Over the last few years, consumer drones have slowly started to grow in popularity. What started as a fairly expensive hobby, has grown into a much more competitive market. So much so, that the US government recently began imposing a new law that requires all drones over eight ounces in weight to be properly registered before flight. Walk through any mall, and you will likely find a booth selling relatively cheap quadcopters designed for kids, but as you are likely already aware, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Look online, or in your local hobby shop if you are lucky enough to have a good one around, and you will find a host of advanced quadcopters boasting any number of additional features, such as cameras, flight automation, and more. We recently got our hands on one such option, the Chroma Blade from Horizon Hobby, and have spent some time hovering around our neighborhood, collecting footage and opinions.
If you head on over to Horizon Hobby's website and check out the Chroma's product page, the first thing you will see is a bold headline claiming "Everything in One Box." After spending some time with the device, it is evident that this really is the case. Open the box for the first time, and you will find your brand new drone assembled and nearly ready to fly. Simply spin on one of the two included sets of propellers, charge the batteries, and go. Along with the quadcopter, you will also find a battery charger, sunshield, additional camera lens, and of course, the ST-10+ controller in the box.
Surrounded by a solid plastic casing, the Chroma comes in any color you would like, as long as that color is white. If white isn't your first choice however, then fear not, as a trip to the Horizon Hobby web store can solve the problem. For $30 you can purchase a number of different skins that can be easily applied to the Chroma for a different look. Coming in at just under three pounds, the quadcopter feels solid enough to survive some minor abuse, though we were had no plans to go out of our way to test the exact breaking point. Thankfully, Horizon Hobby does stock all of the Chroma's parts in its store, meaning repairs are possible in the event of a mishap.
Now for the other major hardware component, the ST-10+ controller. While many popular consumer drones rely on external tablets or smartphones to provide a live camera view, the ST-10+ actually integrates it's own 5.5-inch Android-based tablet into the controller. Don't expect to be playing Angry Birds on your new controller however, as the system has been locked down, and will only run the necessary Chroma software. Beyond the live camera view the screen provides, the tablet's interface also provides users with a number of tools for monitoring and controlling the drone during flight.
Besides the 5.5-inch touchscreen, the ST-10+ also includes the full range of physical controls you would expect to find. Two joysticks for controlling altitude, rotation, and movement, a Start/Stop button, a toggle for switching between the three main flight modes, a camera tilt slider, a speed slider, and of course, buttons to start and stop video recording, as well as to grab still images. While this may sound like a lot, everything is laid out in a very simple matter that quickly becomes intuitive.
While the Chroma doesn't offer an automatic takeoff function like some other popular drones, the process of actually getting into the air couldn't be much simpler. Power on the controller and drone, wait for a GPS lock, hold start/stop button for five seconds to spin up the motors, then hold up on the left stick. That's it -- you are now in the air and flying. Speaking as someone who had never flown a drone before receiving the Chroma, I will admit I was nervous heading out for my first flight, even though I had read up on all the proper documentation, but all of my initial hesitations were cleared the first time the Chroma lifted smoothly off the ground.
Once in the air, you have a few different options: novice pilots will want to stick to the drone's Smart Flight mode, which does a few things to help ease you into flying. First and foremost, the Smart mode sets a safety geofence around the controller that prevents the drone from flying within 330 feet of the pilot. Secondly, this mode limits flight speed, and sets the flight sticks to a relative mode, meaning the quadcopter will always move in the direction the right stick is pressed, regardless of its orientation.
On the other hand, more experienced pilots will likely want to switch to the AP flight mode, achieved by simply flipping a toggle on the face of the controller, which opens the Chroma up to the flyer. When operating in AP mode, the safe circle is removed, speed is unlocked, and controls become dependant on the Chroma's orientation. While slightly more difficult to control, AP is in no way unwieldy, and with a little practice in a large open space, becomes second nature in no time. Regardless of your experience, it is a good idea to get in some early practice with the AP mode, as this is what the drone will default to in the case of a dropped GPS connection. While an unlikely event, it is good to be prepared to bring the drone to a safe landing under any circumstances.
