3D Robotics Solo Review

The consumer drone marketplace has separated itself into two different segments – drones that utilize GoPro action cameras and those that have integrated camera systems to record video. But, it seems that most of the aircrafts that use the GoPro option usually seem to lack some of the advanced automated flight features that models such as the DJI Phantom 4 are capable of. The 3D Robotics Solo is a GoPro powered aircraft, which is aimed at video capture, with numerous automated camera moves. This is great news for filmmakers who prefer to use a GoPro for capturing their footage.

The drone measures 10 by 18 by 18 inches (HWD) and it weighs about 4 pounds with the gimbal and a GoPro Hero3+ or Hero 4 camera. Therefore, you’ll have to register with the FAA before flying it legally in the US. The rotors screw on and tighten with having to use a tool; you just have to twist clockwise or counterclockwise. Each rotor is marked so you know which direction to turn. The prop hubs are marked with silver or black and also have corresponding marks on the tip of each motor.

An original design feature for the Solo is that the battery locks into place on the top of the aircraft instead of sliding into the chassis like most drones. The battery is a long oval shape that beautifies the top of the Solo. It has a 3DR logo marking and it has the power button on it as well. Simply pushing the power button will light up a series of LEDs to indicate how charged the battery is and a second long press will power it on.

 

 

Depending on which version you purchase and where you purchase it from, you might have to install the gimbal yourself. However, it’s a very easy task to complete with a Phillips-head screwdriver. You’ll also need to remove the plastic GoPro mount and connect the HDMI and power cables to the gimbal before you secure it with the three provided screws.

Once the gimbal has been installed, it’s very easy to lock the GoPro into place. It slides in with ease with the rear data connection port locking into the gimbal. On the side, a flap connects to the GoPro’s micro HDMI port for streaming video to the Solo app. If you want to remove the GoPro all you need to do is disconnect the HDMI flap and pull back on the green tab. You won’t have to worry about messing with thread cables through the gimbal or thumb screws with the Solo.

When we acquired one of the 3D Robotics Solo models, we got the version that came with the 3DR Backpack for Solo. It’s a great carrying case features a molded insert that can hold the Solo with the battery installed, the remote, six flight batteries, the battery charger, and two sets of propellers. The backpack is made from high-quality materials and it’s also weather resistant, ensuring the Solo will be protected in snow or rain. With the drone and all of the above-mentioned accessories in the backpack, it is a little heavy, but wide, adjustable straps paired with ergonomic padding make it easy to carry.

The remote control is a black color, sports dual antennas, and a clip that can hold a small tablet, phablet, or smartphone. There’s an integrated LCD screen that shows you flight status, displays error messages, and it has the ability to prompt you to set gimbal sweep settings. There’s also a cool feature that will let you know if there’s any magnetic interference or if the drone is having a problem getting a GPS lock. A micro HDMI video output is also included for those pilots who enjoy flying with FPV goggles.

The remote control features the right and left control sticks that you find on every quadcopter remote. The right stick moves the drone backward, forward, right, and left. While the left stick adjusts the yaw and altitude. The side alongside the sides of the LCD screen, which makes the controller a little wider than most others. There are several backlit buttons in a row below the LCD and sticks. A and B are below the left stick. There are programmable, but are set to initiate the Orbit and Cable Cam functions by default. The Fly and Power buttons are centered right under the LCD screen, and the Pause and Home buttons are below the right stick. Pause is used to stop the drone in its tracks.

You’ll also find controls on top of each shoulder. A rocker paddle is located on the left shoulder and it tilts the gimbal down and up. Two buttons (1 and 2) and a control wheel are on the right shoulder. A long press of each button will allow you to lock in a gimbal tilt angle. A short press of either button will move the gimbal to that specific angle. The wheel allows you to adjust how fast the gimbal moves, it has a 0 to 90 degree window. You can move it from 0 to 90 degrees in three seconds, or as long as 90 seconds if you’re looking for a slow camera move. The preset angles are shown on the controller’s LCD screen.

FLIGHT

The first thing to consider whenever you’re planning on flying any drone is that you won’t be flying in a FAA designated no-fly zone. The Solo app (available for iOS and Android) makes it easy for you to know the above-mentioned information because it will let you know if you’re in a no-fly zone, or within five miles of an airport. If you’re near an airport the app will provide you with the phone number for the control tower so you can call them and let them know you’ll be flying within that space.

Take off is a two-step process. Once the GPS is locked in, the remote will ask you to hold down the Fly button to start the Solo’s motors. Once the props are spinning, you will then be asked to hold Fly down again to launch the aircraft. The drone will then ascend and you’ll be able to take control.

While the Solo uses a GoPro camera, 3D Robotics has done a good job integrating it. The gimbal provides power to the action cam, which is a good selling point when you consider how short the battery life is on GoPros. This is also the drone available right now that allows you to control the GoPro via the app. You have the ability to change resolution settings, start and stop video, switch to still mode to capture aerial photos, and dial in expose compensation. Basically, any setting you can set on the GoPro itself if able to controlled using the Solo control app. Most other drones such as the Xiro Xplorer G require you to change the settings and start recording on the ground on the GoPro itself.

