Drones are getting more and more popular in Australia. They're getting more powerful, easier to fly, and easier to repair. Computers getting smaller and faster, too, means it's easier to do fancy things with your drone through the apps that connect to them wirelessly. 3DR's smart Solo drone integrates with your GoPro Hero, and it has built-in controls and robotic video presets that make filming professional drone footage very easy.
This is the 3DR Solo:
It's a $1799 barebones drone; you're able to hook up the $699 gimbal seen in most of these pictures to unlock the Solo's full potential, buy an extra battery for $249 for another 20 minutes of flight time, and replace those self-tightening propellers for $19 if (and when) they break. The bundled controller is a cross between the Steam Controller and DJI's Remote Controller, and has a central colour screen that gives you flight stats in real time.
At a launch on Cockatoo Island on Tuesday morning, I got the chance to test-pilot a 3DR Solo for 10 minutes. With a bit of instruction from 3DR's guru Colin Guinn -- I've only ever flown a DJI Phantom a couple of times before now -- I went from complete drone newbie to filming surprisingly reasonable drone video in a super-short time frame. To anyone familiar with an Xbox or PlayStation, the controller is easy to understand, and the companion app is intuitive.
3DR Solo: Basic Flight Is Easy
Just like any other drone in its class, the 3DR Solo's controls are straightforward; you have two sticks, one for elevation (flying up, down) and rotation (turning left, right) and one for direction (flying left, right, forwards backwards along any axis). Those are your primary controls for moving the Solo around three-dimensional space -- that's simple enough once you get the hang of it (and don't get yourself switched around accidentally).
Take-off and landing are usually the trickiest and most hair-raising part of flying a drone around, but there's a little FLY button on the controller that takes care of that for you. A long press -- you'll see a progress bar fill on the colour screen -- starts the quadrotor's four electric motors, and another long press (again, progress bar) tells the Solo to take off and hover about three metres from the ground. Because the drone is GPS-enabled, it can hold its location accurately.
To that end, the controller even has an E-brake button that'll override any controls or currently-running video recording macros and halt the 3DR Solo in space. If it's all too much, a home button brings the drone back to where it launched without any further user intervention. It doesn't have any proximity sensors, although 3DR is currently working on a LIDAR package (amongst a bunch of other retrofits) that'll be released in the near future.
Drone Video: GoPro Plus 3DR Solo
Filming from the 3DR Solo, plus the GoPro Hero4 Black connected to it, was ridiculously easy. Like, "make yourself look vaguely professional after five minutes of flying" easy. It's a combination of smart controls on the the 3DR Solo's high-tech controller -- you have a simple tilt for the gimbal underneath your left index finger, for example -- and smart controls on the companion Solo app for Android and iOS take care of anything more complicated than that.
Out of the box, the 3DR Solo and companion app will ship with four "smart shot" video recording presets. They're all reliant on the Solo's GPS, and use that plus controls for the drone itself and the three-dimensional gimbal (all handled remotely, with no user interaction necessary) to record some very good video. Orbit is a 360-degree spin around a predefined GPS coordinate that you select on a satellite map (swipe and tap on your phone or tablet to set it). Cable Cam asks you to set a start and finish drone location and camera direction, and then smoothly transitions between the two (with complications throughout the routine possible).
Selfie is drone video on steroids; once you've framed and positioned the Solo facing you or whatever object you want to record, it'll pull back and up over a predefined distance and tilt the GoPro gimbal down to keep you in the frame. You can even use the drone in Follow mode, which will track the GPS of the controller and attached smartphone and attempt to stay a predefined distance from it, with the GoPro gimbal pointed towards it.
You can map these macros to one of the two A/B buttons on the Solo's controller, so you could use one of those to very quickly bring up the Orbit or Selfie options, for example, and build a quick routine. It's incredibly simple to do for the quality of smoothly stabilised, smoothly panned and tilted video that you get out of it -- I'm confident that I could have shot 3DR's showcase video above with about an hour's practice in the right locations.
3DR Solo: Australian Price And Release Date
The 3DR Solo is available now for $1799 and upwards at a bunch of different Australian camera and electronics retailers like Harvey Norman and George's Camera. Expect to pay about $2500 for a full kit including a protective backpack and extra battery. Then, on top of that, you'll need a mobile device and a GoPro for video recording. It's expensive, but on par with prices of competitors' drones.