Review: GoPro KARMA is much more than a Drone

When GoPro announced they were getting into the drone game, it raised the question of how they’d differentiate over established market leader, DJI. GoPro Karma introduced the world to...

When GoPro announced they were getting into the drone game, it raised the question of how they’d differentiate over established market leader, DJI. GoPro Karma introduced the world to a unique multi-purpose drone kit, that not only services your aerial needs, but also facilitates smooth handheld video with the Karma Grip, included with the drone. GoPro’s decision builds on their core competency of great action cameras that can be strapped to the front of the drone.

Coming late-ish to the drone game offers the ability to watch, learn and iterate on the products that have come before it. Karma understood the placement of the camera was critical to maintaining usable footage during any flight maneuvers. This meant placing the camera at the front of the drone, importantly avoiding any risk of the props impeding on the footage you’re capturing, likely the reason you’re flying in the first place.

Packaging drones seems like its becoming a whole competition in itself. GoPro have made the Karma case super easy to carry with the addition of backpack-style straps. The case is relatively large, but it does house everything – drone, grip, props, charger, ensuring you have everything you need to capture the location or event you’re heading to. In terms of weight, its an easy carry, even decent distances, so if you need to walk a trail or climb a hill, you’ll be fine. There is one omission though, the case is full with GoPro equipment and doesn’t provide space for you to carry food, or even a water bottle, so hopefully you’re adventuring with a friend.

 

Setup

When you get to your destination, you’ll unzip the case, remove the drone, extend the landing gear underneath, fold out the arms, then spin on the props to the 4 motors. You’ll then power on the drone and open and power on the dedicated controller. One of my big frustrations was the time the controller took to boot, at more than 30 seconds, this needs work. My fear is that the controller’s 5″ display is being driven by what is essentially an underpowered phone hardware. When you have a shoot planned and you can control the environment and subject matter, then you’ll be fine, but I often find its the times where you see something special, that you want to quickly launch the drone to capture it and the controller boot time would easily mean you miss it. On average it typically took at least a minute to be in the air.

Once you’re setup, just pressing and holding the dedicated Start/Stop button for 3 seconds will start the props spinning. You then have a choice to tap the screen and let the drone launch itself, or if you’re comfortable, just press up on the left stick.

Controlling the Karma

Flying the drone is actually really easy and is something a beginner would have no problem handling in a wide open space. Up and down on the left stick controls the height, while left and right turns the drone accordingly. The right stick controls the movement forward, back, left and right, its a clear, simple division of labor, made simpler thanks to years of FPS controller experience.

The Karma does drift a fair bit in its hover state, never to the point of it being an issue, but it is noteworthy as it speaks to the sensor and software collaboration and something that could potentially impact on your shot. If you’re parking the drone to capture action and you want the footage to be still, you may need to seek the assistance of post-production video editing software to absolutely lock it in position. This isn’t due to wind gusts, in conditions I flew in there was virtually no wind at all and I still experienced both vertical and horizontal drift of up to half a meter.

Its pretty well established now in the drone world that the front 2 props have one coloured light and the rear 2 have a different colour. This allows you to very quickly spot the direction of the drone. The orientation of these lights will remind you if you need to invert your inputs to the controller if its heading back towards you.

The controller itself is pretty great and having one included is great, allowing you to easily hand it to a friend or co-worker to fly, without doing the awkward dance of switching out phones or ensuing they have the app installed etc. The screen may only be 720p, but its more than enough for a slick UI and to monitor the video feed from the drone to help you navigate. I actually felt far less input lag than a Phantom, with inputs immediately responding on the screen, rather than a delay that could potentially leave you vulnerable to running into obstacles.

The two thumbsticks are easy to use and allow fine motor movements, great when you’re after a slow pan or increase in altitude. I do still dream of using the Xbox One Elite controller as a drone input. One day. On the top-left shoulder there’s a wheel to control the vertical angle of the camera, by default this is inverse to what feels natural, this definitely needs to be changed and pulling down should pan down. On the right shoulder, you’ll find the record button, which activates the recording on the GoPro Hero 5 hanging from the front of the Karma. The settings for recording are naturally limited by the camera you have bolted into the quick release mount and these settings can be adjusted using the touchscreen interface. Usually its best to set these before taking off.

