The world of drones is dominated by DJI but other manufacturers try to propose alternatives. After weeks of intensive use, here is a detailed review of the Autel EVO in comparison to the Mavic Pro.
The EVO is heavier and larger (1.9 pounds / 863 grams) than the Mavic Pro (1.62 pounds / 734 grams). The bundle doesn’t include a carrying case but Autel includes a 32 GB microSD card. The card can easily be removed from the right side of the aircraft. The drone is very well made and everything seems solid. Folding and unfolding the drone is very intuitive as the legs don’t cross each other.
The shape of the controller is somehow similar to the one of the Mavic Pro but there is one major difference: the screen of the controller is able to display the video directly without the need of a smartphone. This is a great feature since the connection between the controller and the smartphone can be a source for issues (disconnection, lag, instability) and some older phones don’t have enough power to run the flight app. That being said, the controller takes phones if necessary. In this case, the controller’s screen becomes a secondary display to indicate status information like the level of battery left.
The Charger and the Battery
The charger included in the bundle can recharge the drone battery and the controller at the same time. The smart battery of the EVO takes about 60 to 80 minutes to charge. As with DJI batteries, four LED lights indicate the energy levels left in the LiPo. Each additional battery comes at $85, which is similar to the Mavic Pro battery that costs $89.
Getting Started and Application
The first step is to download the Autel Explorer app on your smartphone (compatible with Android and iOS devices). Connect the smartphone to the controller, turn on the drone, and follow the steps in the app. Upon startup, the system will launch all the firmware updates via the smartphone and upload the files directly to the controller and drone. There is no need to plug the drone separately into a computer or load any files on the memory card. The whole process is hassle-free and takes place automatically in the air.
Flight Restrictions and Privacy
Unlike DJI, Autel doesn’t force you to log in or create an account to use your drone. Take note, DJI. Another difference from the DJI is the absence of no-fly zones, but the user can set up a maximum distance and altitude to create a custom geo-fencing perimeter. Personally, I salute this decision, since the no-fly zones can be a massive pain to deal with. DJI no-fly zones are not based on any coherent patterns (official Class A, B, C airspace for instance), and larger airports are not immune to drone flights with the DJI system. On the other hand, many DJI users find themselves blocked when they need to take off in the vicinity of a tiny local airport. The DJI unlocking procedure is annoying and the company’s response is not always fast. With DJI, I always have this annoying feeling that I don’t completely own my drone. In terms of maximum altitude, Autel is also generous at letting you fly your drone up to 2,600 feet (800 meters) while DJI limits its drone to 1,640 feet (500 meters).
The piloting experience is not that great with the EVO as the drone tends to be unstable in the air. Another issue is the ascent rate. The drone climbs very slowly even at full throttle. Surprisingly, the ascent rate increases significantly when engaging a rotation on the yaw axis (rudder command), which doesn’t make any sense on a flight dynamic standpoint. The only possible explanation is a glitch with the software or the flight controller.
The EVO can fly in windy conditions, but the stability of the frame is affected past 10 mph. Once again, the hardware seems capable to handle the winds, but the PIDs appear to be aggressively tuned as the drone reacts very abruptly.
Like the Mavic Pro, the EVO offers a sport mode called “Ludicrous” and I managed to reach a top speed of 40 mph (65 kmh) which is similar to the Mavic Pro.
Manufacturers tend to be optimistic to say the least with battery endurance. Autel is not the exception and the EVO will initiate a descent when the battery level reached 10 percent. In average, I was able to fly for about 22 to 23 minutes before hitting the 10 percent battery mark. This level falls short of the 30 minutes advertised by Autel. In comparison, the Mavic Pro can fly for 23 to 24 minutes.
Since Autel removed the 900 Mhz radio band from its drones, the range decreased dramatically. The EVO only uses the 2.4 GHz band but can’t compete with the OcuSync technology from the Mavic Pro. However, my range test shows that I could reach up 0.8 miles in a suburban area before having signal issues. The range is much better in the countryside. In any case, remember that FAA regulations require you to fly the drone within visual line-of-sight.
