I’ve flown, and crashed, a lot of drones in my lifetime. Especially in the early days of drones, I sent a lot of drones into trees (and I’m afraid to admit, water, too). As drone technology has improved, so has my crash rate.
But I even managed to have a Phantom 4 crash under my purview — alas, that drone has no side facing sensors.
Flying drones admittedly gives me mild anxiety at times. But for my business manager, photographer and jack-of-all trades assistant, Hamilton, he has the real anxiety when flying drones. After all, he has to watch me crash (and often ends up climbing trees to retrieve the drones).
So you can imagine when I set off the Skydio 2. It took off, hovered for a bit as I ooh’d and aww’d, and then it took off on the first automated flight I triggered it to set out for.
I didn’t tell Hamilton what this drone was capable of. I also didn’t waste a lot time after takeoff before tapping “Orbit” on the Skydio 2 app — and the drone immediately took off rather quickly and immediately toward a park awning (its max speed is 36 mph). Hamilton yelled, “Sally!” as if I was about to crash this drone 2 minutes into me flying it for the first time. But the drone didn’t crash. It increased its elevation a couple feet, seamlessly gliding over the awning and then circling back around.
I flew Skydio 2 in a wooded area. I sent it around trees. I walked through paths shrouded by trees. It never crashed.
What is Skydio 2?
Skydio 2 is an incredibly smart, follow-me drone. Equipped with six, 200-degree color cameras, Skydio 2 can see everything in every direction so it theoretically never crashes. It costs $999.
Skydio is interesting in that it’s one of the few American drone companies — and one of an even smaller set of American companies making consumer-focused drones.
Unlike other follow-me drones that rely on following a device attached to you, the Skydio uses its cameras to lock onto you. But not only does the camera watch you. It’s watching everything around it, ensuring it doesn’t hit those things and calculating how to navigate around those things in the event it otherwise would hit you.
When did the Skydio 2 launch?
The Skydio 2 actually launched back in October. Some people got their hands on it then. From the start, production couldn’t keep up with demand and it was hard to get your hands on one. But production stopped completely after coronavirus put a pause on manufacturing in California (manufacturing is done in Redwood City (part of San Mateo County).
In June 2020, Skydio made a big comeback. They started limited production in early June, scaling slowly to ensure safety including wide spacing/distancing, PPE, and compliance with all health and safety recommendations.
By the end of the month, the California-based drone maker announced the reopening of their online store, the restart of manufacturing and a new software update on the same day.
Skydio was created in 2014, and their first product, the R1 launched in 2018 (that product is no longer sold by Skydio). The Skydio 2 improves upon the original version.
How do you fly the Skydio 2?
Most people will likely fly this drone with just the phone (their app is compatible with iOS and Android). All the features that provide cinematic flight paths like Orbit, Dronie and Cable Cam can be done 100% through the phone app.
You can also use the app to control the drone just like you would with any other controller with sticks. That said, flying manually like that is actually very clunky (and I generally don’t recommend flying that way). The controls aren’t very responsive and they’re slow.
What you should use the app for is to tell the drone to fly itself. Skydio can carry out autonomous flight paths.
There is an optional controller: If you want, you can upgrade for an extra cost to a traditional controller ($179). It’s actually a controller manufactured by Parrot, but loaded with Skydio software. It’s the same controller hardware you get with the Parrot Anafi drone — and it looks cheap, especially compared to the slick design of Skydio 2.
The first time I flew the Skydio 2, I actually had trouble getting the controller to connect. DJI drones of late just don’t have those kinds of connection issues — which is a big reason why DJI might still be drone king. But I’m also not surprised, as a Skydio product talking to a Parrot product inevitably means connection issues. I eventually got the controller to connect through some series of unplugging and replugging. Ultimately, it was fine once I got it to work.
The controller can be useful in cases where it’s important you get a specific shot.
But if you’re primarily planning on flying with the controller, you should probably just skip the Skydio completely (I’d recommend something like a DJI Mavic instead).
The Beacon add-on is definitely worth it: The Beacon is a magic wand type tool that basically levels up your drone. It also has an additional cost ($179), but it does a bunch of things. It can extend your drone’s range up to 1.5 km (without the Beacon, the range is a maximum of 3.5 km). It allows you to point it in the sky indicating where the drone will fly.
But the coolest thing about the Beacon is how it enables the drone to carry out flights in more complex environments where the drone can’t necessarily see you, like if you’re walking through thick trees.
I tried the same shot of me walking through a thickly wooded area. Without the Beacon, the drone locked onto me at all times. But with the Beacon, the drone hovered farther back, allowing for a more natural, cinematic shot. That’s because the Beacon enables GPS tracking which allows the Skydio 2 to stay with you, even if it can’t see you. Even if the camera loses you (because you’re behind trees), the GPS signal from the Beacon allows the drone to return to and visually re-aquire you. Walk behind a tree, and the drone weaves between branches. The shot looks like something you’d expect from a highly-produced movie.
