Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, Ive spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like unstructured environments are basically impossible and full autonomy is impractically expensive and robot videos rarely reflect reality.
Skydios newest drone is an exception to all of this. Its able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way thats completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (Im guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, its (almost) indistinguishable from magic.
Skydio 2 Price
To be clear, the Skydio 2 is not without compromises, and the price of $999 (on pre-order with delivery of the next batch expected in spring of 2020) requires some justification. But the week Ive had with this drone has left me feeling like its fundamental autonomous capability is so far beyond just about anything that Ive ever experienced that Im questioning why I would every fly anything else ever again.
Weve written extensively about Skydio, beginning in early 2016 when the company posted a video of a prototype drone dodging trees while following a dude on a bike. Even three years ago, Skydios tech was way better than anything wed seen outside of a research lab, and in early 2018, they introduced their first consumer product, the Skydio R1. A little over a year later, Skydio has introduced the Skydio 2, whichis smaller, smarter, and much more affordable. Heres an overview video just to get you caught up:
Skydio sent me a Skydio 2 review unit last week, and while Im reasonably experienced with drones in general, this is the first time Ive tried a Skydio drone in person. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and I was absolutely blown away. Like, I was giggling to myself while running through the woods as the drone zoomed around, deftly avoiding trees and keeping me in sight. Robots arent supposed to be this good.
A week is really not enough time to explore everything that the Skydio can do, especially Thanksgiving week in Washington, D.C. (a no-fly zone) in early winter. But I found a nearby state park in which I could legally and safely fly the drone, and I did my best to put the Skydio 2 through its paces.
Note:Throughout this review, weve got a bunch of GIFs to help illustrate different features of the drone. To fit them all in, these GIFs had to beheavily compressed. Underneath each GIF is a timestamped link to this YouTube video (also available at the bottom of the post), which you can click on to see the an extended cut of the original 4K 30 fps footage. And theres a bunch of interesting extra video in there as well.
Skydio 2 Specs
The Skydio 2 both looks and feels like a well-designed and carefully thought-out drone. Its solid, and a little on the heavy side as far as drones goits primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The blue and black color scheme is far more attractive than you typically see with drones.
The Skydio 2 is built around an array of six hemispherical obstacle-avoidance cameras and the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 computing module that theyre connected to. This defines the placement of the gimbal, the motors and props, and the battery, since all of this stuff has to be as much as possible out of the view of the cameras in order for the drone to effectively avoid obstacles in any direction.
Without the bottom-mounted battery attached, the drone is quite flat. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the obstacle-avoidance cameras. These hemispherical cameras are on the end of each of the prop arms as well as above and below the body of the drone. They look awfully exposed, even though each is protected from ground contact by a little fin. You need to make sure these cameras are clean and smudge-free, and Skydio includes a cleaning cloth for this purpose. Underneath the drone there are slots for microSD cards, one for recording from the camera and a second one that the drone uses to store data. The attention to detail extends to the SD card insertion, which has a sloped channel that guides the card securely into its slot.
Once you snap the battery in, the drone goes from looking streamlined to looking a little chubby. Relative to other drones, the battery almost seems like an afterthought, like Skydio designed the drone and then remembered, oops we have to add a battery somewhere, lets just kludge it onto the bottom. But again, the reason for this is to leave room inside the body for the NVIDIA TX2, while making sure that the battery stays out of view of the obstacle avoidance cameras.
The magnetic latching system for the battery is both solid and satisfying. Im not sure why its necessary, strictly speaking, but I do like it, and it doesnt seem like the battery will fly off even during the most aggressive maneuvers. Each battery includes an LED array that will display its charge level in 25 percentincrements, as well as a button that you push to turn the drone on and off. Charging takes place via a USB-C port in the top of the drone, which I dont like, because it means that the batteries cant be charged on their own (like the Parrot Anafis battery), and that you cant charge one battery while flying with another, like basically every other drone ever. A separate battery charger that will charge two at once is available from Skydio for an eyebrow-raising $129.
