It felt like the drone 'fad' arrived with a bang: everyone was out flying their DJI Phantom, a Mavic, or whatever they could get their hands on, but I largely sat out on the hype: most drones are too much work to fly, demanding your full attention instead of enjoying yourself, and I didn't want to be flying around a glorified helicopter.
I've been watching as company after company promised to solve this with self-flying drones in various forms, but almost all of them are only an illusion, following your phone's signal rather than truly understanding their surroundings. Until, that is, I discovered Skydio.
Skydio is a relatively new drone company on the block, but comparing its first product, the Skydio 'R1' to the existing drones out there makes it look like it's from the distant future. This is the self-driving drone, and it shows: R1 is littered with cameras on every surface and edge. Could it possibly be the first drone to truly let you forget about it?
I finally had a chance to try Skydio's drone rather than gawk over the videos, and it blew my damn mind. This isn't a review so much as an early collection of thoughts about the damn thing, because I'm still so excited about having flown it just a handful of times.
I'll save my full thoughts for a proper review, but a note on the hardware quickly: it's what I imagine Apple would make. The drone is a cool-to-the-touch metal, and the detail across it, such as the magnetically-snapping battery is really satisfying. What I noticed first, however, is that it's slathered with cameras, which are used to interpret the world around it in real time.
Skydio calls it the world's first "self-flying camera" which is a bold claim to make. Could it possibly be so good? In the technology world, I'm accustomed to audacious promises that aren't quite true, so my expectations were set low to match. I was so wrong; Skydio's first ever product might just be the most magic thing I've tried in years.
Here's how my first flight went down: I received it in the mail, unboxed it, threw it in my bag and biked to a drone-approved area near Amsterdam. Expecting to spend a bunch of time figuring it out, I had set aside the whole afternoon to even get the thing off the ground... but I was in the air just a few minutes later.
Not only was the experience incredibly slick, and well-designed compared with DJI's products, it was so simple that I was genuinely suspicious it could work so well. All I had to do was fire it up, get my phone connected and pick 'lift off' to be in the air! It checked the surroundings, buzzed to life, and a few seconds later I was looking at myself on my phone.
The first thirty seconds of flight were essentially me gawking at the phone app and how slick it is. The biggest choice you need to make is the camera 'skill' you'll use, which determines how close the drone will fly to you, and what maneuvers it'll make. So, we went for a bike ride, and it followed along, loyally filming our ride.
It's hard to express how cool this is to experience first-hand. I put a flying computer in the air with a tap, a second tap set it to follow me, then I went on with my bike ride. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting it to make a critical mistake, but whatever I did wasn't enough to fool the software (I'll continue to try).
What's wild is how quickly I moved from worrying about the drone and taking care of it, into just enjoying myself: it melts away as if it isn't there, until you decide to change mode or run out of battery. It navigates corners in the road, trees, unexpected turns, and just lets you enjoy what you're doing.
I've even taken it out on a fairly windy day at the beach, with no issues. It flew itself along, sounding like it was struggling against the wind a little, but staying perfectly level in the air, dealing with the gusts and changing directions without a hitch.
We ran around, took 'dronies' and just generally enjoyed not worrying about flying it, able to document our time together instead.
The implementation of the Skydio R1 experience goes beyond what you'd expect, too, because the company built in all sorts of useful things you wouldn't really think about until it's too late. With most drones, getting files off of them is a fiddly, slow process that requires editing on your phone, taking a long time and degrading the footage in the process.
R1 has a GPU onboard for the machine-vision magic it's working to avoid crashing into things, and it wields that beyond just flying. Once you're done on a flight, you can edit the footage in the app and directly render it out on the drone itself — saving a ton of time, and letting you get clips off as quickly as you can.
I haven't been this excited about a technology in a long time, and Skydio has built something that actually lives up to the hype, which is rare in an industry that loves to loudly proclaim how great it is before underwhelming the consumer. The R1 is the real deal, and it's so good it feels like it's from the distant future.
The R1's price, naturally, reflects how far ahead of the competition it is: it's a cool $1,999. That's a jump from DJI's top-end folding drone, the Mavic 2, which goes for $1,179 at time of writing, but the R1 includes significantly more technology for your buck, along with 64GB of built-in storage.
Later this month I'm heading to New Zealand to visit family and go hiking, so I'm beyond excited to film my experiences there, without having to take away from them. I'm planning to post those, and a more comprehensive hands-on alongside it, but all of a sudden I'm obsessed with figuring out the next time I could fly this thing.
I'll share more in the coming weeks as I travel here, but my bet is that the company is poised to disrupt everything from the action-camera industry to the current drone incumbents, particularly for anyone in cinema, sports or aspires to be. Sure, the price point is high, but deservedly so.
Self-flying drones are here, and I've gone from a skeptic to a convert almost overnight.