Let’s Talk Autonomous Flight

Now that we’ve given you a solid foundation (if you’ve been reading our blog, you’ve been educated on Snap’s design, power, gimbal, and control options) let’s talk about the fun stuff: the flight modes we’ve programmed into Snap to make it easy for you to capture amazing aerial footage.

We have two types of autonomous flight modes: tracking and pre-planned (canned) flight modes. Tracking modes keep you, or the subject of choice, in frame automatically and provide you with the tools to constrain Snap’s motion to a point, curve, or surface, so you can get the shot you want and keep Snap’s movements predictable. Pre-planned flights let you capture classic shots, like really big out-and-back shots and orbit shots, with the smoothest possible movement and just a tap or two on your phone.

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These autonomous flight options will allow you to capture footage hands free, with your phone in your pocket, backpack, fannypack…(you get the idea). Seems nifty, right? For the flyer it will be easy-to-use and intuitive, but incorporating all of that tracking tech into Snap was a bit more complicated — we’ll try and keep our explanation short.

Snap tracks you using both GPS (and your phone’s inertial sensors) and computer vision. Computer vision is most effective at close range and GPS tracking works best when Snap is farther away. We fuse both to get the best possible results, regardless of Snap’s distance.

With computer vision you draw a box around what you want to track in our app, and then machine learning and artificial intelligence helps Snap continually recognize that shape and track it. To get the best results from computer vision, there needs to be a large number of pixels available — this is why computer vision is best used for close-range tracking.

We utilize both your smartphone’s GPS transceiver and Snap’s own GPS transceiver to track you from farther away. When Snap is 100 meters away, GPS is able to estimate your position quite well, but if you were only four meters away, the camera can’t tell exactly where you are in the frame (that’s where computer vision comes in).

The GPS on most phones (like the iPhone) only updates once a second, which introduces some challenges for super smooth tracking. To compensate for this, we predictively model your location throughout that second using your velocity and heading at the last update. To further refine our estimate, we use the accelerometer on the phone for inertial updates so we can track direction changes during that second. Our CTO, Joe van Niekerk, designed the first 3D-motion tracker for action sports, so you can be confident that Snap’s tracking technologies will be cutting edge.

These different tracking technologies are used in concert in what we call “sensor fusion.” Each tracking method has its own strengths and weaknesses but when used together, they enable Snap to maintain the best tracking estimate possible.

Now for a closer look at Snap’s tracking modes. Note that all videos were shot at 720p.

Air Tripod

Snap hovers in place and yaws and pitches the camera in order to keep you in the frame. 

When to use:  This mode is useful when you know exactly where the action is going to happen, or when you fear Snap could hit an obstacle. Let’s say you’re cruising around a pump-track on your bike and you want to capture your ride. Air Tripod is your ideal mode because you know exactly where you want to film and you can set Snap to hover in place. As an added bonus, you can fly Snap in this mode and it automatically controls yaw and pitch of the camera to keep you in frame.

Virtual Wire

Snap follows you along a predefined path you set, providing you with the most artistic control over the shot, as well as a tool to make sure you steer clear of obstacles. You can choose to maintain a consistent distance or angle.  

When to use: You’re out for a solo mountain bike ride at dusk and you want to capture action from both sides of the trail. You define a virtual wire in 3D space, by simply pointing the camera on your phone, and then fly Snap to the desired starting point. This will lock in Snap’s orientation to you, so you can get the exact shot you want.

Free-Form Following

Snap moves relative to you, maintaining a consistent distance and angle. 

When to use: Snap’s Free-Form Following tracking mode is perfect when you have plenty of open space and don’t know exactly where you are going to go. Want to film your after-work soccer scrimmage? This is the tracking mode for you.

Snap is also equipped with several pre-planned flight modes. 

We determined the shots that people want to capture but are manually hard to fly, and we created pre-defined modes to make it easier. With a pre-planned flight mode, you are unrestricted by your smartphone range and are only restricted by battery time. We also wanted to make them easy to set up: using the app you can define the shot in seconds, with no prior training.

Out and Back

This mode allows you to take big, location-setting shots. Using your smartphone app you set your parameters and see a preview in 3D space. Out and Back allows you to go big, unrestricted by range. While flying you can dynamically control the speed, start and stop, and the yaw and pitch. 

When to use: Out and Back is a great option when you want a really big shot and you want to beautifully capture the context of your setting.


Using Orbit, Snap smoothly circles around you. Similar to Out and Back, you use the app to view a preview in 3D space, and then while flying you can dynamically control the speed, start and stop, adjust your diameter, and control the yaw and pitch. 

When to use: You hiked up to one of your favorite vistas and you want Snap to fly smoothly around you — use orbit.

As a reminder, Snap is equipped with ground-facing sonar for ground avoidance and magnetic connectors so that it can safely break apart in the event that it does hit something. Full-blown obstacle avoidance is an accessory that will be available in the future.

