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Why GoPro's Karma drone came crashing down

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The dream of an American-made drone may be dead

When GoPro launched its Karma drone earlier this year, it seemed like the perfect fit. The company was founded on action cameras, but had seen sales of its flagship Hero line sink since 2014. Over the same time period, the sale of camera drones to consumers had exploded. By bundling its camera with a drone, GoPro could breathe new life into a flagging product line.

Unfortunately for GoPro, its Karma drones started falling out of the sky in alarming numbers, and the company was forced to issue a recall. It’s hard to imagine that GoPro went to market thinking something like this might happen, and of course the company would strive to produce a safe, reliable product. But discussions with drone industry experts and sources familiar with the process of engineering and designing the Karma drone, show that the company should have been prepared for exactly this kind of incident.

"People think it is so easy to build a small, autonomous drone. It's really not," says Michael Blades, a drone industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. "DJI is a drone company. [GoPro] is a camera company. It doesn't surprise me that they are having technical problems with their first drone product, even after the delays. That's actually to be expected." This piece, published before Karma units reached the public and reports of failures hit the internet, predicted the problems to a T.

The web is littered with forum posts, Facebook rants, and YouTube videos from angry customers who bought drones from DJI, Yuneec, Parrot, and 3D Robotics over the past three years, only to have them fall out of the sky. Plenty more drones flew off at random and never returned home. "DJI has gone through the Phantom, P2, P3, and P4 as well as the Inspire (which has had it's own hiccups) to work out the kinks in stabilization of the aircraft and robustness of their subsystems," says Blades. "If [GoPro] expected to have a perfect product in Karma, they were dreaming."

Several sources familiar with the design process for the Karma point to the placement of the camera and gimbal as one possible source of the issues. Most drones have the camera slung underneath to establish a solid center of gravity. By putting its camera way out front, GoPro’s Karma drone was faced with a far more difficult balancing act. Sources say early testing showed the front-heavy design led to greater vibration, and those forces can sometimes shake loose a detachable battery, leading to the kind of sudden power failure seen in Karma crash videos.

GoPro Karma and stabilizer grip in photos

I was midway through writing a review of the Karma when the recall happened. I’ve flown the unit a dozen times in different locations and conditions and never had an issue. It wasn’t an aircraft of the same caliber as the new DJI Mavic Pro, but it had a unique value proposition: a drone, a handheld stabilizer, and a waterproof camera all in one package — a more complete and flexible set of tools for capturing an epic adventure.

The problem with trying to be many things at once is that you focus less on the drone, a gadget that is naturally not very fault tolerant. If your camera were to power down at random once every couple of months, you might get frustrated, but you would probably live with it. If your iPhone’s GPS went wonky, you would be annoyed, but you wouldn’t demand a recall if you could clear up the issue simply by restarting the device. With a drone in midair, those same problems could be fatal.

Other drone companies have dealt with similar issues without issuing a recall by aggressively chasing down data on the cause of the crash and pushing firmware upgrades, sometimes without customers opting in, that fixed the issue. And hobbyists have come to expect that the lithium-ion batteries used for most consumer camera drones will act up. "Anyone who has flown drones a lot has had similar battery issues," says a drone industry veteran who has worked a both a pilot and inside a major drone manufacturer. "This is the reality of how these devices are powered."

GoPro, a public company based in the US, is already on shaky ground with investors and was poorly positioned to handle the same shocks. GoPro made the mistake of trying to launch something without extensive field testing of a beta product first, and at a level of complexity that could rival the far more experienced brands. "This is the learning curve that DJI and Yuneec have already been through," says Colin Snow, CEO of Skylogic Research. "It’s the kind of thing that happens with your first generation of drone. The problem for GoPro is, they are still learning, while the competition has grown up."

GoPro waited until the world was distracted with the presidential election to issue a recall for all 2,500 Karma units it had sold so far. It left open the possibility that Karma would go back on sale, once the problem had been identified and resolved, but industry analysts weren’t optimistic. This failure, along with the rest demise of 3D Robotics consumer drone business, showed American startups struggling to keep pace with their Chinese rivals. "It knocks the US out of the market," said Snow. "Engineering in the US, forget about it. We’ll have to stick to software."