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...
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.
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.
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.