The 3D Robotics Solo may be the smartest drone ever

The competition for consumer drones is heating up

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What goes up must come down — and if it's a drone you're talking about, it often comes down in the most unfortunate ways possible.

It bounces off a tree trunk, smashes into a highway tunnel, or careens into the side of a building. It runs out of battery and falls into a body of water. Your four-figure investment is typically only as good as your ability to handle it once it's aloft — which is why I'm a bit anxious when I first take the controller for the Solo, which 3D Robotics is billing as the smartest drone ever.

Competition for that title gets tougher all the time: just last week, DJI announced Phantom 3, the next version of its best-selling consumer drone, with improved cameras and the ability to live-stream video from the drone to YouTube. But Solo represents a step forward in a few big ways: onboard computers in the controller and the drone, allowing for enhanced controls; full access to GoPro camera controls in flight (a first); and software that allows novices to create intricate multistep shots using just a couple taps. Solo also offers a level of customer support previously unheard of in the industry. 3DR will give you a 30-day money-back guarantee if your drone bores you and free replacement if Solo breaks while in flight.

The company is betting Solo will appeal to drone enthusiasts and novices alike — and that it can begin to chip away at the consumer drone market that the Phantom helped create. It is a critical time for 3DR, which has raised $85 million from investors.

“We are a player, but we are the underdog player,” says 3DR’s Colin Guinn. “How big of a defining moment is it? It is the moment. This is the introduction to the world of 3DR.”

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Meet the Guinnmeister

Guinn came to 3DR from DJI, where he was CEO of DJI's North American division. He helped lead design and marketing efforts for the Phantom, the Chinese company's hugely popular consumer model. Thanks in part to a series of popular YouTube videos where Guinn showed off the Phantom’s capabilities, he became well known to hobbyists. One drone blog continues to refer to him in headlines as "The Guinnmeister."

But Guinn's relationship with DJI executives in China soured over business terms, lawsuits were filed, and last February he decamped with his team for 3DR. (Guinn declines to comment on the lawsuit, which was settled.) Now at 3DR, Guinn's official title is chief revenue officer. But his role at the company is much larger than the bean-counter title suggests: the new Solo drone is his baby, 3.3 pounds of precision-engineered flying plastic robot.

"We’re basically giving people a superhuman power for a thousand bucks."

And even all that doesn't really get at the main thing about Colin Guinn, which is that he is obsessed with drones. Because he once ran an aerial photography company, shooting scenes for Hollywood films, Guinn has an all-encompassing knowledge about how to make movies in the sky. When he speaks, what comes across is this overwhelming sense that to own a drone is to have a superpower — and that if you could only master that power, you could bend the universe a little more exactly to your will.

He mentions the history of comic book and fantasy characters who have the ability to see the world through the eyes of a bird. "What is the difference between those powers and Solo, with a high-definition video feed coming from the GoPro?" Guinn asks. "We’re basically giving people a superhuman power for a thousand bucks."

It's time for me to try out my powers.

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Flying Solo

On a blustery day in Berkeley, California, we take a pre-production Solo unit onto the roof of 3DR headquarters. Guinn pops the drone out of a separately sold backpack and spins on the rotors. He snaps in the battery and attaches a GoPro to the gimbal. The whole process takes about 60 seconds.

I pick up the controller and press a button marked "FLY." The rotors spin up, and suddenly Solo is safely in the air, hovering 10 or so feet off the ground. Autopilot keeps it roughly in place while I think about what to do next. We decide to shoot a selfie, a pre-scripted shot you can find in the app that runs on your tablet. With a couple taps, Solo zooms off into the sky, then slowly flies back in, keeping me perfectly in frame. We watch it all unfold on Guinn's iPad Mini, which snaps onto the controller and accesses most of Solo's functions. When it's all done, we save the video to the iPad's camera roll. If I wanted, I could post it to Instagram while I'm still flying.

Solo does more complicated shots, too. A "cable cam" lets you set up a virtual line in the sky and then have Solo traverse it automatically, as if suspended on a wire. We use it to create dramatic shots that rise up above the railroad tracks next to 3DR headquarters and smoothly pan to reveal the San Francisco Bay behind us. 3DR is already seeding Solo units with filmmakers; Guinn says director Michael Bay's review of Solo, having used it once, was: "Fuuuuuck."

I just fly Solo using trial and error

I'm no Michael Bay, though I'm pretty sure I could get the drone to explode if I could only figure out how to turn off the autopilot. Over a handful of 20-minute flights, I never even develop the muscle memory for what the control sticks do; I just fly Solo using trial and error. It's a luxury that most drones simply haven't afforded up until now; it helped me to relax and enjoy myself in a way I can't imagine being possible even a year ago.

Toward the end of one flight, while trying to get a shot, I find myself walking backward while keeping my eyes focused on Solo overheard. THUNK. I trip over a small HVAC unit on 3DR's roof and fall flat on my ass. Various bits of plastic fly off the controller, and the battery comes loose, barely tethered to the unit.

I'm dazed, my video team is laughing, and Guinn is asking if I'm alright. And Solo? It's still humming away up above me, perfectly content in the 20 mph winds, ready to do whatever I ask, with 70 percent of its battery remaining. We reassemble the controller and land it safely with two button taps.

I crashed; the drone didn't. Score one for the robots.

