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3D Robotics’ Solo Drone Can Fly Circles Around You

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

LAS VEGAS—Drones are the new booth babes. That’s the only conclusion I can draw with after seeing how many exhibits at the National Association of Broadcasters’ conference here have been accessorized with camera-equipped quadcopters.

But at one of the larger and louder NAB Show exhibits, the drones aren’t decor. At this video-maker’s conference, 3D Robotics unveiled its new Solo drone, a $999 (and up) quadcopter with a new brain, backup autopilot, and Lego-like capacity for upgrades.

While many drones are better described as remote-controlled copters, the Solo is supposed to be smart enough to keep itself out of trouble. 3D Robotics says two 1 GHz Linux computers (one in the drone and one in the two-joystick controller) allow one-touch take-off and landing as well as a self-guided flight back once you press the controller’s home button.

The battery should allow for 20 minutes of flight, and the controller will nag you when it’s time to head home.

A separate autopilot keeps tabs on the flight so that if the Solo’s primary computer crashes, the drone won’t, and will instead return to its starting point. The controller also functions like an airliner’s black box, logging each flight’s parameters for later inspection or debugging.

3DR, founded by former Wired editor Chris Anderson, seems to have paid attention to the recent run of stories about drones behaving badly.

“We want to limit any of the possibilities of anything negative happening,” marketing vice president Oren Schauble said at 3DR’s booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center. "It always knows how to go home.”

The drone’s compute power is also applied towards a variety of automated photography modes to ensure that a Solo can shoot first.

There’s a “Selfie” command for “dronie” self-portraits. “Orbit” makes the Solo circle around a designated point. “Follow” has the Solo fly in formation with you autonomously to record hands-free video. And “Cable Cam” has the Solo travel along a virtual line between two points, as if it were one of ESPN’s cameras suspended above a football field.

The camera itself — a GoPro Hero 3+ or Hero 4 — is not included, and neither is the three-axis self-stabilized gimbal 3DR designed with GoPro that allows remote operation of the camera via the controller.

Budget $500 for a Hero 4 and $400 for the gimbal (and maybe another $200 or $300 for a tablet to plug into the controller so you can see the Solo’s view in real time), and you’re looking at real money. It’s not Apple Watch Edition money, but it’s more than DJI’s just-announced, also high-end Phantom 3. (But DJI’s top-of-the line ready-to-fly model, the Inspire, starts at $2,900.) 

3DR does, however, promise that it will repair or replace the drone, gimbal and GoPro if its software causes a crash.

And the Solo hides one other interesting option: an “accessory bay” to accommodate future third-party hardware. 3DR’s exhibit suggests such add-ons as a parachute, an infrared camera or an LED light. What else could it carry? We will not be surprised if somebody builds a mount to carry and release a second, smaller drone to record inflight video of the Solo itself.

(Disclosure: I’m speaking on an unrelated NAB panel here Wednesday, in return for which NAB is covering airfare and one night’s lodging.)

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.