In a park, perched on San Francisco’s east bay, I set down Skydio’s R1 drone, open an app on my phone, click “launch” and do something I would normally never do. I walk straight under a tree, knowing full well that the R1 will follow me and that the branches are directly in its flight path; I am trying to make it crash. I fail. I repeat this task a few more times, even with the drone flying backward but, try as I might, the R1 slips right under (and sometimes over) the tree’s canopy. I am doing nothing but walking, no controller or phone in my hand; the R1 is figuring this all out by itself.
Should I be surprised at this? In theory, no. When drone new-comer Skydio recently revealed the self-flying R1 ($2,499), the main selling point was its superior ability to follow a target, and avoid obstacles at speed. But drones have offered various versions of follow-and-avoid for a while, and in my experience, none has really nailed it. Hence my surprise at how deftly the R1 avoided Californian topiary, right out of the box.