As drones go, the XDynamics Evolve 2 drone sits in an interesting place. It’s an entry-level professional cinematic drone that’s above the likes of the DJI Mavic 3 (even the Mavic 3 Cine) and the Autel Evo II Pro but a hair below the DJI Inspire 2. It’s aimed primarily toward hybrid shooters who use mirrorless cameras on the ground for both stills and video and want to get the same or similar quality of photos and footage from the air.
It comes with a price tag to match, but it does feature an interchangeable lens gimbal-stabilised Micro Four Thirds camera, giving you a lot more filming and photography options than most drones below this price point. And if you’re already a Micro Four Thirds shooter, it can use the lenses you already own. But does the Evolve 2 live up to expectations? Let’s find out…
What do you get for your money?
What makes the XDynamics Evolve 2 so good for filmmakers and aerial photographers is that it packs an interchangeable lens Micro Four Thirds camera attached to its gimbal. This gives you a wide range of options for how you can film or photograph the scene before you. What makes it even better is that it can shoot 4K video at up to 120fps and it can even shoot ProRes video natively – no additional licenses to pay for or external hardware to buy, although you will need a CFast 2.0 card. It’s a lot of drone for the money but flying it definitely takes some getting used to.
The flying part of the Evolve 2 is quite similar to many other drones on the market, including ones you might already own. It offers the same modes for your stick configuration and the usual altitude, position and sport flight modes for how it acts in the air, but if you want to create decent footage with it, there are more things to learn and settings that need to be tweaked in order to get the best out of it and we’ll get to some of those later.
The basic XDynamics Evolve 2 package costs $3,699 and includes the Evolve 2 drone itself, the “Ground Station” (the controller – which is pretty sexy), one battery for the drone, one battery for the ground station, the Astra M4/2 camera, an Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 Micro Four Thirds lens, six propellers (four to fly and two spare), a dual charger for the drone and ground station batteries, and a 64GB microSD card all contained within a custom-padded backpack.
There’s also an optional Cine-Pack available for $1,200 which adds an Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8 lens, three batteries for the drone, two ground station batteries, an intelligent charger, a neckstrap, a Filter Kit, two spare sets of propellers, and a Fuerte hard-case. It also brings your total propeller count up to four sets, giving you plenty of spares in the event of prop damage. You can also buy extra accessories like batteries, props, etc. as needed.
The XDynamics Evolve 2 drone itself
The Evolve 2 is a beefy drone (as you can see from the photo above). It’s not compact by any stretch of the imagination and there are no folding legs to make it smaller, either. It’s made from a single monocoque carbon fibre body with a magnesium alloy underside. This combination not only looks pretty sexy but provides a lot of strength while minimising the total weight. Fully loaded with props, battery and the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 it came in at a hair under 2kg for me – which is pretty light for a drone with this kind of capability.
The four propellers use a quick-release system. You just push the prop down and twist it to lock it into place while holding the motor with your other hand to keep it from rotating. Two of them spin clockwise and the other two spin anti-clockwise. There are no markings on the motors to indicate which way each one spins, but you can’t put them on the wrong way. The clockwise props will only lock onto the clockwise motors, and the same principle holds for the anti-clockwise props and motors.
The battery slots into the big hole on the back with a very firm clunk to let you know that it’s seated well. Once this thing’s locked in, it’s not going to come out again until you want it to, so there shouldn’t be any mid-air mishaps.
On the front and underside of the Evolve 2 is an array of various sensors. But this brings up the first elephant in the room. Some of these sensors – and I may be wrong – appear to be obstacle avoidance sensors. The problem is, though, they don’t actually do anything. There is no mention of obstacle avoidance in the app and there is no automation to prevent you from flying the drone straight into a brick wall.
Given the nature of the Evolve 2, this isn’t going to be a dealbreaker for many, but it will certainly put a few people off… At least for now. It’s expected that these might be enabled in a future firmware update. As I mention in the video above, XDyanmics has told me that their primary goal so far has been to get the craft stable in the air and shooting killer footage. The extra bells and whistles will come later.
Some of the underside sensors, however, do work, which includes the LiDAR sensor. This tells the drone how far it is from the ground to aid in assisted takeoff and landing. It’s also very handy when flying over unlevel ground and your take-off altitude isn’t necessarily the same altitude as the ground a couple of hundred feet away. If you want to fly your drone close to the ground, particularly at a distance, this is very valuable information to know.
On opposite sides of the drone, we have the two memory card slots. One is microSD, which lets you shoot the usual standard 4K h.264 and h.265 – which for many of us, especially those covering things like weddings and events, will likely do just fine. The other is a CFast 2.0 slot which lets you shoot that ProRes 4:2:2 as well as 4K footage at up to 120 frames per second.
