Most consumer drones work with a smartphone app, so you need to connect your handset in order to see through the camera and snap photos. Autel Robotics goes a different direction with the EVO II Pro ($1,795), putting a color display into the controller itself, so you can fly, frame photos, and record video without an extra device. It’s a strong performer all around, but you’re paying more for the privilege of controlling the quadcopter without your phone, and you’ll discover many camera features still require an app. The DJI Air 2S, a smaller drone with a similar camera, is a better buy for most at $999.99.
The EVO II Pro is a bit large for a small drone, coming in at 4.5 by 4.3 by 9.0 inches (HWD) and a 2.6-pound takeoff weight. It’s highly visible, too, with a bright orange finish. Autel has used the color scheme for as long as I can remember. The orange pops against blue skies and green fields, making it just a bit easier to spot than drones with duller finishes.
Pilots flying in the US will need to register with the FAA to use the EVO II Pro. The FAA Drone Zone site has all the details, but a $5 fee covers most folks for three years. If you’re flying for pay, you’ll need to take a certification course. If you’re new to drones, it’s a good idea to read up on the basic rules and regulations.
The airframe puts obstacle sensors all around, and at standard speed they’ll prevent the aircraft from crashing into something, leaving you room to concentrate on your camera work. The flight battery is pretty massive, too, and helps the EVO II net a best-in-class 40-minute flight rating. Real-world battery life varies, though. I netted closer to 32 minutes in testing, a little better than the DJI Mavic Air 2 and Air 2S, but not dramatically so.
How you fly the EVO comes into play. Hovering in place takes more power than flying forward—the battery is rated for about 35 minutes of hover time. It also drains more quickly when you switch to the high-speed flight mode, Ludicrous speed. We’re not sure if that’s a reference to Spaceballs or the Fast and Furious franchise, but it’s an important feature to note.
In its standard flight mode, the EVO II tops out at 22mph and offers all-around obstacle detection. It’s very useful for working lower to the ground, where trees or other obstructions may be an issue. When you’re flying higher, above the trees, switching to the Ludicrous mode gives footage more sense of motion.
Autel puts 8GB of storage into the drone itself—there’s a micro USB port to connect to a computer and offload files. It’s not a lot of space for 6K footage, so a memory card is an almost necessary add-on. That’s no big deal, as microSD cards aren’t at all expensive; you can get a fast 64GB card for under $20.
The EVO uses GPS for stabilization. Between pinpoint satellite positioning and its numerous sensors, it hovers in place without any notable drift. If you’re using the drone along with a phone app, you’ll be able to see its position on a world map, but that’s not something you get when using the included remote by itself. Automated return-to-home is still available, though—the EVO II remembers its takeoff point.
The drone lets you set restrictions on how far away it can fly, but there’s no enforced geofence around airports and other restricted flight zones. That puts the onus on you to know if you’re allowed to take off from your current location. If there’s any question, check the FAA’s B4UFLY app.
For pro pilots who know where they’re allowed and not allowed to fly, there’s some added appeal here. DJI drones enforce no-fly and restricted flight zones by default, requiring certified pilots to go through an unlocking process before takeoff. If you already have permission, there’s no need to take that extra step with the EVO II.
The EVO II ships with the same style remote control as the first-generation model. It sets itself apart from other brands by including a full-color display, so you can see the view from the camera without having to plug in your smartphone.
It’s got all the expected drone controls. The left stick toggles altitude and yaw, and the right moves the drone right, left, forward, and back in space. If you haven’t flown a drone before, it’s not unlike playing a flight-based video game—check out our beginner’s guide for more info for new pilots.
There are buttons on the front to take off and land, pause in the air, bring the drone back to its takeoff point, and power the remote on and off. Dual antennas are at the top, along with control wheels for camera tilt and EV adjustment, and buttons to snap photos and toggle video recording. A phone clip is included if you want to use your phone, but you can take it off with a flathead screwdriver if you don’t plan on connecting to the smartphone app.
App-free operation isn’t without some limitations. The remote’s screen doesn’t support touch control, for one, so you’ll need to use a control dial and button combination to navigate through menus and adjust exposure settings. You can set video resolution and frame rate, but you can’t adjust profile settings or switch between standard and Log recording via the remote itself.
You’ll also miss out on seeing where the drone is on a world map, and you won’t have access to any of the automated flight modes you get with the EVO II’s phone app. It can perform orbits via the app, and also identify and track subjects with several different tracking paths.
Even if you don’t take advantage of these extra features, there’s no arguing a phone’s touch interface makes navigating through the app all the easier. You can just tap on camera camera settings to change them, and menus are touch-based as well. You also get access to all of the camera’s features via the app, not just the basics.
The Autel Explorer app is a free download for Android and iOS devices. The remote has a USB-A port to plug your phone in, and ships with cables for phones with micro USB and USB-C ports. It does’t include a Lightning cable, though, so you’ll need to bring your own if you’re an iPhone owner. Also note the controller doesn’t charge your phone. My iPhone 8 Plus dropped by 30% during a longer flight, but its battery isn’t anywhere near what it used to be.
The remote’s battery is up for longer flights, but you’ll want to make sure it’s topped off before flights. It charges via a micro USB port on the bottom—we would prefer to see a more modern USB-C interface, but a charging cable is included if you don’t have one. We’d also love for the remote to be a bit quieter—its cooling fan is pretty loud. It does’t run all the time, though, but does kick in every time the remote is powered on.
