3DR Solo

Tech Advisor - - CONTENTS - Jim Martin

Com­pared to some quad­copters, the Solo has a more pur­pose­ful – al­most mil­i­tary – look about it. It’s roughly the same size as a DJI Phan­tom 3 and also has self-tight­en­ing props which are quick to un­screw for eas­ier trans­port.

And like the Phan­tom 3 Ad­vanced and Pro­fes­sional, the Solo comes with a smart con­troller that will ac­cept an iPad mini, giv­ing you a large dis­play for com­pos­ing shots. The con­troller takes cer­tain cues from gamepads and has large, easy to use but­tons in­clud­ing an ob­vi­ous ‘FLY’ but­ton, which launches the bird into the air when held down, and a ‘re­turn to home’ but­ton that brings the Solo back to you - handy if you lose sight of it.

The 5200mAh bat­tery clips into the top of the craft and lasts up to 25 min­utes, or 20 if you’re us­ing a gim­bal and GoPro cam­era. The lat­ter two com­po­nents are op­tional ex­tras, sadly, so if you don’t al­ready own a Hero 3, 3+ or 4, you’ll have to bud­get for one. The gim­bal costs £379 and a Hero 4 Black costs around £270, so the real price is over £1,600. Spare bat­ter­ies are pricey at al­most £140, too. Add a carry case and you’ll not get much change from £2,000.

There’s a ba­sic carry case in the box, but it’s not as pro­tec­tive as a hard case. You get a pair of spare props – one clock­wise, one counter-clock­wise. Pro­pel­lers aren’t yet widely avail­able as spares in the UK, but will be soon. They cost around £10 per pair, although third-party props should pop up soon and work out cheaper.

To be clear, you don’t need to buy a gim­bal. The ba­sic Solo comes with a fixed frame and an HDMI ca­ble so you can see the view from your Hero. It’s just that the footage won’t be sta­ble. What­ever you choose, you’ll al­ways see a great live view with very lit­tle la­tency (120ms).

The gim­bal may be ex­pen­sive, but it’s well de­signed. It has a flex­i­ble, yet sturdy Mi­cro-HDMI con­nec­tor, which plugs into the side of your GoPro. And the cam­era clips into the gim­bal with­out the need for tools, so it’s easy to pop it out and change the bat­tery.

3DR worked closely with GoPro to en­sure full com­pat­i­bil­ity. This means that as well as be­ing able to see a high-qual­ity video feed on your iOS or An­droid de­vice, you have full re­mote con­trol over the GoPro’s set­tings. So if you want to change the res­o­lu­tion, field of view or any­thing else while fly­ing, you can.

The con­troller has a ‘pad­dle’ on the left shoul­der (to the right in the im­age above) for ad­just­ing the tilt an­gle of the cam­era, and two but­tons on the op­po­site side which put the cam­era at two dif­fer­ent pre­set an­gles.

There’s a small LCD dis­play in the cen­tre of the con­troller that shows the pre­cise an­gle along with other use­ful in­for­ma­tion. One small gripe is that the con­troller’s en­tire front panel has a re­flec­tive glossy fin­ish, which isn’t ideal as you’re al­ready get­ting glare from your phone or tablet’s screen, and it makes the dis­play harder to see.

The good news is that the con­troller is easy and in­tu­itive to use and of­fers A and B but­tons, which are used pri­mar­ily for ‘smart shots’, which we’ll come to in a minute. It also has a built-in recharge­able lithium bat­tery and an HDMI out­put for stream­ing your flight to a larger dis­play or even the web.

There are a cou­ple of other note­wor­thy de­sign fea­tures about the Solo. One is its ex­pan­sion bay, which will be used for var­i­ous things in the fu­ture. It could, for ex­am­ple, house a para­chute for safety when fly­ing the Solo in­doors, and 3DR is al­ready work­ing on an in­door flight sys­tem that uses op­ti­cal flow sen­sors, which it says are bet­ter than sonar. 3DR ar­gues that few peo­ple need to fly in­doors or in ar­eas with no GPS cov­er­age, so it’s bet­ter to have a more ex­pen­sive, higher-qual­ity po­si­tion­ing sys­tem for those who re­ally need it.

Ac­cord­ing to 3DR, the Solo is also “built to evolve” and has swap­pable mo­tor pods. In the fu­ture it might be pos­si­ble to buy higher qual­ity, more pow­er­ful mo­tors, which would be

im­pos­si­ble to pro­vide on a masspro­duced quad­copter.