I think XDynamics could’ve made better choices with the memory card slots here. For a start, that microSD card slot could’ve been UHS-II compatible. ProGrade has had UHS-II microSD cards since 2018 and SanDisk released theirs back in 2016, yet nobody’s utilising them yet. This would’ve allowed for much faster transfer speeds to shoot some of that ProRes and 4K footage at higher frame rates.
The inclusion of CFast 2.0, while nice, is also a little odd, given that just about everybody on the planet has dumped CFast 2.0 in favour of CFexpress. In fact, I couldn’t even test ProRes 4:2:2 or 4K 120 in time for this review because nobody had cards available – I even reached out to a couple of memory card manufacturers and they couldn’t even send me samples to try as their own internal stocks had depleted.
Of course, when the Evolve 2 was first being developed, they weren’t to know that CFast 2.0 was going to go the way of the dinosaur so soon but CFexpress is definitely the more useful format today. It just makes me wish even more that the microSD card slot had been UHS-II after all!
Finally, coming around to the front of the drone, we see the gimbal with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens attached. The entire gimbal assembly is self-contained. There are no wires dangling anywhere and everything connects using a single connector on the underside of the drone.
Once attached, the camera is just like any other Micro Four Thirds camera. The lens can be released and replaced with any other MFT lens at a moment’s notice (assuming the drone’s within reach and not up in the air) to give you a different field of view or maximum aperture. It maintains electronic communication with the lens, giving you full control over the aperture as well as the autofocus system, with complete remote control over both once the drone’s in the air. But we’ll get back to that a little later.
The Ground Station (the controller)
For just about every other drone on the planet, the controller is… Well, it’s the controller. XDynamics prefers to call theirs the “Ground Station” and once unfold its shell-like construction and fire it up, it’s a moniker that I think it lives up to fairly well.
This thing is just as beefy as the drone itself – and weighs almost as much – with two large built-in touchscreen displays that both offer 1,000 nits of brightness. The display in the bottom half of the ground station is oriented vertically, to display your map and other essential flight information as well as providing you with the menu options to configure your drone or adjust various settings.
The top screen is a large display for viewing what your camera sees and controlling the cinematic side of your flight. From here, you can adjust just about every aspect of your footage including full exposure control, touch-to-focus autofocus as well as manual focus, white balance control, and a bunch of other useful features.
The idea behind the XDynamics Evolve 2 is that it’s designed to be used by a single operator. And having everything on a single tiny smartphone screen just doesn’t really let a person do that. At least, not to the level that two separate large screens do.
Having two built-in screens also means that you don’t need to rely on potentially dodgy mechanisms for holding your smartphone in place, as your smartphone isn’t required at all to operate this drone. It’s handy to have your smartphone around in hotspot mode to download maps and check the weather and wind speeds, but it’s not vital. You can always download the maps before you set off for offline use and just check the weather on your phone yourself.
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the controller should have a SIM slot to be able to connect to the Internet and download all this data directly all by itself, but if it had one (which it doesn’t), I’d almost certainly make use of it, especially during times of year where the weather lets me fly regularly.
But back to the controller… On either side of the lower screen are the two joysticks to control your drone’s movement. And you’ll also find your power button, home button and automated take-off and landing buttons. On the rear of the unit, there are a couple of dials and buttons for start/stop recording video, shoot a photo, adjust the tilt angle of your camera gimbal and various other features you can configure. There are also more buttons underneath that can be assigned to yet more functions.
The other elephant in the room (HDMI)
What really struck me about the ground station, even more than the fact that it had two built-in touchscreen displays was that it appeared to support an external display. That’s right, there’s a full-sized HDMI port on the back of the controller. To say I was excited when I saw this was putting it mildly.
Unfortunately, it’s largely useless. Sure, you can plug it into an external display (or a field recorder) and send out the signal from your top display while you’re flying, but as soon as you do, it disables the internal top display. So, if you’re trying to stream out to a recorder that doesn’t have a built-in display, or you’re wireless streaming to a remote monitor with a Hollyland Mars 400S (review here), for example, you can’t see what the camera sees.
And even if you are using a recorder with a display like the Atomos Ninja V or Blackmagic Video Assist 12G, or perhaps streaming to a larger display to get a better idea of the scene before you… Well, with the internal display disabled, you’re also losing touchscreen capabilities. This means you can’t adjust your exposure on the fly while you’re in the air.
