If only there was a way to get all the good, great, and fantastic footage only possible with a drone, without having to worry about humans crashing them and getting all up in the way. Well, now there is. And all you need is a Skydio R1, an Apple Watch, and a dream. Well, an iPhone (or Android phone), but dreams are great as well.
Better flying through computer Vvision
The Skydio R1 , which the company refers to as a self-driving camera, isn't new. It's been available since February. What's new is the Apple Watch app that lets you guide it from your wrist.
I said guide rather than control because the whole point of the Skydio R1 is to let the AI — the artificial intelligence — do the flying. You don't tell it to go up or down, left or right, pitch or yaw, you just tell it to lead, follow, orbit, boomerang, and the like, and the AI figures out the details.
To do that, it has a 13 cameras to pull in the world around it, an NVIDIA Jetson 256-core AI processor to handle all the data, and a custom Autonomy Engine to turn all that computer vision into machine flying.
It uses SLAM — simultaneous location and mapping to keep track of both obstacles around it and it's target — not in a creepy Terminator way but a helpful cam operator way — deep learning to figure out what to do in the real world, and motion planning to try to predict not where it's going but where it needs to be.
Lead, follow, or get ready for a selfie
The Skydio R1 will follow you or any person or vehicle target you designate, by "sight" or fall back to your device's GPS, including Apple Watch GPS, if it loses you to tree cover or something similar.
It does still require an iPhone (or Android phone) to take off and land, but otherwise really can function with what I said up front — an Apple Watch and a dream.
To test is out, once I finished unboxing it, I grabbed some friends, hit the road… and then promptly went off-road.
Flying the intelligent skies
Take off was super simple. You literally connect and swipe up on the iPhone. From there, you can pick from a range of different shots on Apple Watch. And yeah, I'm totally going to sound like a hyperbolic noob who things drones — sorry, self-driving cameras — were invested yesterday, but it's hella cool.
I can barely drive a car so the life expectancy of any SDC I'd have to pilot myself would be roughly 30 seconds, and then I'd be actively trying to Neistat it out of a tree or off a roof or picking up its atoms scattered across the galaxy, or ground, or whatever.
So, this is great for me. There's a good amount of regular and dramatic shots to choose from and, thanks to a robust SDK from Skydio, developers can add more tricks to its bag over time as well.
I did lose connection a few times, at which point the R1 patiently hovered nearby and waited for me to re-connect, and I did have trouble letting go and trusting the machine not to self-crash, especially as it got near trees, and, yeah, even when everything goes perfectly, the laws of physics dictated only about 15 min. Of useful 4K time in the sky between charges.
But oh, that 4K time in the sky.
You can live stream in 720p but you really want to connect up the USB-C and pull the 4K as soon as you're done. It's amazing.
Landing is just as easy as taking off. Swipe down on your iPhone. There is a software joystick so you can micro-manage and manually steer it if you really want to, to get it over a safe zone for example. But really, swipe. Lands. Done.
If you're a pilot and you want to pilot, I totally get you wanting a giant control rig so you can get your piloting on. If you don't want anything to do with that great power and the responsibility that comes with, but you still want the amazing shots that come from it, then this is totally that. Unbelievable footage, tiny, unobtrusive watch app to guide it with.
The price is $1999 and you can get it from Skydio.com directly or, as of today, in select Apple Retail Stores (Apple Online coming in the next few weeks). That's more than the price of an iPhone XS and less than a MacBook Pro, so you have to decide if the autonomous camera work you'll get from it is worth the price. And the potential savings from, you know, not crashing it like a traditional drone.
For me, if I got dropped into anything from an offload adventure to a full on Jurassic Park, this is the camera I'd want.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
By Tammy Rogers