72 Hours With the 3D Robotics Solo

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This consumer quadcopter drone is designed specifically for use with GoPro action cameras. It doesn't come with a GoPro, but it does include a twin-stick controller that can pair with and mount a smartphone, which displays a live video feed from the camera. We took it for a multiday spin to see how it worked. 

Day 1: The Solo is a very real, very serious drone. You might expect as much if you've dropped nearly $1,000 for it. But if you've never used a genuine flying robot before — something like DJI's Phantom, for example — the Solo is an imposing machine. It weighs 3.3 pounds with its rechargeable lithium-ion battery back installed, and when its bright red and blue onboard lights snap on, they're a blazing reminder of two important things.

First, that this is not a toy for indoor shenanigans. And second, the Solo is an aircraft. Its undeniable mass and open blades make it obvious that Solo is meant for outdoor flight. Still, even with what we assumed was the proper amount of reverence for a clearly powerful aerial machine, we came close to destroying the Solo within a couple hours of receiving it.

We started with a backyard flight. The controller was charged and paired, and while one of the included battery packs was gradually charging up in the house, we decided to use the other, partially juiced pack. It was running at 33 percent capacity. Not enough for a long trip, but more than enough for a quick test flight. What we forgot, however, is that the Solo is a robot, and that robots are inherently wonky and failure-prone. With the Solo plopped down in the grass, we powered it up, and it spent a couple of tense minutes trying to locate GPS satellites to assist in navigating. When it was finally cleared for takeoff, we held the Fly button down until the rotors buzzed on — flattening the grass beneath the robot to a satisfying degree — and the drone was aloft.

Even without a camera mounted on the Solo, direct piloting was intuitive, and instantly fun. It auto-stabilizes itself, hovering in place without requiring fidgety joystick adjustments on your part. When you bank it left or right, it slides through the air as you push the stick, and then brings itself to an abrupt stop once you release it. It's a high-performance machine, and the way it responds to a fully mashed joystick makes it easy to imagine taking it to an open field, with no trees or humans in the way, and rocketing nape-of-the-earth over terrain at up to 55 mph.

We didn't pull any such stunts in the backyard. Backwards, forwards, rotate in place. That sort of thing. Even so, things got unintentionally thrilling when the robot suddenly went rogue. First, the battery capacity (as displayed on the small screen embedded in the controller) dropped from 33 percent to 25. Time to bring this thing home. We hit the return-to-home button, a dedicated button with a downward pointing arrow inside an icon of a house. Suddenly, without warning, the Solo started ascending. On screen, it said that it was looking for GPS satellites. Had it lost the ones it had found earlier? Did it need new ones in order to get its bearings? Who knows. The priority was that this quadrotor was launching itself into the sky, when it had been told to autonomously come home.

That wasn't the only crisis. Within the space of a few seconds the battery had gone from 25 to 20 percent. The controller's screen then notified us that the return home mode was disabled. And the drone was still rising. We manually stopped the thing from rocketing into the heavens — and potentially breaking the law, since the FAA restricts consumer drones to a flight ceiling of 400 feet — and guided it back down to a low altitude. The battery was still in freefall, now at 10 percent. Either the initial 33 percent capacity had been wrong, or, like a cellphone whose battery suddenly goes from 15 percent to completely dead, something more inscrutable was happening. Whatever the case, the robot was on the verge of either crashing, or once again losing its damn mind. With another long press of the Fly button, the Solo lowered the last half-foot or so and cut power. The excitement was over.

That's enough for one day.

Day 2: For our second flight, everything was charged up, including a GoPro camera mounted to the Solo's gimbal, and an iPhone mounted on the controller. Using the free app, we now had a drone's eye view displayed on the phone's screen. A lever on one side of the controller (near your left index finger) tilts the camera angle up and down, and a wheel on the other side pans the gimbal left and right. This is a well-designed, high-quality controller. Other drone-makers have good controllers, but one of Solo's unique features is its specific integration with GoPro cameras. Using the synced, mounted smartphone, you can start and stop recording (most GoPro-mounted drones force you to do this manually), as well as change the camera's settings, selecting different resolutions and frame rates as needed. Solo can also use its own battery to run the GoPro, if the camera happens to die in midair. 

