Follow-me drones for dog sports: can they help train routines?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about using follow-me drones for dog sports: think dock jumping, herding, agility, disc dog or fly ball. With the help of drones, you could theoretically conduct video analysis to make your routine more precise. So which follow-me drone would be best? If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

My hobby is competition dog sports. I have a promising young Malinois, and — with the help of drone video — I could tweak his performance. I’d like a drone to follow me so that I can analyze and improve my routines, which have quick twists and turns. For instance, in obedience, you do a quick turn, so I need to see how the dog turns with me and if he is is straight in the heel position afterwards.

Which follow-me drones are best for this situation? Can you zoom in tight & follow with drones?

Picking the best follow-me drones for animals

What a clever use case for follow-me drones! Whether you’re tracking wildlife for conservation, trying to train your dog, scouting out the mountain lions in the hills near your home or really any other use case you can think of, follow-me drones become compelling with animals in the picture.

So what’s the best follow-me drone for tracking animals? First, check out my guide to the best follow-me drone. In it, I outline the best four follow-me drones: the DJI Mavic 3 Pro, the DJI Mini 4 Pro, the Skydio 2+ and the DJI Air 3 drone.

Here are some key specs across the four drones named in that guide, compared:

DJI Mavic 3 ProDJI Mini 4 ProSkydio 2+DJI Air 3
Price$2,199$759No longer sold$1,099
Best for…Best overallBest budget pickBest made-in-America optionBest for dual cameras
Sensing typeOmnidirectional obstacle avoidanceOmnidirectional obstacle avoidanceOmnidirectional obstacle avoidanceOmnidirectional obstacle avoidance
Tracking systemFocusTrack, which includes ActiveTrack 5.0, Spotlight, and Point of InterestActiveTrack 360Tracks people and motor vehicles. Select up to 10 simultaneous objects of interestFocusTrack, which includes ActiveTrack 5.0, Spotlight, and Point of Interest
Weight958 gramsUnder 250 grams775 grams720 grams
Max flight time43 mins.34 mins.27 minutes46 mins.
Image SensorHasselblad Camera:
4/3 CMOS;
Medium Tele Camera:
1/1.3-inch CMOS;
Tele Camera:
1/2-inch CMOS
1/1.3-inch CMOS1/2.3″ CMOSWide-Angle Camera:
1/1.3-inch CMOS, Effective Pixels;
Medium Tele Camera:
1/1.3-inch CMOS
Effective Pixels48 MP (medium tele camera), 20 MP (Hasselblad camera), 12 MP (tele camera)48 MP12.3MP 48 MP

The rules for follow-me drones typically apply for any sort of tracking use case, but there are some important differences when tracking animals specifically. So while any of those drones named above may work, there are some notes to consider:

Flight time: Longer flight time might be useful so as to not disrupt your dog’s training session. Given that, the DJI Mavic 3 Pro stands out with 43 minutes of maximum flight time.

But don’t overlook the DJI Mini 4 Pro. While it’s cited as 34 minutes above, it technically becomes 45 minutes when you use it with the Intelligent Flight Battery Plus. That battery is more expensive (it’s about $100). Plus, it increases your drone’s weight over 250 grams, which might be a big deal as your drone will likely become subject to more federal regulation.

Not all drones track animals well: While DJI ActiveTrack 4.0 and 5.0 are technically capable of following pets, the precision can vary depending on conditions.

In particular, ActiveTrack performs better when tracking one subject at a time. Especially with situations like a herd of animals you’re trying to follow that all look the same to a drone the drone more easily gets confused. That’s opposed to a person, which the drone can better distinguish given features like outfit, hair color, etc.

We’ll dig into ActiveTrack 5.0 below, and why it’s a key feature for tracking animals (and it’s flaws):

Why the DJI Mavic 3 Pro or DJI Air 3 drone are likely your two best bets

Even the best follow-me drones can struggle to track animals. I’m talking about products like the Skydio 2+, which is a darling in the world of follow-me drones. But while the California drone maker promises that its flagship product can follow people and cars, Skydio explicitly does not promise that their drone can follow animals for the aforementioned reasons.

The best commercially-available software out there for tracking animals from the air comes from DJI, and that’s ActiveTrack 5.0. Both the DJI Mavic 3 Pro or DJI Air 3 drones come equipped with ActiveTrack 5.0.

ActiveTrack 5.0 is a huge improvement over previous versions of tracking technology. For example, the lower-cost DJI Mini 4 Pro only comes equipped with ActiveTrack 360.

So what’s so special about ActiveTrack 5.0? Capable of tracking subjects in eight directions, it uses multiple vision sensors simultaneously to recognize a subject. From there, it differentiates it from other objects, and lock the subject in the frame. From there, users can adjust tracking angles smoothly for more natural results.

The improvements largely come down to environment and subject-sensing algorithms. That enables the DJI Mavic 3 Series to respond earlier to subject movements — which can be particularly unpredictable when it comes to animals.

ActiveTrack first debuted with the DJI Phantom 4 back in March 2016, but it’s been constantly iterated upon. In fact, we’re now on Active Track 5.0.

Using DJI ActiveTrack with animals

DJI ActiveTrack allows you to fly in a few different recording modes of your choice:

With Trace mode, the drone can track your dog at a constant distance. In Spotlight mode, the drone doesn’t actually automatically trace your dog, but rather keeps the camera pointing at it during flight. You can use the remote controller to adjust how your dog is framed in the shot. And in Profile mode, the drone tracks your dog at constant angle and distance from the side. What’s neat about Active Track 5.0 is that you can set a specific following angle.

