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If GoPro gets into consumer drones, the industry could finally have the innovation champion it needs

GoPro cameras are already being used in incredibly innovative ways. So why not GoPro consumer drones? (GoPro/AP)

In order for any consumer technology to go mainstream, it needs one tech giant to emerge as its innovation champion. In search, it’s Google. In social networking, it’s Facebook. In digital music, it’s Apple. In e-commerce, it’s Amazon. And now the consumer drone market might one day have GoPro, the wildly popular action camera maker that just went public in June.

According to a credible report from the Wall Street Journal, GoPro is considering the launch of its own line of multirotor consumer drones priced between $500 and $1,000 by late 2015. While GoPro hasn’t officially confirmed or denied the report, they have joined a Washington-based drone-lobbying group, the Small UAV Coalition. And moving into consumer drones would be a likely next step for them, given the popularity of aerial photography for GoPro users.

Almost overnight, GoPro would become the odds-on favorite to become the leader and champion of the fast-growing consumer drone market. According to Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, the worldwide UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) market – including both military and civilian drones – is expected to nearly double in size over the next ten years, from $6.4 billion to $11.5 billion.

Right now, military drones account for 89 percent of that total, so the total worldwide civil UAV market is relatively tiny, approximately $700 million. The consumer drone market (i.e. the market for personal, hobbyist drones and not the market for mapping or search-and-rescue drones) is even tinier, estimated by the Consumer Electronics Association to be $130 million in 2015. To put that number into context, GoPro’s sales through the first nine months of 2014 — $763 million — is almost six times the size of the personal drone category and bigger than the size of the entire worldwide civil UAV market.

So whom would GoPro have to knock off in order to become the undisputed champion of the consumer drone market?

There are three consumer drone manufacturers that are considered the industry leaders – China’s DJI Innovations, France’s Parrot and California’s 3D Robotics (founded by former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson). According to industry estimates, DJI posted $131 million in annual sales in 2013. The next closest competitor is France’s Parrot, with $53.35 million in sales in fiscal 2013.

There’s not a single U.S. tech giant in the consumer drone market. in other words, there’s no Apple waiting in the wings with an Apple Drone to take on GoPro. While both Facebook and Google acquired drone companies in 2014, and Amazon seems to be embracing drones for commercial deliveries via Amazon Prime Air, none of them has created a drone that consumers can walk in and buy at a retail store. And even market leader DJI could be ripe for the picking, given that the company only launched its Phantom quadcopters in 2013 – hardly enough time to gain true brand equity in the marketplace.

At the end of the day, if American consumers had the chance to choose between “designed in the USA” (GoPro) and “designed in China” (DJI), which one do you think they’re going to pick?

Right now, we don’t know exactly what GoPro is going to create with its consumer drones. Company spokesmen are keeping things close to the vest, only noting that the company’s users are creating “jaw-dropping GoPro footage recorded from quadcopters.” So there’s reason to expect more from GoPro in this direction — it’s a natural brand extension, given that the company already provides cameras for drones.

There are two basic options for GoPro – either the company creates a new standalone consumer drone with an internal GoPro camera, or it essentially adapts a drone model already in the marketplace, equips it with a sophisticated mount, and lets users hook on an existing GoPro camera. You can see immediately see which of these two options is more valuable for GoPro – they’ve got to build the drone with the internal camera because there are already a handful of companies that already offer the “drone plus mount” option for aerial photography. Why would you bother buying a new GoPro drone if you can just buy another drone and mount a GoPro on it?

Another big question is how the FAA is going to rule on drones. That matters a lot, since the civil UAV market is expected to explode in popularity if the FAA gives the green light for commercial drones. Right now, civil drones are essentially limited to hobbyists, they cannot be flown above 400 feet in the air and they cannot be flown close to airports.

Yet, even with those restrictions in place, there are signs of drone mania taking off. It’s not just aerial photography, which is far and away the biggest drone hobbyist use so far. Filmmaking could be next, now that Hollywood has received the green light to use them for filmmaking. We may even see more creative uses unveiled at January’s CES tech trade show in Las Vegas, which for the first time ever, is going to have an Unmanned Systems Marketplace.

For now, though, all eyes are Washington and not on Vegas. It seems like we’ve been expecting an FAA ruling forever. And now even the White House has been pushing for more guidance. There’s a lot of regulatory risk here, especially given all the concern about airplane-drone accidents. In fact, perhaps based on all those concerns, the latest reports are that the FAA will go ultra-strict on its commercial drone ruling, perhaps even limiting consumer drone use to daylight hours and requiring all commercial drone operators to get a pilot’s license.

Regulatory risk obviously plays a big role here. But GoPro already has jumped through U.S. regulatory hoops for its IPO filing and understands what it means to be a highly-visible public company subject to regulatory control – something smaller, VC-backed drone companies in Silicon Valley may not yet fully grasp. And, most importantly, GoPro has also joined the Washington-based Small UAV Coalition, giving it a voice together with other consumer drone champions.

There are a lot of factors that go into a company being able to become a market leader: Network effects. First-mover advantage. Barriers to entry. If GoPro hopes to become the consumer drone market champion the way it did with the action camera category, it will need to do more than just “get big fast” by converting a large share of its GoPro action camera users into GoPro drone users. It will have to make sure these users are part of a networked ecosystem that makes it almost impossible for other competitors to catch up. If any company can make consumer drones mainstream, it’s GoPro.