I appreciate that all of Skydios stuff (batteries, controller, and beacon) charges via USB-C, though. The included USB-C adapter with its beefy cable will output at up to 65 watts, whichll charge a mostly depleted battery in under an hour. The drone turns itself on while charging, which seems unnecessary.
The most obvious compromise that Skydio made with the Skydio 2 is that the drone is not foldable. Skydio CEO Adam Bry told us that adding folding joints to the arms of the Skydio 2 would have made calibrating all six cameras a nightmare and significantly impacted performance. This makes complete sense, of course, but it does mean that the Skydio 2 is not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones.
The Skydio 2 does come with a very nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case. Still, its just not as convenient to toss into a backpack as my Anafi, although the Mavic Mini might be even more portable.
The design of the drone leads to some other compromises as well. Since landing gear would, I assume, occlude the camera system, the drone lands directly onthe bottom ofits battery pack, which has a slightly rubberized pad about the size of a playing card. This doest feel particularly stable unless you end up on a very flat surface, and made me concerned for the exposed cameras underneath the drone as well as the lower set of props. Id recommend hand takeoffs and landingsmore on those later.
Skydio 2 Camera System
The Skydio 2 comes with a three-axis gimbal supporting a 12-megapixel camera, just enough to record 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps. Skydio has provided plenty of evidence that its imaging system is at least as good if not better than other drone cameras. Tested against my Mavic Pro and Parrot Anafi, I found no reason to doubt that. To be clear, I didnt do exhaustive pixel-peeping comparisons between them, youre just getting my subjective opinion that the Skydio 2 has a totally decent camera that you wont be disappointed with. I will say that I found the HDR photo function to be not all that great under the few situations in which I tested itafter looking at a few muddy sunset shots, I turned it off and was much happier.
The video stabilization is fantastic, to the point where watching the video footage can be underwhelming because it doesnt reflect the motion of the drone. I almost wish there was a way to change to unstabilized (or less-stabilized) video so that the viewer could get a little more of a wild ride. Or, ideally, thered be a way for the drone to provide you with a visualization of what it was doing using the data collected by its cameras. Thats probably wishful thinking, though. The drone itself doesnt record audio because all youd get would be an annoying buzz, but the app does record audio, so the audio from your phone gets combined with the drone video. Dont expect great quality, but its better than nothing.
Skydio 2 App
The app is very simple compared to every other drone app Ive tried, and thats a good thing. Heres what it looks like:
You get the controls that you need and the information that you need, and nothing else. Manual flight with the on-screen buttons works adequately, and the double-tap to fly function on the phone works surprisingly well, making it easy to direct the drone to a particular spot above the ground.
The settings menus are limited but functional, allowing you to change settings for the camera and a few basic tweaks for controlling the drone. One unique setting to the Skydio 2 is the height floorsince the drone only avoids static obstacles, you can set it to maintain a height of at least 8 feet above the ground while flying autonomously to make sure that if youre flying around other people, it wont run into anyone who isnt absurdly tall and therefore asking for it.
Trackable subjects get a blue + sign over them in the app, and if you tap them, the + turns into a spinny blue circle. Once youve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you, and in addition, you can select one-shot skills that involve the drone performing a specific maneuver before returning to the previously selected cinematic skill. For example, you can tell the drone to orbit around you, and then do a rocket one-shot where itll fly straight up above you (recording the whole time, of course), before returning to its orbiting.
After youre done flying, you can scroll through your videos and easily clip out excerpts from them and save them to your phone for sharing. Again, its a fairly simple interface without a lot of options. You could call it limited, I guess, but I appreciate that it just does a few things that you care about and otherwise doesnt clutter itself up.
The real limitation of the app is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Skydio 2, which restricts the range. To fly much beyond a hundred meters or so, youll need to use the controller or beacon instead.
Skydio 2 Controller and Beacon
I was looking forward to using the controller, because with every other drone Ive had, the precision that a physically controller provides is, I find, mandatory for a good flying experience and to get the photos and videos that you want. With Skydio 2, thats all out the window. Its not that the controller is useless or anything, its just that because the drone tracks you and avoids obstacles on its own, that level ofcontrol precision becomes largely unnecessary.
