Forget DJI and Parrot: Here’s 13 little-known drone companies that made a splash at CES

unknown drone company roundup ces 2016 hexo  0056
Rick Stella/Digital Trends
This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was a bonafide buffet of futuristic gadgets, innovative gizmos, and inventive trends that offered a sneak peek into what 2016 (and beyond) has in store for the world of tech. One such trend that’s gained a considerable amount of momentum in recent years concerns the industry of unmanned aerial systems — aka drones. After seeing a mediocre showing of drone companies in Las Vegas for CES 2015, this year’s edition of the show quickly proved this to be a corner of tech enjoying a meteoric rise unlike any other.

Alongside all the well-established companies like DJI, Parrot, and Yuneec all vying for the supreme designation of being the go-to brand, we came across a litany of other companies looking to pounce on the industry’s recent surge in popularity. While some offered near spitting images of the aforementioned Big Three, many rolled into Las Vegas with new and improved approaches to the existing tech, with some debuting a few wholly unique visions. Many may have scoffed at the lasting appeal of a glorified RC helicopter for adults, but after a week spent consumed by the constant whir of aircraft propellers, it’s clear drones are here to stay.

To help give you a better idea of what to expect from the world of UAVs in the coming years, we took to the task of gathering as much info as we could on all the under-the-radar drone companies at CES 2016. While it’s reasonable the list isn’t absolutely comprehensive, the following companies are, without a doubt, likely to have the best chance to break out in 2016.

Hexo

French startup Hexo took to the CES 2016 showroom floor this year armed with its fully autonomous drone, dubbed the Hexo+. Void entirely of a full-fledged controller, pilots fly the Hexo+ by executing pre-determined movements via a companion smartphone application. A few simple clicks of the application allow pilots to quickly change the orientation and flight pattern of the drone, granting some amount of control over where it flies. For instance, selecting “360 — far away” sends the Hexo+ in perfect 360-degree circles around the pilot while also consistently keeping the camera focused solely on them.

Even landing the craft is done with just the click of a button, making this one of the most user-friendly drones we’ve ever seen. Hexo may be under the radar at the moment but after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and impressive CES 2016 showing, it won’t be long before more people recognize the name.

Take a look at our CES 2016 hands-on with the Hexo+.

Autel Robotics

On the second-to-last day of the show, a rather large group of people began congregating near Autel Robotics‘ setup and frantically began putting on a bright red, Autel shirt. Curious as to what might be happening (perhaps it was preparing for some celebrity demonstration of a drone or unveiling some outrageous quadcopter never before conceived), we mosied over and politely asked someone what the fuss was all about. They’re about to give away a couple free drones, but you have to watch a seven-minute video and wear this red shirt first, the stranger replied. Hell, that’s one way to spread the word about your company; free drones!

Aside from the fanfare (we opted not to stick around), Autel’s X-Star drone lineup was the star of its show. Similar in aesthetic design to DJI’s Phantom lineup, each member of the X-Star line (the standard X-Star, the X-Star Go, and X-Star Premium) packed its own unique set of features and benefits. For instance, both the standard and premium models boast 4K cameras, live 720p camera view while in flight, and a flight time of up to 25 minutes (this last one is also native to the Go version). None are currently available, so exact price points are unknown at this time.

Shanghai Nine Eagles

Touting itself as a purveyor of the world’s smallest and lightest UAV with a 3-axis gimbal and high-definition camera, Shanghai Nine Eagles Electronic Technology Company spent the week showcasing its Mola line of drones. Crafted specifically for capturing film and photos, the Mola’s calling card is supposedly its simple flight controls, intelligent safety systems, and lightweight build. Its bigger model Tourist 1 looks fairly similar to DJI’s Inspire line, however, its rotors sit slightly higher making it look less like a bionic spider and more like a traditional quadcopter.

Where Mola stands out from the crowd concerns its Mola X 1.0 which features a design never before seen among the drone community. Though technically a quadcopter, the Mola X 1.0 looks like two twin-spinning fans placed perpendicular to each other. We aren’t sure how it flies but it’s refreshing to see Shanghai Nine Eagles producing something different from everyone else.

Eken

As evidenced by nearly every UAV company on display at CES 2016, the concept of using drones for filming is absolutely booming. Yet another company throwing its hat into the increasingly crowded ring is Eken. A China-based drone company which brought its FlyHawk line of drones to Vegas to display why it believes drone enthusiasts should pay attention to its products. Featuring a 3-axis stabilized gimbal, a patented easy-to-use quick battery replacement design, and innovative auto-pilot system, the FlyHawk is an entry-level drone even professionals can appreciate.

Eken offers the FlyHawk with either a 1080p or 2.7K onboard camera, which puts it slightly behind much of its competition who offer included 4K cameras. Can Eken hang with the opposition with an inferior camera? Only time will tell.

Wingsland

When every other company is manufacturing nearly identical products, there’s something to be said about a company offering a drone that’s pleasing on the eyes. From the very first time we caught sight of them, Wingsland‘s lineup of futuristic-looking drones appeared to have good looks in spades. Adorned primarily in vibrant orange, each Wingsland model (whether it be the M5, the Echo, etc.) is an eye-catching display of stunning design.

Technically speaking, Wingsland outfits its impressive lineup with a skill set that might make other companies put their tail between their legs. For starters, pilots have the option of using either a compatible controller, a specially-designed wristwatch controller, or a smartphone application. While using the app specifically, operators can choose between different settings for the onboard camera, check in on the drone’s relative altitude and voltage, and even edit any footage captured. We liked the look of Wingsland’s drone force, no doubt, but they also look fun as hell to pilot.

Next page: Five more up-and-coming drone companies…

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