Drones took another step towards becoming flying smartphones on Monday. Shenzen-based drone industry leader DJI released a new computer specifically tailored for its drones. The DJI Manifold, which costs $500, is a powerful computer in a case small and light enough to be mounted on a quadcopter.
The Manifold is not for consumers. DJI intends that users will mount it onboard its Matrice 100 drone, which is DJI’s developer platform and costs $3300. But the apps that are developed using the Manifold and DJI’s software development kit could give many more people a reason to buy a drone.
The Manifold includes a quad-core ARM processor, similar to ones used in phones, as well as an NVIDIA Kepler graphics processor, and it features a whole host of ports including USB, Ethernet, and HDMI. It’s running Ubuntu Linux, a operating system that should be familiar to developers.
Most consumers and businesses buy technology to accomplish a task, and DJI’s new computer opens the door for developers to make many more drone apps for specific uses. Currently, most consumers use their drones for aerial photography and tinkering. But easier plug-and-play software opens the door for uses far beyond filming killer YouTube videos.
For example, a properly programmed drone can create 3D models from drone images. Drones also have uses in agriculture, using the drone’s camera and machine vision software to evaluate the progress of a farmer’s crop. Currently, programming a drone to accomplish tasks like these requires technical expertise. But in the future, it could be as easy as downloading an app.
DJI provided developers with official tools to program its drones earlier this year, and in the meantime developers have come up with apps for DJI drones that turn them into mapmakers, simple apps for making panoramas, and an autopilot app.
The Manifold makes the process of coming up with drone applications easier by providing a standardized on-board computer that is specifically customized for flying. Another advantage to the Manifold is that developers can install sensors for specific uses, such as a depth-sensing camera. The graphics processor on the Manifold means that drones can run computer vision software on the aircraft itself, making it easier for drones to quickly understand exactly what its cameras are filming.
Many of these features, such as onboard image processing, are not available for DJI’s more affordable and popular drones, like its Phantomline. But you can expect the applications that come out of this platform to trickle down in the coming years.
DJI has a strong position in the drone market—71% of commercial drone use cases approved by the U.S. FAA in August involved DJI drones. But well-funded competitors like Qualcomm (QCOM) and Intel (INTC) also want to produce the computers that drones use. Qualcomm revealed a chip last month that is optimized for drones. Intel has been investing in drone makers and has partnered with one of DJI’s rivals, San Francisco-based 3D Robotics.
What is clear is that DJI is putting an emphasis on its drones’ software, and is trying to turn them into a platform. It recently opened a research and development center in Palo Alto, California, and has hired several notable roboticists. Features like obstacle avoidance, autonomous flight, and unexpected use cases all require deep software expertise.
One way to ensure people keep buying DJI drones is to make sure they run the best software. The Manifold appears to be giving DJI a head start in an increasingly competitive area.
For more on the drone commercial market, watch this Fortune video:
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