The controller itself is perfectly fine. Its a rebranded Parrot Skycontroller3, which is the same as the one that you get with a Parrot Anafi. Its too bad that the sticks dont unscrew to make it a little more portable, and overall its functional rather than fancy, but it feels good to use and includes a sizeable antenna that makes a significant difference to the range that you get (up to 3.5 kilometers).
You definitely get a better hands-on flight experience with the controller than with the phone, so if you want to (say) zip the drone around some big open space for fun, its good for that. And its nice to be able to hand the controller to someone whos never flown a drone before and let them take it for a spin without freaking out about them crashing it the whole time. For more experienced pilots, though, the controller is ultimately just a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your control when you start getting close to objects, which (again) limits how useful the controller is relative to your phone.
I do still prefer the controller over the phone, but Im not sure that its worth the extra $150, unless you plan to fly the Skydio 2 at very long distances or primarily in manual mode. And honestly, if either of those two things are your top priority, the Skydio 2 is probably not the drone for you.
The purpose of the beacon, according to Skydio, is to give the drone a way of tracking you if it cant see you, which can happen, albeit infrequently. My initial impression of the beacon was that it was primarily useful as a range-extending bridge between my phone and the drone. But I accidentally left my phone at home one day (oops) and had to fly the drone with only the beacon, and it was a surprisingly decent experience. The beacon allows for full manual control of a sortyou can tap different buttons to rotate, fly forward, and ascend or descend. This is sufficient for takeoff, landing, to make sure that the drone is looking at you when you engage visual tracking, and to rescue it if it gets trapped somewhere.
The rest of the beacons control functions are centered around a few different tracking modes, and with these, it works just about as well as your phone. You have fewer options overall, but all the basic stuff is there with just a few intuitive button clicks, including tracking range and angle. If youre willing to deal with this relatively minor compromise, its nice to not have your phone available for other things rather than being monopolized by the drone.
Skydio 2 In Flight
Starting up the Skydio 2 doesnt require any kind of unusual calibration steps or anything like that. It prefers to be kept still, but you can start it up while holding it, itll just take a few seconds longer to tell you that its ready to go. While the drone will launch from any flat surface with significant clearance around it (itll tell you if it needs more room), the small footprint of the battery means that I was more comfortable hand launching it. This is not a throw launch; you just let the drone rest on your palm, tell it to take off, and then stay still while it gets its motors going and then gently lifts off. The lift off is so gentle that you have to be careful not to pull your hand away too soonI did that once and the drone, being not quite ready, dropped towards the ground, but managed to recover without much drama.
Catching the drone for landing is perhaps very slightly more dangerous, but not any more difficult. You put the drone above and in front of you facing away, tell it to land in the app or with the beacon, and then put your hand underneath it to grasp it as it slowly descends. It settles delicately and promptly turns itself off. Every drone should land this way. The battery pack provides a good place to grip, although you do have to be mindful of the forward set of props, which (since theyre the pair that are beneath the body of drone) are quite close to your fingers. Youll certainly be mindful after you catch a blade with your fingers once. Which I did. For the purposes of this review and totally not by accident. No damage, for the record.
In normal flight, the Skydio 2 performs as well as youd expect. Its stable and manages light to moderate wind without any problems, although I did notice some occasional lateral drifting when the drone should have been in a stationary hover. While the controller gains are adjustable, the Skydio 2 isnt quite as aggressive in flight as my Mavic Pro on Sport Mode, but again, if youre looking for a high-speed drone, thats really not what the Skydio is all about.
The Skydio 2 is substantially louder than my Anafi, although the Anafi is notably quiet for a drone. Its not annoying to hear (not a high-pitched whine), but you can hear it from a ways away, and farther away than my Mavic Pro. Im not sure whether thats because of the absolute volume or the volume plus the pitch. In some ways, this is a feature, since you can hear the drone following you even if youre not looking at it, you just need to be aware of the noise it makes when youre flying it around people.
The primary reason Skydio 2 is the drone that you want to fly is because of its autonomous subject tracking and obstacle avoidance. Skydios PR videos make this capability look almost too good, and since I hadnt tried out one of their drones before, the first thing I did with it was exactly what youd expect: attempt to fly it directly into the nearest tree.