When you’re flying, you’ll be kept safe in terms of CASA restrictions with built-in no-fly zones. During my time with the Karma, there were no updates that came through, but expect updates as CASA refines (read: adds to) the areas for which drones are banned.

Once you’re done flying, or you run out of battery, you’ll need to land. You can press the dedicated landing button, ff you need to bring Karma back to you, or if you’ve moved, your landing position. Simply hit the Land button and choose from an on-screen prompt and the drone will automatically return to you. I did find cancelling this command is not as easy as inputting to the controller. In fact, doing so, leaves you ultimately fighting the trajectory of the drone which depending on your surroundings, could be a very bad idea. I successfully landed the drone manually many times, however letting the drone land itself can be problematic. I managed to snap a prop in half by letting it land itself. The drone lowered to the ground, but the hard, plastic landing gear couldn’t accommodate for a not so perfectly flat landing area, causing the drone to angle in such a way that a prop connected with the ground. Thankfully there was no other damage, but this is definitely something that could be avoided if the Karma had smarter ground-sensing capabilities and moved itself to a safer landing location.

Karma Stabilizer

The footage from the drone is great, silky smooth as the stabilizer works its magic to enable shake-free footage from the air. It still amazes me how this electrically assisted counterbalancing works. Thanks to this, you’ll be able to achieve a professional production output. If you happen to have a GoPro Hero 4 (black or silver) laying around, you’ll be happy to know they’re also supported, allowing you to leverage previous GoPro investments.

Quiet Flight

GoPro are proud of the design of the Karma propellers as they’re shaped in a way that not only generates more lift than most propellers, but also lets the drone fly with a lot less noise than regular props. I found this to be true. Most drones are bloody noisy and this certainly has impacts on the types of shots you can get. If you’re a farmer flying the drone over livestock, the volume coming from the props has a dramatic impact on how close you can get. With no zoom capability on these cameras, proximity to your subject matter is important, so props to GoPro for focusing on this often forgotten property.

Portable folding design

The Karma does fold up for easier transport, however time’s moved on a little since the Karma was first announced. Fold up drones are now dime a dozen and in terms of the portability game, there’s plenty that are smaller and would fit in your regular backpack, alongside your laptop, lunch and waterbottle. After flying many drones, generally the rule is the bigger the drone the better the footage and the Karma carves out a great spot between portability and video quality. Compared to the small esky case of the Phantom line, this is a much better solution for the simple fact it folds up and fits on your back.

Grip

Here’s the transforming nature of the Karma really sets it apart from, well, anything else on the market. Just twist the securing lock around the ring of the stabilizer to detach it from the drone and attach it to the Grip to capture handheld shots. These stabalised shots take the normal stutter and jerkiness out of typical human movement, like what you experience when filming video on your mobile phone.

If you’ve never used anything like this, it really can feel like magic and make your videos look amazing as it basically eliminates the camera bob while you walk. This means you end up with footage that looks like it was shot on a $100,000 steadicam for a fraction of the price.

While the grip features built-in camera controls like power on and off, mode selection, start and stop recording, it does lack the control of some other handheld stablizers I’ve used before. The grip really needs a thumbstick to control the vertical and even horizontal angle of the camera. This would allow you to create sweeping shots where you move the Grip up, while panning down, for ultimate control over what’s in frame.

Battery life

One of the most important aspects to owning a drone is the length of time you can fly it before you need to recharge. Thanks to the Karma’s healthy 5100mAh 14.8V battery, you’ll get up to 20 minutes of flight on a 1-hour charge. I found this to be fairly accurate and the controller gives you a nice battery status at the top of the display, so you always know how long you have left before returning to land. If you need more than 20 minutes, you can always grab an extra battery or 2 and swap them out.

There’s of course a lot that contributes to how long your flight time is. If you’re recording, it’ll use more juice, if you’re flying in wind, it’ll use more juice. Ultimately I found 15-20 minutes of flying was plenty for what I wanted to capture. It is one of the fastest recharge times of any drone I’ve used, which means you could recharge over lunch and continue a shoot shortly after with another 15-20 minutes of flying.

