ProDrone's Byrd quadcopter was introduced to the market late last year with a long list of features and several impressive performance claims, not the least of which is a 25-minute flight time. We recently got our hands on a Byrd Standard. After multiple flights, this is what we've learned ...
Right out of the box the initial impression is that even with wings folded, this is a fairly large drone. Much bigger than the DJI Phantom 3 Professional we flew for comparison. In terms of the quality, the Byrd looks and feels like a nice piece of equipment. Everything is solid, the seams fit together well and the camera, controller and even the shoulder strap are of high quality.
That said, to our eyes it isn't quite as polished as the DJI. There are lots of squared-off edges and blocky-looking protuberances, including the articulations that allow the arms to fold into the sides for storage. We also found the caps that sit atop the arm-articulations had a tendency to come off – a small issue that could use a tiny tweak.
ProDrone claims the Byrd is capable of carrying a 2 kg (4.5 lb) payload. To do this, the company has made everything bigger; motors, rotors, the battery pack and the span of the foldable arms. In fact, the Phantom 3 sits comfortably atop the Byrd and is much smaller by comparison.
For pilots familiar with the DJI drones, much about the Byrd will look and feel familiar; in some cases, deceptively so. The controller in particular is very similar to the DJI unit, however control stick positions, calibration procedures and the functions of certain buttons differ enough that it's worth consulting the instructions even if you're an experienced flyer.
The unit we tested, the ProDrone Byrd Standard, comes complete and ready to fly. The only thing not in the box is the mobile device you'll need to take advantage of the app that streams a real-time view from the drone.
Getting the drone set up to fly was very straightforward. The gimballed camera snaps securely to the underbelly of the Byrd while the support for your mobile device snaps firmly into the controller. The one complaint we had here is common to many drone controllers – a large mobile device like an iPad is not held in place as securely as it needs to be to avoid having it fall out of the support. We made good use of some gaffer tape to provide an extra degree of security and peace of mind.
While set-up was a breeze, compass calibration and actually getting the drone off the ground proved more challenging, even for George Krieger, a professional photographer who specializes in drone imagery. ProDrone supplies a video that's intended to help you get your Byrd in the air quickly by walking you through the basic steps to calibrate the compass, and provide the Byrd with the coordinates to automatically return home.
However, the video fails to make clear two key things – the length of time the drone requires to complete each step and the correct LED light configuration that should appear under the arms at each stage of the process. Perhaps it was simply the unit we tested, but we had to try a dozen times before we we able to get the compass calibrated and the Byrd in flight-ready mode. Even when we did, we weren't exactly certain why we finally succeeded and we were never able to complete calibration just using the controller itself and not the iOS app.
To be fair, there is a tiny instructional card in the package that does explain what each LED configuration means, however the card is so tiny it is very difficult to read or to clearly see certain icons that contain essential information. Recommendation: reprint that critical information on a larger (and preferably laminated) card.
Another small frustration that could easily be remedied with some slight design improvements relates to the location of the LEDs. During the calibration process the drone has to sit on the ground. The only way to see what the LEDs are up to is to lie on your stomach. At one point we even lamented not having one of those handy mirrors security forces use to look under vehicles. A couple of matching LEDs on either the tops or backs of the arms would make a world of difference and would also facilitate visual identification of the back of the drone while in flight.
Like we said at the beginning, this is a large drone and it flies like one. The downdraft from the rotors was much more intense than that of the DJI and the controls were much less sensitive. In fact, there were times when we felt like we almost had to overcompensate to make the Byrd respond quickly to commands.
In terms of maintaining position, the Byrd did decently, but not great. The first time we flew there was a light breeze with occasional guests of up to 20 km/h (12.5 mph). Although we had a 12-satellite fix according to the app, the drone still appeared to be hunting a bit while trying to maintain position. Interestingly, the second time we had the Byrd up the wind was considerably stronger yet it appeared to be able to better maintain a precise position, leading us to wonder if this unit has some small issue that impacted both the calibration process and the onboard GPS.
