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Can User-Friendly Design Take Drones Mainstream?

The industrial drone company PowerVision hopes to make drones more ubiquitous with an egg-shaped design that's meant to be flown right out of the box.

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Drones came onto the consumer market in the late 2000s and despite breathless predictions that they'd soon become popular on a mass scale, they've remained largely niche products—more luxury gadgets for hobbyists than an affordable staple of the family garage.

PowerVision, a Beijing-based company that's made industrial drones since 2009, is trying to change that with PowerEgg, the company's first drone directed at consumers. The PowerEgg's rounded shape and simple user interface were designed to be both aesthetically pleasing and approachable to people who fall outside the drone's typical demographic—white and Asian men between the ages of 18 and 45 (one estimate puts drone consumers at 90% male).

PowerEgg's target demographics are millennials, people interested in trying new things, early adopters, and the kind of digital-savvy families that watch their Apple TV while their Amazon Echo sits on the mantel. Consumers are supposed to be able to fly the drone right out of the box and begin filming video and snapping pictures with a few taps on the PowerEgg's accompanying app. For Merlin Love, PowerVision's senior director of channel sales, the PowerEgg is the ideal drone for recording family activities, from graduation ceremonies to day trips to vacations.

"Five years ago, they were remote-controlled robots. You had to be a stick-twister," Love says, referring to the stereotypical techie type to whom the complex controls of a drone is like playing a video game. "That’s the paradigm we wanted to butt heads against. The PowerEgg is more disarming. It’s far less intimidating than people think. I can put this controller in my 10-year-old’s hand, and she can fly it without me telling her how."

Most consumer drones on the market are quadcopters, a small helicopter with four rotors that can look intimidating for someone who has never flown one before. There's a reason for that—the quadcopter's basic design is both optimal for flight and easy to engineer, said Chih-Che Tsai, the CEO of PowerVision's U.S. subsidiary. In comparison, the egg shape is far from aerodynamic and presents a serious engineering challenge—but it is much more pleasing to the eye. However, PowerVision CEO and founder Wally Zheng refused to compromise on the shape, which he believes will make the drone much more accessible for non-hobbyists. The PowerEgg was in development for two years.

The PowerEgg weighs just under five pounds, and in your hands it has the feel of a heavy rugby ball. To fly it, you fold out the PowerEgg's propellers by hand (a necessity to make the drone more stable). Press the button on top three times, and the drone's legs automatically unfold. Take off the lens protector on the egg's bottom (Love fondly called it the "egg shell"), and use the remote control to lift off. (Once in the air, it sounds like a swarm of bees.) The PowerEgg is equipped with a camera that shoots 360-degree 4K video and takes high-resolution pictures. Stabilized videos and photos live-stream to your phone when the PowerEgg is up to 3.1 miles away. It comes with two controllers: a one-handed "Maestro" controller that functions like a Wii controller, with the drone following your hand movements, and a more traditional two-handed controller. It hooks up to your smartphone, and has all the typical drone features: It can follow you around, fly in circles, take your selfie, and return home at your say-so, within its 23-minute battery life. It will land itself automatically at 10% battery.

These features, except for the one-handed remote, are all fairly standard in consumer drones. PowerVision is betting instead that the PowerEgg's design, which enables portability and ease of use, is what matters most to potential customers—especially families.

"Most customers don’t want something odd-looking," says Vivan Chen, PowerVision's VP of marketing. "If it’s something you want to carry on vacation, you don’t want this crazy looking thing. It looks fragile, but it’s full of life. It looks small but it’s very powerful."

All that power comes with a hefty price tag: The PowerEgg is now available for preorders for $1,288 (though you get a free PowerEgg backpack if you preorder now), with shipping to begin in October. It's a lot to spend for a next-generation selfie stick.

But Tsai believes that the drone could be used for much more than cool-looking selfies. He coaches his kids' soccer team, and he said that he would use the PowerEgg to live-stream video of their games straight to Facebook.

It remains to be seen if drones will ever reach a broader market and become a ubiquitous gadget. But perhaps by putting design first, PowerVision will find a way to make the PowerEgg fun for the whole family.

[All Photos: via PowerVision]

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