Watch any extreme sports video on YouTube, and the chances are it was probably shot on a GoPro.
The company that single-handedly kickstarted the action camera craze pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the kind of adrenalin-fueled madness guaranteed to set pulses racing.
Taking that footage airborne was always going to be the next logical step.
That finally happened with the Karma, an all-seeing eye in the sky with a few extra tricks for when it’s back on terra firma thrown in for good measure.
GoPro whisked us off to Spain, home of Tapas, La Tomatina and some of the Mediterranean’s finest beaches, to put the Karma through its paces - both in the air and on the ground.
Update (1 February 2017): GoPro was forced to recall the unfortunately-named Karma in November 2016 after several reported cases of its battery disconnecting mid-flight. But now a modified version has arisen Phoenix-like from its ashes with a redesigned latch mechanism, which GoPro is confident will keep the battery firmly in place.
This means the Karma is now on sale in the US and will be soaring into UK airspace in Spring 2017. Stock will initially be limited, but GoPro says that production will "ramp up quickly" after that. We'll turn this into a full review as soon as we've lined up a testflight of the £720 flying marvel. In the meantime, read for our first impressions of a non-faulty model we tried in 2016...
GRAB AND GO
It’s impossible not to be impressed with the Karma when you first lift it up from its bundled backpack. The finish is fantastic, and the folding propellor arms click firmly into place from their sleeping position like they mean business.
It might not be as compact as DJI’s Mavic Pro, but the Karma is still a whole lot more portable than fixed wing drones like our current favourite, the Phantom 4. You do have to fit the propellors every time you want to fly, but it only takes a few seconds.
Getting up and running (err, flying) is as easy as it gets. There’s no need to mess about pairing your phone or connecting to Wi-Fi - the included controller has its own 720p touchscreen to get you in the air as quickly as possible.
That leaves your smartphone free to listen to some drone-appropriate music. Ride of the Valkyries, anyone?
IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A PLANE?
Actually staying in the air is a piece of cake, too, even for a complete drone novice.
This was actually the first time I’d ever flown a quadcopter (don’t tell GoPro) and I did a pretty decent job - considering that it didn't crash into any birds or trees lining the serene Spanish countryside.
You can go full manual when you’re ready, but there’s an auto take-off button to make things easier. Flight modes like Orbit, Cable Cam, Reveal and Dronie take care of the more complex moves, so you can get great footage even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
There’s no dedicated Follow Me mode for you to run through trees ‘Stranger Things’ style, but it doesn't hamper your fun if you’re not barrelling down a mountain or otherwise engaged in a pulse-pounding extreme sport.
Whatever you’re doing, the Karma should have no problems keeping up with you. It’s seriously quick, hitting a 56kmph top speed. You can fly it up to a kilometre away and 4.5km towards the clouds, which is about as far as you can legally fly in the UK and still have line of sight.
The gamepad-style controller’s screen is a tad difficult to see in bright sunlight, but otherwise the twin sticks were plenty responsive and stayed connected while pushing the limits of the Karma’s wireless range.
I managed about 20 minutes on a single charge - then it was either an hour’s wait to fully recharge, or a few seconds to swap out the battery for a fresh one.
You don’t need to worry about the drone crashing when it runs out of steam, though. Press the ‘return to home’ button on the controller and the drone safely returns to its take-off point.
The Karma isn’t your typical drone. It’s more of a flying platform for GoPro’s other major new launch: the Hero5 Black action cam.
This fantastic new flagship shoots 4K video at 30fps and snaps 12MP still photos, so your footage will look stunning wherever you happen to point the lens. It’s got built-in GPS and voice control now, so you don’t need to hook up your phone to handle the basics, and it’ll survive a dunking down to 33ft.
It’s not stabilised, though - which is where the Karma comes back into the picture. It’s got a detachable 3-axis gimbal, which you can yank off the drone and stick on your bike, car, or helmet - or even use handheld to get those beautiful cinematic shots.
One of these would usually set you back around £250 alone, so it’s a seriously great value bonus for serious filmmakers.
With a Hero5 Black bolted into the gimbal, the Karma shot some spectacular stills and video.
You can now even cancel the Hero’s fish-eye effect by choosing the linear-view setting in the shooting mode menu. This really helped grab wider aerial shots that looked great on an HD screen.
The 12MP sensor did a great job of handling exposure, snapping some crisp, colour-rich shots not only in daylight but even after the sun went down. The RAW and wide dynamic range (WDR) modes let you further tweak around with your pics to really make them pop in post-editing.
Video stabilisation is handled supremely well, allowing you to shoot professional cinema-like shots without a fuss - even if you still need at least some talent to get a truly jaw-dropping end result.
The Hero5 Black might be a natural fit for the Karma, but you can stick a Hero5 Session, Hero4 Black or Hero4 Silver into the gimbal if you’ve got one already.
GoPro Karma Initial Verdict
It might be missing a few smart flight modes, but come on - how many drone pilots actually use Follow Me anyway?
GoPro’s first drone has one or two killer features that really set it apart from the competition - and even give it the edge over DJI’s impressive Mavic Pro. That detachable gimbal could really come into its own for filmmakers on a tight budget.
It’s simple to fly, small enough to take with you on the move, and takes excellent images. With that in mind, £1000 for a bundle with the Hero5 Black looks like great value.
We’re holding out for a UK flight to deliver a final verdict, which will hopefully come a little closer to launch.