The purpose of a consumer drone remains nebulous these days. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer. Drones are great for sophisticated aerial photography and video, but they’re also adept at surveying empty lots of land and crowded real estate, or measuring agricultural yield and helping climate model the Arctic. But what’s the point of a drone for the everyday consumer, for you or me? That’s not readily apparent. Even as drones get more sophisticated, cheaper, and smaller, there isn’t an easy answer beyond the fact that unmanned aerial vehicles are cool gadgets and fun to fly — granted, where and when the Federal Aviation Administration deems it legal to do so.
But what if a drone was smart enough to handle itself, in any and all situations? What if the drone didn’t need to be flown at all, because software did it for you? What you might do with a drone of that caliber is up to you, but the possibilities are indeed tantalizing. And that’s the pitch from Skydio, a Mountain View, California-based startup that sells arguably the world’s first fully autonomous consumer drone. Called the R1 and announced back in February, the $2,500 device uses a blend of cameras, sensors, and a powerful Nvidia-made onboard computer — the very same chip set that powers self-driving cars — to map its surroundings, plan and predict its flight path, and avoid all manner of obstacles as it tracks a single human subject.
The company hopes its drone, and the sophisticated artificial intelligence that pilots it, will reframe the question of “why buy such a device?” into “what can this device do for me?” Do you like running, cycling, or action sports like skateboarding? Do you want to capture yourself performing those activities in almost any environment, and with a variety of professional-looking camera angles? Skydio thinks that a mix of eager drone-loving early adopters and action sports junkies will buy into that vision right now, even at the steep price of $2,500. But down the line, the company hopes the computer vision software that powers its autonomous algorithms can be packed into drones that are far more accessible.
A self-flying drone is an appealing concept. And after spending a couple of weeks with the R1 Frontier Edition, the first run of the product manually assembled out of the startup’s Silicon Valley headquarters, I can say that I’m a believer. Every consumer drone should be as sophisticated as the Skydio, because it transforms the prospect of owning a drone for something you do for the sake of it, or for a very specific niche purpose, into a matter of what you might be able to film when you don’t need a human pilot to fly it or a camera operator to capture footage. The R1 does both simultaneously, and it’s great at it.
The R1 is first and foremost an autonomous video capture device — it does not capture photos, despite having a gimbal-stabilized 4K camera. (You can capture Instagram-ready HD stills from the companion app’s stored video clips if you like, but they won’t be any more hi-res than something you’d capture with a smartphone.) As a video camera in the sky, the R1 uses its 13 onboard cameras and a mix of depth and motion sensors to track a subject and perform all the feats of self-piloting required to keep the drone from injuring itself and others during flight. Skydio is so confident in its abilities that the R1 doesn’t even ship with a controller. Everything is managed through the app.
From an anonymous startup with a nonexistent track record, that level of confidence might be concerning. Yet the co-founders of Skydio were among the first engineers hired to get Google’s Project Wing drone delivery initiative off the ground. They have extensive experience in UAV development and in the computer vision techniques to help drones perform safely and autonomously. The company has parlayed this experience into tens of millions of dollars of investment from a variety of Silicon Valley firms and technology companies. So in my book, Skydio gets the seal of approval, at least to trust that its device does what the company claims it can.
So how well does the R1 work? Almost flawlessly, it turns out. I took the R1 to a park in San Francisco for an entire day of filming, partly to capture the R1 in action and as a way to put the device through its paces. I wanted to test how well the drone could maneuver through a complicated, tree-heavy environment, how well it could keep up at high speeds as it followed someone riding a bike, and whether it worked well in an extremely busy situation like a skatepark on the edge of the park, next to a bustling street full of cars and power lines.
As for setting the drone up, it’s quite simple. Once you’ve charged one of the two included 16-minute batteries, you slot it into the back of the drone and power it up. From there, you connect it to your phone via a special Wi-Fi network, and the drone will sync with the mobile app, which performs pre-flight checks and makes sure nothing is obstructing the R1’s immediate surroundings. Taking off is achieved by dragging up a round white button labeled on the drone’s full-screen live camera feed. (You land it by doing the opposite motion on the large white “Land” button.)
Once in flight, you can manually control the R1 from the Skydio app, using spartan on-screen height and directional toggles. But the moment you tap the circular bubble floating over your face or another human being the Skydio recognizes in its line of the sight, the device snaps into position and begins following its subject in one of a half-dozen different capture modes. Those range from a follow mode for over-the-shoulder shots to a lead mode for front-facing ones to “orbit,” which sends the R1 in a smooth 360-degree arc around either a static or a moving subject.
The first trial run with the R1 involved having it follow me through a dense series of trees, off the well-worn hiking path of the park. The drone had never seen this particular environment before. In fact, it had never seen anything but the wide open fields of San Francisco I used to test the mobile test and drone start-up process.
Yet the R1 was able to deftly dodge tree trunks and branches and even keep up with me as I transitioned from a brisk walk to a light jog. It can’t be stressed enough how smoothly the R1 approaches its tasks. It hardly ever stops outright, and thanks to Skydio’s path-planning and prediction techniques, the drone is always taking smooth and natural arcs around obstacles as it follows you.
