3DR Solo Review

3DR Solo Review

3DR SOLO Drone Review

3D Robotics introduced its latest offering, the Solo Drone, in May 2015. The SOLO Drone is a huge step up from the Iris and Iris+ models and it is a serious competitor to the DJI Phantom series of quadcopters. The Solo excels with its advanced software and flight settings, enabling you to focus more on the creative filming process and less on the actual mechanics of flying the aircraft. It does require you to have your own GoPro camera, so that’s not ideal for those who want an all-in-one ready to fly solution, but if you aren’t a fan of the integrated optics in the DJI Phantom lineup then the Solo is a welcome relief for you. At $1,000 for the quadcopter alone and $1,300 for the quadcopter with gimbal, the SOLO Drone is not cheap, but roughly on part with its competitors. Read on for our full Solo Drone review!

3DR SOLO - Overview

3DR Solo and DJI Phantom 3 Professional

3DR Solo Drone (Left) and DJI Phantom 3 Professional (Right)

The Solo drone is a well-designed and executed aerial video package. The aircraft itself is roughly comparable in size and shape as the DJI Phantom 3, though it does weigh a bit more (3.9 lbs (1.8kg) with gimbal and GoPro vs. 2.8 lbs (1.2kg) for the DJI Phantom 3 Professional). As you can see in the comparison picture above, the Solo has a slightly lower center of gravity than the Phantom and the arms extending out to the propellers are angled up, compared to the Phantom’s arms that extend straight out. The propellers on the Solo drone are just slightly larger than the Phantom’s (25.4 vs 24 cm) and the Solo has a higher capacity battery than the Phantom (5200mAh vs. 4480mAh), likely to compensate for the additional drain on power given the extra weight. Overall though, the 3DR Solo and DJI Phantom 3 quadcopters are very similar in terms of physical appearance, construction, and design. The main differences between these two quadcopters are the camera system and the software.

Solo Camera - 3DR Solo Review

In the Solo, 3DR chose to go with a separate gimbal and GoPro setup rather than offering an integrated, all-in-one proprietary camera system like in the DJI Phantom 3 Professional. Why did 3DR go this route? Well, many users likely already have a GoPro HERO camera, so it is a video camera solution that many people are familiar with and saves money for those who already have it. Also, by leaving most of the actual optics to GoPro, 3DR could focus all of their time and effort to the drone itself and underlying software, without worrying about creating its own lenses and image processors.
So what exactly is in the camera setup in the Solo? There are three main things we’ll focus on:
  1. Camera
  2. Gimbal
  3. Software

1. Camera - The Solo drone doesn’t come with a camera, but it has been designed to use (and really can only work with) the GoPro HERO line of cameras. More specifically, it is compatible with the GoPro HERO4, GoPro HERO3+, and GoPro HERO3 line of cameras - though with the HERO3, you get limited functionality, so we highly recommend using at least the HERO3+. If you’re looking for the best quality videos and photos, definitely use the GoPro HERO4 Black. It is the top of the line GoPro that you can get today, and while you can save a few bucks on a lower end model, you’ll lose the ability to take 4K video and likely have lower quality video and pictures.

3DR Solo Drone Gimbal with GoPro HERO4

3DR Solo Drone Gimbal with GoPro HERO4

2. Gimbal - The gimbal on the 3DR Solo is  a high quality 3-axis gimbal, isolated from the quadcopter with the traditional rubber bushings. It offers very smooth filming and really does stabilize the video well, similar to the results of the DJI Phantom 3 Professional. It offers a couple neat features - it charges the GoPro while you’re filming so that it doesn’t run out of batteries mid-flight, you can control the camera settings remotely, and 3DR includes a sunshade for it which is helpful when filming those sunny outdoor shots. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the 3DR Solo does not include a gimbal in the base purchase price of $999.95. The gimbal is technically an add-on at $399.95, though I can’t think of many folks that are buying the 3DR Solo without a gimbal, so I think its best to frame the Solo as a $1,400 drone.

3. Software - So far, the camera + gimbal setup on the Solo is pretty underwhelming - Phantoms have been able to carry GoPro cameras for ages, a 3-axis gimbal is nice but hardly new, and neither of these critical components are included in the purchase price! But don’t pre-judge the Solo drone quite yet, because the software is where it all comes together. 3DR has marketed the Solo as a smart drone, with the tag line “Cinematic Made Automatic.” Not only is the manual flight experience (and the video streaming) smooth and well executed, but Solo packs a ton of automated features that enable you to really push creative limits and take amazing shots.

The Solo drone includes four “Smart Shot” modes, though 3DR says it is planning on adding more as they develop them. As of November 2015, the Smart Shot modes include:

  1. Cable Cam - A virtual cable cam, where you can set two endpoints and have the drone glide across them automatically and pan seamlessly.
  2. Orbit - Where you set a point for the quadcopter to orbit around, creating a smooth “wrap-around” shot.
  3. Follow - The Solo follows wherever you (or the mobile controller) is, at a defined distance and altitude.
  4. Selfie - The drone starts right near you, and flies backwards and up in elevation, exposing you and the rest of the landscape for context.

