With the 3D Robotics Solo quadcopter, aerial cinematography is about to get a whole lot prettier, smarter, and more accessible.
Announced this morning at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, the Solo from 3DR is the company’s first concerted attempt to win the hearts of consumer drone enthusiasts and compete head-on with industry heavyweight DJI. It’s no coincidence that today’s announcement falls less than a week from DJI’s unveiling of their latest Phantom 3 quadcopter (due out later this month).
But what does the 3DR Solo bring to the table that could lure you away from the DJI drone juggernaut?
Let’s start by breaking down the price. The Solo will be available in June for a base price of $999, which includes the quadcopter, its controller, and a unique 30-day satisfaction money-back guarantee. But the price of the model you actually want is $1,399, which includes 3DR’s advanced camera-stabilizing gimbal and direct control over your GoPro. Bear in mind that a GoPro camera isn’t included, so if you don’t have a compatible HERO 3, 3+ or 4, you’ll need to factor that in as well. As a comparison, DJI’s similarly spec’d Phantom 3 also starts at $999, but includes a camera (though not user-replaceable).
GoPro Bus Control
It’s a big deal that a relatively small company like 3D Robotics has been given exclusive access to GoPro’s bus control, allowing you to control the camera from the Solo’s transmitter or app. “You know the back of the GoPro, there’s a bus that no one has access to? Well, we do,” explains 3D Robotics’ CEO Chris Anderson. “That means you can control the GoPro.” Instead to powering on your camera and hitting record before taking to the air (resulting in video files as long as the duration of the entire flight), this new setup will let you start and stop recording mid-air and change modes, either manually or automatically from a pre-set recording flight path. Access to the GoPro bus also opens up the capability for the Solo quadcopter to broadcast video back down to the transmitter in HD (720p), which can be piped over HDMI to a monitor or FPV goggles.
But perhaps more importantly, the tight GoPro integration allows video enthusiasts and professionals to swap out and upgrade their camera as needed. Arguably, if video quality is of the utmost importance to you, chances are GoPro will innovate on camera features faster than any drone manufacturer.
A new tool-free, 3-axis gimbal allows for fine control of the camera position while providing battery power to the GoPro. Its onboard smarts will rotate the Solo’s position to help ensure it has a clear view while recording, instead of catching an edge of the landing gear. The system also provides a boost to the Wi-Fi direct video stream, providing a range of approximately half a mile (just slightly less than the full RC transmitter range).
A Second Brain
The second headline innovation for the the Solo that distinguishes it from it competition is the amount of CPU power they place in the included controller. Apart from the 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 Linux-based system that runs on the quadcopter itself (handling positioning, stabilization, and autopiloting), 3DR shoved an identical system in the controller. A smarter controller makes for smarter automation — both for drone and its gimbal.
Automation is a big part of the pitch for 3DR’s Solo. For novice flyers, the automation smoothes out the learning curve, placing “fly” and home buttons right up front, along with a pause button that locks down the quadcopter’s location mid-flight. What’s more impressive is how the Solo automates maneuvers for capturing video. A list of Smart Shots can be pulled up from a menu on the controller’s integrated screen, including a 360-degree orbiting shot (with adjustable radius), a selfie mode, and a Cable-Cam mode that lets users set two points in the air for the Solo to automatically fly between — a virtual cable, that lets you focus on operating the camera.
This Cable-Cam mode also integrates into the successor to the “Follow-Me” mode, with a new tool called “Look At Me” — where the drone is set between a couple waypoints alongside, say, a football field, and is set to autonomously travel back and forth to film your punt return practices. “You’re always in the shot,” Anderson describes.
The entire package reinforces what Anderson describes as 3D Robotics’ emphasis on autonomy rather than what he sees as DJI’s focus on piloting the quadcopter. “There are sticks, so if you want to use the sticks you can, but if you don’t want to use the sticks, this thing knows what a good shot is.”
“Fundamentally we have enough computational power on board that we can turn you from the director into the actor of your story, and the Solo is the first vehicle we’ve offered that has the necessary technology to do that,” he continues. “We love having them as competitors, because they’re really, really good. But we also love having a philosophical difference.”
- Up to 25 minutes of flight time (20 with camera and Solo Gimbal)
- HD video streaming to mobile
- Top speed: 55 mph
- Max altitude: 400 ft, per FAA rules
- Weight: 1500 g; 1750 g with Solo Gimbal and GoPro
- Wifi range: up to half a mile, depending on environment
- Controller with color screen and live flight data
- Pixhawk 2 flight controller
- APM fully-autonomous flight control software
- Customizable color LEDs for orientation
- Solo Battery: 14.8 V LiPo (5200 mAh)
- Rechargeable controller battery: 2600 mAh / 7.2 Vdc; lasts 4 hours (extendable battery available)
- 10×4.5 self-tightening props
- 880 kV motors
- Works with GoPro HERO3, 3+ and 4 cameras
With the two announcements so close together, the question on everyone’s lips is whether to go with the 3DR Solo or one of DJI’s latest drones (either the Inspire 1 or the Phantom 3).
From where I’m sitting, DJI’s flagship drone, the $2,900 Inspire 1, just became slightly less attractive. By my math, a fully-loaded Solo with a 4K GoPro Hero 4 Black, comes out to around $1,900, a full grand less than the Inspire.
Things get trickier when you compare the Solo against the upcoming Phantom 3 Professional, priced at $1,250 (4K camera included). As an all-in-one package, the Phantom 3 seemingly offers a better bang for your buck, especially if you’re not already invested in a GoPro and the Solo’s automated Smart Shots don’t hook you.
The fight then boils down to features, support, and personal preference. Having not laid my hands on either product, I’ll leave it to our readers to hash it out with their own speculations and personal experiences. Only one thing is for sure — the gap between amateur and professional aerial video rigs is about to become much narrower.