Intelligent Skydio 2 camera drone is an all-seeing, self-piloting game changer
It’s been a long time since we can recall a company not called DJI making a game-changing innovation in the consumer camera drone world. The Chinese giant has been two steps ahead of everyone, pretty much since the first all-in-one Phantom drones started shipping way back in the prehistoric days of 2013. But the new Skydio 2 looks like it might just take things to another level.
It’s a drone with such capable built-in sensors and nVidia Tegra X2-based AI processing that it’s designed primarily to fly itself while keeping a moving subject in view. With complete omnidirectional awareness of its surroundings, it can pilot itself in any direction and maintain the capability to cleverly avoid obstacles, predicting its future path and letting you fearlessly shoot through small gaps or skim past surfaces for dramatic footage.
But DJI’s drones have had obstacle avoidance for years, you say. True – since 2016’s Phantom 4, the DJI drones have had the capability to sense things in one or two directions, and stop themselves from flying into them. But it’s never been a clever system, or one focused on cinematography.
The Skydio 2 combines the outputs of six cameras to see in all directions, and uses them to build a detailed, moving 3D map of the environment it’s flying in. Then, you can pilot it yourself with the optional controller, and it’ll intelligently make progress in the direction you desire, while smoothly dodging around anything in its path. Or simpler still, you can just tell it what you want to film, and roughly where in the sky to be, and let it do all the filming for you.
It can track moving subjects visually, like the DJI gear, but it’ll fly itself in any direction while doing so, allowing it to shoot you from the sides as well as the (generally less interesting) follow-behind angle. If things are ducking in and out of view a bit, you’re best off sticking the (also optional) beacon on your subject, which lets the Skydio 2 track you via GPS when it can’t see you, so that when you emerge from behind a tree or a rock, it shouldn’t miss a beat.
The beacon also gives you a super-simple way to tell the drone where it needs to be; you can use the “wand” feature to point out where the drone should head as it tracks you. As such, the experience of using the Skydio 2 is designed to be vastly different to that of a controller-based drone like the DJI Mavic. And while we’ve seen plenty of other “self-piloting” drones, this effort is the first that looks like it might genuinely have the horsepower and smarts to pull it off safely.
In terms of practicalities, it’s about the size of a DJI Mavic, but not foldable. It weighs 1.7 lb (775 g) with a battery in, and it’ll fly for around 23 minutes, reaching top speeds up to 36 mph (58 km/h) in both autonomous and stick-controlled flight. Range is around 650 ft (200 m) if you’re flying with phone only. Add in the beacon, and you can get 0.9 mi (1.5 kms), and if you use the controller, you can get up to 2.2 mi (3.5 km).
Its camera appears to be a serious effort as well, offering 4K shooting at up to 60 fps, slow-mo 1080p at up to 120 fps, and 12-megapixel stills in JPG and RAW formats.
Skydio has taken the unusual step of including a detailed independent camera benchmarking report with its media kit, pitching the Skydio 2’s camera against those in the Mavic 2 Pro and other competitors. The Mavic 2 Pro’s Hasselblad-enhanced unit is to date the best camera we’ve used on a drone by far, but – at least on the test sheets – the Skydio 2 appears to be at least a match for it in almost all categories. Indeed, the Skydio’s Sony-derived 1/2.3-inch sensor appears to offer a significantly wider 13-stop dynamic range, meaning it’ll retain more detail in the highlights and shadows than the Mavic 2 Pro. While there’s more to a camera than just benchmark specs, the new Skydio unit definitely deserves to be treated as a serious camera option.
Skydio 2 begins shipping in November at US$999 apiece – that’s significantly cheaper than the Mavic 2 Pro at US$1,729. If you wish to add a controller or beacon, they’re US$149 each, and come with their own little travel cases, as does the drone itself. Even with both, it presents a compelling proposition and an exciting development in the industry. It’s been an uncharacteristically long time since DJI stamped its authority on the segment with a new release, and the Skydio 2 looks a lot to us like a game changer out of left field.
Dr. Hans C. Mumm