These automated shooting modes and the overall ease of using them is where 3DR really shines with the Solo. The smart shots are very self explanatory, easy to set up and direct, and truly do produce stunning results. While all of these shots are technically able to be reproduced by manual controls, the results are often jerky and uncoordinated for even intermediate level fliers, given that you have to be applying just the right amount of power, change in elevation, and change in direction all while attempting to maintain the proper camera direction and tilt. By giving over some of that control to the drone (in a very customized and defined way), you have less to worry about and you can let the computer calculate the precise timing and angles, leaving you with smooth panning and beautiful results. This 3DR video does a good job at explaining the smart shot modes and software:

3DR Solo Control System

The Solo comes with an advanced controller that feels solid and fits in a good deal of quick access buttons, without feeling overwhelming. The Solo can deliver wireless HD video from the GoPro to an iOS or Android mobile device up to a half mile away, which is a good distance though not as far as the Phantom 3 Professional’s range (3.1 miles!). Solo’s controller has an HDMI output for live HD broadcast—to FPV goggles, high-quality field monitors, etc. and in practice the video feed is real-time and fluid, which is a big plus. Check  out the image below for a look at all the controls on the 3DR and a sample of how the app looks:

3DR Solo Review - Overall Impressions

The 3DR Solo quadcopter is an awesome addition to the mid-level consumer quadcopter market and is a great option for anyone that already has a GoPro HERO4 and wants to shoot aerial videos. The flight experience is smooth, the automated controls are intuitive and powerful, and the drone itself is well designed and on par with its main competitor, the DJI Phantom 3. 3DR has really pushed the field in the right direction with putting more automation in the software and hardware from the beginning, and the customizable autonomous shot modes are where the Solo drone really excels and surpasses the Phantom lineup. While the Phantom 3 has auto takeoff, return home, and fail safe redundancies, it doesn’t offer much in the way of autonomous or semi-autonomous video modes. I am sure that DJI is working on that right now, but for the time being 3DR is ahead in that area.

Overall, the 3DR Solo is an excellent option for folks looking to get into the aerial video scene. But is it right quadcopter for you? If you already have a GoPro HERO 3+ or 4, I would say it almost definitely is. Even though the Solo + gimbal is about $1,300 (comparable to the DJI Phantom 3 Professional, which includes the gimbal and integrated camera), the automated modes and controls make the Solo a better value.

If you don’t have a GoPro (or you have an older model that can’t be controlled by the Solo), then it is a tougher decision. The Solo drone, gimbal, and a GoPro HERO 4 Silver will put you back about $1,650, which is considerably more than the $1000 Phantom 3 Advanced, which has similar specifications and capabilities. If you choose to go for the Solo, gimbal, and GoPro HERO4 Black (for the full 4K video, which we highly recommend) then you’re looking at $1,800 for the entire package - much higher than the $1,350 price tag of the Phantom 3 Professional, which has similar specifications. Also, on one hand its nice to have the camera be a separate element - you can detach the GoPro and use it for filming other things, for example - there’s also something to be said for a fully integrated camera solution, both in terms of design and functionality. So if you’re looking for a slightly less expensive and more integrated solution, then the DJI Phantom lineup may be a better choice.

At the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with the 3DR Solo drone. It is a highly advanced platform with cutting edge automated video controls, and we’re looking forward to what 3DR can do next!

Where to Buy:

The 3DR Solo drone is available at a few different retailers, including Best Buy, REI, and Frys Electronics, but we highly recommend Amazon or B&H Photo:

3DR Solo Drone on Amazon.com ($1,000 for quadcopter only; $1,300 with gimbal): Amazon offers quick shipping, great customer service, and a full range of Solo parts and accessories.

3DR Solo Drone on B&H Photo ($1,000 for quadcopter only; $1,400 with gimbal): B&H Photo offers an unbeatable range of camera and video products and accessories, and excellent customer support.


Other 3DR Solo Reviews:

The Verge 3DR Solo Review: http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/13/8394359/3d-robotics-solo-drone-quadcopter-gopro

TechCrunch 3DR Solo Review: http://techcrunch.com/2015/04/13/the-3d-robotics-solo/#.ky9mdb:CM5j


3DR Solo Quadcopter Specifications:

Cameras: Compatible with GoPro® HERO3, 3+ and 4; optimized for HERO3+ and 4

Streaming video quality: 720p

Flight time: 25 minutes; 20 minutes with payload*

Range: .5 miles** (.8 km)

Max speed: 55 mph (89 km/h)

Max ascent speed: 10 m/s in stabilize mode; 5 m/s in “fly” mode

Max descent speed: ditto

Max payload: 420 g

Max altitude: 400 ft per FAA regulation, user adjustable (122 m)

Motors: 880 kV

Propellers: 10″ diameter 4.5″ pitch self-tightening (24 cm diameter 144 cm pitch); glass-reinforced nylon

Autopilot: Pixhawk 2

Software: APM:Copter

Communication: 3DR Link secure WiFi network

Frequency: 2.4 GHz

Weight: 3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) / 3.9 lbs. (1.8 kg) with GoPro® and Solo Gimbal

Dimensions: 10 in. tall (25 cm), 18 in. (46 cm) motor-to-motor

Flight battery: Lithium polymer 5200 mAh 14.8 Vdc

Battery charge time: ~1.5 hours

Controller battery: 2600 mAh 7.2 Vdc rechargeable lithium ion

App requirements: iOS 8.0 or later / Android 4.3 or later