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Drone maker DJI joins with Olympus, Panasonic for better aerial photos

By joining the Micro Four Thirds interchangeable-lens alliance, the maker of the popular Phantom series of camera-carrying drones signals interest in lenses from the two camera firms.

THe DJI Spreading WIngs s900 drone has a camera mount, but an alliance with camera makers could make it easier to take high-quality aerial photos.
DJI's Spreading Wings S900 drone has a camera mount, but an alliance with camera makers could make it easier to take high-quality aerial photos. DJI

Attention photographers: mainstream drone products with high-end cameras appear to be readying for takeoff.

That's because DJI, maker of the popular Phantom series of camera-toting drones, has joined Olympus and Panasonic in the Micro Four Thirds interchangeable-lens alliance. The move could significantly expand China-based DJI's product line and tap into excitement around drone-based aerial photography.

DJI's Phantom drones come with their own cameras and can carry lightweight models like a GoPro, and the company also offers much larger, more expensive models like the S1000+ that can carry a much heavier SLR camera such as the Canon 5D Mark III. On Tuesday, though, Olympus announced that DJI joined the Micro Four Thirds alliance, which Olympus and Panasonic established to try to better compete with the dominant powers of Canon and Nikon. Joining the alliance signals that DJI could offer a drone with a Micro Four Thirds camera built in, then let photographers attach the lenses of their choosing.

By providing an eye in the sky, drones are a big deal for photographers and videographers looking for a fresh new angle. But unfortunately for professional landscape, real estate, wedding and events photographers, commercial drone use is generally prohibited in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration hopes to release draft regulations that would open the market up more, but judging by exemptions the FAA has granted so far to the ban, it's likely to impose conservative requirements like a pilot's license for drone operators.

A built-in camera offers benefits including integration with DJI remote-control hardware and software, easier setup than with today's drone camera platforms, and, potentially, a drone-optimized light weight. The lens flexibility means photographers could attach anything from a fish-eye lens for an ultrawide view to a telephoto to zoom in on subjects -- as long as the lens doesn't weigh too much.

DJI declined to detail its plans for Micro Four Thirds-capable drones, but said it tries to strike the right balance between weight and flight time.

"Weight limit will depend on the platform, but in general our focus is to deliver the best possible optics and flight time," said DJI marketing specialist Chinmoy Lad. The company's Inspire 1 drone is a "breakthrough in this regard," he added, with a powerful camera, good optics, and 18 minutes of flight time.

Olympus said DJI plans to release Micro Four Thirds products, but the camera maker didn't offer details. Two other Chinese optical equipment companies, JCD Optical and Flovel, also joined the alliance.

"With the addition of exciting new products from these companies, the Micro Four Thirds lineup will become much more diverse, further increasing the potential of this advanced digital imaging system," Olympus said in a statement.

Micro Four Thirds cameras have a smaller sensor than Canon and Nikon SLRs, but they also generally offer more-compact bodies such as the Panasonic Lumix GF7 or the Olympus E-PL7 . Both Panasonic and Olympus also like very small, lightweight "pancake" lenses that would fit well on a drone.

(Via PetaPixel)

Updated at 3:20 a.m. PT with comment from DJI.

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