DroneAirpeak

Creation in the air:
Exploring new frontiers of expression

The Airpeak drone fuses Sony’s impressive arsenal of imaging technologies, sensing technologies,
and AI robotics, all products of years of research and development, into a powerful whole.
Leading the way for the new brand is Airpeak S1, a drone that Sony developed specifically
for video creators aiming to wow viewers like never before. In this story,
Airpeak project personnel detail the creation of an airframe capable of mounting
an Alpha™ full-frame mirrorless camera, a UI/UX design for the device’s aerial photography system,
and a communication design that captures what makes the product special.

Shibata
(designer
[communication design],
Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Kimura
(designer
[communication design],
Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Ishizu
(designer
[product design],
Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Shimizu
(senior manager,
Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Ishii
(art director
[UI/UX design],
Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Komatsu
(art director
[UI/UX design],
Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Unleashing constraints
to set creativity free

Could Sony use its technologies to push the boundaries of what drones are capable of? Determined to do just that, Sony launched the development of the Airpeak: a drone that would let video creators unlock new realms of creativity.

ShimizuOur goal was to create a drone that would mount an Alpha, Sony’s full-frame mirrorless camera, and also use sensing technologies to monitor the device’s surroundings in real time, AI technologies to respond to changes, and robotics to ensure stable flight operations. Most drones capable of mounting full-frame cameras are big and bulky, so we also wanted to deliver the same kind of functionality in a more compact airframe. From the time the engineers started prototyping, we designers were on board and developing our ideas.

In designing the drone, the team focused on creating a professional-grade package that would be reliable, easy to use, and operationally efficient. That was the first order of business—and on top of that, we wanted to listen to video creators and see things from their perspective so that we could mold the drone into an optimal tool for maximizing creativity. We set out to develop our design for the airframe and UI/UX based on those two goals, all while striving to lift the limitations of the past and distill the essence of what a drone is.

Eliminating extraneous elements
to leave nothing but the essence

Developing a drone airframe was a first for the Airpeak designers and engineers, who went back and forth between the drawing board and the testing environment in search of the ideal design.

IshizuBefore the Airpeak, I’d never designed a product that could fly—but if I was going to get my feet wet, I knew I wanted to jump in headfirst and show the world that Sony was serious about making a great drone. The designers and engineers were after an airframe with specific characteristics: it had to be able to fly in a safe, highly maneuverable way, let the user get everything out of the Alpha’s top-notch expressivity, and make it possible to get aerial shots more freely than ever. Just making the drone lightweight and minimizing air resistance—basic requirements for any drone—wouldn’t be enough to do that. We’d have to go a step further and live up to Sony standards by stabilizing the camera enough so that the Alpha could deliver optimal performance in flight, for example, and outfitting the drone with multiple sensors to detect ambient conditions.

The design team decided to develop some approaches for satisfying those requirements. As we took the lead in proposing a basic structure for the airframe to get things started, we pushed for incorporating light, durable materials to minimize the airframe’s surface area and a high-rigidity structure to enable stable flight at high speeds. At the same time, we fine-tuned the arm angles and propeller positions to keep the parts from interfering with the sensors on the surface but still maintain an optimal weight balance between the airframe and the Alpha camera.

What was the hardest part of the product design?

IshizuWe reworked the design numerous times, and we felt like we’d completed a workable prototype—but the test flights showed evidence of some propeller resonance, a problem that hadn’t shown up in our pre-flight simulations. It was an issue that would definitely impact shooting performance, so the engineers looked at everything again, starting with the basic structure. The modifications consolidated the on-board devices in the center of the drone to create a rigid structure and keep the propeller vibrations from reaching the camera, and we had to reformulate the design accordingly.

We went back to the drawing board and steered our focus in a new direction: stripping away all the unnecessary elements until only the essentials were left. Without anything extra getting in the way, the core components would enhance the drone’s structural strength and come together in a sleeker package that exuded both precision and stability. From that new starting point, we came up with a geometric form around the motifs of curves and straight lines. The aesthetic upped the stability factor through a more balanced, angular aesthetic, in addition to bringing out the precision element with even more visual clarity. We also made the switch to flip-up stands for the airframe, which keeps the stands out of the frame of the shot in any configuration—even when camera does a 360-degree rotation. The design tweaks didn’t just enhance the visual dimension; they made the drone even more user-friendly, too.

Another key part of the design was the drone controller.

IshizuI’ve always believed that good tools make good results, so I wanted to make the controller something that’d fit perfectly into video creators’ hands—that way, users would be able to follow their creative sparks without any interference. We decided to go straight to the source and find out how creators around Japan and across the globe actually held their drone controllers. Through that process, we came to the realization that there wasn’t just one way to hold a controller. Every creator had their own grip. With that, we set out to craft a form that’d be easy for any user to hold.

