By Brady Betzel
It seems like every week there is a remarkable update to drone technology or the introduction of a completely new drone. From DJI, GoPro, Yuneec or even Parrot, there are a lot of drones to choose from.
I’ve reviewed the DJI Phantom 4 drone and it was awesome. There were a few issues I had with the Phantom 4, like wanting a higher data rate for the footage and a smaller form factor — DJI answered both of those requests with the DJI Mavic Pro and their more recent small drone Spark. So what would GoPro’s Karma drone offer that DJI could not? To be honest, I wasn’t sure GoPro could rise up to DJI’s level. But the GoPro Karma is actually pretty different from the DJI Phantom.
Last year, GoPro sent me up to Squaw Valley in Northern California for the unveiling of the GoPro Hero 5 and Karma Drone. I’ve written about the Hero 5 line of cameras on this site and I still think the Hero 5 is a top-notch camera. If you follow tech news you probably saw that GoPro had to recall the first version of the Karma Drone due to the power from the battery disconnecting mid-flight. So that wasn’t good, but GoPro found a solution by adding a latch to the battery compartment to keep it in place. So here I am with the new and improved GoPro Karma Drone.
The GoPro Karma drone can be purchased in a few different configurations: $1,099 for the entire package, including the Hero 5 Black camera, Karma grip and Karma drone; $799 for the Karma grip and Karma drone (no camera); and $599 for the Flight Kit, which includes just the drone (you have to supply the Karma grip and camera). You can buy it here. If you have a Hero 4 you can purchase that camera harness for $29.99.
Unpacking the Box
When you buy the complete Karma with Hero 5 Black kit, you get the drone itself, a slick carrying case that doubles as a backpack, a charger, a battery, all-in-one-controller (no need for a phone), Karma grip and Hero 5 Black Edition. When I opened the box I immediately charged the batteries on each component: the camera, the Karma grip, controller and the Karma drone battery. It’s a lot of things to charge so make sure you have enough outlets. The charger that comes with the kit will charge a battery as well as a USB-C connected device, like the Karma drone controller or the Hero 5 Black Edition itself.
My advice is to let everything charge overnight if you can contain yourself. If you can’t, then let everything charge for an hour or so. You should at least be able to get a few minutes of flight time. If nothing else get that Karma controller plugged in and run through the built-in Flight Simulator and Learn to Fly apps; they will at least get you comfortable with the Karma and how it operates.
You do not need the Karma drone powered on like you do with the DJI Phantom to access the flight simulator, so you can pretty much start practicing immediately. After you master the flight simulator, do some research and check your local drone laws. One day you might have to register your drone, or you might not. It’s a constantly changing landscape of drone laws right now and you don’t want to get into trouble or accidentally hurt someone, so checking out the FAA website is a good place to start your research.
After you have your entire GoPro package charged, insert the Karma drone battery completely into the drone body, insert just the stabilizer from the Karma grip into the drone body and lock it into place (you can pack the Karma battery grip for later), spin the propellers on and tighten with the supplied tool, unfold the landing gear and legs, press the power button on the drone, and press the power button on the remote — now you will be flying. One of the first things I noticed when putting the Karma Drone together was that I definitely liked the way the Phantom 4’s propellers connected to the drone more than the way the Karma’s attached.
Before leaving the ground, I got into the routine of setting my Hero 5 video settings before I launched (when I remembered). Personally, I think the video settings sweet spot on the Hero 5 Black Edition is at a resolution of 2.7K and running at a frame rate of 60fps to allow for smooth slow motion when editing (slow-motion drone footage when done right seems to always make people say “wow”). In terms of the ProTune, I set the appropriate white balance and knocked down EV compensation to -1 when the sun is out or clouds are bright. Knocking the EV down helps to retain the details in bright white colors. Think of it like built-in sunglasses (or digital ND filters). And 2.7K, 60fps seems to be a pretty happy medium in terms of quality vs. storage space on the Hero 5.
Keep in mind that the data rate of your video will stay between 50Mb/s and 60Mb/s no matter what resolution you use on the Hero 5. Logically, that means that 4K will stretch that data rate out, leaving you with a bigger image but technically less detail. Hopefully, GoPro will ramp up their data rates and check out another codec like the H.265 or maybe a new Cineform codec in their next release; everyone would really appreciate the extra image detail and color. And while I’m at it suggesting things, I wouldn’t mind seeing some 10-bit 4:2:2 recording — know that is wishful thinking.
