Everything you need to know about the Solo controller, a controller smarter than most drones

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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.

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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.
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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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Comment by Thomas J Coyle III on June 1, 2015 at 3:51pm

@Roger,

An excellent design that is both functional and stylish at the same time.

Regards,

TCIII AVD 

Comment by Toby Mills on June 1, 2015 at 5:25pm
I have a question.
The HDMI output on the control is only 720p.
I'm assuming that is to keep the latency low.
Is there an option to increase this to 1080 with a high latency?
Comment by Todd Harper on June 1, 2015 at 7:55pm

Thanks Roger for putting this write up together. Having held the controller I can its a refreshing departure from the traditional tx's.

Todd H.

Comment by Muscate on June 1, 2015 at 8:37pm

I wonder if by Wifi they just mean wireless or actual wifi (since HD video with actual wifi isn't going to be all that great...)

Comment by Toby Mills on June 1, 2015 at 8:38pm
actual wifi is fine for HD video.
I pipe HD Video (1080p) over long range wifi links all the time and it is fine.
The big thing is the equipment you use and the codec you use to encode it.
Comment by benbojangles on June 1, 2015 at 9:49pm

I'm experimenting with the Raspberry Pi + Pi camera for fpv and find it is super fast. If anybody know of a Pi(Mobile Industry Processor Interface (MIPI) Camera Serial Interface Type 2 (CSI-2) to Composite adapter i'd be super happy for that.

Comment by Felixrising on June 1, 2015 at 10:01pm

It's nice seeing Colin Guinn's influence towards consumer friendliness and polish coming out in 3DR products such as this.

Maybe he'll get some input into the DF13 connectors in the Pixhawk 2... ?

Comment by benbojangles on June 1, 2015 at 10:03pm

...or even HDMI to MIPI adapter

Comment by Michael Visser on June 2, 2015 at 12:37am

@Felixrising, it's been mentioned here on the forums that the DF13 is gone in the Pixhawk 2 and that we're moving to Molex Clik Mate connectors. See Chris Anderson's comment here:

http://diydrones.com/group/pixhawk/forum/topics/pixhawk-connectors?...

Comment by Fnoop on June 2, 2015 at 1:02am

Nice to see real innovation coming out of 3DR, looks fantastic.  I hope the controller will still allow the physical functionality and accessibility needed for advanced features and fast access to power users, eg. how are 6-mode switches replaced.  Are the A/B custom buttons the ch7/ch8 switch equivalents?

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