3D Robotics is promoting the Solo as the world's first smart drone with automation as the point of difference. The Solo certainly does pack some smarts: under the bonnet the flight deck sports a 3DR Pixhawk 2 flight controller alongside a 1GHz Linux computer linked via Wi-Fi to another 1GHz Linux ground computer housed in the transmitter.
These two computers share the workload and take all the autonomous flight control tasks away from the main flight controller to reduce the chance of system failure. If the program controlling any autonomous feature crashes, the flight controller can still maintain basic flight so you don't end up with a crumpled mess of plastic and metal on the ground.
The Solo comes with a bank of 'Smart Shots'. Using the GPS in your Wi-Fi connected smart device, it can pull off some really neat tricks. There are a couple of important differences to note between the Solo and the Phantom 3 when it comes to autonomous flight. The link between your smart device running the app and the controller/transmitter for the Solo is via Wi-Fi rather than a cable as with the Phantom 3, meaning they can be separated. This then allows you to operate all of these Smart Shots independent of the big bulky controller, and importantly allows using the smart device as the point of interest locator rather than the controller.
On top of this, the smarts in Solo allow it to control the camera for you and keep it pointed at the mobile device. This opens up some pretty cool possibilities. You still need someone on the sticks as failsafe in case you need to take control away from the drone, and of course to fly legal, but it works a treat.
I was able to jog around a football field with just my mobile phone and have the drone follow me pointing the camera at me all the way. Remember these things don't have sense-and-avoid so you have to watch out for trees or wires etc... they aren't that smart just yet!
There are four great built-in programs to give you some cool video ideas:
What's the point of having the drone following you if the camera is pointed in the other direction? Now Solo can keep the camera pointed at you as it follows. Love it.
You can set not only the start and end waypoints, but also the start camera frame and the end camera frame. The camera will move by itself for the shot What'c more, with the new look-at me feature also integrated into Cable-Cam, the drone can travel back and forth along your course while the camera is focused on you.
360-degree orbit with adjustable radius.
The epic drone selfie, fully automated. Hit start and be the hero.
The Solo gives you access in the advanced settings to change into various flight modes. There's the full blown ACRO mode if you want to try flips and rolls (and risk crashing your expensive drone) and a version of the ATTITUDE mode plus the DRIFT mode which lets you do bank turns on the one (1) stick.
3DR has opened the flight controller source code to the world at large, to allow developers to further customise solutions and products using the Solo's core systems. This is exciting, as we will see these drones used in various applications and not be restricted to recreational consumer use. If you're a full blown drone geek you may have seen Parrot drones that been hacked to do all sorts of cool autonomous tasks and tricks on YouTube. With all the tech packed into the Solo, there's now a whole new level of possibility.
The gimbal bay will enable manufacturers to create alternative camera pods or other devices plugging directly into the drone's hardware, and the accessory bay will allow the addition of optical flow sensors for indoor stabilisation (these are built into the Phantom 3) and other systems, plus the motor pods will in the future support upgraded motors.
3DR has hooked up a deal to give them exclusive and unprecedented access to the GoPro's Bus control. This allowing the Solo to not only power the GoPro but to have access to its controls through the Solo app.
It was an interesting decision for 3DR to not include a gimbal out of the box with the Solo. Sure, in the future there will be options on payloads, but short term the GoPro is your only option, so you really need to buy a gimbal as an add on, which stacks up the price to get you flying. You're looking at around $1800 for the drone and controller, plus another $700 for the gimbal. That's assuming you already have a GoPro!
The gimbal requires some basic installation, it's not difficult to do but you do need to unscrew the base and swap out the fixed GoPro holder, something you definitely don't want to use if you want to capture half decent video.
There is then some app installing, a pre flight software update on the controller and the drone to perform, and your standard compass calibrations before you can fly.
I was test flying the Solo on a couple of rather windy days, averaging on the higher end of 20-30km/h and it managed ok. I've flown similar priced drones that have struggled in this sort of wind so I'll give it credit there.
The Selfie and Orbit modes worked fine as expected. I did really like the Look-at-Me feature. It's something new and I can definitely imagine some cool applications. Having the camera able to perform pre programmed moves and function autonomously certainly gets your imagination going as to what you can achieve with tech like this.
The GoPro definitely has its limitations when it comes to aerial video. DJI have developed their own camera that has pretty much removed any fish-eye effect. Fish-eye is great if you're doing action sports, but if you're in the air you have this thing called the horizon, which you really want to see flat at all times.
Pitching the GoPro up and down creates an ugly warping effect when used in the air, turning the earth into a rather curvy ball at times. If you keep the camera relatively flat and level and don't mess with the pitch you get a nice shot. You can correct for the fish-eye lens distortion somewhat in post, but it's not going to look as good as a camera that doesn't have it.
As the Solo however appears aimed at recreation, the GoPro does the job and will deliver its style of capture of the action.
The Solo flies well. She's not a racer, but she wasn't designed to be. The automated flight and camera programs worked as they should and add a unique set of moves at your fingertips specifically designed for solo operation.
I got about 15-20 minutes in pretty high wind so that was great. Not much you can't do in 15 minutes.
The Solo has some new features not available on other drones. It's hard to compare it side by side with the Phantom 3 as they both hold their own in different areas. If you're shooting real estate videos, then the Solo ain't for you, but if you are looking for a drone to shoot people or things on the move, it's definitely worth a look.
Manufacturer: 3D Robotics
Type: Quad Copter
Radio Control type: Supplied 2.4ghz
Battery: 4S 5200mah LIPO
Flight Controller: Pixhawk 2
Operating Range: 800m
Flight Time: 15-20mins