Sometimes, as a tech journalist, you receive an email about a piece of tech which sounds too good to be true.
Well, frequently, to be honest. The vast majority of them come from crowdfunding campaigns.
And the vast majority of those are founded by someone with an amazing idea for a gadget they made in a dream last night and absolutely no idea how much it will actually cost to produce said gadget.
Moving on down the line, most of those ideas end in one of two ways:
several million dollars is raised, gadget still too expensive to actually produce, no one gets gadget, founders lose their home. Or;
several million dollars is raised, gadget is produced and sent to backers, gadget is rubbish and shoved to back of a drawer after two-day novelty factor wears off.
In the early days of crowdfunding, you learnt this the hard way, like Neil Young did.
(Note: I bought a Pono as a first backer, and it’s actually ace, still. But the whole thing went belly-up, and Neil Young could probably afford to take the hit.)
And replies to emails about anything that will disrupt something are sent back along the lines of:
“This sounds awesome! Let me know when it’s finished/working/actually in the hands of buyers and we’ll give it run.”
This pitch from a Chinese company called Chasing Innovation, however, was irresistible, for a drone which “is developed for underwater use”:
Equipped with a 4K ultra HD camera, it can dive up to a depth of 330 feet. It is the first five thruster mini size underwater drone in the world. It’s about the same size as a 15″ MacBook Pro, making it portable and user friendly.
Send us your Gladius Mini please, despite the fact you spelt it “Galdius” in your email. (Note poor grammar doesn’t necessarily equate to poor build quality. I have several crowdfunded speakers and their Buletooth connections work just fine.)
Five weeks later, long after having given up thinking a $2300 underwater drone would ever make it to Tasmania in one piece from China, it did. Damn:
An underwater 4K drone is is far, far too exciting a thing for it to ever actually work, at all. But I'm definitely going to risk losing it to find out. pic.twitter.com/cLqpufTaBL
— Peter Farquhar (@FarkersFarkers) October 30, 2018
It was heavy, and really, really cool. To look at.
I’d spent a bit of time flicking through the website, and the promo videos were really, really cool to look at too. Especially the bits where the Gladius Mini frolicked with dolphins.
But I live in Tasmania.
While there are some stunningly beautiful beaches in Tasmania, I’d need a day off work to visit them, and as it happens (a lot in Tasmania) most of my days off since receiving the Gladius looked like this:
Sorry, your review footage isn’t going to have dolphins in it. Closer by home, however, are some equally pretty freshwater locations, and a bathtub, which I pootled the Gladius around in a bit just to make sure it worked.
It didn’t, for an annoying amount of time. About three minutes, which is an annoying amount of time to wait in 2018.
So the first thing you need to know about the Gladius Mini is once you download the app, you need to connect your phone and the Mini controller to the drone’s own wifi network. As well as pair the controller (handle) via Bluetooth.
If it’s not working, it’s not broken. But is is annoying, because often I found the only way to connect to the handle was to go through a process of forgetting the Gladius wifi network, entering the password in again, opening the app and running the system check.
And yes, that was every time I wanted to use it. Even when the drone was out in the river and I flicked to my phone’s camera for a shot of it, I had to go through that process to reconnect and drive it back to the shore.
That’s a pretty big gripe for a $2300 toy.
It may be resolved later with a software update, or it may just be my Pixel 2XL and iOS users will have a better time of it. But it definitely happened, on all three occasions I took the Gladius out.
Regardless, when it was connected, the Gladius Mini was a hoot. And I guess that’s what’s important.
This was my proving ground:
It’s the Cataract Gorge, a place I consider to be the world’s best inner city aquatic centre, smack bang in the middle of Launceston.
Importantly, it also has a pool, which no one in their right mind uses at 9am in Tasmania.
I started here because I am an awful drone controller when it comes to skies. I never got the hang of rubbing my tummy and patting my head at the same time, and I cannot for the life of me remember which stick makes the quad go up and down, and which ones makes it go forwards and backwards.
