The $999 Skydio 2 self-flying drone is one of the most incredible gadgets I’ve ever touched, but it’s got its fair share of limitations. Two of them: It’s been practically impossible to buy, and we found the nearly crash-proof drone could crash during some landings.
But at least those two specific issues may be going away soon. Today, Skydio says it’s back on sale, greatly increasing its production capacity, and the company just issued a huge software update that could make landing your drone way the heck easier.
Skydio CEO Adam Bry tells me that landing’s been a tricky problem for an autonomous drone because most people expect them to descend straight down to earth. “If the drone starts to get too creative, people end up being worried,” he says. But in our testing, we found that making landings predictably vertical left the Skydio 2 with a weakness: it wouldn’t necessarily avoid obstacles after you told it to land, and it could even crash if you weren’t careful about where you set it down.
Now, every Skydio 2 comes with a dedicated landing pad, obstacle avoidance stays on until you’re three meters away from the ground, and there’s an additional manual failsafe: you can “nudge” the drone left, right, forward, or backward if you see that, despite its best efforts, it still might nick something on its way down. Bry says the drone will lock onto its carrying case within about a 6-foot radius, so you don’t need to be exactly over it to safely land, either.
What’s more, Skydio now trusts the GPS sensors in your phone and the optional Beacon to let it fly farther away from you than before — double the distance to 20 meters with a phone, and quadruple to 40 meters with the Beacon — so you can film a wide landscape while the drone automatically follows you. You still can’t get any closer shots than before, as Bry says the company wants to maintain a minimum distance for safety, but “we feel comfortable dialing up the range.”
Skydio hasn’t had a particularly easy time with the COVID-19 pandemic, as shelter-in-place orders forced it to shut down its tiny assembly line in Mountain View, California, to the point that it wasn’t able to fulfill all of its existing preorders and hasn’t taken new ones since March. But Bry says his startup hasn’t had to lay off anyone either, merely putting its manufacturing staff on part-time pay while they weather the storm. “This whole software update was made by people working from home, collaborating with the testing team, then going out and flying in a vacant space when they could do so,” Bry says. He doesn’t see his startup giving up its pricey Silicon Valley office space long-term, though.
Luckily, Skydio doesn’t just rely on drone sales to stay afloat: it also has some enterprise partnerships for first responders, infrastructure inspections, and the like. Bry says the company has also donated 50 drones to public safety agencies during the pandemic through its Emergency Response Program.
The company’s spinning up a new manufacturing facility elsewhere in the United States this summer, and it expects to have two to five times the production capacity when’s all is said and done. Bry says Skydio hopes to be caught up with all current preorders by the end of September, and you should be able to just buy them outright in October if all goes well.
This won’t be the only feature update for the Skydio 2, by the way, as the team thinks there’s more they can do with autonomy, video capture, and app features. Bry says it’d be cool if the Skydio 2 could provide video footage from more than one of its seven cameras at a time. And “of course,” he says, Skydio is already working on next-gen hardware, though he’s not talking about that right now.