The drone wars are heating up. ProDrone has deployed its ultra-compact, full-featured, collapsible Byrd quadcopter, Yuneec has a new six-bladed Typhoon H with retractable landing gear, and DJI just announced its Phantom 4, with a slick point-and-track function, obstacle avoidance, and a sport mode that will let you buzz around the block at up to 45 mph.
However, I’m testing the Solo from 3D Robotics — the San Francisco-based company’s current state-of-the-art drone, a product that will remain its oft-updated platform for the foreseeable future. It floats motionless 15 feet off the ground while I walk around, taking pictures of it from below. The transmitter sits on the ground somewhere behind me, but I’m not worried. It’s behaving like a well-practiced figure model. If I ask it to move somewhere, it would. If I ask it to keep its prim pose, it will.
Holding a steady hover is child’s play for today’s drones — any of them can do it. But telling your drone to move somewhere specific while shooting from its gimbal-stabilized camera and having it do it over and over again as much as you like — that’s a different matter. That takes brains, both on-board and in the engineering lab of the company behind it. And Solo’s got brains. Take Cable Cam mode — fly to your desired starting point, tap “A” on the transmitter, fly to your end point, hit “B,” and then just press “Play.” You now have an airborne rail that your drone zips along at whatever speed you choose, the GoPro camera pointing precisely where you want it to, either through pre-aiming or in-flight adjustment. It creates striking, steady, cinematic mini-masterpieces.
Solo is one of the first drones to embrace the fact that a) the only thing most of us really want to do is make great pictures and movies, and b) most of us suck at piloting drones.
This is one of four tricks up the Solo’s “Smart Shots” sleeve. The others include Selfie, where the copter flies out to a prescribed distance and then returns, never once taking its eyes off you; Orbit, in which you’re able to pick a point on an overhead map via the mobile app — your smartphone or tablet sits mounted securely to your transmitter in front of you — and have the drone circle around it; and Follow, in which the drone tags along behind the transmitter / smartphone combo from a distance of up to 500 feet (you can reel it in closer and change the camera angle with a few nudges of the transmitter’s sticks). And though it’s a bit cluttered with data streams from the drone, the app to control these operations is easy to use, provides great high-def video streams from the GoPro, and enables you to work through your programming while the drone hangs steady. (There’s a great, stress-reducing “pause” button that instantly commands the drone to just stay still while you get your act together.)
Solo is one of the first drones to embrace the fact that a) the only thing most of us really want to do is make great pictures and movies, and b) most of us suck at piloting drones. We bang them into stuff, wobble around haplessly while trying to track our pals on skis, and lose sight of them faster than one can scream “LOOK OUT!” It’s an important transition for the drone industry. Flying them isn’t really the thing anymore, and thanks to this re-focusing, many propellors will be saved from buildings and trees.
3DR’s great feat is baking the bulk of its tech into Solo’s smart transmitter, which acts as a hub between the drone, the Wi-Fi connected GoPro, and the app. It receives telemetry from the drone — altitude, position, heading, distance, etc. — and communicates it, along with the video stream, to the app. You can command all the GoPro’s settings from there: frame rate, filming or photo mode, start/stop recording or take photos, image and video resolution, etc. It also manages all the Smart Shot programming as well as the other autonomous functionalities, including automatic takeoff and landing, automatic return-to-home (handy if you lose sight of it or get confused about how to fly it properly) and it can be easily updated wirelessly via the mobile app as 3DR rolls out new features. In short, it’s the Tesla of the skies.
Solo — resplendent in easily detectable black — is elegant and fluid, with a simple rectangular fuselage and arms that extend upward and out to the rotors.
It also has some legitimate industrial design going for it. Whereas the white and off-white DJI line still looks basically like toys and the Yuneec drones have a gangly, spider-like vibe to them, the Solo — resplendent in easily detectable black — is elegant and fluid, with a simple rectangular fuselage and arms that extend upward and out to the rotors. The four legs are also more stable for landings than the tip-happy skids of the DJI and the narrower landing gear found on the Yuneec Typhoon models. When you land, it stays firmly planted as you power down the motors.
The Solo, it should be emphasized, is designed to work specifically with GoPro cameras, which are not included in the purchase price. This might deter some potential buyers who like the idea of buying a drone with a camera pre-installed. But this is my preferred strategy — it means you can choose which GoPro to use, upgrade the camera as you like, and when you’re not using the drone you still have your GoPro ready for other adventures on terra firma. And, when you think about it, a big percentage of your drone-dollars goes into the camera. So why buy a one-trick pony? The Solo drone and controller cost $998 ($1,130 with a custom backpack), and the GoPro adds between $300 and $500 (unless, of course, you already have one).
Since so many adventure-minded folks do have GoPro’s, the cost is yet another advantage of the Solo. Not including the camera saves some money. Couple this with a variety of aftermarket lens replacement options that let you fine-tune the GoPro optics — such as those from Back Bone — and the expanding repertoire of flight profiles and feature updates, and you have an exceptionally versatile, future-proof platform. This makes the Solo a drone you’ll fly for years, without worrying about whether the next big product will leave yours in its wake.
Homepage image by Eric Adams for Gear Patrol