Next Christmas: A Drone Under (or Above) Every Tree

It's never too soon to start speculating about what will be hot — and not hot — when the Christmas holidays roll around this year.

Because toys interact with kids (big and small), feature sets and performance expectations can be quite high. Does it talk? Does it smile responsively? Does it perambulate autonomously? We've come a long way from the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls of the 1980s that were cute, somewhat cuddly, and remarkably inarticulate.

Technology trends make predicting the top toy a risky business before toy makers start their programmed leaks just before CE Week in NYC in June. Nevertheless, my money is on drones.

Since the price sweet spot of the Christmas toy market tends to be on the not-so-expensive side, most of the burden of producing a drone-toy superstar falls on the chip designer, who (as we know from reading Planet Analog blogs) has a dizzying array of mixed-signal design tools and fabrication processes at his/her disposal. But can they do it for less than 25 cents per chip? Depends on what's integrated, I guess.

Perhaps I should stop for a moment to define my terms: Drones are different from remote-controlled model planes because a camera is indispensible equipment and the ability to hover is highly desirable. We will leave the feature of a laser or other destructive device off the table for the time being.

I'm thinking drones because a lot of the necessary technology has already been integrated — some of it digital; some more of it analog. Any toy drone will have to be battery powered so the chip has to be ULP (ultra-low power). It has to integrate a state-of the-art 2.4 GHz radio for WiFi control and a pretty good microprocessor to handle the stabilization data required to accomplish hovering, which requires multiple position-adjustable rotors and their related position sensors (probably analog in nature). GPS should also be integrated – partly just because it can be — and is also useful when the drone disappears over the horizon. A camera is essential, which probably means a hard-wired image compression algorithm (more for the processor to do). It would be nice to have MEMS pressure sensor to measure altitude — these are already being integrated into some sports watches. What we may be talking about is a scaled down smartphone that flies.

Speaking of smartphones, control via your iPhone or other latest-generation mobile device would eliminate the cost of a base station. But wait, there already is an app for remote control of RC-class helicopters and a company that specializes in equipment for spying has a model with a camera.

We still have to get the price down, though, and add some drone-like features, such as extended range and higher altitude. Compare these features and specs to the RC-class helicopters which are bigger and intended for adult use. A toy has to be kid-sized in terms of both physical size and durability and capable of some level of autonomous flight.

A tall order to be sure but one that can be attained with more functionality integrated at an IC level. I expect this functionality may already be in the test phase now. So, what's on your Christmas list?

19 comments on “Next Christmas: A Drone Under (or Above) Every Tree

  1. Jack Shandle
    April 9, 2013

    I'm inclined to agree that Neiman Marcus would be a good starting place but the genius of engineering is to take an expensive product and make it both cheaper and better.

  2. Brad Albing
    April 9, 2013

    Scott – see also Hammacher Schlemmer. They seem to specialize on toys like this.

  3. eafpres
    April 10, 2013

    Hi Jack–if you think a little bigger, you can use an internal combustion engine for the motive power of the drone, and hook it to an onboard generator to power all the electronics.  Here is a nice example–the standard version can provide 800 mA at 4.8V, and there are upgrades available:

    Genesys generator


  4. SunitaT
    April 10, 2013

    In the modern world where there are less availabilty of cultivable land, it will be a great help for farmers if there are technology to reduce input cost and increase productivity. Drones with data processing features can assist farmers in inspecting field at any time.

    Drone with image processing technology will allow the farmer see soil moisture, make record of plant health. At harvest time a drone can fly over and software can generate a map for harvesting.

  5. Brad Albing
    April 10, 2013

    It's just a matter of time – and not much time, I expect – befor H-S starts carrying drones.

  6. Brad Albing
    April 10, 2013

    What a great idea. When many of us are getting all whiney about Cheneyesque invasion of privacy concerns, here's an application all set to generate some good karma.

  7. Brad Albing
    April 10, 2013

    So, that prime mover set-up would be a better not so much for the hobbyist, but for the small government wanting to do some extensive snooping on a small budget.

  8. Jack Shandle
    April 10, 2013

    Although I was thinking of toys when I wrote the blog (I always start to think about Christmas in the spring) there seem to be plenty of practical uses for drones that wouldn't necessarily have the price point required for a toy. Farming is one but I think traffic reporting is right up there in terms of practicality. Why have one or two manned helicopters roaming a 1,000 square mile area when one person in a control room could (safely?) control a dozen drones? Another application: Finding lost campers, hikers etc. This leads us to an important question with two parts: Is air-traffic control necessary? If so, what is the most efficient means of implementing it? Another relevant question is public safety. While there is certainly value in the peaceful use of drones, we can't just have them falling out of the sky from time to time. So I think that BOM has to be increased a bit with some sort of collision avoidance technology at the very least.