And no, you can’t just unplug the screen when you want to enable it again and change your settings because as soon as you insert or unplug an HDMI device, the ground station reboots itself. And if your drone loses that connection to the controller during reboot, it’ll likely start flying back to the home point again automatically.
So maybe you’ve got your exposure settings dialled in perfectly, don’t need to adjust them and you’re using a recorder with a built-in screen and can see it and record the controller’s UI… Well, it crops off the bottom of the UI, too. It appears that top display in the ground station isn’t quite 16:9 – it’s more like 16:10 – and instead of scaling down and adding black bars to the side, it just crops off the bottom to fit.
Perhaps you’re not currently flying but just want to be able to view your recordings on a larger screen when you’re back at the hotel without your computer after a long day shooting in the middle of nowhere… Well, you can kind of do it. You can get to the screen where you can play back your videos but as the internal top display is disabled (along with all your touchscreen features) you can’t actually choose a clip and play anything back.
Honestly, if the HDMI port hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it being missing. But the fact that it’s there at all… Well, it should be at least useful, even if not perfect. Hopefully, the HDMI issues are something that can be addressed with future firmware updates, otherwise, it’s just kind of useless.
There’s a Type-C UCB socket right next to the HDMI socket, but I’m not entirely sure what this does beyond possibly connecting it to your computer to access flight logs and other files on its internal storage. I did try to connect an ASUS MB169C+ Type-C USB monitor to this via a single cable and it did nothing. I also tried the INNOCN PF-15 Pro (review here) via both HDMI for video and USB for (hopefully) touchscreen and other was no communication here, either although it did show me what would otherwise be sent to the top display, just like plugging in any other HDMI monitor.
But how well does it fly?
This is where we get back onto happy topics. This thing flies like an absolute dream. Sure, there’s no obstacle avoidance and there are precisely zero automated flight modes (no, I’m not including the automated landing and take-off features), but if all you need is a fully manually controlled drone, this thing’s great.
In the altitude and position modes, they hold their respective setting extremely well. Even in fairly strong winds, position mode maintained its position in impressive fashion when I just left it hanging in the air in the same spot for five minutes. Of course, if there are big sudden gusts, it’ll get knocked a little before fighting back and maintaining its position, but as long as you’ve got a good strong GPS signal, you can trust it to not drift.
Throw the Evolve 2 into sport mode, though, and that’s when it really gets exciting. The first time I put it into sport mode, I was having so much fun flying it that I forgot to even hit record and just wasted the whole battery. But hey, I think I can be forgiven for that one. It’s not often one flies a drone that can hit 58 miles per hour! Officially, it’s 55mph, but that screen definitely showed me 58 a couple of times.
I must warn you, though, that when it’s in sport mode, your battery will drain in no time. According to XDynamics, the batteries provide up to 33 minutes of flight time. In the real world with a little bit of wind and the occasional respectable gusts, I was getting closer to around 26 minutes fairly consistently. In sport mode, though, this dropped down to more like 17-18 minutes.
The automated take-off and landing features both worked very well, although I usually did both manually. The good news, though, is that even if you do land manually, the drone is smart enough to acknowledge that you’ve landed, when you’ve hit the ground and stops the propeller motors from spinning automatically.
The return-to-home feature also works very well, rising to a preset altitude and returning back to whatever location you’ve set as its home. And like most other drones, even in the middle of returning home, you can take over and start flying it manually again. As mentioned, though, there’s no obstacle avoidance on the Evolve 2, so if your preset altitude isn’t high enough and it’s flying towards a tree, it will not stop. It will slam right into it if you let it. So, don’t just assume it’s going to return safely. Keep an eye on the screen and what the drone’s camera sees.
The lack of automated flight modes – which also means no active tracking whatsoever – is a little disappointing. Yes, on a drone of this type, they’re not essential and we certainly shouldn’t be relying on them. However, they can be handy sometimes, especially if you’re in a rush and don’t have the time (or the battery life left) to practise that manual orbit half a dozen times until you get the speeds just right before getting the shot you want.
Subject tracking, though, would be extremely useful, especially as the drone is designed specifically for solo operation. It doesn’t even need to follow them. Just being able to tell the camera “Keep yourself pointed at this subject while I manually fly the drone” is a very valuable feature to have, especially if you want the drone to fly along a specific path during its move, regardless of where the camera’s pointing. It’s moves like this that make dual operator drone systems so popular.
From what I’ve been led to believe, though, automated flight modes and tracking of some sort will eventually be coming to the Evolve 2 in future firmware updates once XDynamics is totally happy with the drone’s primary features. And, again, while not essential, they would be very useful in certain circumstances.
And what about that camera?
