With so many consumer quadcopters buzzing about these days, it takes more than a 4K camera or folding arms to stand out from the crowd. For Chinese firm GDU, this means attempting to win over amateur cinematographers with a modular aircraft boasting a swappable gimbal system, designed to future-proof the drone by allowing future camera systems to be rigged up as they become available. We've been busy flying one around Northern Patagonia putting the standard camera system and drone itself to the test. Here's what we make of it.

The Premium Byrd is the company's follow up to the Byrd drone that we reviewed last year, which was one of the early movers in the folding drone space. The successor is actually quite similar in appearance, with long folding arms that snap out from its rectangular body for a full size of 67 cm (26 in), corner to corner. This was measured diagonally with rotors excluded. To give an idea of how big a bird this really is, the same dimension on a DJI Phantom 4 measures a relatively compact 350 mm (13 in).

But then again, a Phantom 4 isn't built to carry DSLRs. Unfortunately our review unit arrived before the company's so-called Universal Flying Platform was ready to go, but the list of its capabilities do give an insight into the kind of heavy lifting this drone was built to handle. The idea is that users can snap on different gimbals and cameras as they wish, with this customization avoiding the need to replace the entire drone when a shiny new camera system comes along.

The most interesting aspect of the Universal Flying Platform lineup is an ILDC (interchangeable-lens digital camera) DSLR and mirrorless universal gimbal. This will apparently allow users to power on and off and control the framing and zooming of an attached camera from the ground. It is priced at US$120, and GDU's Director of Digital Nicolia Wyles explained to us how it will work.

"The ILDC gimbal can technically work with any camera – DSLR or mirrorless – that weighs less than 4.5 lbs (2.04 kg)," she says. "However, the best cameras to use with it – meaning have the most control over internal camera functions – are the Sony RX100 and SONY 6000. These cameras have zoom and other functions. As soon as we secure rights to SDKs on other cameras, those functions will be included in firmware updates."

Other attachments available in the Universal Flying Platform lineup include a higher grade GDU-branded camera with 10x optical zoom ($999), an infrared camera ($4,600) and a funny stretching gimbal that expands to hold the attached camera lower beneath the drone's body to avoid spinning propellors wandering into frame.

So while we didn't get to tinker with any of these high-tech add-ons, with the Premium Byrd's standard 3-axis gimbal and 4K video camera we still had more than enough to entertain ourselves. Other key specs include a 29-minute flight time, a 1.6-km (2.57-mi) range and autonomous flight modes such as return home and auto-take off and landing.

But before we jump in, here's a cut of some sample footage we shot while flying around the northern fringe of Patagonia, shot mostly in Chile with a little of Argentina thrown in, too.

The setup

The Premium Byrd is relatively straightforward to unpack and prepare to fly. It consists of three main components: the folding drone, controller and camera-gimbal module which comes with a handy carry case. To begin, the landing props fold out from underneath the body and then the propellor arms fold outwards and snap into place. From there you'll need to switch the controller and drone on, and calibrate the compass.

This means toggling the flight mode switch on the controller back and forth until the LEDs underneath the rear arms blink yellow. Now, the instructions say that from here you'll need to rotate the aircraft once horizontally and then once in the upright position to calibrate the compass, denoted by the LEDs turning green. We reckon that figure is closer to three or four rotations, and we even then did feel a bit uncertain as to whether or not it was properly calibrated as the LEDs weren't always responsive.

Until we connected our smartphone to the Premium Byrd over Wi-Fi, that is. When you enter flight mode in the companion app, the system runs a series of safety checks to make sure everything is in working order prior to take-off. This includes things like the drone's GPS, accelerometer and compass calibration, and the screen highlights each as it ticks them off. We double-checked with GDU and they told us that if the app says the compass calibration and everything is good to go, then everything is good to go. Cool.

Plugging in the separate gimbal and camera module is simple enough, with a small port that plugs in for power and another lever at the rear that snaps over the frame to hold everything in place. All in all, considering its modular design and a simple setup that takes no more than a few minutes, the unfolded, ready-to-fly Premium Byrd has a rather solid build. And it's a pretty badass-looking aircraft, too.

Taking off

If you've flown any of the DJI Phantom series drones, then handling the Premium Byrd is going to be pretty intuitive. The dual-joystick controller works the same as DJI's and many other consumer quads, with one stick controlling elevation and orientation and the other the drone's position in the air. Other controller configurations are available if you feel like getting freaky, but we preferred to stick with what we knew.

The controller also features auto take-off-land and auto-return home buttons, along with a set of gimbal controls on the front end. These include buttons for photo capture, stop and start video recording, and to reset the gimbal's position, along with two scroll wheels that enable you to frame up shots by changing the gimbal's pitch and yaw.