And it just wont do it. It slows down a bit, and then slides right around one tree after another, going over and under and around branches. I pointed the drone into a forest and just held down forward and away it went, without any fuss, effortlessly ducking and weaving its way around. Of course, it wasnt effortless at allsix 4K cameras were feeding data into the NVIDIA TX2 at 30 fps, and the drone was processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path while simultaneously taking into account where I wanted it to go. I spent about 10 more minutes doing my level best to crash the drone into anything at all using a flying technique probably best described as reckless, but the drone was utterly unfazed. Its incredible.
What knocked my socks off was telling the drone to pass through treetopsin the clipbelow, Im just telling the drone to fly straight down. Watch as it weaves its way through gaps between the branches:
Heres one more example, where I sent the drone across a lake and started poking around in a tree. Sometimes the Skydio 2 isnt sure where you want it to go, and you have to give it a little bit of a nudge in a clear direction, but thats it.
Its important to keep in mind that all of the Skydio 2s intelligence is based on vision. It uses cameras to see the world, which means that it has similar challenges as your eyes do. Specifically, Skydio warns against flying in the following conditions:
- Skydio 2 cant see certain visually challenging obstacles. Do not fly around thin branches, telephone or power lines, ropes, netting, wires, chain link fencing or other objects less than inch in diameter.
- Do not fly around transparent surfaces like windows or reflective surfaces like mirrors greater than 60 cm wide.
- When the sun is low on the horizon, it can temporarily blind Skydio 2s cameras depending on the angle of flight. Your drone may be cautious or jerky when flying directly toward the sun.
Basically, if youd have trouble seeing a thing, or seeing under some specific flight conditions, then the Skydio 2 almost certainly will also. It gets even more problematic when challenging obstacles are combined with challenging flight conditions, which is what Im pretty sure led to the only near-crash I had with the drone. Heres a video:
I had the Skydio 2 set to follow me on my bike (more about following and tracking in a bit). It was mid afternoon, but since its late fall here in Washington, D.C., the sun doesnt get much higher than 30 degrees above the horizon. Late fall also means that most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, and so there are a bunch of skinny branches all over the place. The drone was doing a pretty good job of following me along the road at a relatively slow speed, and then it clipped the branch that you can just barely see in the video above. It recovered in an acrobatic maneuver that has been mostly video-stabilized out, and resumed tracking me before I freaked and told it to land. You can see another example here, where the drone (again) clips a branch that has the sun behind it, and this clip shows me stopping my bike before the drone runs into another branch in a similar orientation. As the video shows, its very hard to see the branches until its too late.
As far as I can tell, the drone is no worse for wear from any of this, apart from a small nick in one of the props. But, this is a good illustration of a problematic situation for the Skydio 2: flying into a low sun angle around small bare branches. Should I not have been flying the drone in this situation? Its hard to say. These probably qualify as thin branches, although there was plenty of room along with middle of the road. There is an open question with the Skydio 2 as to exactly how much responsibility the user should have about when and where its safe to flyfor branches, how thin is too thin? How low can the sun be? What if the branches are only kinda thin and the sun is only kinda low, but its also a little windy? Better to be safe than sorry, of course, but theres really no way for the user (or the drone) to know what it cant handle until it cant handle it.
Edge cases like these aside, the obstacle avoidance just works. Even if youre not deliberately trying to fly into branches, its keeping a lookout for you all the time, which means that flying the drone goes from somewhat stressful to just pure fun. I cant emphasize enough how amazing it is to be able to fly without worrying about running into things, and how great it feels to be able to hand the controller to someone whos never flown a drone before and say, with complete confidence, go ahead, fly it around!
Skydio 2 vs. DJI Mavic
Its important to note that theres a huge difference between the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with a DJI Mavic, and the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with the Skydio 2. The objective of the Mavics obstacle avoidance is really there to prevent you from accidentally running into things, and in that capacity, it usually works. But there are two things to keep in mind herefirst, not running into things is not the same as avoiding things, because avoiding things means planning several steps ahead, not just one step.
