A year or so ago a new type of drone hit the (preorder) market. It was the self-flying camera drone – a device that promised to combine camera and AI technology to create a drone that you could essentially throw in the air to follow you around and take photos and videos.
Some of these drones include Snap, Lily, Staaker and Hover. Most of these companies have raised tens of millions of dollars in either equity or preorders, but have taken a while to actually ship a product.
But today Hover is announcing that its first camera drone – named Passport – is going on sale today for $549 – a $50 discount on its eventual retail price of $599. We had a chance to try out Passport over the last week or so and were very impressed.
I moved to New York City a few months ago – it’s been great, except for the fact that I’ve essentially had to give up flying my drones. There’s no way I’m going to tempt fate (and the law) and fly a bulky Inspire or Phantom hundreds of feet in the air.
But Hover is different. The foldable drone weighs just half a pound, and is about the size of a book when in flying mode. When folded up, it’s basically the size of a VCR tape. I threw it in my girlfriend’s purse during an afternoon around the city, and after getting over the initial annoyance of having to carry her boyfriend’s drone she forgot about it. Compared to my Inspire’s bulky suitcase-sized case, Hover is a dream to carry around.
But of course Hover isn’t a full-featured drone like DJI’s Inspire or Phantom. While it does shoot 4K video and have a 13MP camera, it’s meant to be more of a close-up camera or tripod – not a true arial camera. The WiFi connection will drop when it gets about 60 feet away from you, and it’s just not meant to fly that high. The WiFi connection did drop once or twice on me, but this was before I even asked the company what the limit was – so it was definitely occurring when I was pushing past that 60 feet boundary. But when the connection drops the drone will just hover in place so you can walk closer and reconnect the WiFi.
But the benefit of not being a drone you can fly hundreds of feet in the air is you can fly it inside. Have you ever tried to power on an Inspire in your living room? I have, and I really really don’t recommend it. Hover on the other hand was perfect to fly inside my small New York apartment or outside on the sidewalk. The company added sonar sensors and a downwards facing camera that takes 100 pictures a second, both of which are designed to make sure the drone hovers exactly where it is supposed to. This stability is really what lets it be flown in close quarters without fear it’s going to accidentally stray into the wall.
So while one of DJI’s drones can be used to fly a few hundred feet in the air and take a video of your entire property, Hover is really meant to just fly a few feet away from you and take a photo or video of you or a group. Essentially like a flying selfie stick or personal photographer.
But all of this idealism about a new category of drone is useless if it doesn’t take good photographs.
Hover comes with stabilization (both electronic and through a one-directional physical gimbal) – which helps steady the footage. The company recommends shooting in 1080p and not 4K in windy situations, since that’s what their stabilization algorithm is optimized for.
While Hover’s camera isn’t good enough to take photos or videos you could use in a feature film, it’s good enough for the job. The camera lens is really small – about the size of an iPhone camera. And the footage it takes is about on par with what an iPhone 6S would take – which really isn’t bad for a $599 half-pound portable drone.
It also has a flash built in, which really helps with group or solo shots that are taken when the drone is just a few feet away from you. And the fact that Hover really has a flash really reiterates the fact that the drone was designed to be used for close-up photos and not true arial shots.
Essentially the camera will capture pictures that are more than good enough for Instagram or to send to your friends – but if you buy it hoping to capture stunning arial shots like you see in movies, you’re going to end up disappointed.
Artificial Intelligence & Manual Flying
Part of Hover being more flying camera than drone means it comes packed with some technology to help it take cool pictures. Once your drone is in the air you can switch to video mode which brings up a bunch of AI modes – follow, 360-Spin and Orbit.
Follow is self-explanatory – once the stream on your phone shows that you are in Hover’s field of view a yellow square will appear around your body. Double tap yourself and the square turns green, which means Hover has locked on. The drone will then follow you around when you walk (or slowly run). While it got confused when I would run and quickly change directions, the follow functionality was pretty well done.
Orbit is also really cool – after locking on Hover will stay about 10 feet away from you and orbit around you (even while you walk) the result is a cool video straight out of an action movie.
Hover can also be flown manually via on-screen joysticks in its mobile app. This was a great added benefit – some of these autonomous flying cameras brag that their AI is so good they don’t need to be (and can’t be) flown manually. This ends up being a pretty sucky experience, because at least part of the fun of owning a drone is being able to fly it yourself. And Hover’s small size meant I could fly it around inside my apartment, which is always fun.
I was really impressed with Hover. I’ve played with drones in this new category of “flying camera” before, and most ended up being half-baked and disappointing. But Hover is really well done. If you’re looking for a second drone to supplement a beast like the Inspire or Phantom, or looking for a entry-level drone you can fool around with indoors or around friends, Hover could definitely be for you.