ZeroTech Dobby Review : An iPhone sized selfie drone

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Just a few years ago, a camera recording drone would have belonged solely in the domain of the military. And now in 2016, camera recording drones are in the mainstream, used by young people for selfies.

Fans and companies alike in the past two years have been following the new trend of selfie drone, with this trend giving birth to the crowdfunded Zano drone, which in turn spawned the crowdfunded Lily drone. Both those crowdfunded drones faced a myriad of issues from shutdowns to investigations. But here, we have the ZeroTech Dobby, also crowdfunded, but successful.

We have previously reported on how small the Dobby drone was in volume, so let’s take a look at this drone, and whether it can successfully fill the selfie drone niche.

Introduction

The Dobby drone uses Qualcomm’s older but still powerful Snapdragon 801 chipset, the same SoC used in popular flagships such as the Galaxy S5 and the Oneplus One. This gives several benefits, namely footprint reduction, it takes up less space. In addition, it also consumes less power as well, leaving more to power the rotors. Finally, the use of the Snapdragon 801 chipset allows the use of several smart technologies that are compatible with the 801 chipset itself, giving the Dobby what it needs to be a complete selfie drone.

Since the Dobby is marketed towards a larger audience for selfies, it can only be right to assume that a much larger majority of inexperienced users would purchase this device for all their selfie taking needs. Your average drone enthusiast will be a much smaller percentage of the user base. In which case, the Dobby needs to be much easier to operate than your traditional drone to draw mass appeal towards itself as an easy to operate selfie drone. This sentiment is echoed by Zerotech’s CEO Yang Jianjun who said: “This product was originally defined as a product where you focus less on flying the drone and more time on selfie-ing.”

Flight Features

In fact, the Dobby drone is capable of taking pictures even when the user is not directly controlling the drone. However the drone relies on line of sight, which means the drone must be able to see you directly without any obstacles in the way as it does not have an obstacle avoidance function. Therefore it is best if you have enough outdoor space in order to let the Dobby drone fly autonomously without hitting anything.

You can connect to the Dobby drone to your phone via Wi-Fi, and can take direct control of the drone through your phone. Many drone enthusiasts dislike using a touch screen device to control drones, as it is almost impossible to precisely position the drone without using a dedicated controller or flightstick. However, for the audience at large, pinpoint control of the Dobby is definitely not something they are looking for. Intuitive controls are much more important.

There are a couple of ways you can control the drone through your phone. You can use traditional flight controls on the touch screen as well as a sliding control that allows you to control the drone’s motion through sliding your finger on the screen. There is also a speech control option as well. While it does not do complicated flight maneuvers, you can tell the drone to takeoff, land, and take photos. Using an iPhone 6s to control the drone by voice resulted in about a 70% voice recognition rate.

While there are traditional controls for manipulating the drone after takeoff, the “short video” function is also available. As long as you have GPS enabled, you can tap and hold on the video button and the drone will hover around your GPS location, zooming in and out. Once you release the button, it will go back to its location before you hit the button.

In order to land the drone, you stretch out your palm and hit the land button. The drone will recognize the shape of your palm and automatically land on it. However, the brushless motor paddle can hit your finger as it lands, causing a little bit of pain, but nothing too bad.

If you do not trust the software to control the drone, you can take manual control. To a novice user, it would be intuitive to fly the drone with the camera facing forward, which in most cases, it is. However, since this is a selfie drone, it would be less efficient to fly the drone with the camera facing forward, then when you want to take a selfie, you either run in front of the drone or rotate the camera (or the entire drone).

Therefore, Zerotech has very intelligently defaulted the direction of the lens backwards, e.g. the lens is facing the tail end of the drone. This allows the user to fly the drone in a manner much more conducive to selfie taking. However, you can change the camera direction back to the nose of the drone as well.

The default direction the lens takes is very conducive to drone novices, but to experienced drone pilots, it’s the other way around. Almost all other non selfie drones have the camera facing in the direction of the nose as there is usually no need for selfies. Zerotech has informed us that they will be adding a reminder to display the current operating direction of the drone and camera in order to accommodate both novices and experienced drone operators. This should reduce the number of errors and potential crashes that might be induced while using this selfie drone.

We have spoken highly of DJI Phantom’s follow function and its ability to avoid obstacles. For a selfie machine, this function would have been immensely useful and vital when used as a selfie machine as it would be able to follow you while taking selfies. However, this is Zerotech’s inaugural machine and this function is not implemented. We will see if this function is implemented.

In addition, many drones have technology that allows them to circle points of interest while taking videos/photos, and this something we did not see in the Dobby. We checked with Zerotech on whether this is a hardware or software limitation and we were informed that this was software. We will likely see an update to support this function in the near future.