Second, theres the fact that the Mavics obstacle detection only works most of the time. Fundamentally, I dont trust my Mavic Pro, because sometimes the safety system doesnt kick in for whatever reason and the drone ends up alarmingly close to something. And thats actually fine, because with the Mavic, I expect to be piloting it. Its for this same reason that I dont care that my Parrot Anafi doesnt have obstacle avoidance at all: Im piloting it anyway, and Im a careful pilot, so it just doesnt matter. The Skydio 2 is totally and completely different. Its in a class by itself, and you cant compare what it can do to what anything else out there right now. Period.
Skydio 2 Tracking
Skydios big selling point on the Skydio 2 is that itll autonomously track you while avoiding obstacles. It does this visually, by watching where you go, predicting your future motion, and then planning its own motion to keep you in frame. The works better than you might expect, in that its really very good at not losing you. Obviously, the drone prioritizes not running into stuff over tracking you, which means that it may not always be where you feel like it should be. Its probably trying to get there, but in obstacle dense environments, it can take some creative paths.
Having said that, I found it to be very consistent with keeping me in the frame, and I only managed to lose it when changing direction while fully occluded by an obstacle, or while it was executing an avoidance maneuver that was more dynamic than normal. If you deliberately try to hide from the drone its not that hard to do so if there are enough obstacles around, but I didnt find the tracking to be something that I had to worry about it most cases. When tracking does fail and youre not using the beacon, the drone will come to a hover. It wont try and find you, but it will reacquire you if you get back into its field of view.
The Skydio 2 had no problem tracking me running through fairly dense trees:
It also managed to keep up with me as I rode my bike along a tree-lined road:
It lost me when I asked it to follow very close behind me as I wove through some particularly branch-y trees, but it fails more or less gracefully by just sort of nope-ing out of situations when they start to get bad and coming to a hover somewhere safe.
After a few days of playing with the drone, I started to get to the point where I could set it to track me and then just forget about it while I rode my bike or whatever, as opposed to constantly turning around to make sure it was still behind me, which is what I was doing initially. Its a level of trust that I dont think would be possible with any other drone.
Should You Buy a Skydio 2?
In case I havent said it often enough in this review, the Skydio 2 is an incredible piece of technology. As far as I know (as a robotics journalist, mind you), this represents the state of the art in commercial drone autonomy, and quite possibly the state of the art in drone autonomy, period. And its available for $999, which is expensive, but less money than a Mavic Pro 2. If youre interested in a new drone, you should absolutely consider the Skydio 2.
There are some things to keep in mindbattery life is a solid but not stellar 20 minutes. Extra batteries are expensive at $99 each (the base kit includes just one). The controller and the beacon are also expensive, at $150 each. And while I think the Skydio 2 is definitely the drone you want to fly, it may not be the drone you want to travel with, since its bulky compared to other options.
But theres no denying the fact that the experience is uniquely magical. Once youve flown the Skydio 2, you wont want to fly anything else. This drone makes it possible to get pictures and videos that would be otherwise impossible, and you can do it completely on your own. You can trust the drone to do what it promises, as long as youre mindful of some basic and common sense safety guidelines. And weve been told that the drone is only going to get smarter and more capable over time.
If you buy a Skydio 2, it comes with the following warranty from Skydio:
If youre operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, well repair or replace it for free.
Skydio trusts their drone to go out into a chaotic and unstructured world and dodge just about anything that comes its way. And after a week with this drone, I can see how theyre able to offer this kind of guarantee. This is the kind of autonomy that robots have been promising for years, and the Skydio 2 makes it real.
Detailed technical specifications are available on Skydios website, and if you have any questions, post a commentweve got this drone for a little while longer, and Id be happy to try out (nearly) anything with it.
Skydio 2 Review Video Highlights
This video is about 7 minutes of 4K, 30 fps footage directly from the Skydio 2. The only editing I did was cutting clips together, no stabilization or color correcting or anything like that. The drone will record in 4K 60 fps, so it gets smoother than this, but I, er, forgot to change the setting.
[ Skydio ]