The Solo Controller: A controller that’s smarter than most drones

There’s probably no better visual representation of the progression of drone technology over the last three years than this side-by-side comparison of controllers.

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One is visibly hard to use, with a complicated arrangement of mysterious sticks and switches in a schematic best describable as “porcupine slapdash.” The other is substantially simpler, cleaner and smoother. And the purpose is more clear, too: This button turns it on; this button makes it fly; this button brings it home; this button pauses it. And of course, the most obvious physical difference: the controller on the right has a phone clipped to it. Plus, what you can’t see, it’s got a 1 GHz Linux computer inside.

So: What’s happened and why?

When we set out to deliver the best imaginable aerial photography experience, we understood that the drone itself was only one part of that experience. The controller in your hands is your connection, both virtual and physical, to everything that happens in the sky, so it’s critical that it conveys that experience to you clearly and enjoyably. To that end, we approached designing the controller as an equal part of Solo, not a companion to it.

First we tackled the unfamiliarity problem, which is essentially a design problem. The Solo controller boasts an ergonomic design inspired by video game controllers, so it feels natural even to new users from the moment they pick it up. Then we plucked the porcupine and made all of the functions simple and clear: There are the traditional directional sticks; there’s power, fly, return home and pause. We had a good start.

But Solo isn’t just an RC helicopter. Solo does stuff. Cool, sophisticated and extremely useful stuff. Solo’s controller had to be able not only to execute those commands, but make them all clear, accessible and efficient for the user.

Again we took a cue from gamers and assigned all the camera and gimbal controls to paddles on each shoulder of the controller. On the left shoulder is a paddle for fine grain manual gimbal tilt control; on the right shoulder are two buttons for presetting gimbal tilt positions and a knob to adjust the speed of the gimbal’s automated sweep between those presets. Clicking the tilt paddle (left) starts or stops recording on the GoPro® and pressing both presets at the same time (right) snaps a photo.

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While this new level of gimbal control makes smooth and clean gimbal moves automatic and easy, it also presents a whole new set of information for users to manage. We had to find a way to convey this information without cluttering up the FPV feed or confusing users, so we built a color LED display right into the controller. This display has multiple screens — pre-flight; in-flight; and camera angle feedback — with clear graphics, so you always have contextual information about what’s going on in flight. This eliminates the need to interpret blinking lights on the copter to get vital flight information, and it’s even all supplemented with haptic feedback — a gentle vibration that alerts you about critical things like a low battery and confirms all “long-press” actions (takeoff, land, set a gimbal preset, etc.).

What you can’t tell about the controller just by looking is that it has its own 1 GHz computer inside. The computer powers a strong and secure WiFi network (3DR Link), which communicates with Solo and delivers HD video wirelessly to your mobile device with only 180 ms latency. The computer also powers a built-in HDMI port, making live broadcast to nearly any type of screen as simple as plugging in an HDMI cable.

Additionally, the computer allows the controller to record 500 parameters of flight data to its internal memory as you fly, 10 times every second. This last bit is important, because it means the controller also doubles as Solo’s “black box” — so even if you were to lose the copter in a volcano, you’d still have all the flight data in your hands. Submit the data to our customer service department wirelessly via the Solo app, and we’ll be able to go over your flight with you. If you lost anything due to system error — be it the copter, the gimbal or the GoPro — we’ll replace it for free.

This is smart. This is Solo.

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