I’ve been flying drones for 6 or 7 years now. When I started off, I was all innocent and optimistic. My first drone was a DJI F550 Flamewheel, the big huge DIY hexacopter kit. I still have it, although it hasn’t flown in a couple of years. My plan was to actually strap a Micro Four Thirds camera to it, but it wasn’t to be. It didn’t have the lift to take off with anything but the tiniest of cameras and it certainly couldn’t handle a gimbal (not that any really existed back then in the consumer market) and there was no way to remote monitor or control the camera. Even if you could get it up in the air, you hit record before you took off and hoped you got something useful when you brought it back down again.
But that goal has driven me in my drone pursuit over the last few years. The little drones like the Autel Evo Nano (review here) are a lot of fun and the footage they produce is pretty not terrible. It’s certainly good enough for documenting vacations or posting to social media, etc. But when it comes to anything serious, where you need the kind of control that only a larger sensor camera can provide, then they don’t even come close. They’re not even playing the same sport, let alone in the same league.
Even drones at a higher level than those <250g ones like the DJI Air 2 and Mavic 3, while much better, still aren’t as good as having that relatively large Micro Four Thirds sensor and were never quite up to the quality that I’ve always wanted. That kind of quality always seemed to start around the level of the DJI Inspire 2 and, well, that’s just always been a bit out of budget for my needs. The XDynamics Evolve 2, however, is also very much there when it comes to camera quality. Even only being able to shoot h.264 and h.265 footage, I’m able to edit it all together very well with footage from my Panasonic GH5s, G80s, GX80s shooting ground-based footage and maintain a consistent look and feel.
The fact that this drone also shares the same lenses as my ground-based cameras also means that I can get the same lens characteristics on both, too, as it’s literally the same lens. This particular point might be a unique advantage over shooting APS-C/Super 35mm or full-frame cameras on the ground when mixing with Evolve 2, although it is a negligible advantage in most cases – except for the fact that I don’t have to buy a whole bunch of new separate lenses dedicated to the drone.
As well as the obvious benefits of the larger sensor and interchangeable lenses, controlling them is easy and seamless from that big top touchscreen display. From here I can edit the ISO, aperture and shutter speed, just like any other manual mode camera, as well as adjust the white balance. And, of course, because you’re using regular lenses, you can also add regular filters, like polarisers and variable NDs.
The touch-to-focus autofocus system also allows you to quickly and easily focus on any subject within the frame, too. And after you have touched a target, there’s visible confirmation on the screen of whether or not it’s managed to lock on. If you want to, though, you can go manual focus with a slider that pops up on the side of the screen to preset the focus distance yourself.
You can use manual focus lenses on the Evolve 2, but of course, you won’t get any kind of remote control capabilities. You’ll need to pre-focus it while it’s down on the ground. XDynamics also advises against using zoom lenses on the gimbal, too. There’s no “power zoom” type feature that lets you control that, and vibrations from the motors or wind can easily cause the focal length to shift in the air. That being said, if you can lock off the zoom with a piece of gaffer tape or something (again, not something XDynamics recommends) it holds well and you still get autofocus. Don’t use big zooms, though, or huge primes for that matter, or the gimbal will be way off balance and that’s not good for its motors.
I really wanted to be able to try out the ProRes 4:2:2 and especially 4K 120fps capabilities with the Evolve 2 for this review, but as I mentioned, CFast 2.0 card availability is pretty much non-existent here at the moment, but as soon as I can get my hands on one, I’ll be out there shooting some footage with it, so be sure to check back as I’ll be updating this review with some samples as soon as I can.
So who is this drone really for?
The XDynamics Evolve 2 drone sits pretty much alone in its spot without much competition. It’s above the DJI Mavic 3 Cine but a little below the DJI Inspire 2. That description alone should tell you that this isn’t a drone designed for just goofing around and filming your kids in the park or taking on vacation (although… you could if you really wanted to).
It’s also not targeting the high-end Hollywood crowd, either. Oh no, they’re still going to be using their huge oversized custom rigs with RED Komodos and similar such cameras attached. I could potentially see this being used on lower-end production and TV shows, though.
But its main target is small independent creators. Creators who do it for a living and are earning an income from what they make. It’s for hybrid shooters like commercial, event and wedding photographers and filmmakers, or small production companies and independent filmmakers on a limited budget who want the best bang for their buck and a certain minimum level of quality and versatility – and drone footage that resembles the footage shot on the ground, likely by mirrorless cameras or low-end cine cameras.
For those commercial, event and wedding folks, it’s a tool that’ll earn its money back just like any other camera in their arsenal. And as it’s designed to be used by a single operator, it’s going to be a lot easier to manage than a drone intended for two operators (one to fly and one to control the camera), not to mention one fewer people to hire.
