It’s a gorgeous Wednesday on the Berkeley, California, waterfront. In the distance, the San Francisco skyline is crisp and clear, and the Golden Gate Bridge, directly west, welcomes all comers. As I run along a path and duck my head between two close-together trees, it’s all being filmed, automatically, from about 6 feet in the air.
I’ve used plenty of drones before, even ones packed with autonomous video-capture modes, but the device following me and recording video as I dart along the path takes those capabilities to a new level. This is the R1, a brand-new drone from the Redwood City, California, startup Skydio, a flying camera built to offer adventure-sports enthusiasts an autonomous level of video-capture features that hasn’t ever before been available.
Just a few minutes before getting my demo of the R1, I’d been testing out DJI’s terrific new Mavic Air, a $799 drone that is super easy to fly and offers a rich suite of autonomous flight modes and video capture, not to mention sophisticated obstacle avoidance. But the R1 is a different animal.
Picture this: Running along the path, I turn sharply right and duck between the two trees. Most consumer-grade follow-me drones with onboard obstacle avoidance would have to stop there and let me go, as their sensors wouldn’t allow them to fly in such close proximity to the trees. But the R1 deftly navigates the branches and keeps me in its sights. Promotional videos from Skydio further demonstrate the capability of the R1’s ability to keep up with a runner or even a mountain biker bombing down a path, undeterred by all but the densest clusters of trees. And all autonomously after being launched from someone’s hand by a quick flick on a smartphone screen.
The R1, which is expected to start shipping within the next three weeks, shouldn’t be confused for a relatively inexpensive drone like DJI’s Mavic Air, the $1,000 Mavic Pro, or that company’s Phantom line. At $2,500, it’s too pricey for most casual drone users. But that’s not the market Skydio is going for. Rather, explains CEO Adam Bry, Skydio is targeting serious sports enthusiasts, the kind of people that want to shoot high-quality video of themselves or others in the middle of trail runs, mountain biking, or backcountry skiing, and all without having to worry about piloting their drone or being concerned if they encounter a few in-the-way trees.
“The ease and the freedom that comes with [using] it,” are what I like the most, says three-time Olympian hurdler Mikel Thomas. “It’s one of the simplest drones I’ve been able to work with, and being able to put my phone in my pocket and get going [is great, especially when you] combine that with the quality of the images you’re getting.”
Thomas has used several drones in the past to film his training sessions, and recently tested the R1, but isn’t otherwise affiliated with Skydio. He adds that the R1’s obstacle avoidance is extremely appealing, particularly “when you’re talking about the ease of using the device and letting it do its thing. You don’t have to worry about crashing. It allows you the freedom to do your task. It’s like the drone’s not even there.”
The R1 has 13 cameras that allow it to capture and sense what’s going on around it in 360 degrees, and easily avoid most obstacles by adjusting quickly and flying by them. It’s controlled by Skydio’s iOS or Android app, which lets you launch it in either a quick-fly or more traditional digital joystick mode. And its intelligent visual tracking system can tell the difference between multiple people, even continuing to follow one person if another walks or rides in front of them. Skydio claims the R1 is better at distinguishing between individual people, as well as between people and non-human objects (like pets, cars, trees, and so on) than any other consumer-grade drone.
Powered by an Nvidia TX1, a 256-core GPU that’s often found in self-driving cars, the R1 offers 64GB of on-board storage, enough for 1.5 hours of 4K video or 4.5 hours in 1080p30. Its battery supports about 16 minutes of flight time, less than many consumer-quality drones, but the R1 also comes with a second battery at no additional charge.
The drone has several flight and image-capture modes–Orbit, which has it fly around a subject; Side, in which it films from the side; Lead, which films by always staying in front of a person’s forward movement; Follow, which tracks without a preference for a side; Tripod, in which it stays still and looks at a subject, but gets out of the way if they get too close; Stadium, which films from high above, keeping still and always tracking a user; and others.
During my demo, Bry showed me a few videos. In one, a Skydio employee stands in front of his in-the-woods house and starts dancing, moving quickly around a path that turns sharply amid numerous trees. As he cavorts around, the R1 keeps him clearly in the center of the image, making clear its ability to track him no matter where he goes. In another, an employee runs, bikes, and runs some more along a hilly trail, and again the drone keeps up with him even when he twists and turns through numerous trees.
These are impressive feats, and the quality of the videos is terrific.
The question, of course, is whether there’s a big enough market for the R1. DJI has, in just the last two years, managed to dominate the personal drone business by offering devices with terrific functionality at many different price points–and has many drones that cost much less than the R1. The roster of drone developers that have had to give up their hopes of being a significant challenger to DJI is getting longer by the year–GoPro, 3DRobotics, Parrot, Yuneec, and so on.
Skydio isn’t blind to the market challenges, but to Bry, the R1’s functionality and ease of use, combined with its rugged aluminum and carbon-fiber construction that includes built-in propeller guards, sets it apart from any competition. He believes action-sports users like Thomas will happily spend $2,500 on a drone that allows them to shoot professional-quality footage without anyone’s help.
Whether he’s right remains to be seen. But investors seem to buy the argument. Even as it’s launching the R1, 60-employee Skydio is also announcing that it has recently closed a $42 million B round of funding from venture capitalists like IVP, Nvidia, and Andreessen Horowitz. Even Golden State Warriors superstar and tech-investor Kevin Durant has put money into Skydio. And, says, Skydio chief experience officer Matt Donahoe, Durant has asked the company for as many R1s as he can get in order to help foster his budding video production ambitions.
Thomas, too, thinks R1 has carved out a place for itself in the drone field, even with its $2,500 price.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily too expensive to establish a market,” Thomas says, “especially in areas where we’re talking about sports enthusiasts . . . If I can maximize the capabilities, it’s not too expensive. If I’m running on the beach, or getting ready for a championship-caliber performance, [where] milliseconds [of video preparation time] matter, and every detail you can capture matters . . . I think it’s well worth it.”