The average consumer drone has become much cheaper and easier to use over the last three years. But it's still bulky and dangerous when compared to a smartphone on a selfie stick. Snap, a new drone from Vantage Robotics, has a lot of interesting ideas about how to solve these problems. The prototype we played with is a little rough around the edges, but if it can iron out the kinks before shipping, the Snap could greatly expand the potential audience for aerial robots.
Most drones with a good camera and healthy battery life are too large to fit into a backpack, much less your pocket. The Snap promises a stabilized 4K camera and 20 minutes of battery life on a drone that folds up to fit into a small backpack or large purse, hell you could probably squeeze them into the pockets on a pair of roomy cargo shorts. You connect the fuselage to the rotors and battery by pressing together magnetic strips, locking them into place with a satisfying snap that lends the unit its name.
Fits together with a satisfying click
Most drones this size forgo an external camera mount. That makes them light and portable, for example the Parrot Bebop. But it also means they typically lack a three-axis gimbal, and so cannot produce footage that is quite as stable and smooth while flying. The Snap solves this problem with a tiny gimbal and camera that are housed inside the body of the drone. In our testing, it produced clean, stable footage, although not quite as smooth or high quality as what you find on a DJI Phantom 3, which is roughly equal in price.
All the great design comes from co-founders Tobin Fisher and Joe van Niekerk, who serve as CEO and CTO, respectively. Fisher worked at IDEO, where he learned a great deal about how to make high tech products more accessible to the average consumer. Niekerk was a winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge in robotics and designed high-end gimbals for military drones. The duo assembled a team of Stanford-trained engineers and designers to help them create Snap.
The best rotor guards I've seen yet
The detachable rotors on Snap aren't just interesting for their space-saving design. They have also borrowed from bicycle wheels and bridge builders to craft a set of spokes which cover 90 percent of the spinning blades. A lot of drones come with optional rotor guards, but they are typically made of pretty flimsy plastic and don't afford a lot of extra protection. With the Snap, I felt safe not just catching and pushing the drone with my hands, but playfully headbutting it.
The unique design also means that the Snap you purchase is relatively easy to modify. The initial model is meant for portability and can sustain decent, 20-minute flights. But using the same fuselage and battery, Vantage has designed a set of much larger rotors that enable a near silent, one-hour flight, perfect for hovering over your kid's soccer game and capturing the action.
Breaks apart on impact to keep all the parts intact
There is an additional benefit to the magnetic design. Just like most people will at some point drop their smartphone, most people will at some point crash their drone. The Snap is built to break apart on impact, dispersing the impact. Of course, during our testing, the reason that unit crashed was that one of the magnetic strips came loose, causing the battery to detach in midair. Vantage says the final unit will affix the magnets inside the body, meaning it should be more robust than the 3D-printed prototype which relies on superglue.
You can preorder the Snap today for $895, and Vantage expects to retail the unit for $1,295 in the spring of 2016. If they can iron out the kinks so the final unit is robust and reliable, the innovative form factor of the Snap will make it a very attractive new offering. Either way, its approach certainly highlights the kind of innovations that will help to mainstream the drone market in the coming year or two.