While the form includes spherical contours for an optimal fit, it also features an edge that aligns with the base of the user’s thumb to make the controller easier to get a firm grip on. On top of that, we fine-tuned the shapes and positions of the bumps on the grip so that it’d feel comfortable in virtually any way the user decided to hold it. The finger rest is another addition that makes the user experience more comfortable, giving creators’ hands a break when they want to focus on stick operations and immerse themselves even deeper in a shoot.

Letting creators tap
into the full potential
of their creativity

As the airframe design made progress, so did the UI/UX design. The Airpeak interface system has two parts: the Airpeak Base web app for pre-flight planning and the Airpeak Flight mobile app for actually controlling the drone during a shoot.

IshiiDrones are a new product category for Sony, so we decided to zoom out and get a good look at the big picture of the UI/UX design. Instead of concentrating solely on the nuts and bolts of the app screen, we wanted to design an entire aerial photography system that maximizes creativity. We began that process by gathering input from video creators in Japan and abroad. More than anything else, we learned, creators want to avoid letting great shot opportunities pass them by—and since that was the biggest need for many potential users, we knew our UI/UX design had to maximize the chances of turning opportunities into results. Looking at everything from device setup and shooting prep to actual shooting operations, post-shoot checks, and data management, we evaluated the entire shooting workflow to locate key points to address in designing the web and mobile apps.

How did the team design the web app?

IshiiOur focus for the web app was to maximize shot opportunities and make shoots as effective as possible. For a user, having to think about flight operations and filming operations at the same time can be a challenge, so we designed the app with a feature for charting out meticulous flight routes in advance on an online map. That way, the Airpeak can fly a preset route automatically—which lets the user devote their full attention to shooting footage and avoid losing shot opportunities. The web app also makes it possible to map out routes based on past flight logs, taking guesswork out of the planning process.

What about the mobile app?

IshiiThe keys for the mobile app, which the user can operate via the drone controller, were reliability and responsiveness—if the app is prone to malfunctions or lags, users are bound to miss opportunities. To reduce the cognitive load on the user, we put the status display (showing the remaining battery and other details) at the top of the screen, flight operations on the left, and camera operations on the right. We also worked with Ishizu-san, who led the design for the controller, to make sure that the control systems on the sides of the app screen would match the corresponding systems on the controller. With that consistency unifying the user experience across the device and the app, creators can control the drone more intuitively.

To prevent the user’s hand from inadvertently blocking the screen, we situated the touch area for the flight and camera operations at the bottom and sides of the screen. The UI for the camera operations takes plenty of hints from the interface of the Alpha camera, including text elements, icons, and other parts of the control system, so that users familiar with the Alpha would have no trouble transitioning to the Airpeak. Running through all those detailed design tweaks is a commitment to taking as much stress as possible out of the user experience.

The team’s focus extended past designing the UI/UX for when the Airpeak is in operation, however.

KomatsuIn designing the UX, our main goal was to make sure that video creators could focus more on visual expression and less on other things. That’s why we did whatever we could to simplify pieces like the initial configuration procedures and calibrations (adjustments) for maintaining accuracy. To streamline the initial setup process, for example, the mobile app features straightforward animations showing how to do things like attach parts or pair the drone and the app. Thanks to that simplicity, new users can get their drones set up quickly and easily without having to read through the manual or other instructions.

Routine calibrations are definitely important, but they’re also pretty hard to do without some experience. We wanted to flatten the learning curve a bit, so we decided to create a new calibration UI that would make the process easy enough for a first-time user to figure out. When a user wants to check the accuracy of the airframe’s compass, for instance, the UI carefully guides them through the steps with illustrations and activates LED lights on the airframe itself to show the user what parts they should be looking at. Another calibration we tried to simplify through the new UI was the process of adjusting the camera gimbal—a notoriously tricky set of parameters to navigate. We went with a set of "DO" and "DON’T" illustrations, which help minimize the potential for confusion.

Capturing the team’s mindset
in the communication design

In addition to designing the product and the UI/UX, the team also developed a communication design to help the brand get across to audiences both inside and outside Sony.

KimuraWhen a new brand takes shape, one of the most important roles for communication designers is coming up with a brand name and brand statement—a verbalization of the whole message behind the brand. Airpeak was no different. In developing a statement for the drones, we wanted to capture what drove and motivated the people on the project. Listening to what Airpeak personnel said during their meetings, we came up with a list of three frequent keywords: air, peak, and creation, which we then started weaving into an actual statement with some help from other relevant departments. Meanwhile, we also combined two of the keywords we’d selected—"air" and "peak"—into the brand name.