Additionally, the Beacon allows you to unlock additional skills, like Dronie, Hover, Angle Track and more.
I loved the Beacon. You can use the Skydio without a phone and just the Beacon, but you’ll probably want to use both simultaneously. The phone allows a greater level of control over features like camera settings, not to mention it shows you what the camera sees. The only downfall is, now you’re holding two objects in your hands, which is a bit clunky. Maybe ensure the outfit you’re wearing has pockets (alas, this skirt I’m wearing has none — so annoying!).
Skydio touts the Beacon as providing greater “lightweight controllability” because you theoretically don’t need your phone to use it. While that’s true, you’ll have a much better user experience (aside from holding two objects) by using both.
Skydio’s creators refer to it as “the flying supercomputer.” It’s all made possible by six 200 degree color cameras, allowing Skydio 2 to see everything in every direction. And it’s powered by a computing device called the NVIDIA Tegra TX2, which has 256 GPU cores capable of 1.3 trillion operations a second.
Skydio 2 review: videography
For photographers who want a specific shot, this drone is a little hard to actually take control of. It’s so smart that it can fly itself, and it does a great job of that. You set it to, say, orbit, and the Skydio flies in a circle, confidetly avoiding all objects in its path.
But if you want to have the drone execute a particular shot, say, flying down a path, turning right into an arch of branches, and panning out, good luck. If you do want to get a specific shot, that’s a use case where the traditional controller would come in handy.
I don’t want to say you can’t use the Skydio 2 to get the exact shots you want, but you’ll need to be ultra-familiar with the drone and have spent a number of flight hours with it — it’s not something you can do on your first few flights.
I suppose that’s a blessing and a curse. It’s almost a surprise to see how the shot turns out. You can tell it to take a specific shot, like Angle Track, but you never know how the drone will pivot around a tree. Every take ends up being somewhat of a surprise, which is kind of delightful.
As far as actual image quality, the Skydio 2 shoots 4K video up to 60fps with HDR, powered by Sony’s IMX577 1/2.3” 12.3MP sensor.
The image signal processor is Qualcomm’s RedDragon QCS605.
What about photography?
Skydio 2 captures images at 12MP. Stills can be taken as JPEG, DNG (RAW) as 13 stops of dynamic range
Going back to the point earlier about it being hard to get a specific shot, I’ve found this isn’t my go-to device for still photos. The Skydio really shines when it comes to videography in terms of the obstacle avoidance and the brilliant, cinematic shots it can automatically take. There’s nothing special about the still photography though. It simply exists. If your priorities are still photography, I’d recommend the DJI Mavic Air 2 for most people.
On both videos and stills, the quality is mixed. Especially for shots where objects were close up, I experienced some distortion, where the lens gave off somewhat of a fisheye look. Perhaps you might like that aesthetic, but it didn’t really work for me.
Skydio did partner with PolarPro, which is widely seen as one of the leaders in making ND filters to create a set of filters customized for the Skydio.
For an additional cost, you can purchase the filter set which includes an ND8, ND16, and ND32 filter using Cinema Series Glass. They’re mounted via a handy system called the “Strong Magnetic HotSwap System.”
Skydio 2 app: how does it stack up?
You’ll use the Skydio 2 app to control the drone, and you can also use it to save video clips to your phone after the flight for instant sharing.
The app is fine. It’s certainly not bad. Launching your drone from the app is easy. You just hold the Launch button. And once Skydio 2 is in the air, the Skydio app will begin what’s called a Learn to Fly experience, which teaches you the basic controls.
The app does have a nifty feature that delighted me: it records audio. An audio recorder on the drone camera would be useless, as it would primarily capture just buzzing noises. But I can see the in-app audio being useful to sync your voice or other sounds on the ground to the drone’s flight in real-time. You could just use a separate voice recorder if you really wanted, but this neat little feature reduces that burden.
Still, the Skydio 2 app doesn’t have the polish of its closest competitor, the DJI Fly app. DJI Fly’s app draws on years of data and testing about the pilot’s psychology. It has placed buttons in places where they are maximally intuitive. The DJI Fly app walks you through every step of your flight, like having a flight instructor by your side, but in a phone.
The basics are clear: takeoff, selecting various modes, etc. But the features that go the extra mile in DJI’s drones, like walking you through connecting the drone step-by-step, letting you know more about the airspace you’re in, etc. aren’t in the Skydio yet.
And as far as post flight, Skydio’s app doesn’t have the robust tools that allow you to edit your footage, sync it to music and get it up on Instagram within minutes.
If Skydio really wants to compete with DJI, it’s going to have to iterate on its app to match DJI’s standards and build that same harmonious user experience that I’ve been spoiled by from DJI.
What’s in the box of your Skydio 2
You get one battery (the battery life is 23 minutes). Spare batteries can be purchased separately for $99. The batteries connect to the drone via a clever magnetic latching system.
Typically, the batteries must be charged via a USB-C port on the drone. I actually found that a bit annoying, because it means you can’t charge other batteries while the drone is in flight. Skydio has mitigated that by offering a separate battery charger which charges two batteries at once. However, it’s an additional cost of $179.
