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Drones are everywhere, and it is easy to see why. At almost all budget levels the availability of aerial photography has revolutionized the way we can shoot and convey visuals to an audience. For those of us involved in small to mid-sized video production, there is also the possibility for a good drone to reduce our reliance on single purpose rigs.
For instance, a well-flown drone can often replace a jib or crane. While there will always be circumstances that justify the heavier equipment for run and gun scenarios or those with a small crew? The ability of a drone to get those shots is priceless.
This is a first impression pre-purchase discussion of two new drones that are shaking things up. No one here has been part of any pre-release program nor were we shipped “hands on” units. The goal of this post is not an exhaustive spec-by-spec comparison, but a broad-strokes overview of the features and concerns that keep coming up in our discussions with peers.
While drones have made huge inroads, there still hasn’t been a “breakthrough” model. Despite the fantastic machines available, there is no single platform that has taken the industry by storm. I say this despite the de-facto dominance of the various DJI models. It is for this very reason that we have held off purchasing our own drone inventory and opted instead to rent them as needed. That way we did not need to “marry” any specific model or platform but could await developments. What might be the features of a breakthrough drone and do either of our contenders hit the mark?
The Gorillas in the Room
There have been two superstar companies in the world of run-and-gun video production. GoPro who make the most popular and useful go-anywhere-do-anything camera units available and DJI who make the most ubiquitous series of drones.
It is useful to remember that for a while these two companies complemented each other. Flying GoPro cameras on DJI Phantoms is where many of us got our first real look at the future. This separation of concerns was good for all concerned as at the time neither company had the resources to become a first-class contender in both spaces.
Small wonder that DJI broke rank first.
While no serious contender has emerged to challenge GoPro (sorry Contour, you’re just not in the game anymore) drone building has become an enthusiast hobby all it’s own. It is much, much easier to find a drone that isn’t a DJI to fulfill your needs than it is a useful camera that isn’t a GoPro to fly on it. DJI has since gone on to ship many increasingly sophisticated cameras on their drones. The only problem? Getting a camera right is hard. Even the latest examples of these cameras are plagued with hardware and software issues.
What you see now is the inevitable result of these two companies circling each other. Both DJI and GoPro wish to be in charge of their destinies and controlling both sensor and flight platform will be a significant advantage. For the first time, DJI and GoPro go head to head and the resulting products tick most of the boxes we identified as a requirements to be a breakthrough including price.
The GoPro Karma
The first impression you get from the Karma is that GoPro completely “gets it.” The enthusiasm of everyone at GoPro around the project is infectious and there is an indefinable connection between the company and their intended audience that just inspires you to try out for the X-Games. You feel like GoPro “gets it” and put a lot of thought into how to make your life easier.
The Karma itself is inviting with a friendly Wall-E quality. It begs you to go out and do something exciting that is probably a little more dangerous than you expected. The price looks good, the included backpack is nice and the addition of a removable gimbal to form a hand-held stabilizer is a happy surprise.
Every conversation I have had that talks about the Karma seems to touch on the following items…
Pro: Independent Camera
The Karma is optimized for the Hero 5 camera, held in a clamp/mount that allows it to be easily removed. This is a huge advantage. Because many video productions make use of GoPro cameras having sensor commonality between your drone and ground footage along with easy access to spare cameras in case of malfunction cannot be overestimated as a potential shot-savor.
When the Hero 6 lands in the future? Your Karma should be able to handle the upgrade without any issue unless GoPro somehow loses their minds and does something stupid.
Pro: Removable Gimbal
In another example of how GoPro was thinking ahead, you can pop the gimbal off the drone and attach it to an included powered handle and wind up with a powerful stabilizer when not in flight. We already own hand-held and mountable gimbals for GoPro cameras but the ability to replace them with a unified OEM solution is a strong enticement. This also means less gear to carry, fewer cameras to lug around and a lot less time wasted playing grip resulting in more time shooting.
As a bonus, in the event of a crash, the gimbal should be able to be replaced if damaged without needing to service the entire drone. GoPro seems to have built the Karma with in-field part replacement in mind and this is just one more example of that.
Pro: Software Flight Assistance
While there is not a lot of detailed information, there does seem to be a number of software features allowing you to setup shots in advance with the unit smoothing the path between waypoints.
Pro: GoPro Care
A service plan with priority support access up to and including replacement of the drone in its entirety (replacement has a $199 fee).
Pro: GoPro’s Reputation
Let’s be honest; GoPro is just a company you rarely need to deal with after you buy their gear. Their stuff for the most part just works. The cameras are durable, the software is reliable and when they upgrade the firmware I never worry about being left with a brick.
The few times that post-sale support was needed? Every single customer support interaction I have had with GoPro has been stellar.
Pro: Passenger Mode
Getting the right shot from a drone can be a challenge when you have to simultaneously pilot the platform and frame the camera. Out of the box the Karma includes the ability to slave a smartphone to the controller allowing a second operator to easily handle the camera while the first keeps the drone on target.
Pro: Included Controller with Built-In Screen
You don’t have to pay extra for the controller and it comes with a dedicated video display. While other drones allow you to sync your mobile device to the controller for video monitoring in the field it is incredibly useful to have a dedicated one. This allows you to easily hand the device to another operator without also handing them your cell phone with all the communication and privacy concerns that entails.
Con: No Flight Assistance Hardware
The Karma lacks many of the sensors that have helped DJI create stable, solid indoor performance. There are no downward looking cameras, no collision avoidance sensors etc.
Con: Limited Utility Indoors
I won’t lie, this hurts. A key aspect of being able to use a drone in an all-around capacity as a shot platform is being able to fly it indoors. Without the hardware needed to support it flying the Karma indoors will be a much less comfortable experience than it should be. This is where GoPro’s lack of experience in this space shows through.