If your drone loses sight of your dog (perhaps, for example, he runs behind a large block of trees), then the drone will stop, hover, and try to relocate him. If it truly cannot find him, the drone will hover in place until Return-To-Home (RTH) is initiated.

You also mentioned wanting to zoom in. You’re in luck, as the DJI Mavic 3 will let you zoom in likely far more than you could ever need thanks to its 28x Hybrid Zoom. Here’s just how detailed you can get with your Mavic 3’s Hybrid zoom:

Flaws with DJI ActiveTrack 5.0

While ActiveTrack can follow pets and children sometimes, even DJI warns that it’s not reliable all the time. After all, ActiveTrack works by being pre-programmed to recognize different objects. DJI said there were more than roughly two dozen pre-recognized objects in its 2.0 version of ActiveTrack. That includes people, cars and boats. Each has different algorithms on how to track those programmed items. Presumably, each animal (and species of animal) could require its own programming, which has just proven to be a big undertaking.

Most pilots have reported the best results when filming in high-contrast situations (e.g. a white dog on bright green grass, or a grey elephant on yellow grasslands).

Even still though, animals are just hard because they tend to be multi-colored. They’re also different shapes and sizes even within the same species, and they move erratically.

And then there’s the consideration about trying to film herds of animals.

“It performs better when tracking one subject at a time,” according to an FAQ on DJI’s website.

Other considerations around DJI’s ActiveTrack 5.0:

Here are five more considerations to make before relying on ActiveTrack 5.0:

  1. ActiveTrack is not available at video resolutions higher than 4K or frame rates over 60fps, so keep that in mind depending on if you need high quality video or to record at a high frame rate.
  2. You cannot change the distance from the subject.
  3. A strong GPS is required. Keep that in mind if you’re flying in GPS-challenged environments (though flying in most parks should be fine).
  4. If you’re flying in Sport mode, note that obstacle avoidance is turned off. Keep this in mind if high speeds are importance!
  5. You must fly in P-mode to enable DJI ActiveTrack. P-mode effectively activates both the drone’s GPS signal strength and visual recognition system. That’s as opposed to something like S-mode, where the drone only uses GPS to locate itself.

What about the Skydio 2+ drone?

Skydio drones use six 4K cameras to build a 3D map of their surroundings, deep learning algorithms to understand what they’re seeing, and advanced AI to predict into the future and make intelligent decisions. It’s capable of tracking up to 10 simultaneous objects of interest.

As far as the tracking features, you have choices, much like the DJI Mavic 3. With Point-of-Interest Orbit mode, you get a birds-eye view of what’s happening on the ground by orbiting the drone around a user-specified point on the map (such as your dog). With Track-In-Place mode, you can track a specific object from a long distance and keep them inside the frame from a fixed position in the sky.

Its full cinematic skills are:

  • Motion Track (relative to subject motion)
  • Fixed Track (relative to absolute orientation)
  • One Shots (dronie, rocket, boomerang, and vortex)
  • Cable cam (single pass, looping, or track)

You mentioned wanting to zoom in, and the Skydio 2+ delivers with 360 Superzoom. That allows you to zoom out for a 360° live view of your surroundings or digitally zoom in to see details of your dog’s movement.

In many ways, the Skydio 2 is a better follow-me drone than the DJI Mavic 3 Pro. Just check out this video from DC Rainmaker as proof. He did an awesome deep dive (literally, he gets wet) via a side-by-side comparison between the DJI Mavic 3 (regular version) and the Skydio 2. Note that he reviews the Skydio 2 rather than the newer Skydio 2+ in autonomous tracking modes. Still ,definitely give this video a watch!

Ultimately, the Skydio 2 seems to perform better in terms of obstacle avoidance. Both can still ultimately crash. Another factor to consider: with the Mavic 3, you cannot change your distance from the subject. Meanwhile, you can on the Skydio 2.

But here’s why I don’t recommend the Skydio 2. The company won’t promise to be able to follow animals, the way DJI has promised such a feat (in most circumstances) on its DJI Mavic 3 Pro and DJI Air 3 drones.

Then there’s a far more practical reason why I don’t recommend the Skydio 2: it’s no longer in production. As we predicted when Skydio consumer drones went out of stock in mid-2023, the company shut down its consumer drone arm. Now, the only way to get your hands on a Skydio consumer drone is by shopping through third parties. Or, you could buy a used drone, but that has its own risks.

Tips for better tracking animals with drones

The use of drones in animal tracking is still evolving — and the technology still needs improvement.

The best drones for tracking animals for now are the DJI Mavic 3 Pro or DJI Air 3 drones. But, even they need some work. DJI’s ActiveTrack is the best in class as far as consumer models go. Generally speakin, the newer the version (e.g. ActiveTrack 5.0 as opposed to 3.0), the better.

There are some ways you can improve your odds of successfully tracking animals with drones. If it’s feasible (i.e you’re tracking your own pet), ut a solid color, high-contrast vest on the animal. That just increases the odds the drone can follow it.

Ultimately, many drone owners have found that — while a drone is a great tool to film dogs and other animals from the air — even the autonomous software just isn’t that smart yet. You might just have to fly in manual mode.

Happy flying, happy training and happy tracking! Woof!

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