The Solo also features something called Smart Shots. There are automated and repeatable camera and drone moves that cinematographers can use to get great aerial shots. There are four types of Smart Shots: Cable Cam, Selfie, Orbit, and Follow.

To use the Selfie feature, you’ll have to frame yourself in a shot, with the drone about 15 feet from your subject. When you active the shot, the aircraft will pull the drone up and away from you, which in turn reveals the landscape around you in a dramatic fashion. Just make sure that the Solo has a clear path around it because it flies 165 feet backward and 82 feet up during this shot type.

Cable Cam is 3DR’s version of waypoint navigation. To set this mode up you’’ need to fly the Solo to multiple points in space and record each one using the remote control. Once you have the flight path set, then you’ll be able to fly the drone along the path using the right stick to control the speed. The Solo will follow the set path and change altitude gradually between points if you’ve set them to different elevations. The left control stick can be used to make the gimbal tilt down and up. This is a great feature to use if you want to set up a shot along a difficult path and you desire to focus on the visuals.

The Orbit mode is one that may people will recognize from other drones like the DJI Phantom series. With this mode you are able to fly to a specific point to set the center of your orbit, then move the aircraft away from it to set the radius. Once you’ve engaged the Solo, it flies in a perfect circle around the orbit point. Changing the radius is accomplished using the right stick and the altitude with the left stick.

Last but not least is Follow mode. The aircraft will track the position of the remote control and follow its motion. Using the left stick to alter the flight altitude and the right stick to perform orbits while following. Using the Pause button allows you to freeze it in its tracks if you think you’re going to collide with something.

PERFORMANCE

One thing we noticed it that occasionally the Solo took about 2 minutes to lock onto a GPS signal. We typically launch the drones we review from the same location; a large open area. However, this is the first drone we’ve tested that took this long to lock onto enough GPS satellites to be able to take off.

When hovering a few feet off the ground to take some photographs, we did notice some drifting. The amount of drifting probably wouldn’t matter too much when you’re a couple hundred feet in the air, but at lower altitudes you’ll probably have to worry about running into something or someone. We would say that the GPS stabilization on this aircraft is a little dated when compared to the Phantom 3 Professional for example.

During out tests, we were able to fly the Solo about 1,800 feet from the remote control before the video signal started to cut out. In a suburban setting, I was able to go about 1,200 feet away from my home before the controller lost connection and it began to return home automatically. Once the connection was stable again, I was able to take over control using the Fly button.

The Solo app shows you distance away from home and altitude. It doesn’t display air speed, but 3D Robotics rates the Solo at 55mph when the top speed is set to its maximum level. You have five speed options, marked with a tortoise on the slow side and a hare on the fast side. However, you’ll receive a warning on the app that video stability may be an issue at the two fastest speeds. The only thing we noticed it the propellers showing slightly in the shot when flying using the fastest mode. We recommend you use middle setting at most in order to keep the props from getting into your shots.

The battery life is about average for a drone this size. We were able to get about 19 minutes of flight time with a fully charged battery. 3D Robotics states that the Solo can fly for 20 minutes, so to get 19 minutes is a good thing. Most drone companies claim longer battery life then you’ll ever actually see. For example, the DJI Phantom 3 claims 23 minutes of flying time, but we usually see about 19 minutes on average.

The video quality depends on which GoPro you use. We used the Hero4 Black. It is capable of recording 4K footage at up to 30fps, which is the setting I used for testing purposes. Using the 4K setting required me to capture images at the GoPro’s widest angle, which brought forth some barrel distortion. However, the distortion can be removed using the image editing software that comes with the GoPro.

CONCLUSIONS

The 3D Robotics Solo is an advanced drone with offers may strong features. They did a great job integrating GoPro cameras to utilize these features. The remote control makes it possible to make smooth and easy gimbal adjustments. Not to mention, the Smart Shot modes are a great way to add some dramatics to your aerial video.

The only negative thing we noticed is the time it sometimes took for the GPS to lock onto a signal. The GPS signal issue also caused some erratic hovering when attempting to hover in place. This is something you’ll have to be mindful of when trying to hover at lower altitudes to avoid flying in any objects or people.

If you already own a GoPro and you want a drone that works great with it, the Solo is your best choice.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

AIRCRAFT BATTERY GIMBAL
Cameras: Compatible with GoPro® HERO3, 3+ and 4; optimized for HERO3+ and 4 Rechargeable lithium polymer (Li-Po) Three-axis stabilization
Streaming video quality: 720p 5200 mAh Fully compatible with 3DR Solo and GoPro HERO3+ and HERO4; camera charging and stabilization only with HERO3
Flight time: 25 minutes; 20 minutes with payload* 14.8 Vdc HDMI video output
Range: .5 miles** (.8 km) Weight: 1 lb. (.5 kg) Wireless software upgrade through Solo
Max speed: 55 mph (89 km/h) Controllable range: 0° to -90° pitch
Max ascent speed: 10 m/s in stabilize mode; 5 m/s in “fly” mode
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

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