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If a follow function and Point of interest function is added, the real limit on the Dobby will be in flight camera angle control.

Photo Quality

The drone is quite good at taking photos, but because the Dobby is small and compact, a motor could not be added to control the camera lens angle without directly interfacing with the drone. This requires the user to automatically adjust the lens angle by hand before takeoff, and if you need a different angle, you need to land the drone, adjust the camera and then takeoff again. This turns out to be a very time consuming endeavor that is also very inefficient.

Picture quality is simply quite astounding, considering how compact the drone body is. Because the footprint of the drone has to be kept at a minimum, a small lens and sensor had to be used. Darker scenes are still captured with fair amounts of detail with minimal grain, as can be seen in the photo below. Although a small lens and sensor had to be used, the camera capabilities are not too far off from larger drones.

This could also be due to the Dobby’s compression ratio. When you talk about similar resolutions, the DJI Phantom’s photos are typically around 5MB, the iPhone 6 Plus’ photos are around 1-3MB, but the Dobby’s photos creep up towards 6-7MB, and that is a little hard to accept. In addition, the drone’s internal memory tops out at 16GB, so regular cleanouts of the internal memory is necessary.

We compare the Dobby’s photos to the front facing cameras on popular phones. If we compared the Dobby’s camera to the back cameras of high end flagships, the Dobby lags pretty far behind. However, if we compare to the front facing cameras, this is a different situation. For the most part, front facing cameras are usually much weaker the rear facing cameras with the exception of a few phones with strong front facing cameras, the Dobby has got them beat.

When you compare the Dobby’s camera to the front facing cameras of the iPhone 6s and other high end smartphones, you get deeper, more saturated colours, higher contrast ratios and in general a better picture overall. Night shots don’t actually have that much grain, but are most of the time significantly underexposed. However, when you compare this to a front facing 5MP camera on a smartphone, the Dobby still outpaces them, even in night shots.

As a selfie drone, the Dobby does take very satisfactory pictures. However, there are a few downsides to the selfie camera on this drone as well. You can’t zoom in and out, it has a fixed focal length. This results in less impactful landscape pictures. Pictures are less sharp compared to the rear camera on flagships as well, in addition to the inability to autofocus.

Video Quality

The Dobby takes satisfactory pictures, even with the reduced body size needed to provide the user with the ultimate portable experience. However, the reduced body size is just not large enough to accommodate a gimbal for mechanical image stabilization and a PTZ ball for shock absorption.

Zerotech isn’t the only company to produce a drone with mechanical stabilization. The French company Parrot’s Bebop drone also features electronic image stabilization to stabilize traditionally shaky drone footage.

The Bebop uses a 180-degree fisheye lens to shoot very wide angle video as well as software that tells the software where and where to pan/cut the video for stabilization, resulting in quite stable video. However, there are two downsides, first is the fisheye footage which can be significantly distorted, and cutting and panning the video to produce stable footage results in a severe loss in video quality, to the point where it isn’t true 1080p output.

In contrast, the Dobby’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 shoots in full 4k, and when the software cuts and stabilizes the video, you get real 1080p video output, so the reduction in quality stops at 1080p and never goes lower.

In order to stabilize photos taken by the drone, a 75 degree wide angle lens is used; which is not very wide. Therefore if you move the drone too fast, the stabilizing software will cut out so much video that black bars will appear on the edges. The other problem is that there is an optimal angle at which the camera should be positioned to fully take advantage of image stabilization, but the software does not mention it. Therefore, it you do not angle your camera appropriately, the incompatibility between the camera angle and the stabilization software will be apparent and the stabilization effect will be greatly reduced.

With that being said, it is not recommended that you operate the drone manually while it’s taking video. You have to fly the drone extremely smoothly and gently to avoid the stabilization software cropping out the edges leaving black bars on your video. If you leave automatic control on, the drone software does fly/hover around much more gently, reducing the amount of black bars on the video. However, this does limit the amount of cool video footage that could be captured manually and does show a significant difference compared to the higher end drones.

Without a PTZ ball, even if you let the drone fly automatically, you get the much dreaded “Jell-O Effect” that plagues quite a few drones. The propellers harmonic frequencies will cause the footage to look like Jell-O, with something resembling water ripples appearing on the screen. A PTZ ball is needed to reduce or outright remove this issue, but there is no space on board the drone. Zerotech has announced that future firmware will reduce the impact of the “Jell-O Effect”.

Since the Dobby Drone is marketed as a selfie machine, the selfie function is very important, both indoors and outdoors. A good selfie can become a bad selfie within milliseconds, especially if your drone is knocked off course from the optimal position. The stability of the drone is of paramount importance, and the drone is quite stable even in wind.

It’s stability has surprised us, considering this is an extremely small drone.

