DJI created and owns the folding drone space, but it’s not without viable competition. The Autel Robotics EVO ($999) does some things that DJI Mavic drones don’t—including recording 4K at 60fps—but does omit some of the more advanced features offered by the competition. But if you place emphasis on high frame rate capture, the EVO is an appealing aerial video platform. I like it a lot, although our favorite folding drone is the pricier, but more capable, DJI Mavic 2 Pro.
Easy to Spot
The first thing you notice about the EVO is its color scheme—bright orange is a heck of a lot more eye-catching than most drone designs. If you have to land hard in tall grass or brush it’ll make the aircraft easier to spot, and black struts help you visually identify the drone as it soars against a bright sky.
The aircraft features a folding design. With its arms folded against the body, it measures in at about 5.5 by 5.5 by 10.0 inches (HWD). That means you can find space for it in your existing camera bag—it takes up about the same amount as a typical 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom and adds about two pounds of weight to your pack.
The arms have to be unfolded before
The EVO has the expected safety features. Its positioning system leverages both GPS and GLONASS satellites, so a position lock is acquired quickly. If
Battery life is quite good, though not as good as the 30 minutes advertised by Autel. In real-world flight conditions, I averaged about 26 minutes per flight. That’s right up there with competitors, though—the DJI Mavic 2 gets about 27 minutes and the Parrot Anafi about 25 minutes. Autel sells additional flight batteries for $85.
Obstacle detection sensors are located at the nose and tail. The forward sensors do cut the top speed to 22mph when enabled—the drone can fly as quickly as 44mph when they’re turned off. They can stop the drone from crashing, though—the EVO stops in its tracks when it senses an obstruction in its flight path. Flight speed is similar to the DJI Mavic Air, which also tops out around 22mph when its obstacle sensors are enabled. For a faster drone with obstacle detection enabled, consider the Mavic 2 Zoom or Mavic 2 Pro, both of which can fly at 32mph with obstacle detection turned on.
Rear sensors are included too, although they won’t prevent you from backing the drone into a tree during manual flight. Both sets of sensors are used when the drone is set to track a moving subject—you just need to draw a box around your target using the control app. There are no top, bottom, or side sensors available, as you get with the DJI Mavic 2 family, so automated tracking is limited to forward and backward motion.
Autel isn’t as authoritative with enforcing safety features as DJI. This can be appealing to pilots who are aware of regulations, but it can also be dangerous for uneducated pilots. So, while it is possible to fly the EVO as high as 2,600 feet above ground level, you should take care to limit yourself to a 400-foot altitude—the default, and legal limit in the US.
There is also a geofence, which can be set from about 100 feet all the way through 1,640 feet. When enabled, the drone won’t fly farther away from the launch point than the set limit. It can certainly serve to keep you out of trouble, although you should remember that you’re required to keep a drone within visual line of sight when flying in the US.
The EVO doesn’t recognize or enforce permanent or temporary no-fly zones. That’s a safety concern, too. You’ll need to take care to ensure that you’re not within five miles of an airport, flying in a national park, or near Washington, DC when using the EVO. Most importantly, you don’t want to fly the EVO near wildfires—drones can interfere with aerial firefighting efforts.
There is no internal memory. The EVO has a single microSD slot and ships with a 32GB card included. You can transfer video to your computer via a micro USB cable, or remove the card and use a card reader. The memory card door is very tight, at least on the EVO I tested, and I had to resort to opening it with a letter opener or scissors.
Battery charging is done outside the drone. It ships with a dedicated charger that can replenish the flight battery, and also includes a USB port to top off the remote control or another device.
Flying Without a Smartphone
The included remote control is quite nice. It’s compact, with a clip to hold your phone at its top, handgrips that swing out and to the bottom, and a full-color display. There are wheels to adjust exposure and camera tilt, buttons to snap images and start or stop video clips, two programmable rear controls, and dedicated controls for takeoff and landing, as well as for return-to-home. There’s also a Pause button, which will stop the EVO and hover in place.
The remote’s color screen doesn’t just show telemetry data, battery life, and other sundry features. With a press of the Display button, it switches to show a live feed from the EVO’s camera. Unlike most competing models, you can fly it without having to attach a smartphone and still see the view from the camera. The 3.3-inch display isn’t huge and doesn’t support touch input, so you’ll need to navigate through settings using the physical controls—the right wheel is used to scroll through menus and doubles as a button to confirm any changes you make to settings.