ShibataThe keywords were also the main components for the key visual. Embracing the “peak” element, we started hunting down compelling visuals of mountain ranges—especially elevated views of tall, craggy, imposing mountains. Our idea was that expansive views, skying over mountains, would be a better symbolic fit for the keywords in the statement than shots looking up toward mountain summits.

KimuraTo make the Airpeak user experience as consistent as possible, we also knew that we would need to formulate a concept to show people in the Sony organization how we could tie the product design, UI/UX design, and communication design together. The team had a general, indistinct perception of "Sony drone" at that point, but that wouldn’t be enough to keep the project on a solid track moving forward. A clear, explicit concept was going to be a vital foundation to work from.

The best way to build a firm basis, we decided, was to interview everyone from product designers and UI/UX designers to product planners and engineers about their personal motivations, goals, and points of pride in connection to the project. Out of those conversations came a sharper picture of the things shaping the group’s mindset, and we wove those common threads into a concise statement—"A peak of integrity: Taking functionality higher to reach the ultimate essence." Not only did that help bring the project together around a well-defined vision, but it also gave the designers a clearer direction to guide their work.

IshiiThe "peak of integrity" design concept by Kimura-san and the other communication designers said exactly what we were trying to say. When people at Sony would ask me what the project was all about, there were plenty of times when I couldn’t put it into simple terms. But the "peak of integrity" made everything clearer. The concept helped us zero our design in on the heart of the project and polish our work, too.

What went into the logotype and other elements of the communication design?

ShibataThe Airpeak logotype makes the "A" of Airpeak look like the point of a compass, creating a visual cue to capture the "summit," "growth," and “ascent” elements shaping the brand’s drone identity. For the motion logo in the promotional video, too, we incorporated the "ascent" piece from the keyword candidates and featured movements that accented the Airpeak’s high-precision operability.

On the external messaging front, including the website and the newsletter for registered users, we went all out in getting our art direction and article layout to fit in perfect alignment with the Airpeak brand design. When you launch a new brand, it’s all about making a good first impression. Knowing that anything an audience sees has an impact on our brand image, we designed everything in the Airpeak communication portfolio with a clear focus and careful attention to detail.

The Airpeak motion logo

One of the team’s goals was to make sure that the Airpeak would resonate with video creators.

KimuraRight from the start, the plan was to have the Airpeak film the VISION-S Prototype, a Sony proposal for an electric vehicle. We figured we could turn the making-of footage from that shoot into a kind of promotional video for the Airpeak, a compelling way of showing video creators the kind of performance and potential they could expect in the drone. There are lots of promotional videos that give a basic overview of the product. Instead of taking that conventional route, we wanted viewers to see exactly what the Airpeak could do in the hands of a professional—and if that’s your goal, you can’t get more convincing than actual behind-the-scenes footage. We went into production aiming to make video creators want to use the Airpeak, which we did by including a lot of scenes highlighting the product’s mobility, shots of the Alpha on board, and other visuals that would pull creators in.

ShibataIt was so great to see that people who’d watched the finished video online liked it; some even said that the footage opened their eyes to how the Airpeak could unlock new modes of expression. Reading all those comments, I really felt like we’d made good on our goal of inspiring video creators.

The Airpeak is just beginning
to climb to new heights

The Airpeak project applies the co-creation approach, actively soliciting feedback from professional drone users to drive improvements. Having already begun to translate that input into enhancements, the team is looking forward to what the future holds.

IshiiThe UI screen puts a selection of status data, like remaining battery and flight time, at the top of the screen, and we’ve adjusted the presentation of all that information based on user feedback. Drawing on detailed input from our supporters (users who have agreed to provide feedback), we changed the display to highlight the key items that users want to see mid-flight, gave certain indicators more pixel space, and took other steps to refine the design with an eye to lightning-fast decision making during shoots.

IshizuOur supporters have been a big help in enhancing the product design, too—we made so many adjustments to the airframe and controller right all the way through the final stages thanks to their feedback. Airpeak S1 is kind of a “seed” for the Airpeak product family. It’s our job to nurture that seed with care and attention. After all, the Airpeak is a step into a new future for Sony; we had to go all out.

ShimizuAs designers, I hope we continue to stay aggressive as the Airpeak starts to mature as a brand. One thing that sets us Sony designers apart is the depth of our involvement in the Sony Group’s business fields—from electronics and entertainment to finance—for both the consumer and professional markets. Utilizing technologies in areas where Group companies and the Airpeak cross paths, I’m excited to see how we can infuse drones with new value.

Always aspiring to "fill the world with emotion, through the power of creativity and technology,"
Sony’s Purpose, the Creative Center will continue to use design to support creators.