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Thoughts on Skydio’s Dramatically Updated Autonomous Skydio 2 Sports Drone

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Yesterday Skydio announced their Skydio 2 drone, following their previous R1 drone about two years ago. Now I know, some of you non-flying-enthusiast are probably like ‘Another drone?’ – but like the R1, this one is all about sports. When you think of the phrase ‘You had one job’, this unit has one job: Autonomously follow you doing cool sporting stuff, using it’s array of more than a dozen cameras. No remote controls, just tracking you Terminator style.

And as I showed in my Skydio R1 In-Depth Review, it’s scary good at that. Don’t remember what I mean? Check out this tweet from 18 months ago of mine (I know, I’ve showed this before, but this is the most succinct way to explain it):

But that was all the R1, so what’s the new Skydio 2 about (btw, naming wise they ditched the ‘R’ identifier, now it’s just Skydio 2)? Well, by the sounds and looks of it they basically addressed almost every complaint about the R1 in the Skydio 2. So let’s detail those out a bit.

What’s New:

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Now, back in my R1 my in-depth review, it all could basically be boiled down to five bullet points:

1) Holy crap this thing tracks crazy well, except in rare scenarios
2) Holy crap it’s waaaay too big to transport in a backpack easily
3) Holy crap it’s waaaaay too expensive at $2,500
4) Grr….the image quality is pretty poor comparative to the price point/competitors
5) Sigh…it’s really only a sports drone, and can’t be used in any other way meaningfully for regular shots

And, while I doubt they were channeling my review specifically, I think they were instead channeling the interwebs at large in those requests. So, bullet by bullet, here’s what’s different or changed to address that:

1) Now you can wear an optional beacon for cases where dense trees block visual access to keep tracking
2) It’s a fraction the size now, roughly that of a stack of iPad Pro’s versus a just about a pool table previously
3) It’s now $999
4) The samples and downloadable untouched footage look great…but I still wanna see it hands-on
5) There’s now an optional controller you can pickup for $149 to use it like a normal drone

So, let’s get into some of the details of those a bit more. Previously, the uimagenit had 13 cameras to track you, one of which was used to record the actual 4K image. Now they’ve reduced that down to a mere 7 cameras, 6 for navigation and one for capturing the imagery you’ll upload to MySpace and Geocities. Like before it’s really the computing power that’s the black magic that makes it all work, detecting objects in real-time and computing how to fly around them while concurrently tracking you without any assistance. However the previous cameras were 1080p, and these are now 4K, which gives them dramatically more detail than the 1080p cameras.

For those of you that are into computer systems, you can briefly contemplate the specs at the side there. Keeping in mind that all of these are on board, this isn’t some cloud-based system it’s leveraging behind the scenes.

All in it’s tracking options at 500 times per second, which is likely why the company claims that it’s the “least likely to crash drone on the planet”, going onto note that “we back it with an even more amazing warranty. If you’re operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, we’ll repair or replace it for free.”

I checked to see what the heck that ‘Safe Flight Guidelines’ means, and while I couldn’t easily find a document by that exact title on their site, I did find some rough tips labeled safety – which I suspect is what they’re referring to. There’s nothing in there that’s concerning to me from a warranty standpoint except the thin branches clause, which may seem a little bit ambiguous, and is the singular item that the R1 had issues with. Though, in the case of the R1 in the 1-2 times it did find some super thin branches/twigs it basically bounced off of them. But the R1 also had propeller guards whereas the Skydio 2 doesn’t. So…I’d like to see a cleaner listing of ‘Safety Terms’ that matches the same terminology across the board to understand what is or isn’t considered ‘Safe Flight Guidelines’. But that’s stuff they can sort out over the next month.

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Next, the size is pretty significantly shrunk, down to a stack of iPad Pros. That’s still not as small though as the DJI Mavic Air or DJI Spark, but it’s at least in the right ballpark to be feasible for most backpacks. Previously I found a single backpack that actually fit it, so I could use that, but couldn’t put anything else in the backpack. The new unit measures 223x273x74mm including the battery. Also, now it gets 23 mins of flight time versus 13-14 mins I previously got. While I know 23 mins of flight time seems low if you’re not into drones (and it is compared to the ~30 mins of the DJI Mavic 2 series), the reality is that I’ve found that’s actually a lot of time to gather the scene you want to capture. More than enough time for a single ski run, or a single downhill mountain bike track, etc…

The price was covered previously at $999, but there’s also two separate optional controllers (your phone can also control it, for free). There’s a dedicated Skydio Controller that costs $149, and then the Skydio Beacon that also costs $149.

