The Skydio R1 is a real drone in the true sense of the word because we somehow seem to miss the line between an actual drone and an RC (remote controlled) flying device.
While an RC quadcopter needs manual control, the drone is supposed to be a self-flying machine not dependent on any direct control, and that’s exactly what the Skydio R1 is – a fully autonomous drone.
Come to think of it, there aren’t too many drones out there that really live up to what they publicize.
That’s, however, not the case with the Skydio R1, for sure.
Yes, the R1 is a truly self-flying self-navigating drone, not without its limitations, though, which we’ll look at a bit later here.
The main purpose behind developing this drone was to provide consumers with a flying machine that was basically a flying camera, with the ability to fly unaided while filming a subject that could be walking, running, or even cycling for that matter; and, it seems that the ex-MIT team has hit the bull’s eye with this one – well, almost.
To put it simply, computer vision is what the drone uses to achieve that autonomy, processing images from its thirteen cameras to track a given subject, rather than using wearable devices, or Lidar sensors for the purpose, as we have seen on a couple of autonomous drones in the past.
Out of those 13 onboard cameras, the one on the nose of the R1 is the subject-tracking camera. It is mounted on a three-axis gimbal, which not only allows it to move as it tracks its subject but also gives it the steadiness required for the perfect footage.
While drones like the Mavic Pro and the Phantom 4 also boast subject tracking capabilities, they are definitely not in the same league as the R1, largely due to the fact that it has a number of tracking modes, including a standard follow mode, tripod mode, side-tracking mode, orbit mode and lead mode.
When the R1 is set on the Follow mode, it flies behind its subject, maintaining a steady distance all the while, which it manages with the help of the other onboard cameras that provide depth perception, in addition to other data.
In the Tripod mode, the R1 hovers in one place as it tilts this way and that to keep its subject centered on the frame, as the gimbal-mounted nose camera pans around.
The first-of-its-kind Side-Tracking Mode allows the R1 to track its subject from a side-on position relative to the target.
And, then, we have the Orbit Mode, which, as we have seen on other drones, is a mighty impressive feature that produces awesome footages, giving a 360-degree perspective, as it flies around its subject repeatedly.
What’s impressive about this mode is the fact that all this is happening while the subject is not static – he can be walking, running or cycling – which effectively means that the drone is continuously adjusting its distance from the target, as it moves from behind it to its side, front, the other side and back behind.
Last, but not by a long shot the least, is the Lead Mode. It is definitely the most impressive feature of the R1 – a technical ingenuity, if you will – which allows it to fly backward as it faces and shoots its subject.
What’s even more impressive is the fact that it can even anticipate sudden changes in the trajectory of the subject; for example, a sudden turn will not take the R1 by surprise.
At least the tests done on it show that the moment you make a sudden turn, it swings into action in its attempt to be in front of you all the time it’s in that Lead Mode.
Of course, all of this would not have been possible without the obstacle avoidance system supported by 12 cameras all around the R1.
There are two pairs on each flank, with two cameras on top of the drone and two underneath it, making it a total of 12 – the 13th being the gimbal camera just discussed.
All these cameras work in harmony to create a 3D mapping of the surroundings, providing the drone with the depth perception needed to avoid obstacles.
It’s a complex process where data from all those 3D maps are processed in fractions of seconds to create a virtual image of the drone’s surroundings, thereby enabling it to plan its trajectory as it flies through that particular scenario, successfully avoiding not only static objects but also moving obstacles, like a person, for instance.
So, if you’re passing through an area with too many trees, the drone will expertly and gracefully maneuver around them; not only that, it can even duck below, or rise above, low-slung branches.
While the R1 does have the ability to avoid moving objects, it is found wanting when it comes to avoiding smaller or faster objects, like for example when a basketball is thrown at it or when a car suddenly comes in the way.
Moral of the story: Don’t use it in traffic!
Now, let’s talk about some of the not-so-good facts about the Skydio R1.
While we’ve seen, so far, that it tracks pretty well in whichever mode it is set, but the fact remains that product tests have shown that there can be scenarios when the R1 clearly struggles.
The R1’s top speed of 25 mph is decent enough to track a walking or even a fast running subject, but when it comes to tracking a mountain biker on a hilly terrain, as one test proved, the drone’s shortcomings are exposed.
It had a tough time trying to maintain that steady distance between itself and the biker, as he rode the more than bumpy terrain, probably because of a lot of things happening all at once, like avoiding trees, adjusting its position to the unpredictably varying speeds of the biker, and perhaps other factors as well.
All this is sure to affect the quality of the footage; there will certainly be that rubber-banding effect on the videos, if nothing else, as the distance between the drone and the subject fluctuates.
Another limitation of the R1 is that it struggles to maintain its performance level under certain lighting conditions.
While it may be normal for it to not work very well in low light situations, and, of course, in darkness, the Skydio drone loses the plot even in light and shadow situations like hilly areas where you can be hidden from the sun one moment and be under its glare, the next.
Also, other than changing the frame rate, the R1 doesn’t afford the options for exposure and shutter speed control in the manual settings.
However, when the R1 is all systems go, it is the best there is out there today when it comes to tracking and filming a subject with such versatility – producing breathtaking footages in the bargain.
The tracking camera has a pretty decent field of view, wider in fact than the GoPro – which actually makes a lot of sense when you consider that it needs that kind of view field to be able to successfully keep its subject centered in the frame.
While the R1 does boast a 64 GB onboard storage, expandable storage is not an option on the drone.
The Skydio R1 comes with two batteries, with an advertised flight time of 16 minutes on a single charge; however, tests have shown that 12 to 14 minutes is what you get before you have to bring it back to terra firma for a recharge.
The app control for manual operation of the drone is pretty handy, designed for one-handed flight control.
At $2,500 it’s certainly not cheap, but not a bad buy either, if you can afford it.
Let’s put it this way: I would have gone for it if I could.