You can access and adjust basic settings—video resolution, frame rate, image file format, maximum flight altitude
The Autel Explorer app, a free download for Android and iOS devices, is required to take full advantage of all of the EVO’s features. The app gives you access to video profiles, automated shots, which include perfectly circular orbits, and subject tracking. The EVO recognizes a subject easily—just draw a box around it using your phone’s screen—and leverages its obstacle detection system to keep pace with moving targets at up to 22mph speed.
I have a minor quibble with the controls. The remote has a button for automated takeoff and landing. It works well for landings, but not so much for takeoff. Pressing it shows an Invalid Command message on the remote’s screen. You need to manually fire the motors the old fashioned way, by moving both control sticks diagonally downward and inward, and then press the button to take off. But I found it easier just to push up on the left stick to take off once the rotors spun up.
4K Video: A Little Too Sharp
The EVO sports a 4K video camera, backed by a smartphone-sized 12MP image sensor. I was very happy with the video quality in general—there’s plenty of resolution to show crisp detail, and colors look great. But I have one big complaint—the default profile applies way too much sharpening to footage, giving it an unnatural look. Thankfully you can dial back the sharpening using the app, either by manually fine-tuning the default color profile or switching to the Film mode, which is no different from the default, but with sharpening turned all the way down. It’s the first thing I’d recommend EVO buyers do when setting up the drone.
There are a couple of other things to watch out for, too. I had to manually dial in a bit of gimbal roll adjustment in order to straighten out my horizon during one test flight, and propellers can enter the frame when flying forward, even with the top speed throttled to 22mph by the obstacle sensors.
There are a number of frame rates available. I shot my test footage at 24fps, as I prefer a cinematic look, but you can also choose 30fps for a video look, 48fps for cinematic slow-motion, and 60fps for traditional half-speed playback. You’re also able to shoot at
In addition to the standard profile, you can opt for the aforementioned Film look, as well as Vivid, Black-and-White, and a number of filtered looks—Art, Beach, Dream, Classic, and Nostalgic. They’re helpful settings for casual users who want to get a different look from video without having to learn how to color grade footage.
But if you’re a pro and you love grading your own video, be happy to know there is also a flat Log color profile available. It drops contrast, curbing highlights and reining in shadows, so you have more room to make adjustments. But Log footage doesn’t look good without color correction, so it’s only something you should use if you’re familiar with advanced video editing software.
For stills, you can shoot in Raw or JPG format at 12MP resolution. Image quality is on par with modern smartphones, so it’s definitely more point-and-shoot than SLR. But that’s the case for most drones. If you’re
There are a few drones out there with 1-inch class image sensors, about four times the size of the EVO’s smartphone-sized sensor, and they offer a big upgrade in image quality, but you either have to sacrifice a compact design or some dollars to get one. The DJI Phantom 4 Advanced puts a 1-inch sensor camera in a larger drone for around $1,000, while the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the only folding 1-inch sensor model we’ve seen, but it costs around $1,500.
A Compelling Second Option
Let’s face it—DJI essentially owns the compact drone market. Its Mavic series created the space and it’s now into the second generation of development. The Mavic Air does more stuff than the EVO for less money, after all. But not everyone needs, or wants, more stuff. The Autel Robotics EVO is compelling for different reasons.
A big one is the lack of built-in restrictions. DJI’s critics have been vocal, crowing about enforcement of no-fly zones and the necessity to set up an account and tie its drones to it and your smartphone. For some, what is perceived as a Big Brother attitude is enough to keep them from buying a DJI drone.
I don’t share that opinion. In my eyes, DJI’s built-in safety features are necessary and its self-policing has no doubt prevented someone somewhere from doing something very dumb. But I recognize that not everyone shares my opinions, and potential drone owners who don’t like the way DJI does things can buy an EVO and have fun making aerial images and videos.
The other area where the EVO betters the Mavic series is in its remote control. And while Autel doesn’t include a touch screen with the EVO remote, it’s very practical to use without a smartphone, and if you need to use a feature that requires the Autel Explorer app, you can still connect your phone to the remote to unlock the drone’s full feature set.
Video quality is very good, and while I would have liked to have seen a more pleasing default profile, it’s easy enough to dial down sharpening or—if you really know what you’re doing—to switch to a Log profile. And the EVO supports 4K DCI capture, as well as 60fps at 4K UHD, options not available in the Mavic series.
The EVO is undoubtedly the right drone for some pilots. Its battery life is right up there with the competition, and it’s capable of flying at greater speeds than other small drones that cost about the same. I think the DJI Mavic Air is a better choice for more people—it’s $200 cheaper, has more safety features, and records 4K UHD video. But if the Mavic Air doesn’t tickle your fancy, the EVO is a very viable alternative.