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It’s been a few years now since drones first became available on the consumer market and in that time they’ve become a vital piece of equipment for those who make cycling videos. The technology allows filmmakers to provide a perspective of riding that, until recently, wasn’t available unless you had a helicopter at your disposal. And the results can be breathtaking.
GoPro has been the market leader in the sports video camera market for the best part of a decade now, courtesy of its line of Hero action cameras. But the GoPro Karma represents the brand’s first entry into the drone market — a market where other, more established brands, principally DJI, rule the skies.
The GoPro Karma was first launched in October 2016 and almost immediately ran into trouble. GoPro was forced to recall the Karma just two weeks after launch when it was discovered that, “in a small number of cases, Karma units lost power during operation”, before plummeting to the ground (see example video below).
But the Karma returned to the market in February 2017 with a redesigned battery latch and set about trying to regain consumer confidence.
The GoPro Karma is a quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that houses the company’s top of the line Hero5 Black action camera (or Hero4 when used with a harness accessory).
With its arms extended, the Karma measures 30.3cm x 41.1cm x 11.7cm and weighs right on 1kg. The drone comes in a case/backpack which also contains a handheld controller with two thumbsticks, a handheld camera mount for shooting image-stabilised GoPro video, plus chargers and other accessories.
The included instruction booklet is easy to follow and will help you get the Karma charged and ready before launch. Note that the Karma will not take off unless a Hero camera has been installed.
Getting the Karma into the air is simple-enough. After finding a safe place to fly, it’s a process of extending the landing gear, placing the drone on the ground, extending the arms, attaching the propellers (match the dots on the propellers to those on the arms) and then turning both the Karma and its controller on.
The Karma’s compass needs to calibrated before its first flight, to ensure the drone’s guidance systems are working as intended. This involves holding the unit in front of you and turning yourself 360 degrees, once with the drone flat and again with it tilted on its side.
With that done, it’s a case of pressing and holding the launch button on the controller and watching as the Karma’s motors spin up and it leaps off the ground.
Up, up and away
With the drone in the air, you’ll use the handheld controller to pilot the Karma across the sky. The controller’s touchscreen shows whatever the Hero camera is seeing and the image is sharp and clear. The touchscreen itself is responsive and the interface is simple and intuitive to use.
The Karma’s movement is governed by the controller’s two thumbsticks. The right stick controls the drone’s horizontal movement: push it up to move forward, down to move back, left for left, and right for right. The left stick controls the drone’s elevation (up for up, down for down) and alters the direction the drone is facing (left to rotate left, right to rotate right). Let go of both sticks and the drone will hover in place.
There’s also the camera pitch wheel which determines the angle the Hero camera is facing — from straight down to straight out in front.
As intuitive as the controls are, it’s a lot to get your head around, particularly if you’ve never flown a drone before. To begin with, it’s easy to get the functions of the sticks mixed up, sending the drone forward when you meant to climb, or down when you meant to go backwards. But as with any control system, it’s simply a matter of time and practice before it starts to become familiar.
The Karma is fitted with green lights at the front and red at the back, so you can look up and see which direction is forward. To that point, flying the drone involves switching your gaze from the screen in front of you to the drone above you. This is particularly the case if you’re flying in an area with potential hazards nearby, such as trees or power lines. And as per the instruction guide, it’s important to keep the drone in sight at all times.
The Karma can climb to a maximum height of 400ft (122m) before the controller will warn you that you’ve “reached max altitude”. Note that you’re likely to start noticing signal break-up on the screen before that point, likewise if you fly the drone more than a few hundred metres away from you. This is due to the fact the Karma connects to its controller via WiFi, compared with the radio signal used by other drones such as the DJI Mavic.
Landing the Karma is easy. Press the auto-land button on the controller and you’ll be prompted to decide whether you want the drone to return to what you are, or come straight down. Make a selection and it will begin its descent.
This can be a nerve-wracking process if you set the drone off in an area with obstacles in the vicinity, but you can manually override the descent by using the thumbsticks. You can also just pilot the drone back to your location manually, before dropping it gently to the ground.
The feeling of flight
The whirring of the motors, the countdown as you press and hold the launch button, the feeling of uncertainty as you grapple with the controls — it’s hard not to feel nervous when first launching the drone. During my first few flights I couldn’t shake the thought that I was going to crash the Karma, as a colleague did during our Roadtripping New Zealand trip, or as you can see in so many YouTube compilation videos.
I was cautious to begin with, flying on a local football field with plenty of space to get used to the controls. But even that brought one hair-raising moment: I thought I was flying the drone towards me and realised I was in fact flying in the opposite direction. I was able to pull up the drone just metres before flying into a goal post. It was an important reminder to watch the screen as well as the drone, given the challenges of depth perception when the drone is far away.
I flew the Karma a total of seven times during the two-week review period and I never felt like I mastered the controls. That’s not the fault of the Karma’s control scheme — controlling the movement of an object on three axes is tricky, particularly when you add the extra complexity of camera pitch, all while trying to shoot moving objects. (It’s worth noting that some other drones on the market allow separate controllers for the drone’s movement and camera controls.)
