A Deep Dive Into the Development of Freefly's 4K Wave Camera and Astro Drone

Enjoy an in-depth conversation with Tabb Firchau of Freefly Systems about Wave and Astro. 

Freefly has been busy the last month releasing a brand-new drone in Astro and its first 4K camera in Wave. On the heels of Wave selling out its initial pre-orders within the first hours of release (batch 4 available now), we sat down with Tabb Firchau of Freefly to talk about what went into the development of both and find out what's on the horizon. 

NFS: It’s bananas to think around four years ago you needed a pilot’s license if you were going to operate a drone commercially. Have you seen an uptick in business since UAS Rule (Part 107) opened up new doors to people commercially?

Tabb Firchau: Yes! Our drone division has been growing like crazy, and it looks like this trend is continuing with the interest surrounding Astro. We have been creating drones for a long time now, and it’s awesome to see them finally being used in commercial applications in the real world.

NFS: Since there are more operators today, does it change how Freefly thinks about product development?

Firchau: It definitely raises the stakes! The team knows that we need to constantly improve our product development skills if we want to continue to impress our users. Freefly has tackled a pretty large scope of product development in our short 10 years since founding (drones, gimbals, apps, software, motors, motor drives, etc.), and we handle full-stack development, so it’s a huge arena to work in. We constantly get feedback from users though and try and funnel it into Freefly's neural network to help inform future products.

NFS: Your Alta series are beasts and can do just about anything you need them to. What was the thought behind the development of Astro?

Firchau: Astro is a baby Alta X, but more integrated and easier to use. When we started, we had a few very specific customers that wanted this drone, but as the project gained momentum, it was clear that the product would be very adaptable.

NFS: Do you see Astro being used more for everyday creators than anything?

Firchau: I’m hopeful Astro gets used for a huge range of applications. We wanted it to be like the Ford F150 of the drone industry. We are making it as open as possible and will be publishing all the interface specs, SDK, and CAD for the system to help anyone integrate just about any payload they can dream of.

NFS: That’s really cool. The obvious difference between Astro and Alta is payload, but is there anything Astro borrows from Alta so operators feel somewhat familiar with it?

Firchau: We have tuned the flight controller to feel similar to an Alta X, so if you love the way the X flies, you will be right at home with the Astro!

NFS: Very nice. Cuts down on the learning curve. Since we are on the topic, how would you compare the flying between Astro and Alta? Does it handle differently because of its weight?

Firchau: Alta X is an incredible machine to fly. It moves a 20-pound payload around the sky like there is nothing even attached to it. The power-to-weight ratio is pretty incredible. Even while carrying huge loads, though, the X is quiet, which I love about it. One of the benefits of using huge props.

NFS: Definitely. I’m guessing there Astro will feel the same since it’s being paired with the Sony a7 IV. Out of curiosity, could users attach any camera within payload to Astro?

Firchau: We will be launching a variety of payload options over the next year. But yes, in theory, it’s a relatively simple thing to adapt a specific camera and lens to the Astro gimbal. We will have a version in the future where the user can do this, and then we will also be designing custom mounts for the more popular/demanded cameras/lenses.  

NFS: Makes total sense. Looking forward to what’s to come. With that, what kind of roadblocks does Freefly run into when making cameras compatible?

Firchau: Mainly camera companies just don’t want to allow control, access, etc. I have never encountered a more frustrating thing than finding a camera you love, the image is beautiful, the lens is beautiful, and then you can’t control the damn thing. With the launch of Wave, we will keep this in mind and make sure our camera is open for people to use in different ways. 

NFS: Well said. Here’s to more camera companies opening up to third-parties. Luckily, you do have Wave now. Your first 4K camera. We’re guessing it was developed to bypass those roadblocks?

Firchau: Yes!  Eventually, when working with other camera companies and you hear “no” enough, you just say, “Well shit, it’s time to make our own camera then!”

NFS: You guys covered a lot during the Wave livestream event. Is there anything you want to add about the camera you forgot to say?

Firchau: I got teased a lot for that livestream, so I am not sure if I should add even MORE to it.

NFS: [Laughter]

Firchau: I just want to remind people that Wave is a specialty camera, and if you are not sure if it will add value to your life, please rent it first and try it! At Freefly we really love to create more value for our users than for ourselves. When I hear that our products helped someone build a career that they might not have had otherwise, I never feel more proud.

NFS: During the stream, you mentioned RF mount was an initial consideration for Wave but went E-mount instead. Do you see a roadmap of RF mount in the future?

Firchau: We could definitely develop an RF mount in the future. I just ordered the C70 for my home video camera for my son, so I will be reviewing the RF mount in detail to see if it would be a good option for us.

Wave
NFS: Can you talk more about Wave’s image quality?

Firchau: The dynamic range is low, and the highlight roll-off is harsh compared to the best modern cameras. I think if I had to compare it to something image-wise, it would be the Phantom or one of the very early Blackmagic cinema cameras. In order to get great shots with this camera, you really need to be careful on highlights and ideally have a relatively narrow dynamic range that you need to capture. That said, if you learn to work with the limitations, you can create some incredible stuff.

NFS: Very true. The same could be said with much of the gear we use. Let us get you out on this. Obviously, there are drone competitors out, but what direction do you see Freefly going in the next three years with its product line?

Firchau: Keep building awesome drones. Keep building awesome cameras and gimbals. Blow the world away with something you never expected.     

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2 Comments

Props to Freefly for the candid comment about the dynamic range. That kind of honesty and transparency is so rare! That humanizes Freefly and makes me want to continue to support them.

Not sure that Wave is going to fit into what I'm doing any time soon, but I'm super intrigued by the idea of putting a Pocket 4k/6k on the Astro within the next couple years.

November 3, 2020 at 7:27AM

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Cameron Sprinkle
Videographer
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If NFS ever interviews Tab again, please ask the following:

What does FreeFly have in their product pipeline in terms of gimbals?

Will they use the Astro’s gimbal as a standalone gimbal?

Why haven’t they come out with a gimbal competitor to the Ronin S or Zhiyun Weebill S?

November 4, 2020 at 11:04PM

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K W
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