Solo’s most compelling feature? Smart Shots. They go beyond just automatic copter control — something 3DR’s had years of experience in — to automate the entire process of capturing a smooth shot, including dynamic camera aiming and control fully integrated into Solo’s computer system. Locking your drone onto a flight path is one thing, but turning that into the ability to automatically capture customized cinematic shots is another step up entirely. It’s an ability that only Solo’s processing power can deliver. In this way, Smart Shots take Solo beyond the realm of a drone — it’s really an aerial motion control rig, a complete video production unit in a backpack.
Solo currently has four Smart Shots: Cable cam, Orbit, Selfie and Follow. Of them, Cable cam — which locks Solo onto a virtual cable in space so you can concentrate on getting the shot, or let Solo execute the exact shot you want — turns the most heads. This article will be dedicated to Cable cam: why we developed it, how it works, what you can do with it and why we believe it’s a game-changer for aerial video.
We don’t just build drones — we’re avid flyers and cinema pilots ourselves. Well, to be honest, I suck. There’s good reason that while at 3DR I use my thumbs almost exclusively to hit the space bar.
But to be even more honest, when it comes to getting great shots, a lot of us here suck. We’ve got a handful of crack pilots here who can manually get the kind of truly cinematic shots you’ll see here, here, here and here. But those pilots got in early on the drone game, and they’ve spent years practicing and perfecting their technique. The rest of us either haven’t had the time, or like me have congenital thumb flaws or something.
But even the best can’t get the shots they want every time. You’re moving through 3D space; you have to coordinate the action of flight with the action of the camera, or coordinate those movements between two people; and there’s a ton of environmental variability. People want drones because they want to be able to get great shots, to see and share their world and tell stories in a new way. But getting smooth, cinema-quality aerial video is in truth a very difficult skill to master, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to practicing your flying skills. It’s anything but easy. And some shots are just plain hard.
On top of that, even if you’re a pro you’d typically need a big, expensive rig with tons of extra batteries (and time) to get the shots that you want to (or are asked to) get. That’s exactly why we developed Cable cam: So creative people who might not have much experience flying can execute and capture the shots they see in their head, all out of one backpack, even shooting spontaneously or on a tight run-n-gun schedule.
Cable cam abstracts you from the actual flying, as well as from the difficulty of executing smooth camera movements even in complex 5-axis maneuvers, so you can focus on setting up the perfect shot. We put the skills in the software so you’re free to be creative, adventurous and confident. This Smart Shot goes beyond automating flight to enabling anyone to reliably and easily get pro quality shots without also having to be a pro.
How Cable cam works
Cable cam uses GPS to lay a virtual cable between any two points you select in space. For a dramatic and more dynamic shot, you can set these points at different altitudes with different copter orientations. With your path set, you can now engage with Solo in various layers of interaction.
With Solo locked onto a cable, it basically acts like a two-person crew in one. You can fly Solo between the two points as the camera tilts and pans automatically between them, or you can use the left stick to override the camera so that you can pan and tilt the camera yourself without worrying about piloting the copter.
But that’s just layer one. Unique to Solo, Cable cam can work as a “no-person” camera crew. Solo will memorize the exact shot you set at each end point — camera position, gimbal position and the copter’s location in space — and when you tap “play” on the app, will fly itself through the scene, from first frame to the last. If you want more personal real time control, you can control copter direction along the cable with the sticks or in the app. Even customize which direction the copter rotates between the frames; this allow you to automatically execute up to 358-degree corkscrews as you track along the cable. The onboard computer will work with the gimbal and autopilot to make adjustments to all variations in real time, keeping the camera steady and perfectly on the track that you set. Solo also automatically eases in and out of the first and last frames so there are no jerky starts and stops. Really: Even professional pilots can’t get these kinds of shots.
What you can do
Let’s use a real-world example.
Say you’ve been hired to film the Bellagio in Las Vegas. In the past, getting a beautiful aerial sequence here would require a full crew with several Pelican cases’ worth of gear and years of experience. But if you showed up to the shoot with your Solo, you can fire up your drone, set it to Cable cam and simply do the following to get the shot.
First, fly as carefully and slowly as you wish, using the live HD feed on your mobile screen to help you find and set up the perfect first frame — for instance over the Las Vegas strip. When you have the shot set, just press the “A” button and you’ll automatically set the first point on your cable. Now Solo knows that this is the first shot you want to capture, and it will automatically ease you in and out of that shot. Now fly as slowly and carefully as you wish, along any path you wish, to set up the second shot you want: the Bellagio fountains & hotel. When you’re ready, hit “B” to set the end of your cable. Now Solo has established a perfectly straight line between those two points in space; it’s locked onto that line and can’t fly anywhere but up and down that line. Solo has also memorized the pan and tilt of the camera at both ends, so really all you have to do is tap “play” on the app and Solo will fly and film the whole shot automatically, smoothing the movements for a perfectly controlled pro shot as it interpolates between your two frames. If you reverse, the camera action also reverses. You’re getting perfectly smooth set shots with known and fixed start and end points, with sophisticated five-axis camera and copter coordination in between — and it’s your first time shooting at an amazing location. You’ve gone from learning how to fly to telling the story you want to tell in merely minutes.
Why it changes the game
If you’re a director on a set, you don’t also have to be an expert cameraman — you’ve got at your disposal a crew of highly trained experts. In other words, if you have a vision, it’s just a few minutes of direction away from becoming a reality. But if you have a vision of an aerial shot you want to get and you’re a new or inexperienced drone pilot, that vision could be weeks, months or even years of practice away from becoming a reality. Either that, or you’d have to hire a pro crew. And even if you happen to be a pro cinema pilot — even if you’re working as a team of two, one on the sticks and one working the camera — that shot still isn’t a sure thing, as any pro cinema pilot will tell you.
Solo is your aerial camera crew: It can be your pilot, your cameraman or both. Cable cam’s software shortcuts all of that practice time so even first-time pilots can start realizing their visions from day one. It also makes it possible for one person to get the kind of shots in minutes that it used to take hours (and many batteries) for a two-man crew to get. And once you have the shot you want, you’ve now got a ton of battery life left over to try riskier, more creative shots. It’s a cool paradox — by putting the flight skills into the computer, Solo doesn’t take the human element out; it actually accentuates it, freeing you to take the risk to shoot more nuanced, more “human” shots.
So yes, we wanted Smart Shots to enable anyone to reliably and easily get the shots they want — but more than that we wanted you to start thinking of the air less in terms of angles of approach and lines and waypoints, and more in terms of storytelling, of frames and scenes, beginnings and endings. Cable cam lets anyone step up and be a creative aerial filmmaker without also having to be skilled as a pilot. The skill is in the copter; the creativity is in you.