3D Robotics is a designer and manufacturer of drones for commercial and recreational use. The company is headquartered in Berkeley, California. Its engineering team is in San Diego with manufacturing happening in Tijuana just across the border in Mexico. Their marketing team operates out of Austin where I live. The roots of 3D Robotics are the 60,000-member DIY Drones community which the company now hosts. In addition to founding DIY Drones, 3DR CEO Chris Anderson was the chief editor of Wired, a magazine, and the author of several books. He popularized the term the long tail in his first book.
The company’s multicopter drones are highly modular, allowing for customization according to purpose. The common theme is the Pixhawk autopilot. Want an optical flow sensor just like the DJI Inspire 1 which was announced last week? No problem, add a PX4Flow module.
All 3DR drones are built and configured with autonomous flight in mind. While all of them can be controlled with traditional control stick transmitters, it is the capability for automation where the 3DR products really shine. Coupled with the DroidPlanner 2 software for Android, planning and executing autonomous missions is simple and effective. Autonomous missions are useful for mapping, surveying and filming as well as retracing previous flights over time.
I fly the 3DR Y6, a hexacopter with two rotors on each arm. 3D Robotics just refreshed the other multicopters in the 3D Robotics product line-up: The Iris+ quadcopter and the X8 octocopter. The company also offers a do-it-yourself quadcopter kit.
Iris+ is 3D Robotics’ simplest ready-to-fly platform. It is a plastic frame quadcopter. At the base spec, it does not include a gimbal or a camera. You can attach a GoPro to a vibration dampened frame but for smoother video and control of the recording angle you can add the optional Tarot 2D gimbal.
The Iris is based on the Pixhawk autopilot so even 3DR’s simplest platform benefits from all the capabilities and innovation that characterizes the full range of multicopters. This includes autonomous missions, follow-me mode and the myriad options for tinkering with the rig.
3DR just made an FPV kit available that installs quickly and beams the image from the GoPro back to ground.
As with all 3DR multicopters, you have to get the right kind of battery but you don’t have to buy a specific brand. The cost of spare batteries is not excessive. The copter comes with a battery charger included.
Y6 is a six-rotor craft on a Y-shaped alu/carbon frame. Each arm sports two motors. The configuration has three immediate advantages compared to a six arm hexacopter. One is size, both in the air and on the ground where two arms can be loosened with thumbscrews to fold down along the body and allow for easy stowing of the craft. The second advantage is draft reduction: Each rotor acts like a disc with respect to wind resistance, and by stacking the rotors the Y6 achieves a smaller profile. The price is the loss of a bit of efficiency given that the top motors’ airflow gets chopped up by the propellers on the lower motors. Finally, the Y-shape makes it easy to see from afar which way the drone is pointed. This helps with manual navigation and with photos or video if you don’t have FPV.
With six rotors, there is an element of redundancy. Even with a motor out, you can still safely navigate and land the craft.
The central hub of the Y6 is open, allowing for all kinds of modifications. Before I mounted the gimbal on my Y6, I experimented with strapping an old Canon S90 on it with velcro. Others have used it to get infrared cameras or other sensors airborne.
The standard FPV option for the Y6 consists of a light-weight camera and a transmitter that are mounted on the craft. This is useful when used for navigation and getting a sense of the drone’s immediate environment. Photographers and videographers would benefit from the new GoPro-linked FPV kit. Composition is much easier when you see what the camera sees.
The Y6 is a joy to fly manually. It packs a lot of power that can be unleashed in the right flight mode and by making the control sticks on the transmitter more sensitive. But it is also a joy to watch it go about an autonomous mission with great precision, checking real-time progress on a tablet running DroidPlanner.
X8+ is the real work-horse in the line-up. Its eight motors produce serious lift, enough to haul along an 800 g payload. (And if that’s not enough, the specs state that “Additional payload possible up to over 1 kg with reduced flight time.”)
With eight rotors, the capacity for the craft to navigate and land safely in case of a motor failure or lost prop is increased.
The standard gimbal, if you configure the craft in the 3DR online shop, is still the Tarot for GoPro. But the payload capacity means you have a wide range of choice from third-party providers. Recent announcements from 3D Robotics hint at some of those options becoming available through 3DR.
Note that the large size batteries for the X8 means you can only bring two of them along when you travel on commercial aircraft in the US. You can bring along as many sub-100 Wh batteries as you want.
The X8 is also offered in a special configuration aimed at aerial mapping.
[Product images from the 3D Robotics website.]