The EVO is equipped with forward and backward collisions sensors. Overall, the anti-collision system is effective and was able to detect fine foliage and tricky tree branches during my tests. When the drone approaches an obstacle, several warnings appear on the video feed with an indication of the distance of the obstacles (e.g., 10 feet / 9 meters). Past a certain point (6 feet / 2 meters), the drone will refuse to move forward and “push back” against the pilot command if you are on collision course. Surprisingly, the backward collision sensor doesn’t prevent a collision, it sees the obstacle but the pilot can still move backward and hit the obstacle. There is no “pushback” in this direction.
Intelligent Flight Modes
I never use the automatic flight modes, but the few modes available on the EVO work as advertised.
Sensor, Gimbal Stabilization, Image Quality, and Distortion.
Autel announced the EVO last January at the CES and said that it was possibility working on a one-inch sensor version. Six months later, the production unit is fitted with a tiny 1/2.8-inch sensor. At least, that’s what the customer support told me since the specification sheet of the camera on the Autel’s website is completely empty. There is also no indication about the focal length, but the EVO appears to use an ultra-wide focal. The EXIF data of the pictures indicates a 17mm focal length in 35mm equivalent.
The distortion is well corrected despite a little bit of barrel distortion and a mustache effect on the side of the frame.
Overall, the image quality is good. The footage is a little bit on the soft side but the colors are pleasing. As for dynamic range and low-light sensitivity, there is no miracle. The EVO comes with a tiny 12-megapixel sensor and I would never venture beyond ISO 400.
The major issue with the Autel EVO is the constant gimbal drift. Simply put, the horizon is always tilted and no amount of gimbal calibration will fix the problem. This issue has been widely reported on forums and Facebook groups. Personally, this level of drift is a massive deal breaker, especially when recording video.
Here are some of the average bit rates observed depending on the resolution and frame rate:
- 4K 30 fps, 60 fps and DCI: 100 Mbps
- 2.7K in 60 fps: 80 Mbps
- 2.7K in 30 fps: 60 Mbps
- 1080 in 120 fps: 80 Mbps
- 1080 in 60 fps: 60 Mbps
- 1080 in 30 fps: 45 Mbps
Exposure Control and Picture Profiles
The EVO offers good tools to assist the pilot with manual exposure. The EV indicator gives a general indication of the exposure while the Zebra can be turned on and off in the camera settings. The picture profiles can be customized but advanced users will certainly enable to flat Log profile in order to perform advanced color grading.
The 12-megapixel camera of the EVO produces 4:3 images (4,000 x 3,000 pixels) in JPEG or DNG files.
What I Liked
- Image quality and 4K60 recording without crop (4K30 maximum on the Mavic Pro).
- Built-in display in the controller (no need for smartphone or tablet).
- Adequate video bitrate of 100 Mbps in 4K and high bitrate in 1080 (versus 60 Mbps maximum on the Mavic Pro).
- No crop in video mode.
- No need to log in or to create an account to use the app (unlike DJI).
- Absence of no-fly zones and generous maximum flight altitude limit (2,600 feet / 800 meters).
- Includes a 32 GB microSD card.
- Good exposure assist tools (EV indicator and Zebra).
- Solid build.
What I Didn't Like
- Severe and constant gimbal stabilization problem on the roll-axis (tilted horizon).
- Overall instability of the drone.
- Much weaker radio transmission link compared to the OcuSync technology of the Mavic Pro.
- The real battery life (22 to 23 minutes) is less than advertised by Autel (30 minutes).
- Very slow climb rate due to a software issue.
- The programmable buttons on the back of the controller can’t be programed.
- Ineffective backward collision sensor (warns the pilot but doesn't stop the drone).
Conclusion: Wait for the Mavic Pro II
Based on the initial announcement in January 2018, the EVO should have been a serious challenger for the DJI Mavic Pro. Autel said it may implement a one-inch sensor in a Mavic-like drone. Six months later, the EVO came with a small sensor and this aircraft seems to have been rushed to the market as many features are not working correctly. Sure, the 4K60 video looks nice but the constant gimbal drift renders this footage unusable. The slow climb rate problem is clearly related to a software glitch while the programmable buttons on the back of the controller can’t be programed at all. Perhaps Autel will fix some of these issues with the next firmware upgrades, but DJI is going to release its new Mavic Pro II in a few days. At best, the EVO can compete in some areas with the first Mavic Pro but this drone shouldn't be very competitive in front of the Mavic Pro II.