Hands-On with a Pre-Production Vantage Robotics 'Snap' Drone: The One I Wish I Always Had

First, second, third, and fourth generations of several companies’ drones are now out on the market. But it’s only as we head into 2016 that the drone race is really on and that all the other possible players with their collectively interesting ideas who might have lagged behind a little are now crossing the halfway point. That race won’t end anytime soon, as the consumer drone market’s innovation is only picking up. I caught up with Vantage Robotics Co-Founder and CEO Tobin Fisher on a beautiful San Francisco morning on Crissy Field, where he let his company's new 4K drone, “Snap,” do just that.

Available for pre-order at a discounted price of $895, with a promise to begin shipping in spring of 2016, Snap is well on the path to providing the best combination of image quality, weight, price, and most importantly for its segment, portability. The genius behind the device is its incredible modularity, combined with a lightweight, user-safe design that breaks apart and folds the largest part (the four propeller/motor units known as "Tensegrity Pods") in half once the main body, or fuselage, detaches magnetically. Snap packs minutely enough that it could fit into my girlfriend’s purse. Whether or not I could convince her to carry it for me is another matter. But the point is: this device breaks down into a package smaller than a DJI Phantom, without the need for a specialized case for transport. Meanwhile, it still packs the same photographic punch as a GoPro Hero4 with a Sony Exmor IMX 377 1/2.3" sensor, supporting 30fps at 4K and 120fps at 1080p, not to mention that it's fully gimbal-stabilized with Vantage Robotics’ own in-house, miniaturized design.
The unique design of the Tensegrity Pods protects users by enclosing the propellers in a cage designed after a spark of inspiration from the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Because of this feature, bumping into the drone or catching it from a funny angle won’t end in a trip to the emergency room. Moreover, the general public is naturally protected from your potential loss of control... but that will never happen, right? The cage-like, carbon-fiber-strengthened design of the pods, combined with MagConnect technology that allows parts to break away during impact to distribute kinetic energy help better protect Snap on impact, increasing the likelihood that you’ll be snapping Snap back together in no time should you not see that light post. And of course, 720p streaming from the smartphone app for monitoring purposes is a standard feature; so, hopefully, you will be watching where you're going to avoid a collision in the first place.
With an automatic ground avoidance system, Snap shouldn’t be crashing into much of anything, however. One of many additional attachments available in the future will allow for full obstacle avoidance in any direction. Another such module should extend flight time to up to an hour. And the list goes on along with your imagination...

Vantage Robotics CEO Tobin Fisher shows me the range of mobility on Snap's gimbal, which was less on this prototype than the 40 degrees it will eventually be able to rotate in its final version.

With a 4.9:1 power ratio, Snap has enough power to take on 20 m.p.h. winds and fly up to 30 m.p.h. Increased motor efficiency in a recent design change allows for a relatively generous 20-minute flight time, too. In an automatic mode, Snap will be able to fly at least 2,000 meters from your position with enough power to return. The only thing limiting this capability in manual flight is the fact that you lose sight of the drone at 150 meters.
There’s simply nothing like watching the drone fly and react in person, however. I witnessed a prototype model in action for this demo, led by Vantage Robotics CEO Tobin Fisher, with a few kinks still left in the software and with a simple test camera in place of what will eventually be the high-quality 4K camera for the release version. But aside from these differences, the way the drone reacts and responds to input from your iPhone (smartphones, Bluetooth controllers, etc. will all be compatible input devices) is incredibly intuitive. With an awareness of where you stand at all times, whether or not Snap is pointing at you, away from you, or to the side, tilting the iPhone towards yourself, away from yourself, or in any direction always flies the drone in that direction. Should you want to change the type of flight to create an automated flight path of any kind, creating a “Mission” is simple and straightforward within the app, with features to tell Snap exactly how far you want it to fly in which direction and at what altitude, while also dictating how it records your subject.

Just as with all drones, they start to disappear if they go too far. We kept ours within the confines of the park for safety and demonstration purposes, but Snaps automated flight "Missions" are able to aid with out-of-sight flight.

I am personally always amazed with just how much and how well modern drones can stabilize an image. With limited digital image stabilization, Snap does most of the heavy lifting with its custom, rather tiny gimbal that takes measurements 7,000 times per second. That number eases my fears about the ability of Snap to take unwanted motion out of the image before it can even hit the sensor. But it’s Snap’s cantered pods that help even before the compensation provided by the gimbal. With each motor and propeller segment angled slightly toward the middle of the structure, Snap gains a remarkable amount of added stability during flight, which helps when considering its relatively light weight and compact form (still, Snap felt extremely sturdy in the hands and not at all like a plastic structure as I had imagined). A custom controller using technology otherwise only found in much more expensive drones aids by enabling extremely fast motor response to changes in wind.
With Snap’s unique combination of high quality 4K video, compact size, easy portability, and low price, Vantage Robotics is out to give the budget-friendly industry leaders something to fear. It’s certain that the increased ease of travel with this device is enough to sway a good number of people to consider it over the competition.

On San Francisco's Crissy Field, Vantage Robotics CEO Tobin Fisher holds Snap up after putting it together in seconds from parts he pulled out of a typical backpack.

For just a few more days, until September 22nd, Snap can be pre-ordered for $895. After that, any orders will start at $1,295. Both of those numbers include the same Snap drone with the Tensegrity Pods and fuselage with built-in 4K camera and removable battery (it attaches in a fraction of a second via magnets - quite neat to see in practice). So, if you're at all interested, now is definitely the time to lock in what is essentially a 30 percent discount. With luck, I’ll be able to see a bit more of the device in person as it develops further before its final release in spring of 2016.
Adam Ottke's picture

Adam works mostly across California on all things photography and art. He can be found at the best local coffee shops, at home scanning film in for hours, or out and about shooting his next assignment. Want to talk about gear? Want to work on a project together? Have an idea for Fstoppers? Get in touch! And, check out FilmObjektiv.org film rentals!

