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Fancy yourself more filmmaker than pilot? 3DR's Solo is the drone for you

Drones have made aerial photography and videography more accessible than ever before, but getting professional-looking shots is still fairly tricky. Unless you’ve had years of practice, it’s pretty difficult to fly a drone and control a camera at the same time.

That’s where the Solo comes in. 3DRobotics designed this $800 bird specifically for shooting aerial video, and equipped it with a range of autonomous flight modes that make it easier to capture those smooth, sexy, professional-looking cinematic shots. We took it for a spin to find out if it can compete with DJI’s Phantom 4 as the beginner’s drone of choice.

This drone has a lot going on under the hood, so let’s start with what sets it apart from other drones on the market.

For starters, the Solo is the only drone on the market right now that boasts not one, but two dedicated 1GHz Cortex-A9 Linux computers. There’s one in the controller, and one onboard the drone itself that handles all high-level flight scripting, freeing Solo’s Pixhawk 2 autopilot to focus solely on keeping the copter in the air. This configuration makes the drone incredibly reliable, as there’s a much lower chance of a firmware freeze.

Second of all, you won’t find a camera on this drone. You’ll need to bring your own GoPro to the party, and it’s only compatible with Hero models 3, 3+ and 4. Obviously, the downside of this is that if you don’t already own a GoPro, you’ll need to drop an extra $400 or $500 before you can film anything from the air. The upside? You’re not married to the same camera forever, and can upgrade to a nicer model when better tech becomes available. And if you’ve already got a GoPro handy, you’re golden.

3DR didn’t just bolt a GoPro mount on the bottom of the drone and call it good — the company actually worked with GoPro to build a custom drone integration. Once your camera is plugged in, you can control all its settings during flight, right from the 3DR controller. The two might be sold separately, but they work together like a team.

Third, this drone can fly like a bat out of hell. 3DR doesn’t boast about it very much, but Solo can hit over 55 MPH if you take the training wheels off. That’s 10 MPH faster that DJI’s new Phantom 4, and it’ll go even faster with a good tailwind behind it. If you need a drone that can keep up with a car, motorcycle, snowboard, mountain bike, or anything else that moves fast, Solo would be a fantastic choice.

Solo’s autonomous flight modes, which include Selfie, Cable Cam, Orbit, and Follow, are designed to make it easier to get professional-looking aerial video. The drone handles all the flight, which allows you to focus solely on capturing a great shot. Cable Cam mode, for example, allows you to choose two different points for the drone to fly between, like it’s zipping down an invisible cable. Along the way, you have full manual control over where the camera is pointing. There’s also Orbit Mode, which tells the drone to fly in a wide circle around the point of your choosing; Follow Me, which is self-explanatory; and even a Selfie mode, in which the drone will focus the camera on you, then fly up and back to create a dramatic reveal shot.

That’s not all. In addition to these autonomous flight modes, Solo also has a number of flight modes that provide advanced pilots with full (or only slightly assisted) manual control over the drone’s flight. We’ll spare you the gory details on all that — all you really need to know is that Solo basically offers a full spectrum of flight options. It’s got everything from fully unrestricted manual control, all the way up to totally autonomous, push-of-a-button flight — and everything in between.

Oh, and if you’re worried about crashing and ruining your GoPro, don’t be. If the 3DR Solo crashes at any time, and it’s the fault of the drone itself (mechanical failure, not pilot error), 3DR will replace the drone for free, and give you a voucher to get a brand new GoPro (if you had one attached, that is). All flight data is recorded in Solo’s onboard black box, so any malfunctions will be automatically logged for proof.

The Solo is one of the most well-built drones we’ve encountered thus far. The arms are very strong, the props are made from glass-reinforced nylon, and the legs are rigid with just a little bit of give to help them rebound from hard landings. They also jut out in such a way that they protect the gimbal (and your GoPro) from taking the brunt of the impact during a crash.

We know for a fact that this drone take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Why? Because we inadvertently crashed it into trees on more than one occasion, and in every instance, the quad took it like a champ. During the first incident (an encounter with two burly deciduous trees in Portland’s beautiful Waterfront Park), the drone broke all four props, but sustained no other damage after tumbling roughly 40 feet to the ground.

On the second occasion (this time involving a surly coniferous monster), the Solo bashed through a couple branches, did some pruning, and even did a couple flips — but somehow managed to right itself and regain its hovering abilities just a few feet before the ground. This time, the props weren’t even chipped, and the same rotors served us for the remainder of our review. After these unintentionally brutal tests, it’s abundantly clear that the Solo is a tough little toy.

As for the battery, 3DR equipped this badboy with a rechargeable 5,200 mAh 14.8Vdc lithium ion battery, which allegedly gives it 25 minutes of flight time without the camera, and about 20 minutes with it. In our tests, we found that this 20-minute estimate is actually a bit modest if you don’t fly the drone very hard. We managed to keep our fully-loaded Solo in the air for nearly 22 minutes while keeping it at just a plain ‘ol hover, but when you fly with a bit more gusto, you can expect to get anywhere from 15 to 18 minutes of flight time. After that, it takes roughly 1 hour and 35 minutes to recharge each battery — so we highly recommend buying a few of them if you plan to use Solo for any kind of serious videography.