Like most drones, the Karma batteries didn’t last all day. They were lasting between 18 to 24 minutes, depending on wind conditions. The heavier the wind gusts the more your Karma will try and compensate to stay straight, which will drain your batteries fast. Mine started to get between 13 to 14 minutes with medium wind gusts. A second battery is definitely worth it.
Arguably my favorite part of the Karma drone, besides the actual drone, is the remote. The screen could be a little brighter outside but it looks good: it is a touchscreen, and it is very comfortable to hold. I never really liked the way the DJI Phantom remote felt, but the GoPro Karma remote feels awesome. In my opinion, the GoPro Karma drone remote is the best drone remote I’ve used. Besides controlling the settings of your GoPro camera from the remote, you can run the flight simulator and access any maps you have downloaded as well as the automatic flight settings.
You get four auto shot paths: Dronie, Cable Cam, Reveal and Orbit. Dronie starts off either close to the operator and flies up and out, or the reverse. Cable Cam has you set two points and will fly between those points. Reveal starts with the camera pointed down and slowly pans up to reveal the horizon. Orbit will circle an object you pre-determine. With all of these paths, you set the start and end points as well as speed and distance they travel. Once you tell these auto shot paths to begin you can control other parts of the drone easier, such as camera movement and orientation, as well as speed. They are awesome to play with and make great opening or closing shots for a movie.
When you are running out of battery, the Karma will automatically return to home base where you took off. This is something you need to keep in mind when flying because the GoPro Karma does not have collision avoidance, and if you simply hit return to home or it does it on its own, it could fly straight into power lines or something like a tree… and that will not go well. But when you are ready to fly back to your home base or on top of your Karma carrying case, which makes a great launch pad, you can hit “Return to You” or “Return to Launch.” If you’ve walked away and you want your Karma to come to where the remote is “Return to You” is what you want to hit. Again, this is when you need to be aware of what obstacles are in the Karma’s path.
On one of my outings I was going hiking about a half mile away from where I live in the hills of Simi Valley, California. It was a few months back when the hills were lush green from the recent rain, but it was warm. I had the Karma backpack on and was walking up a narrow path for about 15 minutes as I was chanting, “Please no snakes, please no snakes” in my head. Well, low and behold, Mr. Snake popped his head out from the side of the trail and said hi. It was probably a rattlesnake that wasn’t mad as we have tons of those in the hills around Ventura County. Nonetheless, I got out of there without any footage. If I had my wits about me I probably could have got a decent shot with the Karma Grip…nope. Let’s be real. I was out of there faster than the Flash.
I did discover that if you leave your Hero 5 in the Karma stabilizer while plugged into the drone or the Karma Grip, it will drain your Hero 5 battery. So take it out while it’s in storage. I really don’t have much to criticize in the Karma drone, but my wish list would include proximity sensors for collision avoidance, a higher data rate for the Hero line of cameras, which may come in their next release of the Fusion camera, and possibly a smaller form factor.
In the end, you won’t really get the idea of how fun drones are to fly until you get your hands on one. Drone filmmaking is not easy; it takes time to get beautiful shots. Think about it, there are camera people who make a good living off getting great shots. So don’t beat yourself up if it takes a few times to get the hang of just being comfortable flying a drone around while trying to keep everyone and everything safe.
However, once you get past the initial paranoia when flying a drone, you can get some unique shots that you may never have thought were possible. In my opinion, the GoPro Karma is the easiest and overall best drone to use. While it may not have all of the collision avoidance that the Phantom or Mavic have, it has an ease of use that is unrivaled.
The controller is so easy. My wife, who doesn’t really care about drones and would rather sew, was able to pick it up and fly within 20 minutes. This definitely wasn’t possible on the Phantom. In addition, being able to pull out the Karma stabilizer and attach it to the Karma grip within minutes is a game changer for someone running around the beach or hiking in the mountains.
If you are already a fan of the GoPro products, the Karma drone and grip are definite items to add to your shopping cart. GoPro even sent me the Karma Grip extension cable to play with. You can use it to stash the grip handle away from the stabilizer and then use a chest mount, or even the mount on the strap of the GoPro Seeker backpack, bringing stabilization everywhere.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.