The Solo by 3D Robotics – A closer look at what was announced at NAB

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Here at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, 3D Robotics announced and showed off its new smart drone called the Solo. It is being billed as the smartest consumer drone in the world.  The unique features and design of this new platform, make it something that aerial filmmakers should take a closer look at. The Solo’s features include a virtual Cable Cam mode for plotted paths that can be repeated infinitely and modified to keep pace with subject’s variables. (If the actor walks slower than planned, the operator can slow down the camera without affecting its path.)  Another feature, that is built into the Solo, is an Orbit mode that allows you to circle-strafe a subject in a perfect circle, keeping focus on a single point. This is a hard maneuver that takes a lot of skill and patience to perform. Doing it the same way twice for a human pilot, is impossible. There is also a Dronie Hero shot mode where  with a push of a button the camera is launched and it will hover and then fly up and away giving a big overview of the area around you while keeping focus on your position.

3DR has been working on the new platform for about the last 6 months.  Their view of the drone market is a bit different than sales leader DJI Global.  3DR says that currently about 80% of all drone platforms use the 3DR Autopilot system as a base for their programming. DJI Global has about 20% of the market share using various DJI controllers, leaving 1% for all others.  3DR says that it is tired of just being an underlying source of code for other OEM products and wanted to use their own technology to make a superior platform for filmmaking.  One of the development team members said “The main point of the Solo is to get the shot”  With the new operational modes offered,it sounds like directors will have a more familiar level of control on their aerial projects. The modes of this drone should allow for people familiar with production, to do things they are used to doing.

So what did 3DR put in this new $999 bird? Here’s the list….

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Solo Hardware Features:

  • Modular configuration for easy upgrades and modifications
  • 1 ground based and 1 aerial based 1ghz Linux computers for software modifications and complete freedom to do what you want.
  • Ergonomic controller with mobile device mount, and HDMI output for live viewing.
  • Solid external hull aircraft with a unibody construction
  • 23 minute flight time
  • FPV range not mentioned
  • Overpowered configuration for additional payload options
  • Smart Battery system with indicators and safety built in
  • Accessory Bay under the hull with power and controller connectors inside for easy modifications
  • Unified fastener design using a single type of Phillips-Head screw to fasten each connected part, requiring a single tool to dismantle.
  • Pixhawk 2 Flight Controller
  • Live HD downlink to your mobile device
  • Optional 3 Axis Solo Gimbal with hardware connections to control your GoPro for $399
  • Internal vibration dampening system
  • Self tightening glass fortified propellers
  • 880KV motors
  • Swappable motor pods for easy upgrades and repairs (Just 4 screws and all connections are plugs instead of solder joints)
  • Optional carry on sized soft case that holds the whole system $200

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Solo Remote Controller Features:

  • Intelligent Controller with its own 1ghz Linux computer onboard and accessible for additional programming.
  • Backlit control screen with telemetry
  • Auto takeoff and landing control button
  • Adjustable device holder to fit a phone up to an ipad mini
  • Return to home and land button
  • Pause/EBrake button which stops your drone immediately when pushed
  • Haptic feedback
  • Camera angle preset button
  • Auto tilt speed adjustment button
  • Fine grain manual tilt adjustment lever
  • GoPro Record button
  • HDMI out port

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Software Features:

  • Inflight access to GoPro controls
  • Inflight access to GoPro settings
  • Gimbal programming that allows for angle adjustments and instant speed adjustments
  • Gimbal intelligence to automatically get the shot for you (The Solo Gimbal works with Solo’s onboard computer to automatically execute precise and sophisticated Smart Shots)
  • Cable Cam mode which allows you to operate the drone as if it were on a cable any shape or length you want.
  • Orbit mode which allows you to circle strafe better than a human could
  • Follow mode that follows the GPS of the mobile device you are using
  • Selfie mode (Dronie) Which after a single button push automatically takes off and takes the perfect Dronie video hero shot
  • First Person View in HD or Map view
  • Updates are handled by the app requiring no effort by the operator, not even a cable
  • Detected problem alerts with ability to submit a trouble ticket while still in the field
  • Record directly to your mobile device for instant sharing
  • Made for Solo open core platform for 3rd party value added programming.

My first impressions were good. This new platform is going to be the bees knees for scientists and researchers. Having a pair of Linux machines to run programs upon, offers limitless possibilities for people who have specific and special needs.  Adding sensors into the accessory bay could connect them to the flying Linux box and that communicates with the one in the controller already. Now you have additional live sensor data to use. That data could be used to determine what the craft does next, making the Solo contextual and aware. Once the basics are built, layering options would be as easy as installing a program.  Science and research need those options to concentrate on their work and not have to focus on trying to make a tool do what you want it to do manually. The most useful options for these folks will include repetitive duplicate flights to get their goals accomplished.  Those are things that automation does best and most accurately.

The Solo has started its journey, and I can see many possibilities. Will it take a lot of market share away from DJI? Probably not, but it will move many who have used any of 3DR’s products or product variants made by other companies to think about Solo. It will also capture a new segment of drone operators that want to make custom rigs for specific purposes. That group will include startups and the ideas they bring to life.  There is a lot of need for a drone like this right now and I think it might have a different audience watching it emerge on to the scene. We will have to see what happens when it ships, sometime in June. I will get to talk to some of the development team on Tuesday, to find out more about this interesting new addition to the drone world.

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Report by George Krieger george@whirlingtripod.com

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