You’ll also get two additional propellers (one of each type beyond the four required to fly), one USB (type C) cable for charging and data transfer, and one USB (type C) wall adapter for charging. Additional propellers are $29 each per set.
You do have to provide your own memory card. And not just any memory card will work. The Skydio 2 requires a UHS Speed Class 3 (U3) or faster microSD card to record 4k video. Otherwise, you’ll have everything you need to carry out a basic flight.
The drone doesn’t fold like many of the other popular drones on the market today, but it’s still very compact. At a height of just 74 mm, it’s pretty thin as far as drones go. It fits inside a case essentially the size of a laptop case, making it slightly bulkier to carry around than something like a Mavic (I can literally fit the Mavic in my peacoat pocket) but not so large that its impractical to take with you on a trip. Ideally it would be foldable, but I didn’t find it to be ultra-annoying, the way toting around a big Yuneec Typhoon H is.
I do appreciate that they give you a hardshell case (you typically have to pay extra to get a case with most other drones). And the case actually serves dual purposes: Skydio can recognize the case’s logo and autonomously land on it.
To activate a case landing, you’ll have to pilot the drone over the case so that the camera can pan down and see the logo. From there, you’ll be able to see a display on the phone screen that indicates it sees the case and will land there.
Again, the Beacon and Controller are sold separately. However, you can upgrade to the Pro Kit, which costs $1,500 and includes those items, plus a bunch of spare batteries, the dual charger and more. Though, the Pro Kit does NOT include the drone itself (so expect to pay $2,500 to have the drone and everything pictured below in the Pro Kit).
Here’s what comes with the Pro Kit:
- 1 Rugged Case
- 1 Controller
- 1 Beacon
- 1 Skydio-branded tablet mount for Controller
- 3 Extra Batteries
- 1 Pair of Extra Propellers
- 1 Dual Battery Charger
- 1 128GB SanDisk Extreme microSD Card
- 1 SD Card Laptop Adapter
- 1 Microfiber Lens Cloth
- Skydio Premier Support
If you do intend on getting both the Beacon and the Controller, you might consider going all the way and getting the Pro Kit. The Beacon and Controller will already cost you $300 more. You’ll almost certainly want a spare battery (and this comes with 3 spares, worth $300). And the dual battery charger is a headache-reliever if you’re using the drone often that day and want to be able to charge batteries while the drone is in flight.
But considering you get the extra props, SD card, the dual battery charger plus other little goodies like the lens cloth and dual battery charger, it might be easy to justify the upgrade when you add up all those individual costs.
Skydio 2 review: who it’s for (because it’s not for everyone)
If you like to be in control and know exactly where your drone is flying and what shots it’ll get, the Skydio 2 is probably not for you.
But if you want a follow-me drone documenting your moves, the Skydio 2 is fantastical.
Where it shines most is action or adventure sports, or other activities that involve videoing movement. You’ll looking for an aerial shot of you riding down a trail on horseback, biking up a hill, cross country skiing through a forest or racing dune buggies on the sand.
The Skydio 2 is definitely one of the most impressive drones I’ve seen — and it’s incredible how a drone can pack so much smart tech for less than $1,000.
It’s incredibly smart, but it does lack something that stems from it almost being too smart: a connection to the pilot. The drone flies itself — and it doesn’t want your input.
If Skydio were a person, it would be the smart kid in class who knows it all, but also refuses to listen to others. It would be the kid who could totally execute a group project with 100% flawlessness on their own, but can’t actually work on a team (and sometimes team projects are not necessarily about dividing and conquering, but working together).
I say that because I often wanted the drone to fly a certain way, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it to do that. It ended up flying a different way — and it flew that way perfectly. I wanted a shot, but Skydio took a different shot. That shot was beautiful, but it’s not the one I thought I wanted in my mind.
With many flight hours and experience, I think you could understand how to work together with Skydio to get the best of both worlds: flying the route you want, but Skydio doing it in the way it knows best — so I don’t want to write it off completely.
But in the early stages of your relationship with Skydio, you might find the drone flies where it wants — not where you want.
If you don’t like ceding that level of control — and hey, data shows that pilots prefer to be in control rather than let the drone do all the work — this drone isn’t for you.
The Skydio 2 is for the person who doesn’t want to be a drone pilot. It’s for the person who is a mountain biker, horse rider or snowshoer first. They just want amazing shots documenting themselves. Though, I do wonder if the drone serves a niche too small (and its price — though low given the level of high-quality tech inside — is still higher than most DJI drones, and I’m not sure people will be willing to pay the extra price for Skydio). People using drones for commercial use cases (taking a specific real estate shot, inspections, etc.) might find the Skydio doesn’t afford them the level of control they need to carry out their work.
This is a drone that certainly exemplifies surprise and delight. Every flight with the Skydio 2 is an adventure. It brings a thrill of wondering where exactly it will go, and what the final shot will turn out like. And it’s all the better because you know it’s not going to crash.