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Karma Launch: GoPro's Drone Is "Good Enough"

By Travis Hoium – Sep 20, 2016 at 1:02PM

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There are better drones out there, but GoPro has made a drone that will be compelling for a lot of users.

Image source: GoPro. 

GoPro's (GPRO) Karma drone is finally out, and it's an impressive piece of technology when the whole ecosystem is included. On top of the drone, GoPro has included a removable stabilizer, a joystick controller, and a backpack. And with a $799 price tag, the product will be compelling to hobbyists.

What's missing might be most important to GoPro long-term. There's no "follow me" feature or obstacle avoidance, and that will keep Karma from leapfrogging competitors in the drone market. Let's look at where it both beats and falls short of competitors. 

More than a drone

When GoPro announced Karma on Monday, we were expecting a drone. We weren't expecting the entire ecosystem of products included in the Karma kit.

The Karma Drone includes Karma Grip, a handheld stick with controls for a GoPro and image stabilization technology. That alone would be a big deal, but the kit also comes with a Karma Case that is also a backpack and has a shoulder mount for Karma Grip. Now you can go skiing with the Karma Drone on your back and take video from your shoulder with Karma Grip and get amazing stabilized images. 

The Karma itself, which in some ways took a backseat in the launch event, is a capable drone in its own right. The Karma Controller will give customers a chance to simulate flight before actually taking to the air, and its compact design is a welcome site compared to clunky controllers from drones by DJI, Parrot, and others. There are nice features like a circular flight pattern that keeps the camera on a center point and shots that pan into the horizon. But customers will likely have to take a more hands-on approach to flying Karma than they would with its competitors, and that may be the problem. 

Image source: GoPro.

What was missing from Karma

Drones coming onto the market today include more automated flying features than ever before. For example, DJI's Phantom 4 has visual tracking, allowing the drone to follow a biker, skier, or runner as they move. According to CEO Nick Woodman, Karma won't include any "follow me" tracking feature.

There's also no obstacle avoidance included on the Karma. That's become a standard feature on high-end drones, so that's a big disappointment for customers. Management said that it didn't think customers needed the feature, and that its technology wasn't good enough yet. But this could have been a feature that was cut to save costs and keep the price point attractive to customers. 

When I previewed the Karma Drone, I speculated that there may have been some noise cancellation technology based on videos GoPro had released. Unless GoPro didn't announce noise cancellation (which I doubt), it appears there will still be the whir of propeller blades in shots from the drone.

Finally, an 18 minute flight time from the battery is well behind the DJI Phantom 4's 28 minute flight time. There are always compromises in design, and Karma's low profile gave less space for a battery, but this has to be disappointing nonetheless.

Karma has gaps, but is a step in the right direction

As a drone, GoPro's Karma probably isn't as good as a product like Phantom 4 out of the box. But as a system it's arguably better, and comes with a lower price than the $1,200 Phantom 4, even with a camera. It also lays out how GoPro is thinking about its future in the drone space as a piece of the video capturing ecosystem, not the centerpiece.

For customers who value the removable camera, the grip with stabilizer, and the backpack, all included for a fairly reasonable price, Karma will be a good option. And there will no doubt be thousands sold at launch. But if you are looking for more automation, like tracking features to follow you on your adventure or advanced flight paths, this isn't the drone for you.

What this really does is get GoPro into the drone market, which is a step in the right direction. Tracking and obstacle avoidance can be added at a later date, and the information learned from thousands of drones in the field will be crucial.

At the end of the day, the best part of Karma may not be the drone itself, but the ecosystem around it. Karma Grip and the Karma Case are great products in and of themselves. The drone is a nice bonus, and something that can be improved upon in years to come.

Travis Hoium owns shares of GoPro. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends GoPro. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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