For the production companies and filmmakers, well, if they’re contracting their services out, it’ll make its money back there, too. And even if they’re just shooting for their own productions, it’ll potentially save them money by not having to hire outside drone filming companies if they don’t have to. Sure, on some bigger productions they still might have to, but for going back to a location to get a handful of environmental or establishing shots, or even to shoot footage when location scouting that could potentially be spliced into the film later? Well, why not do it yourself if you can?
The $3,699 price point (and an extra $1,200 for the cine kit) also reinforces the point about who this drone is intended for. Nobody who’s thinking about getting a DJI Mini SE is going to look twice at this drone. Nor is anybody with $50K to blow on a rig for their movie. But for people who are used to spending $3-5K on a mirrorless or cine camera? Absolutely!
I think with the Evolve 2, I’ve managed to find something that hits the goal I had in 2016 of getting a flying camera that matches my ground-based cameras. It easily flies at least as well as any other drone I’ve flown and flies way better than some of them. Even at 50mph+, that camera is rock solid steady. Other drones I’ve tried over the years have started to show that CMOS shutter jello wobble as slow as 20-25mph and some of them show it as soon as they take off. There wasn’t even a hint of it with the Evolve 2.
That being said, my goals have evolved since 2016. A couple have been added to the list. Things like obstacle avoidance – which didn’t really exist back in 2016. While it isn’t essential on a drone designed for cinematic filming where you really kinda need to know what you’re doing, it is something that I consider to be vital on a drone today, especially when learning to fly it or when you want to hit that home button and not have to worry about it automatically flying itself into a tree. Subject tracking – even if it’s just moving the gimbal to point the camera at a subject while I fly it – is another feature that I think this drone really needs at some point, too.
The ground station is the most amazing controller I’ve ever seen on a drone and is far more capable than anything I could’ve put on a wish list. And it’s fantastic that I don’t need to mount my phone to it or even need my phone at all to operate the drone. Yes, you’ll still need your phone as a hotspot if you want real-time weather beamed to your controller and to be able to download maps on-the-fly, but it’s not required. You can download the maps and check the weather report in advance.
That, too, comes with caveats. If it didn’t have an HDMI socket, I’d have zero complaints, but it does have an HDMI socket and it feels like it’s taunting me. It really doesn’t work in its current form. I cannot think of any situation where it would be useful as it is right now. Hopefully, XDynamics can figure out a way to mirror the internal top display to an external device – rather than replace and disable the internal display – and maintain that touchscreen functionality. Oh, yeah, and resize it to see the entire view on the external display/recorder (even if it means adding black bars to the side) and not crop off the bottom.
Right now, the XDynamics Evolve 2 is not perfect, but it’s very close. And even though I mentioned a few negatives above, the vast majority of them can potentially be fixed in firmware. The only real hardware issue is that CFast 2.0 card slot and that’s not really XDynamics’ fault. It was still quite popular when they started developing this. It’s just bad luck that the cards are so hard to get hold of for many people now.
Would I recommend that you buy the Evolve 2? Well, the short answer is that I’m going to say it depends. For the longer answers, keep reading.
If you can see a genuine need for a drone of this type in your life or business and you’re confident that it’ll save/make its money back in a reasonable amount of time (or you don’t care if it does or not), you’re happy with its current limitations (for real, never rely on future firmware promises from any company, no matter how well-intentioned they may be) and you want to learn or already know how to fly a drone completely manually then it’s definitely worth considering spending your money on. The footage from this is excellent and I haven’t even seen the best that it can produce yet.
On the other hand, if you really need those automated flight modes and obstacle avoidance sensors in a drone that can basically fly itself, then this is not the drone for you. At least, not right now. Maybe it will in be the future, but as I said above, don’t rely on future firmware promises when it comes to spending this kind of money.
For me and my needs, I can live within its current limitations and if those other features come in future firmware updates, then awesome. I will be very happy indeed. But even if they don’t, this is the drone that’s come the closest to ticking all of my boxes while still maintaining a reasonable purchase price and they wouldn’t be dealbreakers. I think once the firmware gets a little more feature-packed (obstacle avoidance, tracking and automated flight modes, specifically) and fully takes advantage of the hardware inside the XDynamics Evolve 2… I think DJI will have some serious competition on their hands in this sector of the market.
The XDynamics Evolve 2 is available to buy now for $3,699 from the XDynamics website. The optional Cine Pack upgrade including the Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8, extra drone and controller batteries and the other things I mentioned above is an extra $1,200. Other accessories and spares are also available on the XDynamics store.