The 3DR Solo, the new camera quadcopter from 3D Robotics in the USA, has been hailed as a serious competitor for the DJI Phantom 3
. The only problem is you can't buy it in the UK. Latest estimates are the end of July and even then you may have to wait for a GoPro gimbal.
The 3D Robotics Solo quadcopter
In the meantime the Phantom 3 has been selling by the hangar load in both versions - Advanced
. So have 3DR missed the boat or is the Solo going to be worth the wait?
The 3DR Solo has been on sale in the United States since May so we've had a chance to check out how it's been received on the far side of the Atlantic. At the moment it seems the Phantom 3 has the edge.
The DJI Phantom 3
DJI were criticised when they launched the latest Phantom on April 8th. Some said that it was rushed out in order to hit the streets before the Solo and, as a result, there were a few software glitches that had to be sorted after customers had had their maiden flights.
On the other hand 3DR are selling the Solo without a 3 axis gimbal. So the quadcopter they were promoting as a smart platform for the GoPro can only fly with a fixed camera which can't be controlled by the Solo app until the gimbal arrives.
The Phantom 3 had a built in 4K UHD or 1080 HD camera with 3 axis gimbal at launch. The DJI Pilot app also allows you to take stills, stop and start video recording and adjust camera settings in mid flight. It also comes as a complete package. If you buy a Solo you have to buy a gimbal and a GoPro to make it into a complete photo and video platform.
In the air there seems to be little to choose between the two although reviewers seem to agree that the Phantom has a more responsive throttle and so is much quicker to react when you ask it to climb. One YouTube reviewer even went so far as to describe the Solo's throttle response as sluggish. However the 3DR Solo can be made more aerobatic by turning it into Sport or Acro mode, which turns stabilisation off. Another YouTuber took some comfort from the fact that the Solo's Return To Home got the aircraft back on the ground at its take-off point faster that the Phantom.
Where the Solo could have the edge over the Phantom, for the time being at least, is with its Smart Shots. They're the programmable shot modes called Orbit, Selfie, Follow and Cable.
In Orbit the 3DR Solo will fly around a fixed point with the camera pointing towards the subject, leaving you to adjust speed, direction, distance and height. Selfie mode is almost self explanatory - the Solo flies away from you, keeping you in the frame and then flies back towards you. In Follow mode the Solo tracks you by using the GPS signal on the phone or tablet linked to your controller.
The Cable shot is the Solo's most interesting trick. First of all you can frame your start and end shots and then turn the aircraft and gimbal as it flies along the cable between the two positions. Secondly you can leave it all to the Solo's computer to fly smoothly between the two, repositioning the camera as it goes.
Similar modes could be in the pipeline for the Phantom 3 with DJI asking users of its Software Development Kit to come up with programmable moves as well as route planning as in the DJI Ground Station.
The cameras on both the 3DR Solo and the Phantom 3 are capable of up to 4K (if you choose the P3 Pro) but the Phantom has the advantage of having a rectilinear lens rather than the GoPro's wide to extremely wide angle glass. This means that shots can be used straight off the Phantom without the need for any post production. The GoPro produces a distorted image because it's designed as a close-up action camera so it usually needs to be corrected by your computer software.
Vision Positioning on the DJI Phantom 3
The Phantom 3 has a Vision Positioning system which uses a camera and ultrasonic detectors to help lock the drone's position when it's flying indoors or in a location with poor GPS reception. It also senses the aircraft's height above ground level. The 3DR Solo doesn't have this although this may be an option in the future as some eagle-eyed observers spotted something similar on a pre-production model at a 2015 trade show.
The 3DR Solo's X-Box style controller
The two remote controllers have their idiosyncrasies. The Phantom's connects to your tablet with a USB/lightning cable while the Solo relies on WiFi. That means you have to log in with a password before you can use it, at least for the first time.
The 3DR Solo has an HDMI out socket for connecting to HD displays or other devices. This isn't available on the Phantom 3. You'd have to upgrade to a DJI Inspire 1 to get one.
The Solo has paddles to control the camera while the Phantom 3 has wheels.
The black 3DR Solo controller, which many say has an X-Box style, didn't appear to reviewers to be as good quality. One said the DJI controller was beefier. He also complained that the tablet holder on the Solo controller wouldn't open up enough to take an iPad Air 2.
The DJI Phantom 3 and its controller
Adjusting the aircraft settings with the Solo app was said by some to be simpler. Pilots use sliders on the screen whereas the Phantom's system was slightly more complicated.
3DR say they've designed the Solo to evolve with future developments and accessories. The gimbal can be changed, the 3DR Solo's accessory bay could be used to add anything from lights to a ballistic parachute, and a "Made for Solo" incubator programme means new products could be on the way from third party companies. All of the software updates for Solo's can be made wirelessly.
DJI and users of its SDK are also expected to come up with evolutionary developments for the Phantom 3 although the DJI Inspire 1
and the recently announced DJI Matrice 100
are likely to see more in the way of hardware inventions.
Battery life for the two quadcopters are reckoned to be almost identical. Although the 3DR Solo has a 5200 mAh it's heavier than the Phantom 3's 4480 mAh so absolute maximum flight times for both are 20-23 minutes.
3DR Solo vs Phantom 3 Clincher
The clincher for many people will be the price. The Phantom 3 Professional with 4K and HD camera and 3 axis gimbal is £1159
or £899 for the Advanced HD
only model. That's remarkably good value.
The 3DR Solo with a gimbal and a GoPro Hero 4 Black Edition works out at £1692. Even without a gimbal and camera the Solo comes in at £979 - that's dearer than the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced.
We got those 3DR Solo prices from the only UK reseller listed on 3DR's website. Supplies were expected around the middle of July but when we enquired today we were told that delivery had been knocked back to the end of the month ... probably.