We first spotted the 3D Robotics (3DR) Solo at NAB 2015. Although Solo wasn’t yet shipping, the drone touted some very handsome features, making us eager to try it for ourselves. Solo is a semi-autonomous drone that allows a first-time flyer to get great shots within its first use. The most unique feature to the Solo is that it’s both open software and open hardware. This gives the community the ability to improve and innovate the drone’s capabilities.
Before flight, it's imperative that the pilot and the drone are ready to fly. To start, we downloaded the app from the app store, which is very simple and intuitive to use. Within the app, there is a flight school with videos that teach you all you need to know to fly Solo safely. The app also contains all of Solo’s flight and shot options. Once the pilot is educated, Solo might need an update or two, as ours did. This is very easily done within the app, which instructs you at every step.
Our first experience flying Solo was near an open road where there weren't any obstructions like trees, powerlines or buildings. The only people around were the pilot and a spotter. We recommend the first flight of any drone to be in a wide open and safe area. This will ensure that any malfunction or poor flying won't affect the safety of anyone else or damage any property. Getting Solo ready for flight was as simple as can be. Four rotor blades were attached to color coded motors and were easily screwed on. The battery is not hard to install, and after that you’re ready to fly.
The controller has six buttons that allow for simple, autonomous use. Two buttons labeled A and B are used for different commands depending on the flying mode. You’ll also notice the power button, and lastly, there are three buttons for simple pause of flight, home return and simple power up and take off.
At any time during autonomous use, the pilot can pause the programed flight and take complete manual control. If the drone goes outside of the communication area — roughly 805 meters depending on the flying environment — it will terminate flight and return to “home”. Home is defined as wherever Solo began its flight. This is important to remember; if Solo is taking off from a boat or other moving target, it will put the drone at risk if told to fly home when home is now a dangerous place for landing.
Flight begins after pressing and holding the fly button. The rotors power up and it’s ready for the next command. Another press and hold of the fly button and Solo will take off and hover around 6 feet off the ground, waiting again for the next command.
Be aware of your surroundings. If at this point, the pilot directs Solo to orbit, one of its autonomous flying modes, it will begin to do so from its current altitude. We discovered this the hard way, crashing Solo into a hill. Solo took the crash with ease, with no damage or effect to its flying capabilities.
Once Solo is in the air, four autonomous flying programs, or smart shots, are available: orbit, cable cam, follow and selfie. In any of the modes, one can choose to fly faster or slower, controlled by a simple slider within the app.
Orbit requires the pilot to choose the point of interest; then after a simple command of left or right orbit, Solo is off. With the gimbal attached, Solo keeps the focal point at center, and does a great job of it. From our flights, we would recommend the gimbal; it's worth the extra money as the shots are far better with it, and it's relatively inexpensive for the improved capabilities.
Cable cam mode allows for two waypoints to be chosen. Solo will fly between the two. Cable cam isn't just limited to flying between two points along the horizon, it will also fly between two points of elevation as well, including any rotation when flying between the two waypoints.
In follow mode, Solo will follow the controler and app. We found this function was very easy and worked great. Follow smart shot can be combined with the orbit smartshot allowing for follow orbit. This is a very complicated shot, and although it does it with ease, the gimbal does not operate as smoothly as the drone flys.
Lastly, the selfie smart shot is a very cool shooting option. Fly Solo and position the shot the way you want, then choose selfie. The drone will fly out and up, then down and in again, giving a selfie shot. The shot does not need to be of the pilot or have any association with the location of the controller.
We had a great experience flying the 3DR Solo. It’s fun to fly, gives great shots to those that aren't seasoned pilots and is ready to give them to you upon first flight. Although it can be flown manually and does that well, we don't see a veteran pilot loving Solo because of its price point and lack of camera — there are better manually flown drones that would do more for less. Our recommendation for those users would be the DJI Phantom 3 Pro. It comes with a camera and gimbal and is a bit less expensive with a longer flying range.
However, if you are new to flying and already have a GoPro HERO4 or HERO3+, then the Solo is for you. You’ll have lots of fun from first flight, and it will grow with you. The open hardware and software will allow for the drone to mature with you, as well. 3DR says their intention isn’t to sell you a new drone every year, but for Solo to continue to grow in its abilities, adding new smart shots to their roster often. In fact, new smart shots are said to be released in the spring of 2016.
Overall, Solo by 3DR is a great product. Since it started shipping in June of 2015, 3DR has made it priority to continue to improve Solo, making it the drone it is today.