Last, but cer­tainly not least, the Solo mit­i­gates the pos­si­bil­ity of fly­aways by us­ing a Pix­hawk 2 flight con­troller in con­junc­tion with a 1GHz Linux-based com­puter (and a sec­ond com­puter in the con­troller). It’s the only con­sumer quad­copter we know of to do this. In­stead of the trans­mit­ter com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with the flight con­troller, com­mands are sent via the Linux com­puter. If there’s a prob­lem and the flight con­troller stops re­ceiv­ing in­for­ma­tion, it waits for the Linux com­puter to re­boot and sim­ply hovers in place. If it gets no fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, it’s pro­grammed to re­turn to the home lo­ca­tion.

There are, of course, no cast iron guar­an­tees that any quad­copter will al­ways re­turn, but 3DR is so con­fi­dent that it will re­place your Solo (and even your GoPro) if it mal­func­tions or goes miss­ing as long as it wasn’t your fault. Ev­ery last de­tail of the flight is logged and recorded by the con­troller, so you can cre­ate a sup­port re­quest via the app and send all the in­for­ma­tion about the prob­lem­atic flight to 3DR.

Fly­ing and smart shots

Fly­ing the Solo is much like fly­ing a Phan­tom. Out of the box, the con­trols are the same and you can man­u­ally fly it when­ever you like. Since there’s GPS and a com­pass, it’s ex­tremely easy to fly. When you let go of the con­trols the Solo hovers and you can set height and speed re­stric­tions in the app, which make it even eas­ier to learn.

The killer fea­ture, though, is ‘smart shots’. Tap the but­ton at the bot­tom-left cor­ner of the app and you get a choice of Ca­ble Cam, Or­bit, Selfie and Fol­low.

With ca­ble cam, you fly to a start point and press the con­troller’s A but­ton. Then you fly to a fin­ish point and hit B to record that too. Then you press the play but­ton and the Solo will fly in a straight line to the start point. It will smoothly move the cam­era be­tween the di­rec­tion it was fac­ing at the start to the ex­act fram­ing at the fin­ish, in­clud­ing chang­ing the tilt an­gle. This cre­ates stun­ningly smooth footage that is in essence im­pos­si­ble to cap­ture when fly­ing man­u­ally.

Or­bit mode does what you’d ex­pect. The neat part is that you can easily set the cen­tre of the or­bit by switch­ing to a satel­lite map view in the app and drag­ging it un­til the fo­cal point is un­der the marker. You can change the ra­dius of the or­bit us­ing the for­ward and back con­trol, while at the same time in­creas­ing or de­creas­ing al­ti­tude. All the while, the cam­era will re­main fixed on the cen­tre of the or­bit and you can use the pad­dle to ad­just the tilt an­gle (by de­fault the cam­era will cen­tre at ground level). Again, the footage looks great.

The Fol­low me fea­ture is also self-ex­plana­tory. The Solo will re­main fo­cused on your po­si­tion and move at the same speed as you move. Depend­ing on its po­si­tion rel­a­tive to you, it could be fol­low­ing be­hind you, pan­ning at the side, or even in ‘push mode’ when you’re trav­el­ling to­ward it. Another mode within Fol­low me is Watch Me. This means the Solo will hover where it is, but turn to face you at all times. You could use this, for ex­am­ple, at a race­track where you want the drone to stay in one place but keep track of you as you move around.

Last is Selfie. When you’ve fine-tuned the start­ing po­si­tion in the air, you can use the slid­ers to ad­just the speed and fi­nal height: press Play and Selfie mode sees the Solo shoot back­ward and up­ward – a cam­era move called a re­veal in cin­ema terms. Once it has reached the fur­thest point, the Solo keeps record­ing and re­turns to the start po­si­tion on the same tra­jec­tory. This move is rel­a­tively easy to do man­u­ally, but it’s still nice to have an au­to­matic op­tion, es­pe­cially as Selfie mode tilts the cam­era dur­ing the move to en­sure you’re al­ways the cen­tre of the frame.

For all Smart Shots, you can use the satel­lite map view to check for ob­sta­cles (it has no built-in ob­sta­cle avoid­ance), or to make it eas­ier to po­si­tion the Solo. If you don’t have a cel­lu­lar con­nec­tion on your phone or tablet, you can use the app to cache satel­lite im­agery of the area you’ll be fly­ing in be­fore head­ing out.

Ver­dict

The Solo is a fan­tas­tic tool for cap­tur­ing stun­ning aerial shots that would oth­er­wise be im­pos­si­ble even for ex­pe­ri­enced quad­copter pilots. The price, though, will be a bar­rier for a lot of peo­ple. A Phan­tom 3 Ad­vanced, for ex­am­ple, costs far less than the ba­sic Solo, yet comes with a great cam­era and gim­bal. DJI has al­ready an­nounced it will add or­bit and fol­low modes in an up­date com­ing soon, mean­ing it will de­liver sim­i­lar shots on a much smaller bud­get.

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