3DRobotics Solo is a NoGo – 3DR Solo First Look
(Updated December, 2015)
Here is our newest take – on the virtual end of 3DR as a functioning consumer drone company (something which even they have admitted is true).
At Droneflyers.com we follow the world of consumer UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) very closely. In fact, we spend many hours each day flying, reading, emailing and otherwise soaking up and disseminating knowledge on this fast growing pursuit.
When 3DRobotics announced their new Solo quadcopter in April 2015, it set the drone world abuzz. The company claimed this model was FAR superior to any other camera/gimbal drone on the market.
The claims include these:
1. The world’s first smart drone
2. Can do anything any other drone does and more
3. Every other drone will be looked at as a toy by the end of the year.
4. Solo does 175 things better than other drones (presumably DJI, the market leader).
5. 3DR (maker of solo) will control the market instead of the current leader (DJI).
6. Cinema quality camera moves made easy – out of the box anyone can do it.
With claims like these – and many more, expectations were high for a truly groundbreaking product. The drone world awaited the launch of Solo – which was scheduled to be in stores in time for delivery to Dad by Father’s Day, 2015.
Then it happened…
The Solo was introduced with shortcomings and defects and not only lacks “smarts”, but in our opinion it is not ready for sale to the public for its intended use. Since we don’t want to write a book (yet) on the Solo, I’ll lay all the facts and opinions out and let readers make what they want of it.
Our Initial Thoughts on Solo (before release).
When all these claims were made about the Solo, we looked carefully at the specs and price. What we saw was a model which used the older fisheye (wide angle) GoPro cameras and seemed overpriced compared to the competition. Also, we were suspect whether 3DR, a company with no experience or history in consumer products, could bring even the basic model to market in such a way as to provide competition for the existing players. To put the price in perspective, here is a basic comparison of some of the popular consumer quadcopters:
1. DJI Phantom 3 Advanced – $1,000 complete with Camera and Gimbal.
DJI Phantom 3 Standard – $699 complete with Camera and Gimbal
DJI Phantom 3 Pro – $1269 complete with Camera and Gimbal
(note – some of the above are 100’s less during the Black Friday and Holiday Sales)
2. Yuneec Q500+ and/or 4K model – $1100-$1299including some extras such as case, camera gimbal hand holder, etc.
3. Blade Chroma – $1100-$1300 with Remote, tablet built in, camera and gimbal.
4. Parrot BeBop with Skycontroller – $899 – stabilized camera quadcopter
#1-#3 above are closer comparisons than the BeBop, however the Solo with a GoPro Silver and Gimbal would cost about $1700 – 50% plus more. That’s a big difference – BUT, if 3DR delivered a near-perfect machine it may have been worthwhile for a subset of buyers, especially those who already had a GoPro. 3DR offered a promise of a money back guarantee – unheard of in this business – as well as claiming they were setting up superior customer service. This was their ace-in-the-hole as market leader DJI is known for lacking in that department.
In summary, it was difficult to see what the advantages of the Solo were. Many of the claims lacked anything specific and were more PT Barnum than fact. At the same time we saw that 3DR had a loyal customer base and following. This may have allowed them to take 10% of market – which would represent up to 100,000 Solo sales in the next year…not bad for their first consumer drone!
After all the hoopla the orders piled in. 3DR as well as their vendors pre-sold thousands of Solos and the rumors were that up to 30,000 were going to be sold quickly…a nice start. Father’s day alone could represent thousands of initial sales – and pre-orders from existing drone pilots also added up.
Alas, the Solo and Gimbal were not available at the launch date – so 3DR made a fateful decision – to release the Solo without the stabilizing gimbal. In other words, they were selling a quadcopter without a camera or a gimbal – for the same price their competitors sell a complete unit. Additionally, the Solo – at any price – could not even be used for it’s intended purpose – which is stable video and perfectly framed pictures.
Without getting into a lot of the “inside baseball”, many customers were upset when some buyers walked into a BestBuy and purchased a Solo – while the Solo they pre-ordered from 3DR took an extra month or more to show up at their door. They were left wondering why they’d bothered to pre-order since they not only didn’t have a stable camera gimbal, but didn’t even have the Solo. Still – customers believed in 3DR and most did not cancel their orders. The Solos- minus the gimbals – started to be delivered, setup and flown.
And then the crashes and other problems started…..
Detailing all the problems with Solo would take too long – however, suffice it to say that a large percentage of the users have experienced problems. Many appear to be related to a very poor implementation of GPS. This is a very big deal since the entire idea of this machine is based on GPS. Without a perfect system all of the hyped features simply will not work. Worse yet, even basic flight will not work – something which can be verified by the large number of crashes, flips and other accidents.
Without a very reliable GPS – as good or better than other models currently available – the Solo becomes useless. In fact, it is worse than useless due to possible accidents and injuries as well as costly repairs.