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The regular controller is fine for normal control like any other drone. But it’s the Beacon that interests me, since that follows what the AirDog and Staaker did in the past which guaranteed that you didn’t lose the object you’re tracking. The wearable beacon communicates in real-time, up to 1.5KM, between you and the drone with your current GPS location and height. The idea being that if you go through a grove of trees that the drone can’t follow due to constraints, it can go above the trees and use the beacon to keep tracking you.

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The key thing I’ll be looking at when testing this piece is whether there are footage jitters in the hand-off between camera object tracking recognition and GPS beacon tracking. I’ve found in testing with other drones that sometimes you’ll see weird drops in beacon-type scenarios where you get skips in the footage tracks. So it’s definitely an area I’ll be diving into deeply – because if Skydio can pull it off, it’ll have the potential to create really astounding footage in different views.

Speaking of which, the Skydio 2 Beacon has buttons to change viewing angles on it, similar to that of other transmitters on the market for other drone companies (though, most of those companies are no longer in business).

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Lastly, there’s the updates in image quality. Or, at least in specs. Previously you were limited to 4K/30, but it certainly wasn’t great 4K/30. Now, they’ve got a Sony 1/2.3” 12.3MP CMOS sensor on there with a f/2.8 20mm lens at 35mm equivalency. It allows you to capture 4K @ 24/30/48/60FPS, 1080p @ 30/60/120FPS, all in 100 Mbps H.264 & H.265 with a claimed 13 stops of dynamic range. There’s also the camera at 12MP for both JPEG and RAW DNG. Phew!

In the gigantic press pack, they included testing from an independent lab that showed image quality at an equal or higher level than DJI’s much higher end Mavic 2 Series drones. Of course, it’d be doubtful that they’d have released the report if it says otherwise. And of course, Skydio paid for the lab testing, still, it’s hard to argue with the coloring/detail aspects of the full 36-page PDF report which includes the images.

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Still, the report was indoors – which from having more drones than I can count doesn’t mean much. Things like stabilization matter a ton in the air (though, that was solid on the R1), and matter to image quality. If the sensor is having to deal with vibrations or other stabilization issues then quality degrades quickly. And DJI is known for their astoundingly good stabilization. Still, I’m optimistic.

Finally, for lack of anywhere else to note it – they also bumped the speed limit up from 25MPH to 36MPH, which basically gets you beyond the likely range most cyclists would hit except in steep/sustained descents, though keep in mind with the Skydio Beacon it could basically catch back up to you down the road if it needed to. Again, all things to test for sure (and, in a safe way). And the company claims its now 50% quieter – which is ideal since the last one was loud as fudge.

Wrap-Up:

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When I’m at trade shows I’m often asked “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen here?”. Same goes for people asking “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen this year?” – and the answer as of today is easily the Skydio 2.

I know I’m a bit aviation-geeky here, but most of the tech we’ve seen this year in the sports realm is incremental at best – and a lot of it frankly isn’t working super well this year. I’d argue that new indoor cycling trainers across all trainer companies this year have been a complete $h!t-show initial teething issues – and I’ve got a feeling we’re about to see the same thing on indoor bikes. GPS bike computers, activity trackers, and watches were all mostly incremental updates this year. Again, evolutionary and not revolutionary.

And there’s nothing wrong with that – assuming things actually get more stable. But the inner-geek in me is excited about stuff that pushes the boundaries. Or just the stuff that makes for cool Strava activity/workout pics (like this one I’ve oft-linked to). This definitely qualifies under that boundary.

However, that doesn’t mean it gets a pass once a review unit lands on my doorstep (apparently) sometime next month. If it sucks, you’ll know that as always. I’ll be looking at a few key things: Specifically the image/video quality (which was sub-par on the R1), and also the tolerance levels for tracking in tighter tree conditions (too conservative on the R1). Further, is the battery life actually going to hit the times advertised? And how well does the wearable Beacon actually work?

And most importantly: Will it replace my DJI Mavic Air as my go-to drone?

I’m not sure yet, but in a rarity, I’ve already placed my pre-order for one. Hopefully it lives up to the expectations and hype, things I’ll find out as part of my review cycle. Giving me plenty of time to cancel it if not. Until then, I’m excited.

