3DRobotics Solo “Smart Drone” – automating the craft of aerial cinematography

Preamble…I’ve written about my interest in UAV’s previously

You may already know I’m a UAV enthusiast. I think it goes back to my childhood. My dad had a private pilot license when I was a child and he used to take me flying with him every Sunday. I guess I got the bug for flying yet never really thought to pursue a career as a pilot.

Jump forward 30+ years and my latent interest and enthusiasm for flying was reborn of sorts. When I first saw the DJI Phantom I was blown away and had one of those “just take my money-now” moments. I bought the Phantom 1 and quickly learned that flying blind was a tricky undertaking. The first generation carried a GoPro which recorded HD but the out of the box version had no video monitoring or image stabilisation so to be perfectly honest, much as I enjoyed the experience of flying the P1 the user experience was pretty crap and the end results (without stabilisation) were even worse. Yes it created HD aerial footage but after de-fisheye and post production stabilisation the footage looked like jelly.

p1

Then a breakthrough came: the Zenmuse Brushless Gimbal was launched as an add on to stabilise the GoPro on three axis while in flight. However, in order to retrofit the Zenmuse I had to disassemble the P1 and take to soldering components to the motherboard inside. In spite of my time as an engineer I’m no much for teardowns (taking things apart to see how they work) I like seeing other people do it but don’t get a buzz out of it personally. So having reassembled the P1 there was a sense of tinkering with a hobbyist platform which I didn’t like. However the 3 axis stabilised footage was stunning in comparison to the previous footage so that was a big step forward however I was still flying blind.

About 7 months later the Phantom 2 was launched and more accessories had come on stream. I bought the P2 and added the AVL58 RF Video transmitter system (which also required a teardown of the Phantom 2 to retrofit it) But now, with the use of a SmallHD monitor, I could see what the GoPro was shooting while in flight. So my footage improved-somewhat.

p2

Then came the big revelation. The basics of flying a UAV are actually quite simple. Take off, landing, flying straight or even orbiting can be mastered with practice BUT and its a big BUT, with less than 15 minutes flight time you need a LOT of batteries to keep practicing and perfecting. If I’m to be critical, you’ll see why in the video below- in spite of repeated attempts to master orbiting (17 attempts for the Poulnabrone Dolmen for instance) I never really perfected it. I realised that just getting the drone in the air is not enough.

When Philip Bloom shared his award winning Koh Yao Noi I dawned on me that there really is an craft to using the camera on a UAV as a cinematic tool. So much of the content I was seeing shared on YouTube was “raw” in flight footage, no composition, no story. What Bloom managed to achieve (and he is not the first to do it by any means) was to execute cinematic shots with the Phantom and to do that requires 1. Knowledge of Cinematic Composition  2. Practice.

Skip forward to a few weeks ago. I was invited to the launch of the 3DRobotics Solo Smart Drone in London. I’ll be 100% up front and say that as a Phantom2 owner (and someone who is still lusting after the Inspire 1) I was more than a little skeptical about the new platform and DJI competitor.

The day began with a presentation from Colin Guinn, Chief Revenue Officer with 3DRobotics. Guinn was once the face of DJI America, but in a somewhat sensational series of events he left the company before sueing DJI for summarily freezing all the assets of DJI America and firing all the staff.

Guinn has an air of profound confidence on stage and his passion for the entire UAV industry is very apparent. The presentation consisted of a brief background of 3DR, founded in 2007 by former Wired Editor in Chied Chris Anderson. An overview of the technology and a series of explainer videos which will form part of the “Introduction to your Solo” training programme on YouTube.

Of all these the video about the Solo’s “Smart Shots” was the one that peaked my interest.

The smart shots functionality was pitched as the real breakthrough with Solo and having witnessed nearly 80 people, many of whom were absolute UAV novices, take the Solo out for a flight (under the supervision of 3DR pilots) I have to say I really was genuinely impressed with the potential of them.

smart-shots

The four Smart Shot modes straight out of the box are:

Selfie – where the UAV will fly from its hover position to a definable height, range and co-ordinate and back again

Cable Cam – where you can set two user defined positions A / B and record yaw, and tilt for your shots

Orbit – (Which is the one I was most impressed with) where you can define an axis point on the map on screen on the App and then define the perimeter circle the UAV will fly. What I didn’t realise was that you can dynamically adjust the height and diameter as well as tilt on the camera while the Solo is in Orbit mode. This means you can create an incredible spiral shot which stays trained on the subject in the centre of the shot throughout which would be as good as impossible to do manually.

Follow – as the name suggests the UAV will follow the controller at a defined height and range, this also can be modified during flight.

These four functions allowed novices at the flight demo to execute shots that took me months of practice to try to create with the Phantom and it is the Smart Shots which for me, really do make the Solo and exceptional device.

Colin Guinn talked about future firmware updates which include “Dynamic return to home” which will return to the controller position not the point of takeoff (imagine you take off from a moving boat, if the UAV returns to “Home” at takeoff position it will land in the sea where you were). Another future feature is a “playlist or queue” of smartshots where you can schedule complex moves which tap into a combination of the individual smart shots. I caught up with Guinn briefly to ask a few questions after the presentation.

It should be noted that only a couple of days later DJI announced that they would be including an equivalent to “smart shots” in a firmware update very soon.

Either way it is fair to presume that the “cinematic” quality of UAV footage is about to take a big leap forward.

About vjmentor
Innovation Lead, RTÉ | VJ & MoJo (Mobile Journalism) Trainer -Circom Regional | Photographer | HDSLR shooter| Views are strictly personal, not those of my employer.

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