4 Autonomous Sports Drones for Extreme Photography

So you’re looking for a self-flying drone as extreme as the sports you’re into. It needs to be rugged, smart, versatile, fast, and ready to go at the touch of a button. Essentially, you want your sports drone to be a flying cameraman,  capable of shooting high-quality video while you focus on looking awesome.

But with so many sports drones out there tailored to outdoor enthusiasts, how can you know which one to choose? What separates an AirDog from a Hexo+? Are newcomers on the block, such as Staaker, worth the gamble? Should you bother getting a self-flying drone at all?

We’ll be looking at all these questions and more. But first, let’s take a closer look at the contenders in this space, as well as the drones set to hit the market later this year.

Hexo+

hexo sports drone

First up is the Hexo+. This drone shot to fame a couple of years ago during an extremely well-backed Kickstarter campaign. At the time, the thought of an autonomous drone catered to the extreme sports market was enormously appealing. Now, however, autonomous functions are becoming a standard across the industry. So what else does the Hexo+ offer, and should it feature in your plans to film your next adventurous trip?

The first thing we should mention is that the Hexo+ is one of those drones that doesn’t come with a built-in camera, instead relying on you owning a compatible piece of kit from GoPro. So you can add a few hundred dollars onto your budget depending on which end of the GoPro spectrum you want to purchase at.

The Hexo+ is the only drone in this list that’s actually a hexacopter. In theory, this should make it more stable to fly. It also means that your $1000 drone shouldn’t just fall out of the sky if one of the props fail.

In terms of features, the team behind Hexo+ has put in plenty of time into the auto-follow technology. With the touch of a few buttons, you can set up some pretty cinematic shots in the app. Functions include directing the drone to slide in or out with you as the focus, panning to follow you, orbiting your position as you roam, or hovering nearby or far away.

In line with the idea that this isn’t a sports drone, it’s a robotic film director, the Hexo is packed with framing and predictive tracking algorithms. These should ensure there are no sloppy shots with you out of the picture, and that your videos have a professional feel.

Obstacle Avoidance: No

Camera Included: Requires a GoPro

Battery Life: Approx 15 minutes

Price: Approx $1115

Top Speed: 45mph

Range: 300 feet

AirDog

airdog sports drone

Airdog

AirDog is another drone from the Kickstarter generation. Since its release, it’s been dubbed as the first true auto-follow quad for genuine extreme sports fans. Sure, other drones have included Follow-me functions, but this was arguably the first to make it the central focus.

To that end, AirDog promises to actually cater to the market of GoPro fanatics, not just force you into buying one. Instead of relying solely on an app or controller, AirDog is paired with a wrist-worn ‘leash’, which acts as both controller and GPS tracker. The leash is waterproof, ensures the drone knows exactly where you are, and gives you access to many of the drone’s functions without forcing you to take a controller, or even a phone, down the side of a mountain or into the ocean.

AirDog is a prime example of a company punching above its weight. The Latvian startup has put together a critically acclaimed piece of kit on what must be a fraction of the budget of competitors such as GoPro. On top of that, AirDog pushes further ahead of many rivals with the inclusion of downward facing Lidar sensors. These stop it from plummeting straight into the ground or water if you descend faster than expected. Sure, it’s a long way from genuine obstacle avoidance, but it’s certainly a feature that will prevent plenty of frustrating crashes.

AirDog recently put its drones to the test, filming a watersports competition in the UK and testing the company’s new Zipline camera feature.

Obstacle Avoidance: Partly

Camera Included: Requires a GoPro

Battery Life: Approx 18 minutes

Price: $1599

Top Speed: 42mph

Range: 800 feet

Staaker

staaker sports drone norway

Norweigan outfit Staaker recently launched a drone designed for the rugged outdoors market. It’s our first on this list that didn’t have to rely on crowdfunding to make it to market. The team at Staaker have labelled their creation as the “next evolution” of personal filming. It doesn’t just track your movement, they say. It predicts it.

To make this possible, Staaker is packed with clever computing and artificial intelligence. The result is a drone with a built-in barometer that CEO and founder OJ Seeland thinks will set the standard for the rest of the market. “Staaker will win any test against our competitors and we invite all of them to challenge us for a test or review anytime, anywhere. We will be there,” he said.

Again, Staaker depends on the user having a GoPro camera, although the company has suggested that it may produce its own in the future.

Its self-flying capabilities require just a small tracker with a start button. Choosing one of the drone’s follow features can be done through the wrist-worn tracker. You can choose one of three flight modes: Follow, Compass, and Scenery, depending on the type of footage you want to record. To get a detailed view of these modes you can visit the Staaker Youtube channel.

It’s currently available for pre-order, but potential buyers can be heartened by the fact that it’s gone through extensive testing around the world and has been adapted to survive extreme conditions. On top of that, it’s being constructed en-masse by Foxconn, the manufacturer responsible for many Apple and Microsoft products. Delivery of thos sports drone is expected in December 2016.

