3D Robotics


There’s probably no better visual representation of the progression of drone technology over the last three years than this side-by-side comparison of controllers.


One is visibly hard to use, with a complicated arrangement of mysterious sticks and switches in a schematic best describable as “porcupine slapdash.” The other is substantially simpler, cleaner and smoother. And the purpose is more clear, too: This button turns it on; this button makes it fly; this button brings it home; this button pauses it. And of course, the most obvious physical difference: the controller on the right has a phone clipped to it. Plus, what you can’t see, it’s got a 1 GHz Linux computer inside.

So: What’s happened and why?

When we set out to deliver the best imaginable aerial photography experience, we understood that the drone itself was only one part of that experience. The controller in your hands is your connection, both virtual and physical, to everything that happens in the sky, so it’s critical that it conveys that experience to you clearly and enjoyably. To that end, we approached designing the controller as an equal part of Solo, not a companion to it.

First we tackled the unfamiliarity problem, which is essentially a design problem. The Solo controller boasts an ergonomic design inspired by video game controllers, so it feels natural even to new users from the moment they pick it up. Then we plucked the porcupine and made all of the functions simple and clear: There are the traditional directional sticks; there’s power, fly, return home and pause. We had a good start.

But Solo isn’t just an RC helicopter. Solo does stuff. Cool, sophisticated and extremely useful stuff. Solo’s controller had to be able not only to execute those commands, but make them all clear, accessible and efficient for the user.

Again we took a cue from gamers and assigned all the camera and gimbal controls to paddles on each shoulder of the controller. On the left shoulder is a paddle for fine grain manual gimbal tilt control; on the right shoulder are two buttons for presetting gimbal tilt positions and a knob to adjust the speed of the gimbal’s automated sweep between those presets. Clicking the tilt paddle (left) starts or stops recording on the GoPro® and pressing both presets at the same time (right) snaps a photo.

While this new level of gimbal control makes smooth and clean gimbal moves automatic and easy, it also presents a whole new set of information for users to manage. We had to find a way to convey this information without cluttering up the FPV feed or confusing users, so we built a color LED display right into the controller. This display has multiple screens—pre-flight; in-flight; and camera angle feedback—with clear graphics, so you always have contextual information about what’s going on in flight. This eliminates the need to interpret blinking lights on the copter to get vital flight information, and it’s even all supplemented with haptic feedback—a gentle vibration that alerts you about critical things like a low battery and confirms all “long-press” actions (takeoff, land, set a gimbal preset, etc.).

What you can’t tell about the controller just by looking is that it has its own 1 GHz computer inside. The computer powers a strong and secure WiFi network (3DR Link), which communicates with Solo and delivers HD video wirelessly to your mobile device with only 180 ms latency. The computer also powers a built-in HDMI port, making live broadcast to nearly any type of screen as simple as plugging in an HDMI cable.

Additionally, the computer allows the controller to record 500 parameters of flight data to its internal memory as you fly, 10 times every second. This last bit is important, because it means the controller also doubles as Solo’s “black box”—so even if you were to lose the copter in a volcano, you’d still have all the flight data in your hands. Submit the data to our customer service department wirelessly via the Solo app, and we’ll be able to go over your flight with you. If you lost anything due to system error—be it the copter, the gimbal or the GoPro—we’ll replace it for free.

This is smart. This is Solo.

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  • Why would you want Solos controller to be able to control multiple air frames? It was designed for the Solo airframe exclusively. When you start throwing other capabilities into it you end up having to steal computing power and capabilities from its original intended purpose to give those capability to say your toy quad. The Solo is a specialized air frame to do specific tasks for its user.
  • But the solo controller only works with solo-drone, the other controller is Universal, can control any kind of drone from multirotor to fixed wing.

    Will be nice if it will capable to control any pixhawk-based drone.

  • 3D Robotics

    Thanks for these great replies! Best answers I can give below:

    @Toby  — not yet
    @Guy — yes, 180ms is true “glass-to-glass” latency. You have to connect via Solo controller, because the computer in the controller creates one of the wifi terminals for the network connection (Solo Link), with the other terminal created by the computer in the copter. Not currently possible to stream to more than one device, though the controller has an HDMI out port for sending HD video to to other screens for live broadcast, without affecting the quality of your live feed. And the Link technology is with 3DR, at least for now.

    @Fnoop and @Mark — The A/B buttons are assignable. So yes, advanced users can customize flight modes and copter behavior in the Solo app and then assign those modes to the A/B buttons—we have a handful of flight modes avail on Solo, and will be releasing more and more modes for power users starting in the very near future. These modes are accessible and adjustable in the Solo app, and then you can use the app to assign your spec’d-out flight modes to these A/B buttons; perhaps think of these buttons as “flight mode presets,” like the presets on your car radio. However, these A/B buttons can be used for other purposes as well. For instance, in the app you can assign “A” as the “start cable” command for Cable cam mode, and “B” as “end cable.” Or you could set button A to be the “Orbit” Smart Shot. Bottom line, these two custom buttons are really flexible, and they give you immediacy and freedom in flight.
    @John—Yes, you need to press and hold to engage the power button.
    @Serge Specific to Solo
    @John Arne—We’re pretty proud that Solo strikes a balance between mass market and the enthusiasts. Solo is a sleek experience out of the box, for sure, but we’ve made it easy to dig in. You can make Solo as complicated as you want — all depends how deep you want to dive into it.

  • Superb design.  It'll be nice when this controller works with non-Solo UAVs.  

  • Developer

    That's the price you pay for a "simpler, cleaner and smoother" design. The APM at it's core promotes openness and feature flexibility. But flexibility and simple operation rarely go hand in hand. And make no mistake. The Solo is designed primarily for the mass marked, not DIY/UAV enthusiasts.

  • Someone else mentioned this but is this controller so specific to the Solo that it cannot do 6 flight modes? 2 more soft buttons would have been nice but I am guessin this is not a standalone product.
  • @Muscate not necessarily, see for example:
    And there are other commercial systems that probably work in a similar way

  • wifi's terrible for video... as soon as signal drops it takes several seconds to recover

  • What happens if you accidentaly hit the power button since it's close to the auto button. do you need to press and hold to power off?

  • Hi, this is really cool.

    Will it be compatible with home-made stuff (Raspberry etc...) or do we have to have a specific board and a specific GoPro ?

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