Review: Blade Chroma Camera Drone
Whether they’re pocket sized or too large to carry without specialty bags or cases, drones are increasingly mainstream, particularly of the camera kind. We’d never flown a large quadcopter before, at least not until getting our hands on this Blade Chroma Camera Drone to review from Horizon Hobby. As you’d figure we were very excited from the get go: they sent over a Blade Chroma with Stabilized CGO3 4K Camera and ST-10+ controller, which, while a mouthful, basically translates to big drone that shoots highly stable 4K video. Our perspective is that of a layman, not a drone hobbyist, and yours probably is as well, so read on to learn more about what this drone can do.
Set up. Upon receiving a drone the first thing you’ll want to do is take it out for a flight without reading anything. But at least skimming over some documentation is in order, lest you scrap your thousand dollar toy, or worse. Hindsight is 20/20. We didn’t really read much and narrowly avoided scrapping some propellors on our first test flight. Luckily we finally did sit down to have a glance, and discovered the included instructions were all printed on a single fold-up sheet that’s rather easy to understand, even for the overeager and mildly impatient. In terms of actual set up the drone ships with its propellers in a box that then have to be attached. Easy enough: each prop has a letter — A or B — that should match the letter on the arm it should be screwed onto as to ensure that it tightens while spinning instead of loosening. Otherwise, we topped up the drone’s 6,300mAh LiPo battery first, though it came mostly charged, and when that was done slid the large battery into the back of the drone with a satisfying click. The manual mentioned something about syncing the drone’s camera to the ST-10+ remote controller, but ours was already set up and ready to go right away, so all that was left was calibrating the compass, i.e. spinning the drone’s body in some strange orientations for about a minute. In contrast to what we’ve read about some straight-from-China drones that include horribly written instructions, this was a breeze.
The Controller. The ST-10+ remote itself is full featured and makes us happy we’re not flying this thing on a comparatively imprecise smartphone. It’s equipped with a 5.5-inch touchscreen display below its analog controls and streams video directly from the CGO3 with less than half a second latency which is fine for recording, though for this reason flying the drone in advanced modes (more in the Flight section) using just the video feed may not be ideal. For controlling the drone, the right joystick controls directionality, meaning both strafing sideways and moving forward or backwards. Moving the left joystick up or down controls altitude, and sideways makes the drone pivot. Camera controls are equally intuitive though not as responsive, with a slider on the left side that controls the camera’s pitch and two trigger buttons on its shoulders snap photos and start shooting video. There’s no need to fill it up with eight AAs like remotes of yesteryear: it’s also equipped with a rechargeable battery and tops up using Micro USB.
Flight. The Blade Chroma features several flight modes: Smart, Aerial Photography, Follow Me and Tracking modes. Smart is designed for beginners and was therefore our obvious choice for the first real flights. To start in this mode, place the drone facing away from you about 16 feet away, flip up its GPS mast (the highest point on the drone shown in the above image), turn it on, and turn on the remote. The two connect automatically and the drone locks into GPS signals. Hold down the red start/stop button for 3 seconds to turn on the propellers. Smart mode ensures two things: first, the drone won’t run into you even if you’re trying to make it do so thanks to its SAFE circle barrier that’s set upon firing up the engines, though of course if you move out of the circle you’re of course no longer shielded. Second, it ensures the drone always moves relative to you regardless of the direction it’s facing: right on the joystick is always your right, and so on, making flight simple for uneasy beginners. Releasing the controls also makes the drone just hover in position, and it was surprisingly stable even in moderately windy conditions, likely in no small part due to its GPS lock and its size.
One or three flights in Smart mode was enough to give us the confidence to flip it into Aerial Photography mode, where the drone flies relative to its direction and not relative to you. It’s intuitive but trickier than Smart mode in that you need to keep track of your drone’s orientation, but the fact that it maintains altitude and position when your hands are off the controls makes it nearly foolproof, unless you lose sight of the craft or are flying between trees, which is not a great idea (we speak from experience). Keep in mind that its out-of-the-box range is about 600 feet in any direction and 400 feet in altitude, though these restrictions can be disabled to expand its range to a full 2,000 feet in optimal conditions (i.e. few radio-obscuring obstacles in the way). Two autonomous modes include Follow Me and Tracking in which the Chroma follows the ST-10+ remote; the former maintains altitude while granting you full control over the camera’s perspective while the latter also points the camera towards the remote at all times. Two more advanced flying modes that frankly we didn’t dare touch include Stability mode and Agility mode. Stability mode grants you expanded banking angles and full RPM control of all motors at the cost of altitude hold. In Agility mode banking limitations are altogether removed, enabling stunt flying and crazy shooting, especially considering the Chroma’s ability to attain speeds of over 40 mph in these modes. We’re fairly certain that these modes in our inexperienced hands would quickly and reliably result in total drone destruction, so we predictably stood clear. Maybe one day, after logging significant flight hours.
Our summed up thoughts on flying is that the drone was very responsive to remote inputs and stable thanks to its size. Even bringing it a couple hundred feet up left us feeling confident that the wind wouldn’t sweep it away like a toy, though seeing the Chroma, bright lights and all, as a tiny speck in the sky is still a little nerve wracking. It’s also rated to stay afloat for up to 30 minutes on a full charge, and that’s about what we attained. After that, all bets are off. Actually the remote displays battery levels so when it’s going low it’s time to bring her home. Take off is a joke and landing was equally easy: flip the mode switch down to go into Return to Home mode and the drone automatically and gently lands itself at the location of its takeoff. Or just do it yourself, slowly. And if you were curious, we haven’t crashed it as of this writing.
The Camera. The unit we received featured the CGO3 camera on a gimbal. Its 3-axis brushless gimbal goes a long way to stabilize the image, staying very steady even through repeated strafing and banking. At 4K and 30fps, the video camera shoots some quality video, though zooming in far enough post shooting shows some signs of sharp roughness. When viewed normally though the video looks very smooth and solid. It’ll also shoot 120fps video at 1080p, good for occasions when UHD quality is not necessary or for where slow motion could benefit the shot. Angles attainable by the camera’s gimbal span 90 degrees and range from parallel to the ground all the way to facing directly downwards, making for interesting shot possibilities. One downside is that banking the camera is a little slow: when turning the angle wheel on the left side of the remote, it takes a couple of seconds for the camera to catch up and match the angle. Also distinguishing dark subjects at night on video was difficult (and probably expected), though piloting the drone itself past dusk isn’t an issue visibility-wise since it sports four LEDs, one under each rotor, that makes it easy to spot from afar.
Wrap up. The Blade Chroma Camera Drone is undeniably a great deal of fun. It’s easy to fly, offers a beginner-friendly Smart mode that literally shields the pilot from mishap, shoots quality video footage and images, and flying it has so far proven difficult to mess up. Both autonomous modes are fairly foolproof as well provided there are no obstacles for the drone to crash into at its altitude, making it easy to just let the drone handle shooting footage of you if there’s nobody else available to take the reigns. As novices we quickly learned the ropes of its standard modes, and Stability and Agility modes offer something that should keep experienced pilots just as content.
Alternately, the same drone also comes in models equipped with either a 1080p camera or a GoPro compatible gimbal. Pick one up at Horizon Hobby – $1,200