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I’m an anxious drone flyer. Even in San Francisco’s biggest fields, there are always other people and buildings that make me constantly evaluate the safety of my flight.
But I finally found my zen space with the 3D Robotics Iris+ quadcopter. The drone always performed exactly how I asked, and within a few minutes of my first flight I knew that I could trust it. With that kind of reliability came newfound courage. I felt comfortable flying the Iris+ in more daring (and thus more dramatic) locations, resulting in better footage.
What’s an Iris+?
Let’s start with the basics. The Iris+ is a quadcopter made by Berkeley-based 3D Robotics, which for the most part offers drones for professional applications like 3D mapping. The Iris+ is its flagship consumer drone. It starts at $750 for just the drone; the version I flew included a GoPro, GoPro camera stabilizer (also known as a gimbal), extra battery and roller case, bumping the price up to $1,680.
The controls for the Iris+ are exactly the same as any other popular consumer drone; one controller sends the quadcopter up or down and turns it in a circle. The other flies it forward, back or side to side. There are a lot more intimidating looking knobs on the controller, but you can get by with just those two. If you know how to use an Xbox, you know how to fly the Iris+ (or, if you are me, your drone will teach you how to work an Xbox).
My trust in the Iris+ came from its stability. It uses GPS to lock onto its location and hold it until you direct it to go elsewhere, which means that even if it is 60 feet in the air and being buffeted by winds, it’s not going to drift farther and farther away. It stays put.
It also finds that GPS lock with no input from the pilot. You just turn it on and wait a minute or two for the light to turn green. That’s a big improvement over DJI’s line of drones, which require you to do a funny little dance before most flights.
So here’s where it gets really fun. The Iris+ can fly autonomously. I ended almost every flight with the Iris+’s automatic return to home function, which is initiated by just flipping a switch on the controller.
You can also program a flight path on an app and then send the drone on its way. Or you can trigger “Follow Me” mode and the Iris+ will follow you from a set distance while the camera takes a smooth shot that always centers on you. Autonomous flights and Follow Me both rely on setup from an Android device. It requires a moderate level of technical knowledge, but both worked every time for me.
My one complaint about the Iris+ is its flimsiness. That’s an asset in some areas — its legs and propellers, for example, which are made cheaply so they can be replaced cheaply. But the plastic cap that holds the battery in also felt flimsy, and was annoying to close. It’s a small problem, but one that comes up repeatedly as you have to unplug the battery to turn the drone off.
The GoPro Hero4 and Tarot T-2D gimbal
I had never worked with the GoPro Hero4 camera before the Iris+. Wow, did it pull its weight. Even on some very gloomy days it pulled out great HD video.
The GoPro app, as usual, was a bit useless. It lost its Wi-Fi connection with the Hero4 as soon as the drone flew more than 50 feet away. Reconnecting was a pain.
The Tarot T-2D gimbal was the best I’ve tried. Even with my jerky flying, my videos turned out perfectly smooth. It was easy to control the gimbal’s tilt from the Iris+’s controller.
I did not like removing the GoPro from the gimbal every time it needed a charge. It’s screwed in, so expect to spend five minutes attaching and detaching the camera each time.
The gimbal, GoPro and Iris+’s performances combined to create great video made even better by the confidence the drone brought me. I’m eager to fly it in even more challenging locations in San Francisco.
Disclosure: 3D Robotics is backed by True Ventures and Shea Ventures, venture capital firms that are an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.