Con: No “Follow Me” Functionality
I have mixed feelings about this. Not having it seems like a massive oversight that makes you wonder what the heck GoPro was thinking in this area to drop the ball so completely. On the other hand, the follow me functionality available on other drones is buggy, unreliable of often not worth using.
Doesn’t keep me from really wishing GoPro had included the option.
The DJI Mavic
If I am being honest, my first impression of the Mavic is one of cautious optimism coupled with the same sort of attraction I have to camera lenses and really well-made guns. Where the GoPro implies it might be a nice day to go sky-diving the Mavic wants you to find a supercar and hit a mountain road at 200 MHP.
The Mavic too thus expresses the core relationship of the company to its audience. The folks over at DJI have been reaching up from the smaller indie market that gave them birth to the beckoning world of Hollywood. The decisions all seem a just a little more aimed at the production that will have 3 or 4 of these instead of the crew that will only have one. These are the points that always seem to enter any discussion of the Mavic…
Unknown: Video Quality
While the cameras from DJI often have their quirks, there is no denying that they have produced some incredible imagery. The sensor in the Mavic is smaller and softer than that in the Phantom 4 but DJI sensors traditionally have a slight edge over the GoPro. What is currently unknown is how this will stand up against the Hero / Session 5.
Pro: Incredibly Compact
The Mavic is smaller than the Karma and significantly smaller than any comparable drone. It is eminently portable and looks easy to pack and protect.
Pro: Advanced Assitance Hardware
The Mavic includes a number of sensors that exist solely to allow the onboard computer keep itself stable and out of trouble. Both positional and obstacle sensing should greatly enhance your ability concentrate on getting the shot you want indoors or out.
Pro: Strong Indoor Utility
Along with the advanced hardware comes some great software. Combined the Mavic should be an easy to fly, stable indoor performer. If it works as they claim (and there is that DJI if again) we should be able to do away with jibs, cranes, and sliders in a number of situations.
Pro: Protected Gimbal
The Mavic has the option to cover the entire camera / gimbal mount with a plastic dome. In the event of a crash this should enhance the survivability of this mechanism. A good thing since the gimbal is fully integrated and not easily replaced like the one on the Karma.
Not only is the battery larger than that on the Karma, but the control system claims a huge range increase. While the real world performance will vary I think expecting 1 to 1.5 miles is a very safe bet.
Pro: DJI Care Refresh
It seems like all of our devices these days have an available service plan, and the Mavic is no different. The plan will help you get priority service and greatly help with the cost of a replacement if that is needed. I need to put in the DJI if here again… it will help with service if DJI comes through on their promises.
Pro: Advanced Subject Tracking / Follow Me
This is the real killer feature and also the largest question mark. DJI has been working on this in previous drones and it just never really was as reliable as I needed it to be. The concept is game-changing and if they can nail it? This will have a dramatic impact on the economics of our shoots in addition to their quality.
Pro: OEM FPV Goggles
One of the features announced by DJI is a first-party FPV capability with their own goggles. This is a big advancement if they pull it off well. While it will no doubt be possible to rig up a pair of Fat Shark‘s to the Karma many productions will prefer a well tuned OEM solution.
Con: The Controller
The controller is optional as the system allows you to use a WiFi link from your mobile device. Still, the controller does not include a screen of its own but requires you to slave a phone or tablet. The last thing I want to do if I have to hand off control to another operator is spend hours without access to my phone because it is out and about with the second unit. In practice this means we will wind up putting a dedicated mobile device in our kit for the Mavic, adding to its price and lowering its portability.
Con: Integrated Camera
The camera on the Mavic will need to be awesome because you’re stuck with it. If it is damaged, develops issues or has any inherent flaws there is nothing to be done in the field. You will probably not be carrying spares either even if you are willing to do the replacement.
Con: Integrated Gimbal
Leaving aside that this integration means no included hand-held option. Stabilized gimbals are among the more delicate and fault prone parts of any drone and if the Mavic develops a problem in this area the whole drone is grounded until you can get servicing. Unlike the Karma, DJI can’t just FedEx you out a replacement part, nor will you likely be able to purchase spares.
Con: DJIs Reputation
Obviously, the reputation of a company is a fluid and somewhat subjective thing. Different people will have different experiences and this will color how they perceive the accounts of others as well. No doubt the majority of customers are very happy with DJI and the Ronin-M we own performs like a champ.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to be around drone users long to run into tales of bad experiences with DJI support. This is exacerbated by hardware issues such as the heat issues suffered by the Osmo camera or stress cracks in some Phantoms. In no way does this disqualify DJI entirely but it should be something to research and satisfy yourself about.
It’s tempting to cop out by saying that we now have two breakthrough drones and that you would be able to justify making either choice. I could explain that both are solid tools and you will have to make your own decision based on their differences. I could tell you we still need more information, that you should wait until there are more reviews and footage comparisons.
That’s all true… but it’s avoiding the question you want to have answered. What to pick?
If I were spending budget right this minute I would swallow my concerns and recommend the Mavic; the indoor functionality is simply too compelling to ignore. Right after that, I would be on GoPro’s website ordering our new Hero 5 cameras and associated gear, including their stabilizer.
When more information comes in or we get hands-on time this could all change. It may turn out that the Hero 5 sensor is head and shoulders above the DJI or that the Karma flies better indoors than I think it will. Alternately DJI follow-me function may turn out to be brilliant and cement my choice. You have not heard the last on this as we will be discussing it soon on the podcast. Additionally, when we have the opportunity to go in-depth with either or both of these we will be providing some video.