There are a few quirks in the interface. Switching between different resolutions tends to change the frame rate back to the default, so you’ll always want to make sure you’ve got the right setting locked in for your video. I also ran into issues when trying to update the drone firmware via the remote and phone app—the process kept getting stuck at 99%. The firmware update went smoothly when I loaded the new version onto a microSD card instead.
1-Inch Sensor Camera
It’s the camera that sets the EVO II Pro itself apart from the first-gen EVO and the standard EVO II. Instead of a typical smartphone-sized sensor, the same as you get with most consumer drones, Autel uses a 1-inch-class chip here, the same type Sony uses in its premium RX100 series. The standard EVO II ($1,495) uses the same flight hardware, but has a 48MP Quad Bayer camera with 8K support, but gets there by way of a smaller image sensor.
The sensor design is about four times the size, in terms of surface area, as typical drone cameras. It nets better detail, wider dynamic range, and improved image quality at higher ISOs. There may be fewer pixels than the 48MP/8K camera included in the standard EVO II, but the EVO II Pro’s camera is the Pro part.
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For photos, the 20MP output and F2.8 lens nets results with excellent detail. You can work in JPG mode, which removes a little bit of barrel distortion and chromatic aberration, but limits your ability to edit shots. Digital zoom is available for JPG capture too, but it’s no different from cropping a photo later on—it’s always better to get closer to a subject, if it’s safe to do so.
The DNG option saves images in a Raw format that gives you leeway to adjust colors, shadows, and the like. I worked with images in Adobe Lightroom Classic and enjoyed plenty of leeway toning photos to taste. There is some barrel distortion and color fringing visible, but you can correct them with any decent Raw processor.
The lens includes a mechanical aperture, matching what you get with the premium DJI Mavic 2 Pro. It allows photographers to narrow the f-stop to net photos with crisp multi-point sunstars, a look you’ll get from f/8 through f/11. There is some loss of resolution when stopping down that far, though, so it’s a good idea to keep the lens set at f/5.6 or wider for most situations.
The variable aperture is useful for video, too. You’ll want to set it a bit narrower to get the proper shutter speeds for 24fps and 30fps footage, typically 1/48-second and 1/60-second, respectively. Neutral-density filters are still handy tools on bright days—just as with photos, it’s best to keep the aperture at f/5.6 or wider for the best-looking video.
As for resolution, the camera records at 6K at up to 30fps, at 4K at up to 60fps, and at 2.7K or 1080p at up to 120fps. Cinematic (24fps), PAL (25fps), and NTSC (30fps) are included, as are off-speed options in the modes that support them. The 48fps frame rate is an important one for cinematic productions that may want to use a half-speed slow-motion effect.
Video profiles are customizable, which is a good thing. The standard video profile has an ugly, oversharpened look. It’s especially notable in aerials with grass and trees, as the sharpening makes thing look just plain noisy. Dialing in a -2 or -3 adjustment to the sharpening cleans things up.
The default color profile is pleasing and ready to share. You can also swap to black-and-white or a filtered nostalgic look. More advanced users will reach for the Log profile, a low-contrast, flat look that’s suitable for color grading. You’ll get 8-bit quality Log at the full 6K resolution, but the camera does net more malleable 10-bit files at 4K30 and below.
The Log footage is very low-contrast by design. Autel provides an official LUT for editing—we used it to grade our sample clip. There’s no way to monitor with a LUT applied in the app, a feature you get in some pro video cameras. We’re not shocked to see the feature omitted, but it’s a shame as the low-contrast video can be a bit difficult to monitor on bright days.
At any slow-motion frame rate you’ll have to deal with 8-bit video, as well as a cropped angle of view. That’s often a benefit for a drone camera, though, as it puts a bit more distance between the quadcopter and subject.
In-camera HDR is also available at 4K30 and below. It’s a useful tool if you’re working in scenes with dramatic lighting—think sunsets and sunrises. The HDR look opens up shadow detail and is ready to share without color correction. The footage is saved in the standard color space, so it’s not as tricky to edit as the admittedly higher-quality HDR HLG that DJI puts in the Air 2S.
An Alternative to DJI
It’s no secret that DJI drones dominate the consumer market. Others have attempted to compete in the space, but have either retreated (GoPro) or opted to concentrate on products for industry (Yuneec).
The EVO II Pro is a real competitor to DJI’s folding Mavic drones. Its camera is on par with the one in the Mavic 2 Pro and Air 2S, and we love the 360-degree obstacle detection system and other basic safety features. Pros frustrated by DJI’s unlocking process for flights in otherwise-restricted areas can look to this as a solution, but it shouldn’t be seen as a way to skirt regulations.
The promise of phone-free flight may appeal to some, but you don’t get access to every camera feature without the Explorer app, and automated flight is out of the question. We do wish the app was a bit more polished, however.
As for alternatives, the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the closest model on the market in terms of price and features. We gave it a stellar review when it came out a three years ago. It’s not quite as much of a market standout today, but there’s no arguing over the quality of its Hasselblad camera, even if its video is limited to 4K.
For around $1,000, you can get the DJI Air 2S. Its camera omits aperture control, so sunstars are out and you’ll need to reach for neutral-density filters to cut incoming light. But there’s no debating the price, it nets 10-bit video at full resolution, and it does a lot more types of automated shots. It’s still a DJI drone, though, and comes with all those trappings. For pilots who prefer a bit more independence, the EVO II Pro is a good alternative.