The idea didn’t hit us on the head like Newton’s apple. It didn’t come to us in a dream like “Yesterday” to Paul McCartney. It didn’t fly forth fully formed from Chris Anderson’s head like Athena from Zeus.
In fact, it wasn’t an idea at all. It was just a solution.
When we set out on the path to Solo, we knew the problem that our next drone must solve wasn’t just to make flying easy, it was to make the entire experience of owning and using a drone easy and enjoyable. Effortless flight is no small part of it, but addressing the entire experience is — to state the obvious that wasn’t at first so obvious to us — a much, much bigger task. The more we stepped back and began to realize how much bigger we had to think, the more clearly this demanded a bigger solution.
To be exact, two 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9-powered computers running Linux, one on the copter and one in the controller. And they’re not there just for show. They run the show.
The computer onboard the copter can handle high-end processing during flight, which means Solo can execute highly-advanced and customizable flight scripts that are incredibly easy to set up in real time. For you this means we can deliver real time creation and capture of “the shots you want” (Smart Shots) — which can even be fully automated. When you’re ready, just press “play” on the app and Solo will get the shot for you — like a faithful golden retriever that fetches incredible cinema-quality aerial footage. Simply repeat until you have all your shots. In short, computer processing allowed us to take autonomy far beyond the autopilot.
And because the computers can run all the high-end processing, the autopilot itself (the powerful Pixhawk 2) doesn’t actually have to work hard at all. This means that Solo is much less likely to have a firmware freeze during flight, even while running exceedingly complex scripts. In other words, by putting a companion computer onboard the copter we saw we could greatly reduce the likelihood of the dreaded “flyaway.”
Helpful brain science-y analogy: You can think of these computers as Solo’s “frontal cortex” — the most advanced part of the brain. They handle all of Solo’s high-level functions, like flight scripts, Smart Shots, HD video transmission and exclusive GoPro® control features. The autopilot — traditionally a drone’s only nerve center — now works sort of like Solo’s “brainstem,” responsible solely for the basic rudiments of flight. By splitting up the work like this, Solo not only dramatically reduces the likelihood of mechanical failure in flight but opens up a world of possibility for adding advanced capabilities and features. Most importantly, it means that flight control is the equivalent of Solo’s reflexes: You now have a frontal cortex available to you; you now have creative control.
The controller’s computer powers 3DR Link, the WiFi connection that delivers crystal clear live HD video straight from the copter to your mobile device, with no cables needed at all. 3DR Link is powerful and secure, strong enough to provide remarkably slim video latency — only 180 milliseconds, with ranges up to half a mile. This same computer powers an HDMI output port on the controller, which you can use to connect Solo to almost any type of screen you can think of — all without losing or compromising the quality of the live HD feed on your mobile device.
The bigger picture
However, in order to consider the entire experience we also had to recognize that drones are flying objects that are working to defy gravity — which is to say that sometimes things can go wrong. We wanted to be sure that we could take care of our customers in any situation, even if the drone itself is gone.
To do this, we equipped Solo with its own flight journal: Its processing power enables it to automatically log over 500 flight parameters 10 times per second in flight. And thanks to the computer in the controller, all of these logs are saved in the controller, instead of on the autopilot, as is the case with other drones. This is important to you in that no matter what happens to the copter, even if in a “goodbye cruel world” fit of passion (uncommon to the traditionally dispassionate binary robot psyche) it flies itself into a volcano, you always hold Solo’s “black box” in your hand — if anything goes wrong, you’ll always be able to show us the official record. And to truly ease the pain of a customer who experienced a problem, we even made Solo a little self-aware — able to auto-detect when something’s gone wrong, prompting you to submit a service ticket from the app with a single tap. This uploads the flight data and allows our Support team to work through the problem with the end user. And if you’ve lost anything due to a system error — be it the copter, the gimbal, even a GoPro — we’ll be able to see it, and we’ll reinstate it all for you for free.
Finally, and in many respects most importantly, Solo’s high intelligence overhead also allows us to easily incorporate great new features and innovations going forward. These will be available to you in the form of free software updates, future accessories such as optical flow, LED spotlighting and a ballistic parachute system, and even new gimbals from us or third parties, so you can use your Solo to fly different cameras — all without having to buy a new drone. In other words the Solo you buy now isn’t just a one-off product, the first in an ever-expanding series of integers — it’s a platform whose value will only increase as technology improves.
Because the computer technology we’ve baked into Solo allows us to innovate quickly, and because we have the strongest drone developer community in the world, Solo will be advancing rapidly. This means Solo’s smart technology will pay huge dividends for everyone down the road, from developers to companies to consumers. Its intelligence gives us the ability to unlock future technologies — everything from a next-gen Follow mode to machine vision and true artificial intelligence. And because we keep huge parts of our technology totally open, developers anywhere can contribute to Solo, which is the most compelling and accessible hardware instantiation of 3DR’s industry-leading software platform. And as the platform leader, we can enable small companies with great ideas to work directly with us and our manufacturing partners on developing and launching fantastic new accessories — hence our “Made for Solo” program. Not only does this make it easy for anyone to test and create new technology, it makes it easy for these companies to get onto our retail partners’ shelves and into your Solo.
So, yes: Computers. We’re truly only seeing the very beginning.