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How it works

3DR is unveiling Solo today at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, and it will begin shipping in a few weeks. For a base price of $999, with an optional $399 gimbal for enhanced camera controls, Solo is the first drone to offer full control of a GoPro camera. (I asked GoPro what they liked so much about Solo, and they sent back a bone-dry statement that didn't really answer the question — I assume because they worried about offending their other partners.) But the integration turns out to be a big deal: with Solo you can start and stop recordings, or change the camera's frame rate or other settings while in flight. It's stuff filmmakers have been asking for forever.

Most drones use a single computer, located in the flying unit, and broadcast signals to it using a controller. Solo, on the other hand, has 1 Ghz processors in both the controller and the quadcopter. The processor on the quadcopter is devoted entirely to autopilot functions necessary to keep it aloft. Meanwhile, the controller serves as Solo's "frontal cortex," and operates higher-level functions — some of which will arrive through future software updates. (My favorite of these, which I used in a test unit, is a flight "rewind" feature — simply tap and hold the "pause" button, which normally functions as a kind of emergency brake, and Solo retraces its steps. It's expected to ship within 60 days from launch.)

It's stuff filmmakers have been asking for forever

The Solo app will warn you when your battery is running low, flying home automatically to ensure you make it on time. (You can override the feature, but the controller will start vibrating until you land safely.) 3DR is also rolling out the world's most expansive customer service program for drone owners, for a product where service has been downright medieval. (Drone drop into the ocean? Sorry about that! Feel free to buy another.)

It's the first drone to offer a 30-day money-back guarantee if you aren't satisfied with your purchase; you'll just have to complete a five-question survey, providing data 3DR will use to improve future versions. Meanwhile, a team of nearly 100 in-house technicians will respond to calls for help, using the data that Solo continuously logs during flights.

The Solo app detects crashes and will ask you if you want to submit a trouble ticket in the event something goes wrong. If it's your fault, 3DR will offer to sell you a refurbished unit at a lower cost. And if the flight logs show Solo was at fault, 3DR will replace your drone — along with your gimbal and GoPro, if they also perished — at no cost.

3dr solo images Image: 3D Robotics

Catching up to Phantom

Will all that be enough to make 3DR the biggest player in the game? We may soon find out. The company was founded in 2009 by Chris Anderson, the author and former editor of Wired, and engineer Jordi Muñoz. (Anderson had been inspired in part by a 2007 incident in which he crashed a camera-equipped, remote-control plane into a tree at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.) The pair met on a web forum Anderson created, DIY Drones, whose community had developed powerful open-source software for controlling flying objects. Today the company has 300 employees, with offices in Berkeley, San Diego, Tijuana, and Austin, Texas.

Last fall 3DR introduced a consumer drone named Iris+. But it has lagged in sales behind DJI and Parrot, according to estimates from Gartner Research. DJI sold an estimated $500 million in drones last year for professional and amateur use, focused on aerial photography and videography. (Last summer, its Phantom 2 Vision+ was The Verge's pick for best consumer drone.) The market for consumer drones is still well under $1 billion, according to Gartner.

But an FAA ruling in February finally gave explicit permission to what had previously been a legal gray area. And the cost of consumer drones is coming down, albeit slowly. The big three manufacturers are betting that if drones become a bit easier to use and develop an expanded range of applications, the market will grow more quickly.

"You press the button and you get the shot."

"As the product becomes more sophisticated, the users can become less sophisticated," Anderson says. "In the same way the iPhone transformed the phone by turning it into a single button — all that complexity reduced to a single button — what Solo does is it takes all the complexity of flying and robots and data acquisition and turns it into what is effectively a single button. You press the button and you get the shot."

It's in that sense that 3DR sees the latest drones as the start of a new age in drones. "The first era of our industry was getting robots to fly. It was super hard! But we got there," Anderson says. "The next era was making them easier to fly. I think we all got there. The next era is not flying them at all — making it so that their intelligence can be so profound that you can almost not care about the vehicle itself."

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Life after gravity

For all the time I spend with Solo — I visited the team several times over the past six months, flying prototypes in Austin and Berkeley — I never see a true production model. Even days before Solo is set to premiere, the team is still refining the software and hardware. Guinn pays fanatical attention to the product, and he rattles off requests to the software team throughout my visits. ("He's killing me," one executive laments.)

In my tests, Solo performs mostly as we would hope. But Guinn fixates on a small tremor in the gimbal that might make captured footage less than butter-smooth, and while it's quite windy for my last flight, I can't help but notice that Solo sometimes has trouble staying still. Instead, it floats around in a roughly 3-foot cube, and I wonder how that might affect the footage I shoot. Meanwhile, it's hard to see what I'm shooting, because the glare is so bad on the iPad Mini. (Not Solo's fault, of course, but it does affect the user experience.)

Flying Solo is a blast

Flying Solo is a blast, and yet I’m still not sure I see the regular use case for myself. Getting great shots requires travel, and bringing Solo with me on vacation will mean checking one more bag and lugging it around. There are only so many drone-shot selfies a person needs, no matter how fun they are to shoot. So while I’m convinced Solo will make it easier and more fun for novices to fly drones, I’m skeptical of how much it can broaden the market for drones beyond hobbyists and filmmakers.

Whether or not there’s space for three players in the consumer drone market or not, 3DR isn’t content to remain in third place. The Guinnmeister may not want to talk about his days at DJI — about the fact that the Solo, had he stayed at the company, would have been the Phantom 3 that was announced last week — but there's no doubt that he wants to win. "We’re an order of magnitude less well known than our bigger competitor," he says. "But I think that’s all gonna change really soon." He notes that Solo is launching in 10 countries and will be available at thousands of big-box retail locations, featured in giant kiosks with flight simulators. "The world is about to know who 3DR is."

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