This was exemplified by the biking portion of our test, when I had the R1 follow me through a couple loops of a winding bike path. I could hear the drone behind me, yet as I rode I was able to forgot almost completely about the drone’s safety or whether it could keep up. When I returned to my starting position, I was able to land the drone off to the side of the bike path and fire up the video previews to check my footage, all of it smooth and flawless.
The final test was more rigorous. We took the R1 to the Balboa Skatepark, which is located next to busy streets in a nearby San Francisco neighborhood. We had the drone follow me as I made a number of laps around the ramps and quarter pipes of the park, using a number of different shooting modes to see how well the R1 could handle such a tight space and fast-moving subject.
It did run into some hiccups. It lost me on one occasion, notifying me of the situation via the mobile app and harmlessly hovering in place while it awaited instruction. In another instance, it unfollowed me and began tracking Verge video director Vjeran Pavic as he traveled behind me on his own skateboard. And while the R1 kept its composure even when flying close to a fence and nearby power lines, it was still a nerve-wracking experience.
Of course, Skydio doesn’t suggest anyone do this with their drone; the company advises you follow FAA guidelines closely, and flying the Skydio near busy streets or large crowds is not among them. Still, it was astounding to see the R1 keep its cool in such a hectic situation.
Of course, we can’t talk about autonomous drones without mentioning the giant, consumer electronics juggernaut in the room: DJI. The Chinese company is far and away the leading drone maker on the planet, and its drones have become increasingly sophisticated in both hardware and software. The new Mavic Air, priced at just $799, is a perfect example of DJI’s multi-year efforts in hardware miniaturization and equally impressive software automation. Though you need to use a remote control to fly a DJI drone, including the entry-level Spark, nearly the entire DJI lineup comes with a suite of impressive self-piloting features that let the drones track a subject automatically and avoid obstacles much like the Skydio R1 does.
You’re not getting the same level of sophistication with a DJI as you would with a Skydio-made product, and that’s made clear from the first few minutes you see the R1 in action. For one, the R1 can be used solo, allowing you to capture footage of yourself that would be impossible for a DJI drone to capture without a second human pilot behind the joysticks. But that’s where the crucial divide between a DJI product and the Skydio R1 becomes clear. DJI drones are best-in-class for amateur to professional piloting and aerial photography and video.
The autonomous features on a DJI model are there to help the less experienced pilot improve their skills and not hurt anyone in the process, while the device’s camera is capable of the kinds of photos and videos a dedicated hobbyist or professional shooter would rightfully want to capture. The Skydio R1 is a offering a whole different value proposition, and if you really only want to capture cool photos and videos of top-down landscape or slow-motion city shots, you’re better off with a DJI Mavic model.
That are a lot of other compromises with the R1 that are worth mentioning. For one, the device doesn’t shoot hi-res photos like those competing DJI drones, so if you’re primarily buying a drone to snap really cool aerial photography, the R1 isn’t the device for you. And even though it does have a 4K video camera, the sensor itself isn’t quite as robust as you might like, resulting in some grainess and noise in the final video product.
The R1’s video output is also lacking in dynamic range, and the camera itself cannot be configured with color profiles in the mobile app, something competing DJI drones are capable of. For shooting settings, you’re basically on full auto, meaning you can’t change shutter speed or ISO, you can’t achieve slow-motion, and you can’t customize the white balance. The R1 only comes with just 16 minutes on a single battery charge, which is less than a standard DJI model. There’s also no SD or microSD card slot, but there is 64GB of built-in storage, which is more than enough for the 32 minutes of flight time you get with the R1’s two batteries.
Yet for all the R1’s setbacks and downsides, what you do get with the product is peace of mind that you will always have excellent, smooth, and stunning video. The device captures everything from the moment it takes off, which might be a downside if you waste valuable flying time checking your phone notifications or tying your shoes. But that way, you don’t need to worry about hitting record or having forgotten to do so before mounting your bicycle. All the footage is there, waiting for you in the mobile app previews and in high-resolution on the R1’s internal memory.
The company says that over time, it wants to improve the device’s shooting mode and photography capabilities, something it can do both through over-the-air updates for the drone and Skydio app, and in a later, general-run version of the hardware. Skydio won’t say when it plans on producing a successor of the R1’s Frontier Edition, as that’s contingent on establishing suppliers in China.
Yet Skydio has big ambitions for a future when its vision software can be packed into drones everyone can afford, and when the stigma around unmanned aerial vehicles as dangerous and silly has all but evaporated. That future is coming, and DJI is racing to be at the front of the pack for when the moment comes that mainstream consumers start considering drones as fun toys and secondary cameras, rather than silly and unnecessary investments. But with the R1, Skydio has proven that the intelligence of its software can really make a difference and turn even the most mundane of outdoor activities into an awesome aerial montage. It’s safe to assume DJI will match Skydio in time, but for now, the R1 is the autonomous drone to beat.
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