Early on we (Droneflyers.com) guessed that the problem was with the GPS module being designed and installed incorrectly. Other similar quadcopters place the GPS in a small mast, bump or otherwise centered above the machine – so it can acquire GPS signals from all directions including very low on the horizon. In addition, other models use a dual GPS system which relies on both USA and Russian satellites to acquire a much better and more reliable signal. Solo uses only USA GPS and has hidden the GPS in a location where the battery may block the signal from various angles.
Users report difficulty in obtaining GPS and a loss of signal when they walk by Solo or when something as small as a single tree overshadows it. This simply does not happen with current reliable GPS technology. Some who are experienced in such matters have guessed the problem is RF leakage (radio signals from the circuit boards which usually are protected by cages and shielding). Others have speculated on the location of the antenna (see below). If the fix was simple 3DR would have done do by now (October, 2015 as I update this).
Some in the field had the following comments:
“3DR implementation of the uBlox 7 (GPS) and the Gp Patch antenna (GPS) is an inferior design” (Comment from industry consultant who had third party expert study Solo)
“Based on the geographical area that you were flying it appears t be caused by the trees surrounding your Solo that were “casting a shadow” over your vehicle” (comment from 3DR support Expert”
“a number of users have had crashes which are believed to be linked to the way poor GPS is being handled” (Comment from UAV web site blogger)
“I crashed my Solo yesterday I believe for a similar reason mind just went into a rogue vertical accelerated motion most likely GPS lost” (Solo pilot)
Although the GPS seems the largest deficiency, there are numerous other shortcomings in the Solo. Some are listed below:
1. Weak Wireless signals – causing dropout and very short range.
2. Low RTH (return to home) setting- it’s set at 49 feet and no adjustable by the user – this has resulted in many pilots running into trees and other obstacles when Solo goes into automatic RTH mode.
(slated to be fixed in an update soon – to allow user-adjustable settings)
-Update- new software release end August raises the default RTH to 25 meters-
3. Programming – there seem to be programming mistakes which cause more harm to the machine and potentially the public – a crashed or flipped Solo will continue to run its motors, causing motor burnout and other problems. Similar machines usually know when to shut off.
-Update – end August update claims to fix this problem – however, many are still claiming the “bunny hop” and flip when attempting to land in some situations.
It’s worth noting that most smartphones and other such devices have had “dual” GPS for a few years now and that experts in the field consider them much more reliable than single USA only. If you’d like to read a test from the founder of a leading GPS antenna company, check this link.
From the article: “Conclusion – The tests were stark in their results: GPS/GLONASS dual-system antennas definitively offer a noticeable improvement in accuracy and performance….dual-system antennas are clearly superior”
Despite these facts, 3DR insists that there is little or no advantage to the dual system.
These problems started surfacing immediately after the Solo launch and affected many of the first owners. Instead of stopping or delaying shipments, 3DR and their supporters took the attitude of BTC (Blame the Customer) and immediately started defending Solo and critizing the pilots who had issues. Even 3DR engineers jumped into the fray, agreeing online (Facebook, etc.) that some of their customers were “idiots” and should learn how to fly properly. This despite the Solo having been clearly marketed toward beginners – as well as clearly buggy in various ways.
Among the claims by 3DR related developers and fans were that the defect rate was .03% – a figure that would mean only 2 of the 4,000 Solos shipped were having problems. This despite the fact that dozens were reporting crashes and other problems even as only a few had been actually flown. The same defense continues to this day (July, 2015) as 3DR refuses to publically accept and state that the problems are not with the pilots – but with the hardware and software (and hype) of the Solo.
It’s one thing to miss the target of launching a successful drone – quite another to display unbounded arrogance in the face of facts. 3DR, IMHO, needs adult supervision.
Note: It’s often difficult to sort out the difference between 3DR employees and developers of the open source (APM) flight controller which is used in the Solo. However, some of the offending (customer blaming) employees have been identified online as the Lead Developers of the Solo itself – and are extensively quoted by some of the “fans” as saying this or that – which is then taken as gospel despite proof to the contrary.
The Gimbal – Continued
As stated above, the Solo was introduced incomplete and not capable of being used for the purpose designed – even if it had worked. Customers were led to believe that the Gimbal would be available soon after launch – a few weeks as most – and definitely by the beginning of the summer season. Instead of being honest with their customers, 3DR played the game of stringing them along – and this continues to the present. The first gimbal release dates were reportedly in late June. Then, when nothing surfaced, 3DR reacted by posting long rambling descriptions of the gimbal development process and claimed it would be shipped by late July – assurring customers that they had built a buffer into the time frame so that it should easily be done then or earlier. Late July has come and gone and the word from various sources now says the gimbal may not start to ship in quantity until Labor Day. New orders are likely to be delayed until October (factory now says 8 weeks for new orders)
-Update- some early hand-tooled gimbals have been shipped to a small percentage of Solo owners who will likely receive them and be able to fly before September 1.