While ProDrone's Byrd doesn't feel as nimble as the Phantom 3, it did feel quite powerful. At times the power combined with the need to make rather large moves with the control sticks led us to feel like we weren't in perfect control of the drone. Certainly with more flight time our confidence would improve, but navigating among the tall pines where we conducted our tests kept us on our toes every minute of low-altitude flight, and we'll admit to breathing a sigh of relief every time we put the Byrd back on the ground safely.
As expected, the more flight time we racked up with the Byrd, the more comfortable we became. Our take is that larger drones fly somewhat differently and you need to take this into account and adjust your flying accordingly.
In terms of ProDrone's claim of 25 minutes of flight time, we didn't approach that number. The best we saw before the battery indicator started to dip into that "now I'm starting to worry more about the battery than flying the drone" level was about 14 minutes the first time we flew and 17 minutes the second. A third flight several days later in fairly calm conditions yielded 20 minutes before the battery dipped below 20 percent, falling to 13 percent according to the iOS app by the time we had Byrd back on the ground.
ProDrone tells us that we should get better battery performance after a few charge and discharge cycles condition the battery. Our take? As with all battery-powered devices, manufacturer claims and real world experience don't always align.
One place Byrd gives it up to other drones is in the semi-autonomous flight department. None of the models offer auto circle or cable-cam modes although all models do perform a smart RTH (return to home).
The Byrd Standard comes with a 16-megapixel camera that's also capable of shooting 1080p and 60fps. Conditions were overcast the days we tested and as a result some images are rather dark. We found the camera controls to be precise and responsive and the gimbal performed well producing smooth video in spite of the aforementioned wind.
The performance of the camera itself, however, left something to be desired. Among the issues we noticed upon reviewing footage were a noticeable fisheye effect visible during rapid panning, likewise auto-exposure didn't seem to compensate well for the overcast conditions, and finally there was some noticeable blacking of the ground while exposing for the sky, which you can see in the third video.
As big as the Byrd is, one could hope that it would fully shade the camera preventing any prop strobing in video footage. Unfortunately if you look carefully, you can see that some crop strobing does occur at a few places in the footage although certainly not to the extent you'll see in many other drones.
The camera specifications for the Byrd Standard are as follows:
ProDrone's companion iOS/Android app for Byrd, ProFlight, is free and is available for iPad, iPhone and a variety of Android devices. The app itself is fairly simple. During flight it allows you to see video from the camera in real time and capture photos and footage. It also allows you to take off or command the drone to return home as well as program waypoints with GPS coordinates for a pre-planned flight.
The app also allows you to set various options like return height, and customize the behavior of certain buttons on the controller. Finally, it supports compass calibration for the drone. The app is straightforward, the icons are easy to understand, and if it wasn't for the compass calibration process being available from the app, we could still be standing in a field trying to get this drone off the ground.
Current retail price for the standard version that ships with a ProDrone HD camera and gimbal is US$949. The Advanced version ships with a GoPro-ready gimbal for $1,059, and the premium version with a 4K camera and gimbal is $1,399.
The Byrd Standard is a large, rather expensive drone. The big advantages we see are the ability to incorporate ProDrone's Ultimate Flying Platform that allows the use of a high-quality DSLR, and the portability afforded by the collapsible design. This makes Byrd a good choice for serious photographers, especially those that like to travel or shoot in less accessible locations.
The foldable design lends itself to taking the Byrd with you in situations where other drones might be too inconvenient, while the option to use an array of cameras opens up your photographic canvas far beyond drones with only a single camera option. Byrd is also fairly robust and should take a fair amount of abuse in its stride. Additionally, no tools are required before flying, which is another plus when taking a drone on the road.
From our perspective the GoPro-ready "Advanced" version is the best option. For $110 more than the Standard you'll not only get the option to use a better camera (although you have to buy it separately), but also double the transmission distance – 2 km (1.2 mi) vs 1 km (0.6 mi) for the Standard – a 29 vs 25-minute claimed flight time, and the Follow-Me mode.
Some video captured with the drone can be viewed below. All of it was shot at 1080p/60fps.
Product page: ProDrone
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