I can, however, drive the Gladius Mini like Captain Haddock himself. Which is to say drunkenly, but very effectively.
Here’s my first ever underwater footage taken by a drone. Watch long enough and you’ll get to see my hairy Tasmanian legs:
Unfortunately, once you leave the app, as mentioned above, the whole thing shuts down. So, not having another camera with me, I couldn’t get any footage of the drone shifting around through the water. Which is a pity, because it moves beautifully and you could spend hours watching it without caring what kind of footage it’s catching underwater.
The handle is very lightweight. So lightweight I broke the phone holder almost immediately by carrying all the equipment in a soft bag. (Sorry, Chasing Innovation.) There’s a sturdy case in the promo video lined with those sponge pyramids that I’d recommend for a $2300 investment.
But apparent fragility aside, the calibration is spot on, throttling up, back and in-between with that perfectly light touch of lag that keeps everything feeling sensible.
The best bits are when you stop and get it to drop vertically down (left stick down) or surface like underwater craft in movies surface (left stick up). I could do that all day.
Except I had to get back to real work, and still hadn’t chucked the Gladius Mini in the river.
It’s right about now that you have to think even harder about that price tag. You can’t really lose the Mini, as it’s tethered to the base module with a 100m of very sturdy cord. Sturdy enough to stand on.
But in a river, and perhaps especially in the ocean above coral reefs, there’s an excellent chance you won’t be able to react fast enough – or the Mini’s thrusters won’t thrust enough – to save it from dings and scrapes, and quite possibly the chance that 4K ultra HD camera or one of those elegant twin spotlights won’t take a fatal hit.
To me, this is a rich enthusiast’s toy. As in, rich-enough-to-pack-a-spare rich.
Underwater drones are a thing now, too. Just last week, Australian media were invited out to watch the “PowerDolphin” in action, which also takes ultra HD footage. And includes a fish finder and will release a tub of bait into the water for you.
It doesn’t have a tether, just a Return Home feature if it gets lost. That would be handy if the fish it hooks for you is a trophy:
It’s $1299 but again, all the money in the world can’t buy tidal currents and freshwater rapids that behave the way you’d like them too.
Given I didn’t actually own the Mini, I didn’t take any risks and stayed well away from the currents. And I also quickly realised that while I could see through the water, the Gladius Mini struggled to – even with the headlights on.
I even chased a small school of fish but couldn’t make it out when looking back through the footage. I won’t even trouble you with the footage.
This is not any fault of the maker’s. The water was still pretty stirred up from flooding a week ago, and really, I just wanted to give the drone a full length of leash to run.
And anyway, you don’t have to turn it on underwater to show what that 4K video camera can do. There’s a stack of YouTube videos building up from underwater drone enthusiasts that show what kind of a good time you can have with them, and a large chunk are now being shot with very well-reviewed Gladius drones. Here’s a great example of a Gladius Pro mixing with seals off Narooma earlier this year:
So in the couple of weeks we were together, the Gladius Mini and I formed a relationship that was complicated.
Would I pay $2300 for one? Not in seven lifetimes. But hey, it’s Christmas and the season of miracles.
But then I have a friend who once paid close to that for a DJI aerial drone and lost it on their first day. That night, he saw the news that the PM was in town, and well within range of his new drone’s scope, so questions were asked that were never answered.
Was the Gladius Mini awesome? Yes. Yes it was. Full credit to Chasing Innovation for delivering such an immediately impressive product that can give a complete novice the feeling they can literally dive right into a new hobby and be caught up in it.
The company itself is barely two years old, formed by a “group of executives and technology geeks” from Huawei, LG and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation on an initial Indiegogo seed round of $US500,000.
If I lived near any type of calm water habitat, I’d definitely go for an underwater drone over the aerial type. There’s so much more potential for surprises, for starters.
And while there’s no FPV goggle option for the Mini yet, it’s only a matter of time.
SCUBA diving while sitting on the beach with a colourful glass of booze, and not getting eaten by a shark?
Consider this my letter to Santa.
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