In my brief time with the Karma I wasn’t able to develop my skills enough to both fly confidently and reliably capture great footage of cyclists (see video above). Some shots were easier than others — such as shots from a stationary drone — but tracking shots, for example, were far more challenging. The Karma can fly at up to 56km/h (35 mph) so it’s fast enough to keep up with cyclists in most circumstances — it can just be tricky to match the speed to ensure you get the shot you want.
I certainly came away from the experience with a much greater appreciation for the work done by drone videographers — those stunning aerial shots we’ve all become accustomed to don’t come easily.
Thankfully the Karma comes programmed with four auto-tracking shots (known as Auto Shot paths), which will take care of the drone’s movement so you can focus on framing up your shot. The “Dronie” sees the Karma fly up and away from its controller; the Cable Cam flies the Karma between two points in space; the Reveal makes the Karma fly straight ahead while tilting up to reveal the scene ahead; and the Orbit lets the Karma fly in a circle while keeping the subject centred in frame (see video below).
By default the Karma + Hero5 combination shoots 1080p video at 60 frames per second. And thanks to the stabilising gimbal the camera attaches to, the footage is impressively smooth. There are of course many options when it comes to the video format the Hero5 can shoot in, including 4K, and several alternatives at 1080p. These can be changed via the touchscreen interface on the Karma’s controller.
What the Karma is missing is a follow mode. Many other drones offer this option, including DJI’s Phantom and Mavic options, and its absence in the Karma feels like something of a shortcoming.
Beyond video, it is of course possible to take photos using the Karma – again, just change the format via the touchscreen.
There’s an interesting challenge to consider when it comes to battery life of drones (or any aircraft for that matter). The greater the battery capacity, the heavier the battery. The heavier the battery, the more energy required to lift and keep the drone off the ground. The more energy that’s required, the bigger the battery needs to be to have a decent runtime.
The upshot is that the Karma’s battery life is very short. GoPro claims 20 minutes of flight time, but I found that when the drone takes off, fully charged, the controller will show you’ve only got around 16 minutes of flying time. And then, at roughly three minutes to go, the controller will announce “Karma’s battery is very low – returning to you” and the auto-land procedure will kick into place.
Thirteen minutes of flying time really isn’t a lot, particularly when you need to nail a particular shot. Having flown the Karma I now have a greater appreciation for why CyclingTips photographer/videographer Tim Bardsley-Smith was keen to act quickly when getting drone shots during our Roadtripping adventure to Bali late last year.
The Karma’s battery life is shorter than that of its competitors — the DJI Mavic Pro lasts 20-25 minutes on one charge, for example. If you were using the Karma in any serious capacity an extra battery or two would be a must. These can be purchased separately for AU$149.95/US$99/£99.
As mentioned, the Karma comes boxed with a handheld mount, the Karma Grip, which can house the Karma’s stabilising gimbal and the Hero5. This is designed to allow the capture of smooth, stable vision at ground level, whether you’re simply holding the Grip, or have it mounted somewhere (including on the Karma backpack straps).
The control scheme on the Grip take a little getting used to but once you get it working the Grip allows you to take some very smooth footage.
The GoPro Karma isn’t cheap. The bundle that includes the Hero5 Black camera will set you back AU$1,749.95/US$1,099.99/£1,199.99 or AU$1,349.95/US$799.99/£869.99 for the package without the camera. It’s worth mentioning that the Karma + GoPro is slightly more expensive than the DJI Mavic Pro which includes its own camera and retails for US$999.
And again, if you’re going to be using the Karma in any sort of serious capacity, be sure to factor in the cost of an extra battery or two.
There’s a lot to like about the GoPro Karma. The controller feels great in hand, the controls are responsive, the touch screen is clear and the user interface is clean and intuitive. Setting it up is easy, take off and landing are simple, and thanks to the Hero5 it shoots great quality video. Flying the drone is challenging to begin with, but becomes easier over time.
The stabilising gimbal does quite a remarkable job too, smoothing out the video when the Karma is moving in three axes and the camera is tilting around. And speaking of the stabilising gimbal, the Grip is a nice little inclusion.
There are shortcomings, however. The battery life is a big one. While this is an issue that affects all drones, the battery life of the Karma is shorter than that of its competitors. As mentioned, this can be addressed by buying additional batteries, but this comes at a not-insignificant cost.
The lack of a follow mode might leave some buyers a little disappointed, as too might the occasional signal breakup — both issues that don’t affect the Karma’s competitors.
Speaking of which, the biggest question is perhaps one of where the Karma fits in the market. The DJI Mavic Pro, which released just a week after the Karma, is slightly cheaper and offers several advantages over the Karma, not least its far more compact size and lower weight.
In some ways it’s to be expected that DJI will have the more fully featured product — they’ve been making drones for much longer than GoPro. And that’s not to say that the Karma is a bad product, just that there is stiff competition in this space.
In general, the average person doesn’t need a drone. For most, it’s simply a toy — a great, fun-to-fly toy, but a toy nonetheless. If you’re part of a cycling club or group that wants to create some compelling video, though, then the Karma will go a long way to helping you in that goal. Just be sure to factor in plenty of time to become proficient with the controls before you start shooting your epic cycling adventure film.