  9. Jack Shandle
    April 10, 2013

    I'm intrigued by the drone for sale at Nieman Marcus. First thing I note is that it is controlled by what appears to be an iPad. The second is that it is powered by a quadrotor configuration, which I assume combines the lift and the steering in a single subsystem. Although I doubt this is necessarily the product on sale at Nieman Marcus, I found a developer who was doing the same sort of thing back in 2011. (Target price was more along the lines of $100.)

    The basic parts used are: 4 motors; ARM Cortex-M3 80MHz (there's a Kalman filter involved to coordinate control of the four rotors); sensors (gyro, accelerometer, compass, temperature, GPS & Sonar); Xbee 802.15.4 for wireless communication.


  10. Jack Shandle
    April 10, 2013

    This is indeed a pleasant surprise. Just the fact that the generator will increase range and time in the air suits it well for some of the other applications we've been mentioning such as farms, traffic reports and finding lost campers or hikers.

  11. eafpres
    April 10, 2013

    There is an unfortunate situation right now that the FAA, in my opinion, is rather behind in figuring out the rules to allow significant use of drones in US airspace.  This currently limits most applications (I think there are only a few hundred total permits) to government/municipalities.  It might astonish some readers, as it did me, to learn that NASA is getting money from the FAA to help figure out rules for drones.  So we have two pretty large bureacracies working on this–you can draw your own conclusion as to how long it might take for widespread commercial applications.

    The linked study might be of interest; keeping in mind this is from an advocacy group for commercial UAS use:

    UAS Economic Impact Study

  12. Jack Shandle
    April 10, 2013

    Interesting — and unfortunate. While bureaucracies deliberate people suffer — and sometimes turn to innovation that has more to do with semantics than technology. Perhaps I should return to my original proposal of drone-as-toy, at least until Christmas 2013 has past. Safety in the air is a very serious topic, of course, but we have a fairly large community of hobbyists who fly remote-controlled model planes and helicopters. I guess these do not meet the definition of a drone according the FAA and NASA.

  13. Brad Albing
    April 11, 2013

    So as long as we say they are just “toys,” we can use them to survey our crops and not worry about procuring a license.

  14. Jack Shandle
    April 11, 2013

    If the toy drones fly low enough, or slow enough, are used in a place where nobody cares, or, some other operating characteristic that disqualifies them as a real drone under the FAA definition (which I am trying to find, by the way), then the answer is yes – just call them a toy.

    Coincidentally, on March 19, 2013 the MIT Enterprise Forum sponsored a panel discussion at Stanford University titled “Drones – The commercial era takes off.” The first sentence in the event description is: “Imagine delivering pizza by flying drone. Impossible Dream or Innovative Business Plan?” That makes my drone under every Christmas tree idea seem like pretty small potatoes.

  15. Jack Shandle
    April 11, 2013

    For anyone who is interested, there are two legal ways to fly drones (aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs) in U.S. airspace. 1) Get a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA, a process that can take months or more. 2) Fly under exemptions granted to non-commercial (“recreational”) flyers that adhere to certain restrictions. More detail at:

    One of the qualifications for model aircraft, by the way, is that they fly under 400 feet and stay away from airports.

  16. amrutah
    April 11, 2013

    There are interesting applications of Drone. Other than surveying the crops or sea for fishes or water nature.  There are some interesting applications of micro-drones or say nanodrones…
    1> The drones could land on you and then use its needle to take a DNA sample.   This is used for many medical applications like detecting the genome sequence and treating cancer. (more here…).  The scary part of it is, it could be used to inflict diseases…

    2> micro drones for sports, photography will change the way we enjoy the sports on TV…

    3> There are many countries/cities working on their model of microdrones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

    The future looks awesome and at the same time scary…, hence the regulations to use drones is very important…

  17. amrutah
    April 11, 2013

    After the smartphone and tablet era, the drones will be the next consurmer electronics market.. companies like TI, Qualcomm, Apple might already be having tie-ups with the government and non-government organisations….


  18. Jack Shandle
    April 12, 2013

    I have to say that the idea of a micro drone landing on me to take a DNA sample is a little scary.

  19. Brad Albing
    April 30, 2013

    Hmm… the Apple iDrone (that works – rhymes with iPhone). It could also be the Apple iPlane – kind of cute – rhymes with biplane.

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