Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Go Pro enters the drone market with Karma

GoPro’s been teasing Karma since May of 2015, and the no-longer-just-an-action-camera company finally unveiled the drone yesterday during an event at Squaw Valley Ski Resort in California along with the Hero 5 Black and Hero 5 Session.

GoPro’s biggest selling point with Karma is how easy it is to use. And for the most part, it’s right. The drone has auto-takeoff and landing modes, an "easy" flight mode, and some semi-autonomous modes. (There’s a cable-cam mode, where you can set two points and have Karma travel in a line between them. There’s a version of that where Karma will tilt the camera up as it travels. There’s a "dronie" mode, where the camera will start on you and zoom up into the sky. And there’s an "orbital" mode, where the camera will stay locked on you while Karma loops around you.) Unfortunately, Karma does not offer a "follow" mode that locks onto you as you pedal down a mountain, kite across a lake, or snowboard down a slope — and that's surprising from a company that's become synonymous with self-recording adventure.

There’s a GPS unit in the drone itself, as well as in the clamshell controller, so Karma does a really good job of hovering in place when you’re not sending it flight commands.

Go Pro wants you to be able to fly your drone right out of the box and that is reflective of the controller. Unlike the most popular model out there, the DJI Phantom, you don't need to supply a smartphone or tablet as the screen as Go Pro has built a touch screen into the controller. This touch LCD is where you can manage settings, change modes, and watch a live view of what the drone is seeing.

On the bottom half you have the two standard joysticks you’d expect on a drone — the left controls altitude and yaw, or the direction the drone faces, and the right controls pitch and roll, the movements that tilt the drone so it can fly in different directions.

Between the two joysticks are two buttons: one to start and stop Karma’s motors, and one for the automatic landing. And on the shoulders of the controller — think where the triggers would be on a gamepad — are a button for recording and a wheel that lets you tilt the drone’s camera.

Of course, Karma’s battery only lasts about 20 minutes (extra batteries will run about $100–$150) and this is displayed in a bar that stretches across the top of the LCD. As it shrinks, it goes from green to orange to red, and Karma will start to return to its takeoff spot once you’re under about four minutes of remaining flight time. (You can cancel this and take control back, but inevitably the drone will land itself if it is too close to running out of battery.)

The other big part of Karma’s approachability is the size and modularity — Karma even comes with a backpack carrying case. The four arms fold against the side, and the landing gear underneath folds up as well. When everything is compacted it only takes up about a foot and a half of space. GoPro says those arms can be swapped out pretty easily if you break one, the same is true for the rotors, which snap and spin on in just a few seconds. (You get a set of spares when you buy Karma.)

The coolest thing about Karma other than the actual flying is that the three-axis gimbal that stabilizes the camera can be removed and attached to a handheld mount. This turns your GoPro into something like the DJI Osmo. You can then use this gimbal with your Go Pro to walk (or run) and take video or pics and not have to worry about steadying the Go Pro for that important shot. The handheld mount has a battery in it that powers the gimbal and also charges your GoPro, too.

Karma will cost $799 when it goes on sale in late October, but the real killer selling point for GoPro will probably be the bundles. You can get a Karma and a Hero 5 Black for $1,099, or a Karma and a Hero 5 Session for $999 — a $100 savings in either case. That’s a drone, a handheld stabilizer, and a camera all in one bundle. It’s too early to say just how well Karma stacks up against the likes of drones like the DJI Phantom 4, or how far GoPro’s "easy to use" claims really stretch. But when you consider GoPro’s massive retail presence, and the apparent value of those bundles, it’s easy to see how they’ll compete.

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