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38 Comments

  1. Kaz

    I put a pre-order in the moment I saw the release..

    Aviation Geeks unite 🙂 (Ray – keep an eye out for the next Microsoft Flight sim….. looks amazing)

    Anyway – I had a KickStarter pledge on the Hover 2 which I cancelled – and had just got refunded a few days before. Yes Skydio 2 is more expensive but I think it will be worth it.

    I have the M2p – but DJI has never really gotten their monies worth out of the 1″ sensor on the M2p.

  2. Elizabeth

    Cool story bro. Please proofread your blogs, especially your/you’re and then/than.

    Looking forward to reading more when you get your hands on it! Excited for this drone!

  3. Timothy Follis

    This is the drone I have been waiting for. Immediately pre ordered. Think this will be a game changer.

  4. André

    Only preorders are taken for US and Canada 🙁
    No europe

    • Kaz

      Andre – I ordered with delivery to a US Freight Forwarder with my UK Master and UK billing address. No issues at least for the pre-order.

      So Skydio ships to “my” US address and Freight Forwarder sends it on to me and charge me for postage/fees.

      There are plenty of Freight Forwarders out there – just check on their battery shipping policies.

    • I do the same, via a forwarded. We’ve been using US Global for years now (since moving to Paris, and then continued it with Amsterdam). Its ultimately where this unit will go to first.

      I don’t really have anything bad to say after 7 years using them. Here’s a link from my account that I think gets you a free month or something (and me one too I think). Though honestly if you find some other deal go for it:
      link to usglobalmail.com

      Fwiw, typically speaking for 2-day shipping for a backpack sized box full of junk it costs me about $70-$100 in shipping fees to either Paris or Amsterdam. You can of course choose slower speeds and save costs, but I’ve honestly found the best bang for the bug is the 2-day with whatever carrier you find works best in your country.

  5. Chris Benten

    I would like to know which trainers are a sh!t show.

    • Oh where to start…here, alphabetically:

      Elite Suito: Flywheel issues in first batch if production units leading to vibrations for people, plus power accuracy issues as previously noted
      Kinetic R1: While finally released in August, power accuracy is a mess
      Saris Hammer 3: Cadence issues (to be fair, in the grand scheme of trainers this year, this was the most stable of the bunch)
      Tacx NEO 2T: Power accuracy issues as previously noted
      Tacx Bike: Power accuracy issues, plus some early harware teething pains on initially shipped units
      Wahoo KICKR Cadence Update: Bricked some peoples units, didn’t actually work with any apps aside from Zwift because apparently nobody tested that.
      Wahoo KICKR Bike: Production is already slipping…

      Am I missing any?

    • Chris Benten

      Thanks. The Hammer and Core are on my radar…I have a cadence sensor so not a big deal for me.

      For the trainers, I find this all a bit bizarre for products that are nearly commodity at this point. Seems as if they forget how they did it the previous time around. Is there turnover in these companies? Looks like QA personnel should be a sought after asset.

      For the Smart Bikes, I am not surprised.

    • Yeah, the challenge on QA is something that’s been perplexing both Shane and I. What we do is incredibly repeatable, and incredibly predictable. We do more or less the same tests each time – it’s not hard to predict what we’re going to do. Heck, we even publish our test protocals.

      But ultimately, these companies are feeling pressure to get new products out, and just don’t have the resources to test them. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was told over the last 60 days that either Shane or I’s test was the first time the company had tried out the trainer with Zwift or TrainerRoad.

      Seriously?

    • Dude Guy

      are you serious? What? That’s unbelievable…and they’re telling you? Good lord it’s worse than I thought.

      Please tell me Saris isn’t in that group… it’s the one trainer company I still have faith in. And i’m trying to justify a H3. Haha

    • I can confirm Saris isn’t in that group.

      The problem is, and I almost went on a big Twitter rant about this one day – is that all of these companies (including Saris on this point) depend heavily on automated test rigs that do accuracy testing. But they don’t typically simulate how a human pedals, rather, just setting various wattages and seeing if it validates. Atop that, they’re always proprietary, and never built atop ANT+ FE-C or Bluetooth FTMS. So basically it’s an engineering validation of basics, but not of the end user experiance.

      So time and time again we see that they don’t match real life.

    • Chris Benten

      I find this unbelievable…They do not use/test their own product? Have them send one to me…I will Beta test. Well, starting in December. Recovering from hernia surgery.