As for range, Solo has a max distance of about a half mile. That’s definitely not huge (less than half of what the Phantom 4 can do), but it was more than enough for our needs. The drone becomes difficult to see after about a quarter mile, but the live 720p HD video feed will stay intact on the controller for double that distance if you’re flying out in the open. If you don’t have line of sight, however, the feed gets choppy and cuts out much sooner. The good news is that if you ever lose contact, the drone will automatically fly back to its home position, and you’ll regain control as soon as it comes back within range.

When it comes to flying, Solo boasts one of the easiest, most straightforward piloting experiences we’ve ever encountered. There are two reasons for this. First, the controller was built from the ground up to look, feel, and operate more like a video game controller, which makes piloting feel very familiar and intuitive for users that are new to hobby aircraft. Second, the drone’s numerous autonomous flight modes allow you to perform maneuvers that would otherwise take lots of practice and skill.

Let’s start with the controller. Unlike traditional controllers that feature a dizzying array of buttons, knobs, and switches; Solo is stripped down to the bare essentials. There are two joysticks for controlling roll, pitch, yaw, and acceleration; a “Fly” button for automated takeoff and landing; a “Return to Home” button; a small screen for battery and telemetry data, and a knob for controlling the camera angle. There are also two customizable buttons that can be used to activate Autonomous Flight modes like Cable Cam or Orbit, and my personal favorite: the pause button, which acts like an air brake and will stop the drone dead in its tracks.

All the other settings and controls (including GoPro settings) are handled inside the accompanying mobile app, which keeps the main controller interface very uncluttered and easy to navigate. The only downside? You can only fly if you’re connected to a smartphone or tablet, which is yet another thing that you have to worry about keeping charged up. The fact that you typically need to keep the screen on full brightness only exacerbates the problem. A couple of our flying expeditions were cut short due to a rapidly-drained smartphone battery, but so long as you’ve got everything charged up and running smoothly, the Solo is a breeze to fly.

Cable Cam, Selfie, and Follow mode were all pretty simple to get the hang of, but we honestly had a little bit of trouble getting used to Orbit, and we nearly crashed Solo a handful of times because of it. On more than one occasion, we set the radius too wide (and the altitude too low), causing the drone to unwittingly fly into a grove of nearby trees. Obviously this was a perfect example of pilot error — but even though these incidents were completely our fault and totally preventable, we still found ourselves wishing that Solo had some sense-and-avoid technology baked in, like the DJI Phantom 4 or Yuneec Typhoon H do. That’s really the only piece of the puzzle that’s missing here.

As mentioned before, you’ll have to bring your own camera to the party on this drone — but 3DR doesn’t totally leave you out to dry. Solo comes with a range of different attachments for your GoPro — including a fixed mount that’s compatible with any GoPro case, a vibration dampener attachment, and if you shell out an extra $299, a three-axis gimbal for stabilization.

For the time being, that’s all you can get — but 3DR allegedly has a lot more in the pipeline. An open SDK allows third-party developers to design custom apps and integrations for the drone. And it’s not just open to new software either — Solo is also equipped with an open accessory bay, which allows users to attach aftermarket hardware onto the drone as well. To be fair, there aren’t really any software or hardware upgrades available right now (unless you build one yourself), but even so, the Solo scores high marks for upgradability. This is arguably one of the most “future proof” drones on the market right now, which gives it a huge leg up on the competition.

While it’s definitely not perfect, the Solo’s positives far outweigh its negatives. The drone itself is very well-built and reliable during flight, the learning curve for piloting is fairly mild, and the craft is designed to accommodate a wide range of upgrades. The GPS connectivity and maximum range could be better, but these issues aren’t really a huge hindrance to usability, and 3DR’s fantastic autonomous flight modes make you forget about them in hurry.

Simply put, this is a drone for everybody. Beginner pilots will appreciate the simple controller layout and mild learning curve, whereas more skilled users will be able to execute more technical maneuvers with Solo’s numerous advanced piloting modes. And of course, for those simply looking to capture stunning aerial footage, 3DR’s fantastic autonomous flight modes make shooting video a snap. No matter who you are or the reasons you might want a drone, Solo should definitely be on your list of contenders.

Whether or not Solo is the right choice for you will ultimately depend on whether or not you already own a GoPro. If you do, this is a no-brainer — for just $1,000, you can get your hands on one of the most capable, durable, and future-proof drones on the market. But if you don’t have a GoPro, the decision becomes a bit more complicated.

For $1,400 (that’s $100 less than the cost of Solo and a brand new GoPro) you can get your hands on a Phantom 4 from DJI. For $1,300, you can pre-order the new Yuneec Typhoon H. Both of these drones boast similar autonomous flight modes, have built-in 4K cameras, and come with built-in sense-and-avoid technology. As such, if you don’t already have a GoPro at your disposal, it might be wise to explore these other options.

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