting and basic operation. This category is also poised to benefit from advances in Virtual Reality - namely the Occulus Riff headsets. The combination of these technologies will likely give many earthbound humans the ability to truly "fly like the birds". True racing/FPV drones usually sell for $300-$700 complete. Some newer models have GPS and ground sensors to allow for semi-autonmous flight.
3. Consumer Camera Drones - This category has exploded and is providing the impetus (and profits) for Research and Development on more advanced civilian model. Stunning video and photos have become the "killer app" which brought drones into the mainstream. Photography represents an actual "use case" which can be for art, hobby and/or commercial and industrial work. The current range of consumer camera drones (DJI, Yuneec) have proven reliable enough to be used as test platforms for many other applications. These include agricultural, inspection, mapping and more. The low cost of these units (now starting at $499) allow for many new pilots to enter the field. As with any technology, new users bring in new perspectives on the possibilities. When the FAA and other regulations get sorted out, lower cost camera drones are likely to be used for many commercial applications - as they are good enough to do many aerial tasks.
4. Prosumer Camera Drones - such as the Inspire line from DJI, are starting to respond to the need for more serious applications with camera and other upgrades. An infrared camera has been annouced as well as a semi-pro micro 4/3rd standard camera. These models, which sell for $3000-$5000, are likely to serve the expanding markets of film, construction, mapping, agriculture and many more. Although their functions are somewhat similar to the consumer camera drones, they are built using heavier components, have larger payloads and can deal with more wind and other environmental conditions.
5. Consumer, Industrial, Agriculture, NGO and Research Drones - Models from companies such as Matternet and Sensefly are two examples of this breed. Industry leader DJI also just released a $15,000 Agriculture spraying drone. These are models designed as workhorses which will drive much of the future of civilian drones. Current prices range from $5,000 to $20,000+.
As with all other categories, these drones are currently being hamstrung by the lack of clear regulations.
Companies such as MatterNet envision using drones in much of the developing world to deliver medicines, important parts, communications and more. Amazon and others project uses in package delivery although this could be difficult in urban areas. Drones of this size and type are likely to be used in firefighting and other public services.
6. Winged and Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) Drones - are favored for their longer range and greater payload capacities. Large farms, search and rescue and many other applications demand more speed, range and flight times. Models of this type will vary greatly in price - starting in the $10K range and running up to 100's of thousands for very large and sophisticated setups. SenseFly, PrecisionHawk and Autel Robotics (Kestrel Project) are three (of many) companies which are involved in this endeavor.
As we approach out robotic future it's important for the public to understand that drones are a very positive development due to their capabilities. When farming is made more efficient, more people are fed with less waste and pollution. When critical medicine and spare parts are delivered to remote villages, lives are enhanced and saved. Even the simpler task of aerial video allows for people the world over to "travel" to remote places and appreciate the planet - without having to use vast quantities of jet fuel and other energy sources.
There is always a tendency to fear new technology- in the 1960's the whispers started about how computers were going to take all our jobs away. Now many of us have jobs working with computers! The same applies to aerial robotics and robotics as a whole - the future is here and it will be friendlier and more efficient than the past. This will hopefully improve the lives of millions and help us gain the critical energy efficiency we need to cultivate in order to protect our precious planet and resources.