Why the Sony ILX-LR1 matters more for the drone industry more than any other

Sony’s got an all-new camera that could be applicable to any sort of industrial use case demanding the gathering of visual data — but there’s a reason why Sony released its latest product, called the ILX-LR1 Professional Camera, at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas this week.

And this isn’t just any camera. Its ultra-compact design strips out all sorts of standard camera features, and that’s the point. Designed for professional applications, the ILX-LR1 Professional Camera is set to be a big win for drone pilots working in industrial applications who demand efficiencies (like shorter flight times) coupled with ultra high-resolution images.

The ILX-LR1 Professional Camera is a full-frame, interchangeable lens camera. It has a backside illuminated sensor, and it works with the Sony Camera Remote SDK.

Among its standout features is the high resolution camera, as well as the small size — both of which have efficiency as the forefront.

The importance of the high resolution camera

At the core, it uses Sony’s 61 MP sensor. It’s a backside-illuminated, Exmor R CMOS sensor, which means it’s excellent in low light. Being able to capture super high resolution images — and pairing that with a BIONZ XR processing engine — gets incredibly detailed images.

For drone pilots, having a high resolution and high accuracy for operations such as inspecting power lines is critical.

The camera can capture shots at 3fps, which allows you to better map a large area like a field or large construction site. With continuous shooting up to three frames per second, such tasks can be done more quickly.

The importance of the small size

As far as this camera’s size, well, it’s small. It weighs just 243 grams, and its dimensions measure 74x100x42.5 millimeters. Screw mounts on the front, back, side, top, and bottom allow it to fit on different frames. There’s also a standard UNC 1/4in tripod mount.

Of course, the design isn’t necessarily what you might think of when you think of a “camera.” There’s no electronic viewfinder, and there’s no LCD.

There’s also not even a battery. That’s because the Sony ILX-LR1 relies on an external power source. When connected to a drone, you’d connect it to the drone’s power supply — keeping your payload to a lighter weight.

That said, the camera does offer a few options to make it more like a traditional camera. For example, there’s an DMI port so you can connect an external monitor, allowing you to do the same things you’d do if there were an LCD in the camera itself.

There’s also a built-in USB terminal that can also double as a LAN terminal, allowing you to control the camera over a larger distance using LAN technology.  And, there’s still the typical Sony control wheel.

What the ILX-LR1 means for the drone industry

While it’s not solely created for use in drones, the new Sony camera is a big deal for the drone industry given how ideal it is for use in aerial industrial applications. Unsurprisingly, that’s all thanks to its compact size, light weight and high resolution. In fact, the folks who helped design the camera have said that the largest market for this camera will likely be the drone market.

Among the top challenges plaguing drone makers — including Sony, which makes its own drone called the Sony Airpeak S1 — is low flight times. The Sony Airpeak S1 drone itself has been criticized for its 22 minutes of battery life (and that’s with no payload). When you throw on common payloads such as the Alpha camera and gimbal, the battery life drops down to 12 minutes. 

The light payload offered here helps improve flight times (additional weight always demands more energy). But with the higher resolution, drone pilots could pop on a wide angle camera. Combine that single, high resolution camera with the ability to shoot at 3 fps, and you can cover a large area in a lesser amount of time anyway. In short, this camera could help you get more done in less time anyway.

What drones is the ILX-LR1 compatible with?

There are plenty of options for mounting the ILX-LR1. Plus, it’s compatible with Sony’s SDK (software development kit). That means the camera has an API integrated into it, so you can more easily control the camera remotely should you need to make changes to camera settings, shutter release, live view monitoring, focus data and more.

Sony has said it anticipates that service companies will likely incorporate this as a payload on their existing fleet or come up with new drones using this camera. That said, the camera itself is not actually compatible with the aforementioned Sony Airpeak S1 drone — at least for now.

“Sony Airpeak S1, being relatively new, was not prioritized,” a Sony spokesperson said. 

But there are plenty of other drones that the ILX-LR1 is compatible with. One of the key players is Skyfish, which is an American drone company based in Montana that has long built drones that can carry Sony cameras.

“The reason we went with this market approach is that we see two gaps in the market,” said El Deane Naude, Senior Product Information Manager at Sony. “When it comes to the Sony Airpeak drone, there’s not a gap in the market — just a large market opportunity. But there are a huge number of companies with many drones in their fleets that they’ve already deployed. This gives them an opportunity to use a better camera.”

For its part, Sony has been heavily leaning into the industrial sector in marketing its Airpeak drone — a sharp pivot from how the Airpeak was initially marketed when it was announced at CES back in 2021.

Sony has said that it has also already started testing with a number of partners such as RtRobotics, which have been mounting two to their gimbals for 360 degrees of view. RtRobotics is based near Silicon Valley California with additional offices in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and builds NDAA-compliant drones. Its flagship product is Hera, which is considered a Swiss Army knife drone designed for industrial applications.

Another player, Santa Monic-based Zeitview, has said the camera is set to increase efficiency and accuracy of its wind turbine inspections. And Event 38 Unmanned Systems has mounted it to their E400-VTOL mapping drone, which they’ve said can increase their drones flight time to nearly two hours. 

So how can you get your hands on the Sony ILX-LR1 Professional Camera? It’ll sell for $2,950. Though, it’s not available for purchase quite yet. Sony said it expects the new ILX-LR1 Professional Camera to start shipping sometime in December 2023 through its professional distributors.

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