Within minutes of the second flight we felt like ace drone pilots. The Solo dips and soars with responsive power, and though it takes some practice, shifting the GoPro's angle while in motion transitions quickly into muscle memory. We were ready to become aerial filmmakers. The problem, of course, was the backyard. Grass, trees, and the roof of a house don't make for scintillating footage. So after 15 minutes of genuine fun, the drone was back in its backpack.

Day 3: So this is something of a cheat. Technically speaking, the Solo spent the third day doing nothing. Day four was the same, and also day five, six, and seven. It took almost a week to come up with a reason to take Solo out for another spin.

This is one of the great dilemmas surrounding consumer drones in 2016. Finding a place to fly them is difficult, especially if you don't want to be a criminal. Suppose you want to film the natural splendor of your nearest national park? After a few high-profile crashes, drones are currently banned at all national parks. Maybe you want to take the drone on a hike to capture a few aerial selfies? That means lugging it along in a backpack, hoping to find a clearing where the robot and its spinning blades won't go skittering off trees like an expensive, injurious pinball. The FAA also restricts the use of drones that aren't in the pilot's direct line of sight. So while the Solo is operable within 0.6 miles of its controller, the legal usage model of any consumer drone is as a kind of robotic kite. Actually, even that's not accurate, since you aren't supposed to use it in population-dense areas, like a busy beach.

We downloaded the FAA-developed app B4UFLY, which lets you drop a pin on a map, and find out whether flight in that area is restricted, whether because of a standing rule (no drones in national parks), proximity to an airport (no flying within five miles without clearance from air traffic control), or temporary flight restrictions, which turn specific locations — such as Disneyland, or Washington, D.C. — into no-fly zones for unmanned vehicles. Right away, we realized we were already in violation, since that backyard is within five miles of an airport. And airports, it turns out, are all over the damn place. The FAA doesn't make a distinction between large, international hubs and local municipal airports. Even a heliport or sea-plane base creates another problematic bubble on the app's map. Nearby state parks (not national, mind you) looked promising, but finding one that didn't sit within the overlapping radii of two or even three airports meant threading the proverbial needle, and pinning down GPS coordinates right in the center of a specific park.

This is a huge, but necessary hassle. It's not the fault of 3D Robotics that its product's use is so restricted. And considering the potential risk to fliers and bystanders, the FAA is right to be cautious. It's yet another reminder that the Solo isn't a toy, or just another piece of camera equipment. Using a drone means entering the world of aviation. To that end, it requires preparation and a degree of responsibility that's downright weird for a gadget. You have to start thinking like a pilot.

So we drove to a state park to open up Solo's advanced features. The Selfie Reveal mode sends the drone on an autopiloted loop, filming your position from a distance and on an approach back to you. We weren't able to properly use Follow mode, which automatically pursues and films you (or your synced phone, to be specific). Finding the right combination of open terrain and fast movement isn't easy, but it's easy to imagine some great shots of bike rides in another, less treelined part of the country. Our favorite mode was Cable Cam, where you record two positions, and then let the robot fly itself in a straight line between them. This lets you more precisely control the camera angle, creating sweeping cinematic shots without worrying about the drone suddenly veering into a tree.

The Solo is an incredible drone, particularly if you already own a GoPro. Its autonomous flight modes are useful, its manual flight is responsive and probably more powerful than you'll ever need or want. It comes loaded with caveats, but no more than any other consumer drone. You might think that, after our initial scare, we'd have written it off as glitchy and temperamental. But that error was never repeated, and when sent out with a full battery, the drone was consistently able to return to our position. We always grounded it once the battery hit 25 percent, but that gave us 10 solid minutes per battery. And considering the cost and consequences of a crashed drone, we'd probably be as cautious with any other model.

The main problem with Solo is universal to drones: They're not for everyone. If you have access to FAA-approved airspace over nature, and a passion for photography and videography, this is the robot for you. If you're an aspiring filmmaker, with the patience to actually seek clearance for shoots in generally restricted areas, the Solo is a solid choice before investing in a more powerful drone (for carrying larger cameras). Just don't fool yourself into thinking that it will inspire you to find excuses to use it. If you want to buzz your friends by the pool, or do loop-de-loops in the family room, or just buy a cool consumer robot, this is not the drone you're looking for. Pick up a $50 or $100 RC toy, and leave the real unmanned aircraft to the dedicated drone pilots. 

[From $1,000 (with camera gimbal, accessories cost extra); store.3dr.com]

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