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does it fly?

Any test footage?

Just updated with their promo video and a few extra images.

I like, but why is the "Micro SD Max capacity" only 64 GB? and any price guesstimates for the extra batteries?

I'm not sure why 128GB cards aren't supported, exactly; but I will look into this. In either case, I think 64GB will be more than enough for just about anyone since you should be fine shooting 4K for various takes with breaks every 20 minutes to change batteries anyway (it should make a number of trips just fine with that amount of memory).
I know the battery should cost around $60, but these things are still in development, so that could change. But it definitely won't be too crazy like some couple-hundred-dollar batteries out there...

Thanks Adam! Any luck finding out this info before the pre-order offer ends tomorrow? 128 GBs will be key when they finally release the "Thrust Modules" with 1 hour flight time. :)

Good question David. We're working now to see if we can increase this limit. It's amazing how fast one can go through 64 GB with 4K!

Also - we have decided to extend the current pre-order price longer, so it isn't crucial to order tonight to get the price.

Good to know and thank you for personally responding! It's greatly appreciated! Thanks Tobin!

How loud is it? Is there a video without the music and voiceover to determine this?

I would say, compared to most drones of its size, it has a moderate buzzing that produces a good sound (dogs had no trouble hearing it a couple dozen meters away). But at the same time, as it flies away from you, that sound still disappears not too long after it gets "out there." So there's nothing too special about the sound of the motors one way or another -- pretty standard stuff...

Also, if you go to their website and have your volume on, scroll down until the bit where the background is a video of Snap being taken out of the bag and put together. While the backpack zippers opening is definitely bumped up in post to for a greater effect in audio, I would say that the whirring sound of the motors for the split second when it begins to fly off sounds proportional to the ambient noise and therefore fairly accurate (of course, how loud your headphones are and subjective differences might also change how you perceive that volume...but again, it's pretty standard). vantagerobotics.com

Can you adjust the angle of the camera? All the shots in the promo seem to be at one angle pointing forward and slightly down. Do you now if it is also possible to point for example the camera completely down? Thanks!

Yes. The final version will be able to rotate vertically (or pitch) up to 90 degrees (so "down" is an option) and will allow for up to a 40-degree roll...

Thanks for the reply Adam!

Hey, Adam, I don't know if you're still answering questions here, but, if you are, I have several that I've been dying to get answered. I've been trying to decide between a Yuneec Q500 4K and a Vantage Robotics Snap for a while now, and I'm looking for a bit more information to use to decide. Here's what I'd like to know:
- What is it’s range?
- What either game console or other controllers can I use for the drone?
- Do I have to use tilt to control it?
- Can I put it in follow me mode but have it look away from me while it’s following me?
- How does it connect to my phone?
- How much do you think the upgrade modules will cost?
- Can I move the drone around while it follows me?
- Can it follow my altitude?
- Can I turn audio recording off?
- Can I decide to record audio from the drone instead of my phone?
- How good is it at taking photos?
- How long do you think it will be before Vantage Robotics releases some upgrade modules?

Thanks, Joshua

Hi, Joshua. That's a lot of questions that might be better posed to the Vantage Robotics team, but I'll take a stab at a few.

Range is a tricky thing with drones right now, as I believe the current law is that you need to be able to see the drone to operate it, though I could be incorrect. But if true, these things disappear pretty quickly since they're so small. Realistically, though, it could go a couple to several thousand feet away and still maintain signal (if I remember correctly).

I think the iPhone is all you can use, though I'm sure all kinds of options are being explored.

I don't think there is a tilt control at all because it "self-levels" (both the camera via gimbal and the drone as much as it can given prevailing winds).

I believe it connected via Wi-Fi.

I imagine the upgrade modules will be reasonable for what they are. I don't remember what it was exactly, but the battery pack pricing that was being thrown around at the time seemed reasonable/par for the course.

Move the drone around while it follows you? i.e. change camera angle while the drone physically follows? Maybe... A lot of these questions like this are determined by software which can and will always be upgraded/changed/tweaked as time goes. So if it's not there right away and enough people want it, there's a decent chance it will be eventually.

I'm not sure about still image quality, but the sensor and camera in general is among the best in its class as far as I know.

Upgrade modules of several kinds should be available at or near launch. I think they're planning on fleshing out the ecosystem pretty early on.

Don't quote me on any of this, but do ask the guys at the company. I'm sure they'll be happy to answer some of your questions.

Also, a few notes about the differences between the systems you're looking at. The Yuneec looks great and is fairly priced. It's really hard to make comparisons in terms of image quality when the Snap isn't even out yet. But the Yuneec footage looks slightly over sharpened to me. But who knows. A lot of 4K footage has that feel a bit because of various compression/sharpening techniques used. And it could be my imagination. That said, it comes with a ton of accessories that could be useful for you (like switching the camera to a handheld setup).
That said, the Snap is super safe and way more mobile with its break-apart, folding design. That's the coolest part. You won't have to carry it in a huge, cumbersome, custom case. And the price right now is fantastic if you can wait a bit until it's ready.

Pros and cons on both ends. Good luck!

Thank you so much for that helpful information, Adam. I'll take note of it, and I'll also contact the Vantage team for anything additional that I'd like to know.