These autonomous flight modes are intended to make the types of shots you want to capture really easy. That said, we’d love to hear from you if there’s another shot you think could be an ideal fit.  We’re confident that they will be some of your favorites and inspire you to try out something new. We can’t wait to see what you create!

Until then-

Tobin, Joe and the Vantage Robotics team


  • Fady says:

    Great Blog. Thank you. But those videos are so old and we have been waiting for new ones for a longtime. We got lot of promises for new videos but didnt recieve any. Please share with us new videos whenever u can. Thank u guys and wish u all the best.

    • James Squires says:

      Thanks Fady. We have a new video that is just about ready to publish!

  • Kevin Wickens says:

    #1 Biggest request. As we saw from other major drone manufacturers…. all of the big players have updated their older models that had a “cable-cam” type flight mode to a multiple cable cam or went from only 2 way points to 10+ waypoints. Waypoints should be very easily programmed into the app and this has got to be one of the absolute best ways to get epic shots. You want the camera to fly towards you at say 20 feet from the top of your head….. and then as it approaches you bam it starts gaining elevation relative to you and captures everything.

    My guess is those video’s were also shot using the old rotor design as they are definitely very “Choppy” not the camera as I know that’s not the high end 4K Exmor camera but the actual movement of snap seems very “choppy” in these shots. So hopefully we’ll see some autonamous flight modes with super super smooth shots like the 4K video you posted with the kids at the skate park. That was epic.

    One other thing I notice with the “choppiness” in the air tripod video. Has the “anticipated” tracking been worked into snap yet on this prototype. I ask because as the biker goes around corners or goes from a forward moving motion to a jump. It seems that the snap is tracking left perfectly but then all of a sudden tracks right for a second (even though the subject’s route is to continue left) and then it tracks left once again. Again it just adds “choppy-ness” to the framing. Not sure anyone out there ever has been able to address this so this may be one of those things that we’ll see in the future. Regardless it’s fantastic.

    Last but not least. This is more of a question. For the gimbal subject tracking. There are very few epic national geographic shots where a subject is being very closely tracked. (the bike pump track is a total exception. That air tripod shot in that looks awesome!) But if I’m biking…. I’m swerving and constantly and I mean CONSTANTLY making “jerky” movements. I dont’ want snap’s camera to track me. I want snap to follow me as smoothly as possible and have the camera set at a pre-defined angle. Is this possible with snap? Can we set the angle to say 45 degrees and then put it in free follow? Same goes for Orbit and Out and Back and virtual wire?

    Thanks so much team Vantage! Keep it up! We can’t wait! So excited!

    • James Squires says:

      Thanks Kevin. Several of these videos came from much earlier prototypes. We posted them as examples of the path that the camera will take, but not an example of the video or gimbal quality. No computer vision tracking was used in these earlier videos. There have been many many improvements to the quality and “choppy-ness” since their filming.

      Waypoint are awesome, and will be implemented very soon.

  • Kevin Wickens says:

    YES James! YES YES YES! You guys are awesome! I love love love how “connected” your are to your customers and know so acutely what we are looking for.

    Just absolutely amazing. My only regret is not having pre-ordered sooner. lol.

  • Dennis W Smith says:

    The best pre release customer support ever!

  • Gizmo2001 says:

    I’m so impressed that you’ve been able to implement comuter vision tracking especially for the Free form following as well as all the other great modes mentioned above, you get an A+++.
    September seems such a long time away but I will eagerly look forward to other updates.
    Please keep up the hard work you are all doing to get us our Superb Snap’s in our hands so we can start our own journeys!!.

  • Gizmo2001 says:

    Oops I meant “computer vision tracking”

  • Craig angelo says:

    Keep up the great work, I preordered for a reason, I have faith, that you will delivery, a mindless , flight filled, beautiful experience, that being said, how about using the saying ” want a great flight experience, get a SNAP, we made it a virtual, Snap, to use” thank me later, thanks for the updates, and keep up the GREAT WORK ! Angelo

  • Chris says:

    This is awesome, I am REALLY looking forward to getting my hands on my Snap. Have you tested it getting footage kitesurfing yet? If so, please share.

    • James Squires says:

      Thanks Chris. Our cofounders actually met through kiteboarding! Our next footage will feature mountain biking, but you can be assured that some kiteboarding will come soon..

  • Dick Stone says:

    I have been interested and watching your progress for many months and own 2 drones…….a DJI and the new Onagofly. I really like the size, form factor and transportability, giving Snap both a personal and business application… a clear advantage in the market……..

    Two of my concerns are:
    1. I live/work/play in wooded areas and supporting Glonass is important to solid GPS lock and just using a different chip set could provide that competitive edge.
    2. Orbit seems to be the the person holding the smart phone……..other vendors can orbit a predetermined object/building/subject. Is that in the future?

    • James Squires says:

      Thanks for the input Dick.
      1. We did a lot of research to find the best component for GPS module. While Glonass can help, there are several other factors to consider, and we are satisfied with the performance we are getting.
      2. You will be able to set the origin of of the orbit to be something other than the phone.

