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Linux-based 3DR drone features GoPro camera tricks

Apr 13, 2015 — by Eric Brown — 2,807 views

3DR launched a Linux-based “Solo” quadcopter starting at $1,000 that can beam HD video to a mobile app and take follow-me and selfie videos with GoPro cams.

The Solo quadcopter is 3DR’s first Linux-based Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and the first drone to directly control GoPro cameras and live-stream HD video to mobile devices, says 3DRobotics (3DR). The Solo has not just one Linux computer, but two. One is associated with the Solo’s Pixhawk 2 autopilot, and the other is in the ground controller, which communicates with both the Solo and a mobile app. Although, 3DR has yet to reveal full specs on the partially open source Solo, the company says that each computer runs Linux on a 1GHz Cortex-A9 processor.

3DR Solo
(click image to enlarge)

The Solo is now open for pre-sale at $1,000, although most buyers will probably go for the $1,400 package, which includes a $400 GoPro gimbal, but not the GoPro itself. The quadcopter will begin shipping May 29, at which point it will launch at 2,000 U.S. retail locations. Global availability will follow shortly.

Last October, when 3DR and the Linux Foundation announced the Dronecode Foundation as a community project for 3DR’s open source APM (ArduPilot Mega) autopilot platform, 3DR said it was porting Linux to APM. The port was first revealed in Erle Robotics’s hobbyist Erle-Copter, and it seemed only a matter of time before 3DR would reveal a Linux drone of its own.

Solo with controller (left) and from above
(click images to enlarge)

With the power of two 1GHz Linux computers interacting with each other via WiFi, the Solo is said to be more autonomous and easier to use than previous 3DR drones such as the microcontroller-based Iris+ quadcopter, which starts at $750, or the $1,350-and-up X8+ octocopter. (Considering Qualcomm’s support for Dronecode, the devices likely use Snapdragon SoCs.) The Solo can take off, return home, and land on its own, and the dual computers make it less prone to autopilot system failure, says the company.

The Solo can also wirelessly transmit HD video from a GoPro to an Android or iOS device from up to half a mile, with a claimed latency of 180ms. This is limited to 720p video, according to Engadget. Presumably, if you want to save higher-resolution video from GoPros such as the $130, 1080p GoPro Hero or 4K-ready, $500 Hero 4 Black, you would use the cameras’ own onboard storage.

Two views of the Solo controller
(click images to enlarge)

DJI, which leads the semi-autonomous prosumer drone market with its Phantom quadcopters, announced a similar wireless transfer feature last week when it unveiled the Phantom 3. The Phantom 3 is claimed to offer wireless transfers of HD video at up to 1.2 miles (see farther below).

3DR partnered with GoPro to hook into its cameras’ built-in capabilities. As a result, you can start and stop recording video while in flight, as well as quickly pre-program aerial camera shots called Smart Shots. The routines include a follow-me mode, as well as a mode that records video along a virtual track of waypoints. There’s also an orbiting mode that focuses on an object while circling it, and a selfie pre-set that focuses on the user as it backs up and away to create an establishing shot.

Unless you’re planning on adding your own camera mount, you will need the optional $399 GoPro camera gimbal, which keeps the camera image stable with under 0.1 degree pointing accuracy. The gimbal also charges the GoPro’s battery. Other cameras and mounts will be supported in the future.

Solo detail view
(click image to enlarge)

The 1,500-gram Solo is equipped with WiFi, GPS, and four 8809 KV copter motors. The Solo can fly 25 minutes without a camera or other payload, dropping to 20 minutes when you add the weight of the GoPro and its gimbal for a total of 1,800 grams, says 3DR. A “smart battery” function tells you when it’s time to head home.

Like most higher-end consumer drones, the Solo’s controller can fit an Android or iOS device to act as the display. The mobile app provides direct control over the Solo, letting you take still photos, and change settings such as FOV, frame rate, and exposure. It also delivers OTA firmware updates to the Solo.

Solo and controller PCB locations in green (left) and the Solo mobile app
(click images to enlarge)

The WiFi-enabled controller features a micro-HDMI port to let you feed live video to a monitor, FPV goggles, or other displays. The controller also has a tiny color display, as well as dedicated buttons and toggles that enable direct hands-on flight at relatively close distance. Haptic feedback is available, as well as a panic button that lets you immediately halt and hover the drone in case of trouble.

Previously, 3DR had said it might integrate a Linux- and Intel Atom based Intel Edison module in the Iris+ to act as a companion computer to the main Iris+ Pixhawk autopilot. On the Solo, however, Linux runs the whole show. The Solo can run apps developed with a recently released, open source DroneKit SDK and web API, backed by the Dronecode Foundation.

Unlike 3DR’s open source hardware and software UAV autopilot designs, which are backed by 3DR’s DIY Drones community, it appears the Solo hardware will not be fully open. The software is open source, however, and the UAV is built to be expandable by third parties.

A “Made for Solo” program will enable selected small companies to work directly with 3DR and its manufacturing partners to develop new accessories, says 3DR. Made for Solo partners will be able to build accessories for the Solo’s gimbal bay, accessory bay, and swappable motor pods with integrated speed controllers. In this way, partners can build plug-and-play gimbals or imaging devices as an alternative to GoPro, complete with “HD feed to Solo’s mobile app, full camera control, and even access to Solo’s computing power,” says the company.

The accessory bay will support devices like ballistic parachute systems, LED lighting systems, and optical flow indoor flight stabilizers, says 3DR. The motor pod interface might eventually support an upgraded propulsion system.

DJI’s Phantom 3
(click image to enlarge)

The Solo is certainly more accessible than its chief rival: DJI’s largely proprietary Phantom 3. DJI has kept the Phantom’s OS a secret, but several hackers have suggested in forum posts that that the Phantom 2, at least, is based partially on OpenWRT Linux. (See mentions here, here, here, and here.)

The Phantom 3 not only has more name recognition — it was a Phantom drone that crashed on the White House lawn — but it’s cheaper and has a few novel features of its own. The quadcopter ships with a built in HD camera and s gimbal for $999, or $1,259 for the 4K-equipped Pro version. In addition to matching or bettering the wireless transfer feature of the Solo, the Phantom 3 adds a vision positioning system to help it navigate when GPS reception is poor. Yet, the Phantom 3 lacks built-in waypoint, follow-me, circling, or selfie video modes, and doesn’t support GoPro. According to The Verge, the Solo was the brainchild of former DJI exec Colin Guinn, now Chief Revenue Officer at 3DR.

Solo in action

Further information

3DR’s Solo is now available for pre-order at $1,000, or $1,400 with GoPro gimbal, at B&H as well as DLSR Pros. 3DR is offering a 30-day money-back guarantee, as well as a free replacement if Solo breaks in flight. It will ship on May 29, and go on sale at 2,000 locations in the U.S. Global sales will launch in June and July.

More information may be found at the 3DR Solo press release and the Solo product page.

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