The 3DR Solo Is a Scary-Smart Drone
3D Robotics Unveils Solo Drone.
Great drone footage is mesmerizing, no matter what it depicts. (Exhibit A: This video of a truck driving through mud in super-slow-motion.) But perfect shots—the swooping landscapes, the hovering overheads—are hard to come by. On Monday, 3D Robotics announced its new drone Solo, which should make it easy for users to document their adventures without having to become an expert drone pilot and camera operator. A new drone from 3D Robotics (a company co-founded by former WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson) is the beginning of a project to make it a little easier. The company has spent the last year and a half and about $10 million developing its latest drone, called Solo, which 3DR is calling the smartest consumer drone ever.
While there are drones with great cameras and flight controls, and drones that automatically follow you, Solo combines the crisp footage from a GoPro with automated, intelligent flight paths to record whatever you’re doing. Powered by two computers, the new drone features new technology that is aimed at making anyone a pro at capturing aerial footage, said CEO Chris Anderson. But unlike other models that allow you to use a GoPro, it doesn’t require you to purchase and install an expensive add-on kit in order to get a first-person perspective from the camera when in flight.
Instead of being stuck with a controller to fly the drone, Solo users can plot a route for their drone, or just ask it to follow them and then let it do the work. “I do recognize that the only missing thing in my family photos and videos is me,” said 3D Robotics chief executive Chris Anderson. “Because I’m always the guy taking the shot, and I want a robot to do the work.” Let’s say you were playing football or basketball with friends. Your four-figure investment is typically only as good as your ability to handle it once it’s aloft — which is why I’m a bit anxious when I first take the controller for the Solo, which 3D Robotics is billing as the smartest drone ever. That’s a big change, and should appeal to pilots who appreciate the flexibility of using a GoPro on a drone for one shot, and strapping the same camera onto a bike helmet for the next. Unlike almost all of its competitors, the Solo can get video right from any modern GoPro camera (starting with the Hero3+) and streams it directly to your phone or tablet with the help of 3DR’s new (and optional) 3-axis Solo gimbal.
Competition for that title gets tougher all the time: just last week, DJI announced Phantom 3, the next version of its best-selling consumer drone, with improved cameras and the ability to live-stream video from the drone to YouTube. But one of the most impressive features is that the drone will be sold as an open platform, allowing hackers to tinker with the hardware and software.
But Solo represents a step forward in a few big ways: onboard computers in the controller and the drone, allowing for enhanced controls; full access to GoPro camera controls in flight (a first); and software that allows novices to create intricate multistep shots using just a couple taps. Solo also offers a level of customer support previously unheard of in the industry. 3DR will give you a 30-day money-back guarantee if your drone bores you and free replacement if Solo breaks while in flight. This quadcopter is 3.3 pounds, all black, and vaguely threatening; it looks more like a drone you’d want sneaking behind enemy lines than one you’d want delivering your burrito.
The company is betting Solo will appeal to drone enthusiasts and novices alike — and that it can begin to chip away at the consumer drone market that the Phantom helped create. It has a simple controller, which looks like an old-school video game joystick, with a holder for your iPhone or iPad, which act as both the monitor for the drone and the remote control for the mounted GoPro camera. There are a number of safety features built into the Solo, including automatic take-off and landing, return to home, and planned flight paths via GPS. But between this automated route and the auto-landing and take-off function, a person wouldn’t have to spend time learning how to fly a drone by hand. “You can get on with your life,” Anderson said. “You can be the subject of the film not the director of the film. It is a critical time for 3DR, which has raised $85 million from investors. “We are a player, but we are the underdog player,” says 3DR’s Colin Guinn. “How big of a defining moment is it?
That’s all because of autonomy.” Solo will eventually do optical tracking, in which it could recognize a given person’s clothing and physical appearance, and automatically follow them. In addition to the standard “follow me” mode, you can draw a line on your phone’s screen, and the Solo will fly back and forth along exactly that line while recording video. There’s a Smart Shot function that allows you to select pre-set drone and camera movements from an app (available for iOS and Android) for dramatic shots that you can reproduce until the take is nailed.
What’s maybe more important than any of the technical features that come with the Solo today is that 3DR is looking at this as a platform that is meant to be updatable and extensible. Thanks to the company’s partnership with GoPro, pilots can now use their GoPros and start streaming video from them right to their phones, just like you can with the built-in cameras in DJI’s or Parrot‘s latest drones.
