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A lot of new drones have been coming out lately and there are a lot of drone companies out there, but DJI and 3D Robotics are two that you should definitely have your eyes on.
First, DJI released the Phantom 3 – an update to the iconic line of Phantom quadcopters. With an all new 4K camera, HD video streaming from a mile away and a bigger array of sensors, the Phantom 3 is an extremely capable piece of video equipment.
Then the 3DR Solo was released, with some significant features and drawbacks over the Phantom 3. The Solo is packing two 1GHz processors running Linux, HD video streaming, pre-programmed flight paths, full GoPro integration and much more.
Before getting into the details, you should know that I do not own the 3DR Solo yet, and I won’t be getting one until the gimbal is available and working. What I’m saying in this article is based on the many hours of research that I’ve done, meaning that my opinion could change after getting it. However, I do own the Phantom 3 Professional, so my opinion on that will be completely accurate.
DJI and 3D Robotics are taking completely different approaches for creating drones that let consumers take aerial videos. DJI went for an all-in-one solution that integrates the camera, gimbal and drone into one ready to fly package for a little less than $1300. 3D Robotics decided to do things a little bit differently. The Drone starts at $1000, then you have the choice of adding their gimbal for $400 and a GoPro Hero 3 or 4. This means that if you wanted to have the same 4K functionality of the Phantom 3, you would have to spend about $1900.
If you look at these two drones from a price perspective, the obvious winner is the Phantom 3, but there’s much more depth to this article than that.
So far, I’ve taken videos myself and seen other videos taken with the Phantom 3 from a lot of different people and the quality looks outstanding. The image sensor on the Phantom 3 is exactly the same as the Inspire 1 and the gimbal is similar to the Phantom 2 vision plus. I wouldn’t say that the Phantom 3 camera is better than the GoPro Hero 4 Black, but it’s really similar and the lack of distortion in the lens makes it a better option in most cases.
Right now, there are a very small amount of videos online that show footage from the Solo with a gimbal, but they don’t look as smooth as the Phantom 3 or even the Phantom 2 with the H4-3D Gimbal. The technical video quality is obviously fine since the Solo uses the GoPro Hero 4, but the gimbal seems to shake and twitch while in flight. This might be because the models used in the early videos were pre-production units and not ready for primetime, although now people that pre-ordered are starting to get their gimbals and the results are not much better than the earlier videos from 3DR.
Even if you look at the promo video by 3D Robotics, any good video editor could tell you that a lot of the shots taken by the Solo were digitally stabilized in post. The video that I’ve seen taken by the Solo is not bad, it’s just not good either.
There are a lot of really cool video features that the Solo has to offer (my favorite being the cable cam feature (which you could now duplicate using the waypoint functionality on the Phantom 3), but none of this matters if the footage looks unstable.
You could argue that I’m just saying all of this because I’m a “DJI fanboy” but in reality, I just want to take really good shots – and I’m not sure if the Solo is capable of doing this (yet).
The gimbal was delayed by at least 3 months and now some people are finally getting their hands on it. But I still haven’t seen any amazing videos yet.
Flight characteristics for these two drones is unknown until we actually get them for testing, but I’m going to assume that the Phantom 3 will be more stable when near the ground because of the optical-flow sensor underneath. The Solo might have this feature eventually, but I’ll talk about that later.
Both of these drones will supposedly get 20 minutes of flight time.
Range on the Phantom 3 is about 1 mile. The Solo stops at a half mile. This isn’t a big deal since not everyone needs to fly that far. Even with bigger models like the Inspire 1, I usually never go farther than 3000 feet, but it’s nice to know that the Phantom 3 will have a strong signal.
Top speed for the Solo is unknown. Colin Guinn claims it will do 55mph, but another 3DR representative said that you can adjust the speed up to 30mph. Honestly, I’m expecting it to go around the same speed as the Phantom 2 while flying in GPS mode, maybe sightly faster. You can probably go 55mph in a more manual flying mode, but I can’t imagine the autonomous features working at those speeds. I could be wrong though.
With the Phantom 3, what you see is what you get. There’s not a lot that will change with the hardware since it doesn’t have any special expansion ports, but it is possible to add additional functionality through software.
For example, Almost all of the smart camera features that made the Solo stand out have been added to the Phantom 3 (including waypoints and the popular follow me mode).
The Solo has a lot of room for growing in the future (hardware wise), which is one of it’s biggest advantages over the Phantom 3. It has a gimbal bay in the front and an accessory bay in the center for random gadgets like parachutes, LED lights, lasers, (maybe optical flow) and more. The motors can also be easily swapped out with better ones and the battery can be upgraded for longer flight times.
Another nice advantage that the Solo has is that a lot of the software will be open source, so if you’re a programmer then you might be able to customize the functionality of it to fit your needs.
That’s right, optical flow sensors were seen on the Solo at NAB, but not on the models that were actually flying (actually there was “one” that was flying with an optical flow sensor). What does this mean? Well, I’m not really sure, but here’s what I think.
3D Robotics talks about how you will be able to add an optical flow sensor to the expansion bay, but what they neglected to mention is that there’s already an optical flow sensor on the back of some models.
I’m not 100% sure why they pretended that this sensor didn’t exist on the bottom of the Solo, but I have a couple guesses. Maybe they couldn’t get the optical flow working on the Solo in time for the launch, so they decided to take it out. Or maybe there’s going to be another more expensive model in the future with more built-in features. In any case, I’m not sure why they would bring two separate models to NAB without mentioning anything about it.
There’s a lot of controversy on this subject, so I won’t go into detail since I’ve personally never had a bad experience with DJI or 3D Robotics. In the passed, 3D Robotics has generally had better customer service than DJI, but both companies have warranties on their products (as long as you don’t crash them). I have actually dealt with DJI’s customer service in the last few months and I haven’t had any issues with them. When you do crash, there will eventually be spare parts for both models after they get orders fulfilled.
I would also like to point out that 3DR has a fly-away warranty. This means that 3DR will replace your solo and camera if they look in the software and see that the crash/fly-away was caused by a flight computer error. 3DR is doing this because they know that some people have had their drones fly away and are now terrified of getting another one. I would say that 90% of the fly-aways that happen to drones are caused by pilot error, but that doesn’t stop people from thinking that a fly-away warranty will save them no matter what happens. In any case, I have to say that I’m glad 3DR is trying to stand behind their products.
Right now, I would say the DJI Phantom 3 is the best option if you’re trying to take really high quality videos and stills. It’s simple, everything you need is there right from the start and it will get the job done. With the addition of follow-me, point of interest and waypoints to the Phantom 3, I think that 3DR is going to have a rough time keeping the Solo compelling for most people.
I really want to like the 3DR Solo. It has great potential, but when you add up the cost for getting stabilized 4K footage, I just don’t know if it’s worth the extra $640 that it would cost in additional accessories to match the Phantom 3.
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