Last, but certainly not least, the Chroma also features two automatic flight modes: Follow Me, and Tracking. Follow Me allows the pilot to set a specified altitude and distance, and the drone will then automatically follow the controller as it moves around. This frees up the user to focus purely on the pan and tilt of the camera as the drone sweeps across an environment. Tracking is similar, in that it works off a set altitude and distance, but adds in some camera automation to ensure the camera always stays fixed on whoever holds the controller.
Overall, both of these options are simple to setup and work exactly as advertised, however there are a few small drawbacks. First and foremost, the Chroma features no built-in obstacle avoidance system -- meaning the automated flight modes are best suited for uninhabited environments, as trees and buildings quickly become a problem. Secondly, altitude is locked once the automated flight begins, meaning any steep hills could require the user to manually move the drone up or down, depending on the set altitude. Of course these are only minor gripes, as both can be accounted for with a little manual interaction, though they feel worth mentioning, as it can interfere with the freedom they were designed to create.
As for battery life, Horizon Hobby lists an expected flight time of 30 minutes, though we were never able to quite make it that long. Generally, we found that after about 20 minutes of solid flight, the controller warn us the battery was beginning to get low, and therefore was reducing the allowed flight range. It is possible that, from this point, we could squeeze out another 10 minutes of flight, but we were never willing to risk the chance of the drone suddenly free falling from the sky to find out. While 30 minutes may sound rather limited, it is par for the course for what you will get out of any consumer drone at this point. The battery is swappable, meaning you could easily bring along a few extra, and change them out as you go, but be warned that additional batteries will run you around $120.
Horizon Hobby offers a couple of different versions of the Chroma, giving customers the option to choose between a GoPro mount, a 1080p CGO3 camera, or a 4K CGO3 camera. This is a welcome option as it gives everyone the ability to choose exactly how they will record their footage. The unit we reviewed was equipped with the 4K CGO3 camera, so all of our thoughts (and the price we listed) are specific to that particular model.
By default the camera is set to a resolution of 3840x2160 running at 30fps, this however is not the only option available to videographers. Open the camera settings, and you will find options to drop the resolution down to 1920x1080 (Full HD), which also unlocks the ability to record at up to 120fps for fabulous slow-motion shots. Among the video settings, you will also find an option to turn on the camera's mic, which is off by default, and probably for good reason. The mic is mounted directly on the camera, meaning captured audio is generally just a combination of engine and wind noise. While many will never find use for the recorded audio, we do appreciate that the option is still there.
In terms of actual video quality, we were quite happy with the footage the Chroma was able to capture. We did find the default Gorgeous color mode to be a tad aggressive, resulting in footage that felt over-sharpened, though this was easily remedied by simply switching to the Natural color option. Footage does show some rolling shutter effects, but this is fairly common for this type of camera, and is really not detrimental to your final recordings. One other small thing to note, depending on the angle of the camera, you can occasionally catch the propellers spinning in the top right or left corners of the recording. This is easy to avoid by simply not recording with the camera angle set all the way up, but it can be annoying, as it is very hard to catch when viewing on the controller's built-in screen.
Thanks to the included three-axis gimbal, footage is always stable, more so than we actually expected. After an afternoon of flying in high winds, we expected to come home and find a bunch of unusable footage, but instead discovered that the winds were barely noticeable. From here we decided to do a little extra testing, so we flipped the Chroma into Angle mode, and performed a couple of aggressive flight maneuvers while recording. Much to our delight, this footage also came out rock solid, with almost no signs of the jerky in-air movements.
Coming in at $899 USD, the Blade Chroma is not a cheap investment, though this is not to say it's not worth the money. The Chroma is a pleasure to fly, and includes a great range of flight options that give amateurs a comfortable platform to build from, while still offering advanced functionality for more experienced pilots. Footage from the 4K CGO3 was generally quite good, thanks in large part to the incredible stabilization offered by the gimbal, and the range of recording options available to the user. If you are looking to capture video from some new and interesting angles, then the Chroma is certainly an option to consider.