One drone blog continues to refer to him in headlines as “The Guinnmeister.” But Guinn’s relationship with DJI executives in China soured over business terms, lawsuits were filed, and last February he decamped with his team for 3DR. (Guinn declines to comment on the lawsuit, which was settled.) Now at 3DR, Guinn’s official title is chief revenue officer. Its gimbal can be replaced with a model for other cameras, and will still provide a live HD feed to your smartphone or tablet if the attached gimbal and camera support it. Because he once ran an aerial photography company, shooting scenes for Hollywood films, Guinn has an all-encompassing knowledge about how to make movies in the sky.
Previously, you had to start the recording on the ground and hope that your video would turn out well — something I also dinged 3DR’s Iris+ for in my review a few months ago. But 3DR’s vision is bigger, and more open; it wants to be the Android of drones; extensible and customizable for purposes beyond even what it can conceive. The Solo, of course, also comes with all of the standard convenience features users now expect from their drones, including automatic takeoffs and landings and a “return to home” feature in case something goes wrong.
Unlike virtually every other drone, updates to the drone’s firmware can be installed wirelessly, putting an end to complex — and often error prone — updates. As Guinn noted, it’s these kind of convenience, safety and platform features that make the Solo stand out, but 3DR has also decided to back its new product with a pretty unconventional guarantee.
It’s a luxury that most drones simply haven’t afforded up until now; it helped me to relax and enjoy myself in a way I can’t imagine being possible even a year ago. It will go on sale in the U.S. in May and globally in June and July. 3DR has set up partnerships with large retailers like Best Buy and B&H in the U.S., as well as numerous other camera and electronics retailers.
Meanwhile, the controller serves as Solo’s “frontal cortex,” and operates higher-level functions — some of which will arrive through future software updates. (My favorite of these, which I used in a test unit, is a flight “rewind” feature — simply tap and hold the “pause” button, which normally functions as a kind of emergency brake, and Solo retraces its steps. It’s expected to ship within 60 days from launch.) The Solo app will warn you when your battery is running low, flying home automatically to ensure you make it on time. (You can override the feature, but the controller will start vibrating until you land safely.) 3DR is also rolling out the world’s most expansive customer service program for drone owners, for a product where service has been downright medieval. (Drone drop into the ocean? And if the flight logs show Solo was at fault, 3DR will replace your drone — along with your gimbal and GoPro, if they also perished — at no cost. The company was founded in 2009 by Chris Anderson, the author and former editor of Wired, and engineer Jordi Muñoz. (Anderson had been inspired in part by a 2007 incident in which he crashed a camera-equipped, remote-control plane into a tree at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.) The pair met on a web forum Anderson created, DIY Drones, whose community had developed powerful open-source software for controlling flying objects. DJI sold an estimated $500 million in drones last year for professional and amateur use, focused on aerial photography and videography. (Last summer, its Phantom 2 Vision+ was The Verge’s pick for best consumer drone.) The market for consumer drones is still well under $1 billion, according to Gartner.
The big three manufacturers are betting that if drones become a bit easier to use and develop an expanded range of applications, the market will grow more quickly. “As the product becomes more sophisticated, the users can become less sophisticated,” Anderson says. “In the same way the iPhone transformed the phone by turning it into a single button — all that complexity reduced to a single button — what Solo does is it takes all the complexity of flying and robots and data acquisition and turns it into what is effectively a single button. You press the button and you get the shot.” It’s in that sense that 3DR sees the latest drones as the start of a new age in drones. “The first era of our industry was getting robots to fly. Guinn pays fanatical attention to the product, and he rattles off requests to the software team throughout my visits. (“He’s killing me,” one executive laments.) In my tests, Solo performs mostly as we would hope.
But Guinn fixates on a small tremor in the gimbal that might make captured footage less than butter-smooth, and while it’s quite windy for my last flight, I can’t help but notice that Solo sometimes has trouble staying still. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see what I’m shooting, because the glare is so bad on the iPad Mini. (Not Solo’s fault, of course, but it does affect the user experience.) Flying Solo is a blast, and yet I’m still not sure I see the regular use case for myself. The Guinnmeister may not want to talk about his days at DJI — about the fact that the Solo, had he stayed at the company, would have been the Phantom 3 that was announced last week — but there’s no doubt that he wants to win. “We’re an order of magnitude less well known than our bigger competitor,” he says. “But I think that’s all gonna change really soon.” He notes that Solo is launching in 10 countries and will be available at thousands of big-box retail locations, featured in giant kiosks with flight simulators. “The world is about to know who 3DR is.”
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