3D Robotics, the company that grew out of the popular DIY drones website and the imagination of Wired Magazine Editor Chris Anderson, has announced a new consumer level quadcopter drone called the Solo. Touting its latest creation as "a breakthrough in intelligent flight," 3DR's new drone leans away from 3DR’s roots in hobbyist, DIY UAV flying in favor of a a slick, packaged, all-in-one consumer-oriented system that works right out of the box with a minimum of fuss.
The Solo system includes the quadcopter platform itself, an optional 3-axis camera gimbal for the GoPro Hero 4 or Hero 3+ action cameras, and a hand-held controller that connects to a user's mobile device to display high definition video directly from the quadcopter in real time. The controller also has an HDMI out port, extending the viewing possibilities further.
Under the hood
3DR is saying that this is the first time that full integration of the GoPro Hero 4 4K camera is available on an aerial platform. Thanks to the optional gimbal, all camera functions – exposure, frame rate, field of view, single frame pictures, and so on – are controllable from either the control unit or the app (iOS or Android) running on a mobile device. The owner of the Solo can start and stop recording from the ground, a feature sorely missing on earlier drones, where you might miss an entire flights’ video because you forgot to hit the record button on the camera before takeoff. The user can take 12-megapixel still photos with the camera remotely as well.
The company also claims the Solo is the first consumer-level quadcopter that boasts dual Linux computers under the hood. There's one running in a 32-bit microprocessor onboard the drone, and another Linux micro in the control unit. Control and processing tasks are divided between the two computers, with the onboard system handing stability and control, while the ground-based computer handles higher functions. The onboard CPU is the PixHawk2 autopilot, an improved version of 3DR’s Pixhawk controller that came out last year.
The "smart battery" 3DR has developed to go with the Solo can be used to charge the GoPro camera via the gimbal to ensure you don't miss that all important shot when the camera's battery is running low. The drone monitors battery life and distance back to the controller, so the Solo will start back home while it still has enough power to make it safely back to where it started.
Smart Shots and Super Selfies
The drone's "smarts" are put to work in making it easy to take aerial snaps and videos by way of a number of software-assisted "Smart Shots," for which 3DR has a patent pending. These shots include Selfie mode, where the Solo pilot puts the quadcopter on the ground in front of them, hits Selfie and then Fly on the controller. The UAV takes off autonomously and flies up and away from the controller, keeping the camera centered on the controller all the way. This grand pullout shot is quite spectacular on the demo reel you can see beneath this article.
Additionally, Follow Me mode keeps the controller in the frame as you move along, be it on foot, bike, ski, skateboard, or doing whatever action sports strikes your fancy. The drone is actually following your smartphone or tablet, using GPS signals from the Solo app to determine where to keep the camera pointed.
Other Smart Shots are the Orbit, which flies a circle around a GPS point, and the virtual Cable Cam, where the drone smoothly flies between two points. All of these features are intended to help novice drone pilots and videographers get good results from their investment.
Another new mode that is likely to come in handy is a pause button, which causes the drone to stop what it is doing and hang motionless on the spot. This is sure to save many an overly ambitious operator when they need to bail out of a maneuver.
Among several other innovative features that 3DR is announcing with the Solo quadcopter is a flight simulator mode in the app that lets novice pilots practice flying without endangering the house, nearby trees, or the investment made in this flying camera rig. The smartphone app is also capable of upgrading the firmware on the drone wirelessly if a software update becomes available. This eliminates a problem with many existing quadcopters that require a home computer and a micro USB cable to do software downloads. The drone's software is also supposed to monitor the onboard systems, and automatically place a service call back to 3DR if a fault develops.
Notably absent, is any sort of ground proximity sensor to assist with landing, such as is found on the Phantom 3 or the DJI Inspire. This is despite the fact that the Pixhawk software is supposed to specifically handle such a sensor.
So how much does all this smartness, innovation, and packaging cost? The base price for the 3DR Solo quadcopter is US$1,000, while the three-axis self-stabilizing gimbal camera mount is another $400 and a GoPro Hero4 4K resolution action camera top attach to it is also $400. Add a spare battery for $150, and a full setup with camera, gimbal, drone and extra battery comes to $1,950,assuming you already have a smartphone or tablet you can use as part of the controller.. This compares to $1,500 for a similarly equipped DJI Phantom 3 (which has a proprietary 4K resolution camera) and includes a $150 spare battery. The much larger, retractable landing gear-toting DJI Inspire, which is aimed more at the prosumer or professional video production, is $2,828 plus $206 for a spare battery pack.
The 3DR Solo will be available in May, 2015 at big box retail stores in the US, and in other counties in June and July. Presales are available now. It will be interesting to see what impact this next level of consumer-oriented, aerial photography drone will have. It is truly amazing in a short amount of time that consumer quadcopters and the durable, rugged and high quality Go Pro cameras have enabled a level of amateur video production that previously would have taken a large crew and lots of expensive equipment. We will no doubt be seeing a lot of YouTube videos of “selfie” quadcopters swooping away from dramatic hilltops.