  • Dick Stone says:

    Thanx for the prompt response…….are you planning to do a video on orbiting an object at some point?

    Is that a future or something to look forward to on initial deliveries?

  • This all looks awesome but I do have a requested shot- a close up follow cam type shot where the snap flys backwards to keep the camera on the subject and maintain a constant shot- almost like a selfie pole but without the pole. I also would love to see this from behind or the side too, a rock solid close in shot of the action as the snap follows and shoots. That’s the kind of shot I think of when I think of a “flying camera” versus a drone. Can’t wait and keep up the great work!

    • James Squires says:

      Thanks for the input Everett. The free follow will allow you to put Snap in any position relative to you for this type of shot.

  • Kevin Wickens says:

    I agree with Everett and was so so pleased when I found out how snap would be able to do this. This puts snap so way ahead of the curve compared to other offerings out there. Being able to have snap in a “Lead mode” i.e. Free Follow but snap is in front of you and you are moving towards it! I mean just wow! I have never ever seen this in action and I can just imagine the mind blowing video’s you could be able to get downhill biking or downhill skiing or jeez I mean anything! And best of all… if snap backs up and bumps into someone or something….. NO personal injury to someone and thus no LAW SUIT! Genius! Just genius!

    P.S. Also super stoked and excited to see more footage and hopefully more recent footage of the autonomous flight modes and especially orbit “point on map” and some of the cable cam shots that are so epic and famous in professional movies.

  • Good stuff. Questions:
    1. The orbit didn’t seem to keep the subject in frame very well – thoughts?
    2. on the mtn biking video, sounded like the mic was on the bike – can you record video from a local mic rather than the drone?
    3. What is the point of a mic on the drone if all you can hear is the whirring of the blades? Is flight noise cancellation a possibility in the future so the mic could pick up sound?


    • James Squires says:

      Great questions Bryan:
      1. Right now, the orbit keeps the camera focused on the central origin point, not the subject (who was walking around). We will add more features that allow for more control over this in the future.
      2 and 3. Snap will not have a mic on it for this exact reason. We have added a cool feature that comes from the fact that your phone will be the controller. In fact, the mic on your phone will record the audio and sync it with the video. That way, you will hear what the subject heard rather than the noisy rotors.

  • Joe Kerby says:

    Looking good guys, super excited for September. One question.. in the follow mode will it adjust it’s altitude to stay close to me? For instance snow boarding or mountain biking will it follow me down the mountain and adjust it’s altitude accordingly to stay the original preset distance away from me? I ask because some other manufacturers don’t allow this the camera stays at the original altitude and follows you down so as you get farther down the mountain you get farther and farther away from the camera.Thanks

    • James Squires says:

      Hi Joe,

      Changing the altitude is much trickier than the horizontal location. Along with knowing your phone’s GPS location, the software will also need to tap into your phones altimeter (assuming your phone even has one!). We are constantly building out Snap’s software, and want to make sure that it does everything that everyone wants. We cannot promise it will all be ready when we start shipping, but do promise to listen closely to our customers’ feedback and make sure to build out the most important features first.

      In the mean time, you could direct Snap to go down a hill with the virtual wire. Snap would go in a straight line down the hill, but track you as you zig zag down the hill. We have found that this canned shot produces great images with a clean and professional look.

  • Tom says:

    Have the new videos been released yet?

  • Ralph says:

    Was the out and back video removed? Will there be a difference between a phone controller and DSM controller on how far back the drone can go? Will you be selling DSM controllers too? Thanks!

  • Nathan says:

    I’m wondering,is it possible to record in 2.7k, QHD or VGA?

    • James Squires says:

      Hi Nathan,

      Yes, Snap will shoot in QHD 2.7k, at 24 or 30 fps (though we will try to improve this as well). For anything less than 720p, you will have to do it in post production.

  • Toby says:

    Can I ask what happened to the incredible out and back video, which showed the Golden Gate Bridge?

    • James Squires says:

      Unfortunately, we were asked to take it down because we didn’t have the correct permits to fly there.

  • Craig Foreman says:

    Here on Maui, we have many gorgeous waterfalls.
    Unfortunately, there are usually trees close by, and the ‘out and back’, would not be possible.
    I’d like to be able to fly or have a pre-programmed vertical ascent/descent flight path.
    Will this be possible?
    Craig F.

    • James Squires says:

      Hi Craig. It sounds like ‘we have too many beautiful trees blocking the view of our many beautiful waterfalls’ is a problem we all wish we had! With the out and back feature, you will be able to set the direction you want Snap to go. If that is straight up, you should be fine.

  • Tilzane Thomas says:

    What’s that sound? In the 1st & 3rd video.

    • James Squires says:

      Those are older prototypes that had microphones recording right next to the rotors. That has since been corrected. In fact, if you watch the second video, you will noticed that the audio you hear is coming from the microphone on your smart phone. It is automatically syncing with the video from the camera.

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