Obstacle Avoidance: No

Camera Included: Requires a GoPro

Battery Life: 30 minutes

Top Speed: 50mph

Price: Available for pre-order at $1195

Range: 1km

EHANG Ghostdrone 2.0

EHang Ghostdrone sports drones

EHANG is probably better known as the producer of the world’s first personal transport drone – the 184 – but the company actually has a range of decent camera drones too.

The Chinese manufacturer’s Ghostdrone 2.0 is, as the name suggests, the second iteration of the original Ghostdrone. The 2.0 is completely controlled through a smartphone or tablet application, which is perhaps worth bearing in mind compared to the tracking devices that come with its competitors. It tracks your locations through a pocket-sized transmitter called a G-Box, which you’ll need to have on your person. Although you’ll be putting your phone at risk if you want to shoot out at sea or ski down a mountain, having full control through an app does allow for a range of more complex functions at your fingertips.

One of those more complex elements includes gesture controls. A linked phone can be tilted or pointed to direct the drone in flight. Admittedly it appears to be pretty limited in what you can do, but it’s a great feature nonetheless.

Unlike its competitors in the extreme sports drone market, this UAV comes with a built-in camera. At least, it does if you choose to go for the $899 VR version, which also comes with a head-tracking virtual reality headset.  But for under $500 you could just buy the exact same drone minus the VR headset and built-in camera. Now we know what you’re thinking here: Oh I see, another camera-less drone forcing me to fork out for a GoPro. But wait. EHANG’s standard version of the 2.0comes with the company’s own 4K camera. With so many drones forcing pilots to by compatible GoPros this is a breath of fresh air, not to mention a huge bargain.

More good news for those of you considering a Ghostdrone. EHANG is currently selling them with a 12-month warranty, and offer free shipping and repairs should anything go wrong. No questions asked. As far as we can tell that’s an act of generosity you won’t find from any other manufacturer.

A final thought on the Ghostdrone? For the price you pay it’s a decent piece of UAV technology, especially if you go for the 4K option. The flight time and video are both strong positives, but users looking for anything beyond standard waypoint and follow features (ie those that want to create more complex flight plans and visuals) should probably look elsewhere.

Obstacle Avoidance: No

Camera Included: Yes!

Battery Life: 25 minutes

Price: $599 or $1099, for the standard Aerial 2.0 and VR versions respectively.

Range: Half a mile

Still to come in the world of sports drones…

Lily

Lily

There are two highly anticipated drones in this sector expected later this year. First up is the Lily drone, which rose to prominence after an incredibly successful crowdfunding campaign raised over $30 million dollars from backers. If the end result is what thousands of people have paid for, then this will be a waterproof drone that launches from your hand and is ultra-portable. The Lily will fly at a maximum speed of 25 mph, and has a flight time of around 20 minutes.

The GoPro Karma, on the other hand, is perhaps the most secretive consumer drone in the industry’s brief history. Nobody really knows what it will look like or what it will be capable of, although plenty of people have been making educated guesses based on GoPro’s promo videos and supposed leaks.

What we can say is that, at a time when GoPro’s finances aren’t looking too healthy, delaying the Karma for an extra six months was a bold tactical move. Whether that decision was made to take advantage of the festive period, or whether the company needed more time to hone new features, we’ll probably never know.

Should you bother investing in a sports drone?

This is an interesting question, and the answer will mostly depend on what you aim to use it for. There are plenty of drone pilots for whom actually flying a drone isn’t a priority. For many the drone is simply a means to an end, and that end is great cinematic footage. If you can direct its flight from the ground with the touch of a button, without even needing to take the controls, then these sports drones are perfect.

But here’s the thing. For any drone that claims to have been designed for one purpose, it needs to do that one thing really well. None of the drones we have outlined, for example, feature collision avoidance tech on the same scale as the top models from DJI and Yuneec.Crucially, Staaker aside, it’s also difficult to say whether the autonomous tracking functions are any more sophisticated than those of the Phantom 4 or Typhoon H.

Two areas where many of these sports drones excel are portability and how quickly they can be up in the air. This semi-spontaneous way of flying will appeal to true extreme sports fans.

But then there’s the issue of battery life. Most drone manufacturers are generous with their estimations of how long their birds will last in the air. That’s just a given. And sure, you can buy spare batteries, but for many the prospect of constant pauses for battery changes will make it harder to enjoy whatever extreme sport it is you’re doing. In effect this will turn extreme sports trips with your sports drone into footage expeditions, where the drone is actually the unintended focus. If this is inevitable, then why not spend a little more, or the same in some cases, and invest in something that offers a more complete aerial photography package.

The bottom line is this: If you’re going to invest heavily in a one-trick pony sports drone, maybe it’s best to wait a couple of years until all the problems have been ironed out, and the latest in obstacle avoidance is as commonplace as autonomous tracking has become today.

Sure, you’ll have plenty of fun with drones like Staaker, AirDog and the bargain Ghostdrone 2.0. But for now, DJI, Yuneec and even Parrot offer high-spec drones with better battery life and more versatile functionality.


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