Of course the controller has an internal battery as well and that 5″ display will drain the battery in around 4 hours. While I probably didn’t need to, I just got in the habbit of charging the controller at the same time I charged the drone. The charger for the Karma is actually really well designed as it offers a charge port for the battery (proprietary) as well as the controller (USB-C). The good design comes from the fact the charge port on the battery is the same connector it uses to connect and supply power to the drone, eliminating a clumsy secondary power location.

The Grip gets just 1.75 hours on paper and in real world, I’d say that’s fairly accurate, but its again safest just to charge it (USB-C) each time before you go out. The last thing you want in the middle of an important, this thing happens once kind of shoot, is for your batteries to go flat. If you’re using the Grip to capture a bush walk, hike up a hill or even a bike ride, this should be plenty.

Video

I shot quite a lot of video with the Karma and was generally pleased with the results. While the stability during tracking and panning are a result of the drone’s operation, most of the resulting footage quality is an outcome of the camera strapped to the front of it. Something that continues to frustrate me about even the latest Hero 5 is the restriction on 4K footage to use a wide field of view. To capture footage at a decent FPS and to avoid the distortion cause by a ultra-wide field of view, you have to back down the quality to 1080p which is incredibly frustrating. Despite that, the footage you can achieve pretty stunning. Here’s a quick sample.

Specs

We know you love the detail, so here’s the specifications for the Karma. The dimensions and weight are important for specific applications, so we’ve provided them below. As the saying goes, the best drone is the one you have with you, so keeping things small(ish) and light are directly associated to how often you’ll take it with you.

Maximum Speed 15 m/s
Maximum Distance Up to 3km
Maximum Flight Altitude 3,200m (CASA regulation limits you to 120m)
Maximum Wind Resistance 10m/s
Operating Frequency 2.4GHz
Dimensions (Opened/No Propellers) Length: 303mm
Width: 411mm
Height: 117mm
Dimensions (Folded/Transport) Length: 365.2mm
Width: 224.3mm
Height: 89.9mm
Propeller Length 25.4cm
Weight 1.006kg.

Price and availability

Available now, the GoPro Karma starts at A$1,349.95. At that price, it really should include a GoPro, but maybe in 2017, they assume basically everyone has one. They don’t. If you choose to buy the Karma with the Hero5 Black, you’re up for a very steep A$1,749.95. The review unit came with a Hero 5 and really that’s what should be included for the lower price, given the Karma competes directly with a competitor with a fantastic 4K camera on-board camera that comes included.

The Karma actually has a number of accessories available, for more info, head to – shop.gopro.com/APAC/karmaaccessories

Overall

GoPro says the Karma not just a drone, but a portable end-to-end video solution. That’s true to a large degree, except you won’t fit any laptops in that case, so editing and publishing your footage will have to wait till you get home. That issue aside, what GoPro have to offer here is finally some serious competition for DJI who has basically had the top of the consumer market to themselves for a number of years.

What GoPro can’t do is rest here, drones are evolving fast and a version 2 with improved flight modes, better sensors for collision avoidance needs to happen fast. The decisions made in the choice to build a product that not only services you drone needs, but filming needs more generally was a solid one and there’s definitely an opportunity to provide more GoPro mounts to make the Karma Kit available for an even more diverse range of applications.

Its at this point of the review where you consider you’re life without the product and I’ll definitely miss having the ability to go flying with the Karma, it’s video-game style controller was just so familiar, it really was a comfortable experience and despite being fairly expensive is still a great choice for a novice, you just have to watch it closer than a phantom.

If you’re in the market for a drone (and video solution), this is definitely worth considering, just understand you are making a decision to accept some compromises on intelligence, for a diversity of filming options which extend to the ground (where your spend far more of your time) as well as the air.

9.3
GoPro Karma Drone
The Good
  • Controller
  • Backpack case
  • Camera never impacted by props
  • Foldable design
  • Quiet(er) prop design
The Bad
  • Expensive
  • No collision avoidance
  • No spare space in case
  • Design
    9.3
  • Features
    9.5
  • Value
    9
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Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis.