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The Skydio R1 is becoming the drone GoPro should have made

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New vehicle-tracking features and improved autonomy headline the drone’s first big software update

The Skydio R1 is not a perfect drone. It shoots 4K footage, but the image quality pales in comparison to what you get from DJI’s drones. It is relatively big, it doesn’t fold up, and at $2,500, it’s far too expensive for... basically anyone. But today, the small California startup is adding an update to the R1’s flagship feature — autonomous flight capabilities — that will make that price tag hurt a tiny bit less.

Most notably, Skydio’s first big software update adds the ability to follow vehicles. The company has trained the neural networks that run on the drone’s embedded computer to recognize everything from cars to golf carts to 4x4s. Skydio says it’s also improved the drone’s (already impressive) ability to avoid and navigate around obstacles, meaning the R1 should be able to follow you basically wherever you drive, filming the whole way.

In my eyes, it’s exactly the kind of thing GoPro should have focused on from the beginning with Karma, though it’s admittedly just one of a number of reasons Karma failed.

Think back to one of the first teaser videos of the GoPro Karma. A skier rushes toward a jump, holding a camera in selfie position the whole way. When he hits the lip, he lets the camera go, and it smoothly zips up into the sky, offering a zoomed-out view of him and his friends as they cruise down the mountain.

The execution of that moment is more complicated than it appeared in the ad. GoPro didn’t add a “follow mode” until September 2017, just four months before the company axed its drone division completely. So that means that, when the skier let the drone go, someone else was holding the controller, ready to carefully fly the Karma up and away from the people below. That person also had to be hidden somewhere in (or maybe even digitally removed from) the shot.

However it was done, that ad made it seem like Karma users could effortlessly toss the drone into the air, and it would follow them around on their adventures. Other teaser videos echoed this idea, too, though with less sleight of hand. GoPro was playing off the idea of a drone you can “throw and go,” which has persisted and tantalized since the market got off the ground. (Remember Lily?) But it wasn’t until Skydio that a company truly delivered.

Not only did it take over a year for GoPro to add a feature that resembled what Skydio offers now, Karma’s “follow me” mode wound up being a shadow of the feature as we think of it. GoPro wasn’t doing any computer vision on Karma to execute this mode, like Skydio’s or DJI’s drones do. Instead, GoPro just had the drone point the camera in the direction of the GPS signal coming from the controller.

What’s more, Karma didn’t have any of the obstacle avoidance features that go hand and hand with autonomous flight. Drones can’t fly themselves without knowing where they are and what’s around them, and Karma suffered this inherent problem. It had no cameras on it other than whatever GoPro you attached to the gimbal. Meanwhile, the R1 has 13, plus motion and depth sensors and an Nvidia chip that handles all the autonomous processing.

In that light, it’s no wonder that autonomy is the thing the Skydio drone excels at. It is explicitly built to be a drone that can follow you wherever you go, and navigate between or around obstacles as it does this. Not even DJI’s drones are this autonomous. Many of them offer object tracking and can follow people or things out in open spaces. But while DJI’s drones are able to avoid hitting a tree or a building while following you around, they simply don’t yet offer the same promise of full autonomy that Skydio delivers on with the R1.

I’m not saying GoPro should have pursued exactly what Skydio’s done with the R1. There are reasons to have taken a different path. For one thing, building specifically for autonomy probably wouldn’t have kept the Karma alive any longer, because for all the reckless action they typically capture, GoPros are often used carefully by pros and semi-pros alike. That means manual control had to be front and center, too. But the idea of a drone that can follow you as you rip down a mountain or zip around a race track — without someone flying it — is as relevant to GoPro’s brand as chugging Red Bull.

There’s also the less adrenaline-generating problem of money — specifically, how much GoPro was (or wasn’t) making on each Karma sold. The cost to make the Karma as we know it, combined with DJI’s dominance of the market, were major factors in the decision to discontinue the drone, GoPro CEO Nick Woodman told The Verge earlier this year.

“We looked at how much we were spending on our drone program, relative to the number of units we were selling, and most importantly relative to the profit that we were making on the whole program,” he said in January at CES. “It just became clear that the drone category is going to continue to be a thin-margin category. There’s incredibly stiff competition.”

The commercial drone market in the US is still growing, according to the most recent data from the NPD Group, but most of that growth is currently coming from drones priced between $500 and $999. If that trend holds, GoPro going after something more premium and technologically advanced like the R1 might not have changed much, unless the company was truly willing to take a bath on the product.

Besides, GoPro’s business is wholly dependent on volume. In its latest earnings report, the company noted that it was the best-selling camera in the overall digital imaging category for the 17th straight quarter in North America. By unit sales, it accounted for 86 percent of the action camera market in the first quarter of 2018.

Considering how the R1 is so expensive, it leads one to believe that it may have been hard for GoPro, even with all its manufacturing efficiencies, to make something similar for the “at or under $1,000” price tag that’s apparently required to make a significant profit.

Regardless, the gulf between what the R1 and what the Karma are capable of when it comes to the idea of “throw and go” drone filming is wider than whatever gap you might dare jump with a dirt bike. And it will keep getting wider if Skydio ships more updates like today’s. The startup might never get to the point where its drone is as “cheap” as Karma was, or match the image quality offered by GoPro or DJI. It’s also surely only a matter of time before DJI matches Skydio with its own fully autonomous flying, and that’s something the startup will eventually have to reckon with. But even if it ultimately fails, the Skydio R1 remains a glimpse of what the Karma probably should have been.

Correction: This article wrongly stated that the DJI Spark does not feature object tracking. It does, and the article has been updated.