Karma drones fall flat in the face of battery issues and the rival DJI Mavic Pro
Those of us with GoPros will likely love the idea of videoing from above, whether biking up, or snowboarding down, a mountain or perhaps just strolling along a beach on holiday.
There have been drones around able to record stabilised, high quality, aerial video for a while, with lots of clever features like object tracking, following a pre-set flight plan or automatically returning home, should something go wrong. These are toys for big boys costing the best part of £1,000 and containing awesome technology. There’s a big market out there for affordable, easy-to-fly, safe video drones, so the question we were wondering was how GoPro, with its market leading action cam reputation, could get the Karma so horribly wrong right out of the gate.
GoPro launches KarmaAt its launch in October 2016, the first drone from GoPro, the Karma, entered a market with some impressive and unforeseen competition.
When they were planning Karma, the drones in the 4K, gimbal stabilised, aerial video market, were pretty much all way over $1,000. GoPro priced the Karma competitively at $799 for the basic (camera-less) package, $999 for the Hero5 Session bundle or $1,099 for the Hero5 Black bundle. This means an attractive $100 discount off the camera when you opt for either drone-plus-camera bundle.
What you get in the custom carry case is the drone, controller, stabilising gimbal, Karma Grip, battery, charger, spare propellers and mounting ring (which adds a standard GoPro mount to the grip). The gimbal has an interchangeable harness for use with the Hero4, 5 or 5 session, so if you already own a Hero4, you might find $799 to take your camera airborne a tempting proposition.
The gimbal can be disconnected from the drone and plugged in to the included Karma Grip for handheld stabilised video, meaning the Karma package actually contains two products in one, hence the ‘more than a drone’ slogan from GoPro.
If you wanted to buy a drone and a gimbal stick separately, you're looking at $999 for a Phantom 3 Pro and maybe $220 for a FeiyuTech G4.
What’s a Gimbal?A gimbal, as used with a handheld camera or drone, uses three brush-less motors, one in each axis (top-bottom, left-right, front-back) to compensate for shaky movement to create smooth, stabilised video. They will become more popular with the public for everyday video as their price continues to fall.
Here is a good comparison video showing stabilised (with a Karma Grip) vs unstabilised video.
Karma VideoIn flight, the video from the GoPro camera is displayed on the touch screen built in to the clamshell style controller and the experience is intended to be simple and easy.
As opposed to drones built for racing or doing stunts, being from GoPro, the Karma is all about aerial video. The target market will include folks who have not previously owned a drone, but want to get more interesting videos of their holidays, special events (like family parties) or just walking the dog on a beautify morning. And the combination of the Karma and a Hero camera can be spectacular.
(watch in 4K)
But Karma is launched into a market where experienced fliers are used to sophisticated drones, and they have given it somewhat of a mixed reception.
One element of the Karma’s aerial video which I didn’t like was the fish-eye effect that we perhaps don’t notice so much from the Hero cameras at ground level. Let’s face it, if you’re barrelling down a mountain, you want to capture as much of your surroundings as you can. But the wide field of view may not look so good up in the air, so GoPro released an update to their Hero software which adds the Linear field of view setting. I think it improves the visuals but unfortunately it doesn’t work in 4K.
Karma SutraThe writing, one might suggest, was on the wall for drone newcomers GoPro when the DJI Mavic Pro was announced about a week after the Karma with pre-orders open September 27th and shipping promised for October 15th. DJI have been in the drone business for 10 years with some tried and tested, firm favourites like the Phantom range securing them the largest chunk of the civilian drone market. Most people expected DJI to announce a successor to the Phantom 4, so everyone, perhaps most of all the folks at GoPro, were surprised at the announcement of the small form factor Mavic, as it's in direct competition with the Karma.
For $999, the Mavic has the gimbal and camera included, but since neither are detachable, there is no point in bundling a grip in the package. Instead DJI offer the OSMO range of handheld stabilised video solutions starting with the $299 Osmo Mobile for your smartphone.
In the Mavic box is the drone, controller, battery, charger, spare propellers, and additional cables to connect your flavour of phone (or tablet) to the controller. The drone can be controlled with either its controller, or your phone/tablet (using virtual joysticks), or, for the best experience, both at the same time. Your phone/tablet plugs in to the controller via a Lightning/USB cable and using the DJI Go app displays the live video feed and offers multiple ways to control the drone in flight.
The Mavic Pro has created much excitement amongst serious drone fans, packing the technology from the Phantom 4 into such a small flier. So much so, that demand has overwhelmed DJI and orders placed now (mid November) may not arrive until next year.
Karma vs Mavic - which is better?Because the first Mavic Pro deliveries were delayed, buyers (as opposed to recipients of free pre-production models) of both the Karma and the Mavic started uploading their unboxing videos around the end of October.
Both drones have fold out propeller arms, but the Mavic is smaller and lighter than the Karma and can be packed away into a ridiculously tiny space (like a backpack) and it's the reason that DJI don’t supply a hard case.
The Karma has the advantage of being able to swap cameras as new and improved Heros become available, whereas you’re stuck with the Mavic camera. The limited comparison reviews published to date put the Hero5 Black slightly ahead of the Mavic in picture quality, but it’s close. It also has the advantage of the accompanying Karma Grip which for the casual holiday videographer will kill two birds with one very useful stone. And the GoPro brand is very well known and will undoubtedly attract buyers.
But a key area where the Mavic scores over the Karma is the presence of sensors enabling accurate positioning and obstacle avoidance. Being able to 'see' what's below means the Mavic can maintain position despite windy conditions, whereas the Karma, relying only on GPS, tends to drift. The Mavic is also faster, has a greater flight range and a gimbal with a greater range of motion.
It has superior battery life, too, with owners’ videos showing 25+ minutes flight time as opposed the Karma's sub 20 minutes.
So if it’s a pure 4K video drone you are after, the Mavic has the Karma easily beaten. Unfortunately it’s not possible to say how the two drones compare long term because GoPro have withdrawn the Karma from sale and instructed owners to return theirs for a full refund.
Return to homeThe battery has been an issue for the Karma with short flight times and some drones even losing power and falling out of the sky. Here are a couple of videos where the Karma has crashed. Note – peoples’ reaction contains the F word in both cases.
As a result of a number of reported crashes, on November 8th GoPro issued a press release announcing
SAN MATEO, Calif., Nov. 8, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- GoPro Inc. today announced the recall of the approximately 2500 Karma drones purchased by consumers since October 23. The recall was announced after GoPro discovered that in a very small number of cases, Karma units lost power during operation. No related injuries or property damage have been reported.
Since there is no fix to the issue yet, it’s refunds only for Karma owners with no receipt needed. While GoPro have acted very responsibly in issuing the recall, their share value has fallen in a similar way to some of their drones. It fell when the Mavic was announced and then again following the recall press release.
So the sad news is that as of November 12th 2016, the Karma drone is unavailable to purchase from the GoPro website or anywhere else.
Let’s hope it returns soon so there is some competition for the Mavic Pro in the more affordable end of the stabilised, 4K capable drone market.
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