Aries BlackBird X10 Quadcopter review: This flying camera literally has its ups and downs
The ready-to-fly Aries Blackbird X10 quadcopter is made for photo and video enthusiasts more than RC hobbyists.
Looking a bit like a skull and crossbones (or a splayed frog ready for dissection), it has a built-in 16-megapixel camera with an f2.8 lens with a 120-degree angle of view that you can use it for grabbing stills as well as 1080p video at 30 frames per second (25fps PAL).
Syncing up an iOS or Android device with it can give you a first-person view from the camera as well as control over starting and stopping recordings, snapping photos and changing camera settings. Built-in GPS can keep the X10 hovering in place to potentially get you that perfect shot and make piloting easier in general.
Sold exclusively through camera-and-electronics retailer Adorama, the X10 lists for $800, which roughly converts to £520 for the UK and AU$965 in Australia; Adorama offers shipping worldwide through its website. The shop regularly runs deals on it, though, and at the time of this review it was $600. The X10 is essentially a black, rebranded version of the white AEE Toruk AP10, too, in case you'd rather have it in that color.
Considering its specs, what it's possible of doing and what's included, that's a very good price. Unfortunately, it it proved to be better on paper than in my use.
Preparing for flight
Outside of charging up the batteries and attaching the propellers (two complete sets are included as are a set of prop guards), there isn't much to do to get the X10 up in the air. There is one big, slot-loading battery for the quadcopter and the transmitter has a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi range extender that's charged via Mini-USB cable. The transmitter itself is powered by four, AA-size batteries, which are included as well.
You'll also want to charge up an iOS or Android phone to give yourself a first-person view (FPV) from the camera as well as access to camera controls and settings via the Fly Aries app. The camera records to a microSD card up to 32GB (not included); the slot is behind a cover on the bottom of the camera.
The transmitter, or controller if you prefer, has four switches across the top labeled S1 through S4. S1 has three positions, but only the top position is used. S2 is used for calibrating the joysticks and pairing the Wi-Fi in the quadcopter with the wireless range extender (these are paired out of the box, though). S3 controls the three-position camera tilt, while S4 is for setting your flight mode: GPS or Normal.
In GPS mode, once you're in the air, the X10 will hover in place when the controller's sticks are in neutral positions. It also keeps you from starting the propellers unless it is locked on to GPS and allows the quadcopter to set a home point for the failsafe return-to-home feature.
When flying in Normal mode, the X10 will hold its altitude when the left stick is in neutral position, but will drift in whatever horizontal position you last used. This is the best way to get smooth camera movements since the GPS isn't constantly trying to keep the quadcopter from drifting, but it also means you're in complete control.
To setup the mobile app for FPV, you turn on the transmitter, the wireless extender and then the X10. Once everything is started up -- about 30 seconds -- use your smartphone to connect to the wireless network created by the range extender, open the app and you should see a live view from the camera. Using a Samsung Galaxy S5 it worked just fine. Testing with an iPhone 6 Plus everything went smoothly until I tried to rotate the phone into landscape view and nothing happened: It stayed in portrait.
Touching the preview area is supposed to change the app interface to support both portrait and landscape, but it didn't work on my 6 Plus or maybe I didn't tap it just right. The app is optimized for an iPhone 5, though, so it's possible that doing this actually does work, but I didn't have one available during testing.
Also, the app is only used for viewing and controlling the camera. You can't adjust settings for the X10 in general and it doesn't give you any feedback on the X10 such as altitude or battery life. In fact, for battery life you have to rely on lights and alarms on the quadcopter. So, while you might technically be able to fly 500 meters (1,640 feet) away, you'll probably want to keep it relatively close.
Flying the Blackbird X10
There are no automatic take-off or land buttons on the transmitter or the app, such as those found on the Parrot Bebop or DJI Phantom 3 models. Instead, you spin up the props by simultaneously pushing the left stick to the lower left and right stick to the lower right (this is also how you shut them off once you've landed).
Again, in GPS mode, the props won't start until you have a lock. Press up on the left stick and the motors will really kick in to get you off the ground and if, everything is working right, it will hover in place.
I say "working right" because several times, once I'd get it in the air, it would drift uncontrollably, forcing me to land it for fear of it flying off on its own. Thankfully, this thing is built pretty tough and hard landings didn't seem to make it worse for wear. Also, when I would try to hover the X10 at or below about 6 feet (2 meters), it would bob up and down, dropping close to the ground before moving back up.
Calibrating the compass, which requires rotating the quadcopter 360 degrees in three different positions and is something you should do before every flight, seemed to help on occasion. But, frankly, that may have just been coincidence. When it was working right, the X10 flew very well and is as responsive to stick movements as you would hope.
In the end, though, the performance on my X10 was just too inconsistent and unpredictable to make it as easy to use as others. This was the second unit I tested, too, as the first one was returned for issues with the wireless connection between the repeater and the X10.
There is a several-second delay between the camera and what's on your phone's screen. This can make it frustrating at times if you're trying to set up a specific move for your video or position it just right for a photo. More importantly, it's not ideal for flying using nothing but FPV where seconds could mean the difference between staying in the air or running into a tree.
Should the transmitter lose its connection with the X10 and you're in GPS mode, a return-to-home failsafe will kick in. Shutting off the transmitter confirmed this and it did fly back to approximately from where it took off and slowly landed on its own. This is its only safety feature, though, and it won't avoid obstacles like trees or buildings on its way back, but even higher-end models don't do this.
Flight time is rated at up to 25 minutes from the slot-loading 5,300mAh Li-Po battery, which is about average for a quadcopter this size. With basic flying -- nothing too aggressive, mostly hovering in place and in light wind -- I was able to get to 20 minutes before it was struggling to stay in the air and control became too erratic to risk it.
Extra batteries are available for $129 (about AU$175, £80 converted). Other available accessories include replacements for the props and prop guards, the Wi-Fi range extender and battery charger.
Considering its inconsistent flight performance, I didn't have high hopes for the video quality from the integrated camera. The results turned out to be pretty good, though. It's no match for a GoPro or other small cameras like a Mobius, but you're talking more money on top of the quadcopter's cost. And since it's tied into the system, you get the advantage of remote camera control and FPV.
Because the camera is integrated into the body and not on a gimbal for stabilization, the camera moves as the X10 moves. This can lead to some fairly shaky video, particularly if the copter is in GPS mode and fighting wind. Since it constantly compensates for the wind to hover in place, you can end up with some rocking. Plus, the body shakes in general, which gives a jittery look to the video, and there is some Jell-O effect, too.
Photo quality is good, too, but again because of the delay between the quadcopter and your FPV, you might be better off shooting in bursts instead of single photos. It can shoot at 3, 6 or 10 photos per second, which gives you a better chance of getting a clean, level shot.
The Aries Blackbird X10 has the makings of a good ready-to-fly quadcopter for aerial photos and video and at a reasonable price to boot. The performance is just too inconsistent to give it a full recommendation, though, especially for novice pilots. Maybe I just got a bad unit, but that would have made the second in a row for me, which doesn't instill confidence either.