    • Richard

      What about the elite Zumo? It seems to have come out under the radar. You mentioned it briefly in your review at the end of last year but I’ve not seen a review from you or anyone else for that matter although it is now on the market it seems!

    • Dude guy

      Hey thanks for your super detailed replies. I don’t know how you have the stamina to post all these reviews and follow up on all the replies. Nice work! I hope you don’t burn out and have the option to hire or outsource at some point!!

    • RE: Elite Zumo

      Supposedly there’s a firmware update out there that address my early issues.

      But mostly at this point the unit is discontinued as far as I know and Elite has offloaded the units out to various shops to get rid of at budget prices.

    • Richard

      Thanks for the reply, Ray. It’s looks like it’s been a victim of the race to market that seems to afflict a lot of technology companies today (especially in the trainer market). Although this particular unit is being advertised on Elite’s website and is available in the Uk through the largest(?) bike retailer in the country. But if what you say is true I would imagine that my hard earned is probably best off some where else as it would seem that Elite would not be interested in supporting the product into the future with further firmware updates etc. A pity cos at £450 it looked like a bit of a bargin!

    • Mike Richie

      You’ve got to wonder if part of the reason they don’t test these units properly is because you and Shane (and Des) DO test them for the the cost of shipping a trainer. And you are usually fair enough to not ding them badly, if they fix the issues before (or soon after) shipping.

  6. Eric Grumling

    Would love to see a beacon fob with ANT+.

  7. Robert

    Brutal! The November preorder slots already sold out and those now ordering will have to wait til January 2020 to get theirs!

  8. Mike S.

    “Like before *they’re* it’s really the computing power that’s the black magic that makes it all work, ”

    I think there’s no “they’re” there.

    Drone purchases currently on hold. Looking forward to your review…

  9. Kostiantyn

    I wonder if i can manually add extra battery to the drone, I know drone will be heavier, but i hope it will last at least 30 min. I want to record local bicycle races next year, 23 min battery life is not enough 🙁

  10. For those forwarding to Europe just be aware that their crash warranty won’t apply.

    I emailed them and they replied saying

    We currently only sell and ship to the US (excluding US territories) and Canada, but plan to expand to other countries soon (hopefully in 2020).

    As such, Skydio 2 is not certified for use or warrantied outside of the US or Canada at this time.

    To stay updated on any changes with Skydio, please feel free to sign up here (scroll down to the bottom of the website).

  11. fiatlux

    I was long looking forward to the details of this Skydio 2 and I must admit I am pleasantly surprised by the much broader feature set and the much lower price point compared to the 1st gen.

    Too bad they did not manage to design it with folding arms for an even smaller footprint. The Mavic Air or Anafi fit in cycling jersey back pocket. This still requires a backpack as far as I can tell.

    Still, eagerly waiting for the review (and then possibly the availability in Europe).

  12. Tim Ma

    Are there any programmable modes? Like use lead mode for “x” minutes, then switch to follow mode? Or do any changes require manual input?

  13. I sound awfully grumpy I am sorry

    I am going to sound like a typical old guy, but I used to fly 90 sized RC helicopters. If you google, “Avant Aurora IRCHA 2006” it was something like that. They fly upside down, sideways, etc. and you can get about 100mph out of them.

    Along came drones and everything became battery operated, slow as hell (40mph or so) and thoughtless to fly. RC helicopters no longer take any skill because computers take out the work. Drones are even easier. Restrictions weren’t a problem and you rarely heard of someone being hurt but with the ease of use came the general stupidity.

    Needless to say, drones have mostly disgusted me. I’ve seen them as nothing but a step backwards. Also, since they have virtually no power, you cannot mount a 3kg camera to them.

    Am I out of touch? Do they now fly at reasonable speeds? (I’ll settle for 65mph). Are there any large models where you could mount a proper camera on them? What kind of 3D flight (aerobatics) are they capable of? And lastly, can you turn off all the computer assisted shit so I can fly them and have fun doing so?

  14. Surprised that nobody commented on the reference to Geocities 🙂

    Joke aside, this is interesting, thanks for the preview!

  15. Dan Bonebrake

    Interested in any follow up article on the skydio 2 by the author

  16. Larry Kehler

    Subscribing

  17. Skydioman

    Follow @Eleventy22 on Twitter, he is one of the guys who builds them.