Drones compete to be top dog in the R/C aisle by adding extra features, gaming, and more.

Winter is coming—well, at least for the toy industry, which is constantly looking forward to Q4—and toy manufacturers are always competing to provide the best products at the best price.

Last year, we saw an influx of drones hit the market. A lot of companies were jumping on the trend, from traditional R/C companies to newcomers to the game that were importing in unknown brands. Retail shelves and online retailers were flooded with a variety of drones, making it a bit of a struggle for consumers to sift through all the options to find the one that suited their needs.

This year, the R/C toy category is seeing a bit of a change in the form of fewer players and more features. The drone category is becoming an even tougher category in which to compete—kids and experienced fliers alike are both looking for more than just a quadcopter with a camera.

Not only are companies looking for new ways to innovate their drones, but they’re also looking to find ways to make the nuances and technicalities of drone-flying more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of the added features are making drones semi-autonomous, allowing younger and more novice fliers the chance to get in on the action.

REV Air

REV Air, from WowWee

“We’re taking a different approach,” says Davin Sufer, chief technology officer, WowWee. “We want to make something that’s going to be fun to play with and interact with—and not just about learning to fly and having to get through that learning curve.”

One feature you’ll see in several drones on the market this year is auto-hover. This allows the drone to sit and hover in the air at a designated height. Basically, it removes the pressure of having to fidget with the throttle to keep the drone steady at a consistent height. Eliminating the worry of crashing opens a whole new world of possibilities.

Drone Racing

With new organizations, such as the Drone Racing League, gaining popularity, drone racing is becoming the hot new thing. It takes a lot of practice and preparation to be able to fly a drone from a first-person point of view (meaning the user feels like he or she is sitting in the cockpit instead of on the outside looking at the drone).

“Those guys spend hours and hours and hours training their quads and learning how to fly them and calibrating them and doing all these things to make them work perfectly,” says Conor Forkan, global business unit lead for Spin Master’s Air Hogs brand. “Your average person doesn’t really have the time or patience to do [that].”

The Air Hogs Sentinel takes all of that frustration out of race-type flying. It puts the flier in the first-person point of view, just like the pros, but it’s also covered in sensors that will detect the obstacles first, and correct the flight pattern.

Air Hogs: Sentinel Drone

Air Hogs: Sentinel Drone, from Spin Master

“The Sentinel has obstacle avoidance, autonomous flight, a really high-definition camera, and a really wide-angle lens, so that I am able to fly it around inside a building, around corners, and through a detailed obstacle course, without having to have that much skill,” says Forkan. “I can just press full throttle on the gas, and it has sensors that are going to compensate.”

Skyrocket Toys is also capitalizing on the drone racing trend with the newest addition to its Sky Viper drone line: the Hover Racer. The Hover Racer flies up to 20 mph while hovering 3 feet off the ground and has different modes for game play. Using the free app and infrared beacons, players can race and battle with up to four different Hover Racers, or play as a single player. It also has a Co-Pilot mode, in which two different smart devices connect to one Racer, so that friends without Hover Racers can also play. As players improve, they can unlock new capabilities, such as stronger weapons and better performance—equivalent to leveling up in a video game.

“We say it’s where drones meet video games,” says Kristy Burns, vice president of marketing, Skyrocket Toys. “And that sort of connected play with R/C flying is absolutely where the category is going.”

Hover Racer - Red_Skyrocket

Hover Racer, from Skyrocket Toys

Gamer’s Paradise

In order to incorporate other video game-type play aside from racing, WowWee added beacon sensor techonology to its drone line this year, meaning the drone can sense the beacon and stay near it.

This year, WowWee introduces flight to its REV line of battling artificial intelligence (AI) cars with REV Air. REV Air will come with an AI car and a drone, so that players can play as either vehicle. With this new technology, the quadcopter recognizes where the car is located and flies above it. Players can take control to try to outmaneuver the quadcopter (or vice versa) and shoot at it with laser blasters to disable it. Thanks to beacon-sense technology, the quadcopter can not only chase the car around and follow it while kids are driving, but it also knows how to fly without crashing into things.

“And the question now is: ‘I can fly—now what?’ And that’s what we’re answering,” says Sufer. “We’re also opening it up to a wider audience because people who can’t fly can now say, ‘I can fly. And guess what? I can play a game.’”

But the technology doesn’t just make it easier to fly. WowWee believes that the gaming aspects add a whole new level to the flying R/C play pattern.

“We think it’s not just an enabler, it’s giving it its own depth,” adds Sufer. “It’s giving it the concept of a flying thing, with more interactivity, more play, and more depth.”

Spin Master will also introduce the Air Hogs Connect: Mission Drone this year, which will use an included mat to give players what is best described as—in the words of Forkan—the Star Trek Holodeck. The Mission Drone uses augmented reality to build a video game world out of the room in which players are standing. Users can walk around the room as they play because if there is furniture there, they can still see it, but there is also a 3-D video game building in front of it.

“This is the first time where it’s completely immersive and reactive and there’s no delay and you just play the game and you fly this drone in this 3-D space,” says Forkan.

Design Matters

Odyssey Toys’ Pocket Drone is award-winning for its innovation in design. This small drone fits inside of a pocket, but also shoots video in 720 HD. It’s designed to be completely portable, so that it fits into the very on-the-go way of life today’s consumers lead.

“‘On-the-go’ is what society is about nowadays,” says Sal Irigoyen, president, Odyssey Toys. “It’s people going on vacation, it’s instant communication, people going places. How cool is it that you can go camping and bring Odyssey’s Pocket Drone with you and in that forest, pull out your Pocket Drone, and just film the beauty that nature has to offer without it being a cumbersome device that you have to carry around with you?”

Odyssey Toys_Pocket Drone - Open for Flight

Pocket Drone, from Odyssey Toys

And just because it’s small, that doesn’t mean that drone-lovers will sarcrifice the height. The Pocket Drone can fly up to 150 feet.

Skyrocket also added new features—including one-button touch for auto-pilot—to the drones in its 2016 product line. The newly designed controller will allow for the R/Cs to be easier to fly right out of the box.

“This will allow you to press a button and it will auto launch and it’ll hover at a height and will lock in at that height and just stay right there in position,” says Burns. “It will allow you to move the drone up and down in pre-set 6-inch increments, just by pushing the button.”

But the one-button flight mode won’t deter more experienced fliers from Skyrocket’s line. Users are also able to use the normal two-stick analog control when they graduate from novice flying and feel more comfortable with their drone.

Irigoyen predicts that the future of the category involves bringing those high-tech features from the higher-priced drones in the greater than $1,000 category down to the toy category (under $200). Features such as more detailed GPS and more advanced auto-pilot features will trickle their way down to a more affordable price point. One thing is for certain: When you play the game of drones, you win and you fly. »