In an outdoor environment it stabilizes itself around it’s GPS coordinates, in which case it’s stabilizing effect is almost twice that of the Parrot bebop. Even in indoor environments when the drone can’t get a GPS lock, it stabilizes itself using infrared against surfaces, and it’s stabilization capacity is just a little lower than the parrot bebop.

Small drones traditionally have issues with wind resistance. The Parrot Minidrone is a similar size to the Dobby, and a wind that would have blown the Minidrone to the side does nothing to the Dobby, it stays solid as a rock. However, when the Dobby flew higher than 10 meters, we start seeing a big different between the stability of the Dobby and the Bebop 2.

Controlling the Drone

When controlling drones using phones via Wi-Fi, the signal strength and stability has traditionally not been satisfactory. The Dobby’s signal strength and stability is unexpected, but the Dobby/phone app do not automatically switch between 2.4GHz and 5GHz when needed to avoid interference, so that is a downside.

The drone has a return home function as well. Whenever the Wi-Fi signal is interrupted, the Dobby will automatically fly back to the starting point, as long as the GPS signal is still on.

Nevertheless, we strongly suggest that you do not fly this drone in strong winds or when your Wi-Fi signal can be interrupted.

In fact, the drone software has a maximum flight distance and height (30 meters), so the range is a lot less than your average expensive drone. However, we are more concerned over the brushless motor, as the propeller is much stronger than the average small 4 axis drone, and could injure people.

Safety

The drone’s motor shuts down when it hits a foreign object. We wanted to test this and did not want to use our fingers, so watch the funny video below where a poor piece of meat faces the drone’s blades. The drone’s blades do stop automatically, reducing its lethality.

We also pitted the meat against other large drones, where the rotors continued rotating even after contacting the pork, turning it into paste; however, even though the Dobby automatically stops, still leaves deep marks in the pork. The Dobby is much less dangerous than other drones, but if it comes into contact with your eye, it will most likely leave permanent damage.

Battery Life

Battery life has always been a sore point in drones. In large drones in fact, this is a problem, not the mention the battery life in small drones like the Dobby. Although Zerotech’s official battery numbers peg it at 9 minutes of flight time, we got 8 minutes of flight time indoors with no wind. If this was flown outdoors in wind, we expect only 7 minutes.

Is 9 minutes too little? Well depends. If we want to shoot video, then 9 minutes of video might be enough; but what if you just wanted to take pictures? Imagine every photo taken requires about ½ a minute of flight time, and taking into account takeoffs and landings, if might only get 6 minutes of flight, considering takeoffs require significantly more battery.

We found that the battery size should be about 10 times the size of the power required to take a selfie.

But if that’s still not enough for you, the drone’s batteries can be charged through battery packs at any time, any place. However, if you use a lower voltage to charge the drone’s battery (7.4V), the charging rate will be substantially reduced. Thus, Zerotech has added Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0.

We got charging speeds as follows:

  • Quick Charge 2.0 wall charger: about 45 minutes
  • Quick Charge 2.0 battery pack: about 45 minutes
  • Xiaomi 20000 mAh (maximum 3.6A output) power bank: approx. 2 hours 15 minutes
  • MacBook Pro’s USB port: about 2 hours 15 minutes

We are glad Zerotech implemented Quick Charge 2.0. The charging speed is a lot faster than normal chargers. However we have reported in the past that some quick charge technologies have damaged batteries before, so do buy a few extra batteries.

Conclusion

Is the Dobby the latest and greatest in the new wave of selfie drones?

The DOBBY is by no means perfect. While it is extremely portable and therefore has many advantages, it’s limited volume also brings to the forefront the compromises it had to make. However, Zerotech has marketed this towards selfie lovers who are looking for a drone exclusively for selfies, and thus are not as critical about the various things an enthusiast might. However, if you are an enthusiast, do yourself a favour and buy a DJI Phantom 4.

At present it is still difficult to judge how will the Dobby will do in the market. For an experimental small selfie drone, it’s definitely a good start. It dramatically changed the form and use of drones and created whole new use cases as well. The whole industry will be watching Zerotech’s success or failure, to determine the way forward for drones.

The Dobby is the second of an important drone wave coming out of Xinjiang (after the DJI Phantom 4).

Pros:
  • Body folds up, fits easily in a bag
  • Easy to control
  • Good stability
  • Good photo quality
Cons:
  • Difficult to use high-end shooting skills
  • Poor video
  • Poor battery life
  • Photo size is too large
Who should buy:
  • Selfie Lovers
    Casual Travellers/Casual drone users
What people should not buy:
  • Video enthusiasts
    Hardcore Drone users

(xiaomitoday.com, http://goo.gl/3N3qq0)

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