The automatic take-off button is probably the easiest way to get off the ground, depending on the surroundings. When pressed and held, it sees the drone take off and fly to an altitude of three meters (9.85 ft), where it hovers and awaits further instruction.

From here we found the drone to handle reliably and intuitively, with the connection seemingly rock-solid. We didn't dare to fly it 1.6 km away as the specs suggest it is capable of, but we did send it hundreds of meters out to sea over crashing waves without a nervous moment to speak of.

When the battery hits 25 percent the drone's auto-return home function will kick in. You need to be flying in "Positioning" mode for this to work, as it uses the drone's GPS to keep it stable in the air and store the take-off point in its drone memory bank. Other modes include Attitude mode – which is you flying solo without any of the GPS, visual or acoustic positioning – and F-mode, which changes the configuration so that the "forward" control is dictated by the direction the pilot is facing rather than the aircraft itself.

We found the auto-return home feature to be mostly reliable in bringing the drone back to the general area, but we couldn't trust its accuracy completely. There were times that we had to take control of the drone and guide it down to ground or risk collisions with nearby trees and rocks.

Flight time is listed as 29 minutes, but we didn't get near this figure. Most of our flights came to an end at around the 10-minute mark (with 25 percent left on the battery indicator, of course), and perhaps this was partly due to the windy conditions, but we'd be surprised if anyone had the Premium Byrd in the air for anything approaching half an hour. On the plus-side, the recharge time is quick. It is listed as 2.5 hours, but we found that after running the battery down to 25 percent, it could be ready to go again with as little as one hour on the charger.

On the move?

At first we had some real doubts over the portability of this drone. Sure its arms fold up, but you've still got to bring a separate gimbal and camera module and a sizable controller if you plan on flying the thing. For our first few outings we found the best and safest way to transport the drone was by simply packing it all back into the box it came in. But then we made what can only be described as a miraculous discovery.

Photographers may be familiar with Lowepro's excellent camera backpacks, with their durable materials, thoughtful design and separate and easy-to-access compartments for cameras and lenses. As it turns out, the one we've been lugging around for the last six years accommodates the Premium Byrd drone just perfectly.

The folded body fits snugly inside the bag's lower padded compartment, while the gimbal-camera module and controller can be stuffed upstairs. There was no stopping us with such a wonderful vehicle to transport the drone, and we were able to take it along on some lengthy and spectacular hikes, including a full day trek through the Argentinian Andes, without any trouble at all.

The camera gear

While the Premium Byrd's included camera can shoot at 4K/24 fps, we found we got the best results shooting in 1080p at 60 fps. Set at 4K/24 fps in sunny conditions brought about a generally softer footage poisoned by a healthy dose of chromatic aberration. This effect is created by light of differing wavelengths that the lens is unable to bring onto the one focal plane, resulting in a soft or unfocused image.

But shooting in 1080p at 60 fps allowed us to get some really awesome clips. We did find from time to time there was still a hint of chromatic aberration when shooting high-contrast environments in such as harsh sunlight, particularly with trees and leaves in frame, and it did involve some trial and error to get things just right. But with some practice and more experience shooting into and away from the Sun, we were able to got good footage. It also shoots 12-megapixel stills, which we found to be decent enough snaps, but unlikely to put GoPro out of business.

One gripe we did have with the camera on our review unit was that it seemed to sometimes struggle aligning automatically with the horizon. Meaning of course, that the shots would come out crooked. The company told us that this could be due to a rough landing that knocked the gimbal out of whack. While we didn't crash the drone, there was a landing or two where it did topple over which may have something to do with it.

The good thing is that this can be fixed easily midflight through the app with a manual gimbal adjustment button, but when you're trying to concentrate on keeping a drone in the air and or framing up shots, it is one extra worry you can do without.

Summing up

Priced at US$999, the GDU Premium Byrd comes in a bit cheaper than some other "prosumer" drones, like the DJI Phantom 4 ($1,200) and we have no trouble recommending it on the basis of its solid design and easy-to-use functionality. The flight controls work well and reliably, and it is a super-fun toy, if nothing else.

But if it does have a weakness it is in the included camera. While we did get some killer shots, it would be a far cry to say that was the outcome all of the time. More than once we returned home after a what seemed a perfect scenic flight only to have our optimism dampened by soft unusable footage (unusable of course being a matter of great subjectivity, as nobody's stopping you uploading it to YouTube).

In a way, however, the Premium Byrd's weakness may actually be its greatest strength. Sure the included camera isn't top-quality, but it's certainly enough to have some fun with and get some good footage. Plus, if you buy the extra $120 ILDC gimbal you can swap it out for a Sony A6000 or RX100 and then you'll really be in business, assuming that setup works as promised. The point being, if you combine some solid, well-manufactured camera gear with this solid, customizable drone, you'll have a very capable aerial shooter at your disposal indeed.

Product page: GDU Byrd

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