-Update- Mass production of gimbals is slated to start in early or mid-September with new orders still likely being filled in mid to late October, 2016.
FINAL UPDATE – MASS PRODUCTION OF GIMBALS STARTED IN OCTOBER AND THEY ARE NOW AVAILABLE – ALTHOUGH THE GIMBALS HAVE PRESENTED SOME PROBLEMS WITH SHAKY VIDEO, ETC. – Do some research as to the micro-vibrations many users are experiencing.
Deceptive Advertising or just Marketing?
3DR is, IMHO, marketing the Solo in a “fool the customer” fashion. While exaggeration is nothing new in terms of this hobby the advertising of a drone at a MUCH lower price than what it takes to actual use it is. The Solo has been marketed and written about (due to 3DR produced PR) as costing $999. This is being done in an attempt to draw in buyers who would likely pass over the machine if they understood the real price – which is about double that amount. A Solo which is ready to take pics and videos and compare against other machines would be priced this way:
Extra Battery: $150
$1950. plus tax total
As one comparison, the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced would cost $1150 (plus tax) equipped with a camera, gimbal and two batteries as well as superior range and GPS. Other brands are in the same price $1200 price range.
The new DJI Phantom 3 Standard is very comparable to the Solo in terms of photo and video capabilities and would cost less than $950 with two batteries. Black Friday and Holiday Specials may take it down even lower.
Another marketing tactic we find appalling is the “stuffing” of reviews – that is, employees or “street teams” posting 5 star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere which attempt to fool the public. In addition, 3DR employees and related people are very active on Social Media – often not identifying that they have $$ or other connections – again, praising their product and acting as if they are members of the general public. 3DR is, most assuredly, involved heavily in this type of “marketing”. I use the word in quotes because this type of behavior could run the gamut from unethical to immoral to outright fraud (FTC, Amazon terms, their agreement with their investors, etc.).
They should stop this and stick to honest and above-board marketing.
It’s an open question as to whether the Solo will ever be truly successful as-is. The current investors in 3DR are well aware of the problems and are insisting on a machine which is capable of doing what 3DR claimed. We don’t to have a crystal ball – yet often the best indication of the future is gained by looking at the past. If 3DR released something this poor…who can lead them to produce something better? It seems not just a mistake or two – but a pervasive problem with their company.
The best advice we can give is to take another look in perhaps 6 months (early 2016) to see if vast improvements have been made. This is a view shared by many others in our field.
Sorry to say, Folks, but in our opinion Solo is currently a NoGo. Unless you want to spend your time hacking, modifying and discussing ways around the problems….as opposed to flying and taking stable video and amazing pictures….stay away from this bird for now. Even perfected, it would appear to mimic older technology and be overpriced as compared to competitors.
Other Models which are ready for Market and Use
If you desire a consumer-level ($400-$1500) Quadcopter which is equipped with a camera and gimbal and capable of taking stable videos and good pics, we’d suggest the following reading:
UPDATE November, 2015 – Gimbals are now being mass produced and delivered. Early owners have had problems with the gimbals of various sorts. As one example it turns out that you have to calibrate the Solo with the model facing north or things go haywire.
Full GoPro control – promised with the Solo back at release (May, 2015) is delivered in a current update as of late November.
Most of the Solo software is now up to date as based on the initial promises – that is, fuller GoPro control as well as a number of bug fixes. The hardware itself – or the combo of hardware and software – still appears to suffer from q/c (lack of reliability) problems.
As predicted, 3DR seems to have run its course in the consumer drone market. Sources indicate they built up large amounts of inventory in anticipation of the 2015 holiday season – and this inventory failed to sell. As of March, 2016 prices have been vastly reduced – some prices have the setup at almost 1/2 of the original list pricing. Even at this pricing it seems difficult for 3DR to compete against consumer quadcopters from DJI and Yuneec – as well as upcoming models for Autel Robotics and others.
3DR’s CEO has all but admitted that they are out of the consumer drone market. The company has reportedly laid off 60% or more of the work force and closed a number of offices. They have stopped taking phone calls for both support and sales – a very troubling sign from a company that based their entire marketing pitch on the best possibly customer experience.
In a strange twist, the Solo – a failed consumer quadcopter – is now being marketed as an “enterprise model” and being offered with bundled software at a subscription price in the thousands of dollars per year.
Our advice stands – do not consider buying this model. Formerly we suggested to wait until 2016 and look again – but recent events indicate that there may be no future for either 3DR or the Solo in terms of the consumer drone market.
Note – all drones can crash and are subject to bad and uneducated piloting!
You can find lots of negative opinions on any model online. The difference in terms of Solo is that so few have been produced and sold – so the number of negative experiences as a percentage seem much larger than the competition. As one example, there may be 35,000 Solo models being flown (March,2016) while 800,000 Phantom 2 and Phantom 3 models exist with 50,000+ more being sold each month.
Solo link below.