Welcome to Space. Nearly.
Every technology has a time. There comes a critical point where parts have been scaled to the right size, are produced in volumes elsewhere such that they are affordable and people are ready to adopt. Think smartphones over the last few years. Now is the time of the drone. Drones are small remotely controlled vehicles, in this case i'm talking about multi-rotor flying devices, which have recently become exceptionally easy to use, relatively affordable and incredibly fun. Best. Toys. Ever. I'm going to tell you about the best implementation on a cost / benefit ratio I know of - the DJI Phantom 2, including a mini-review and advice for first time users. In summary - you need one, even though you don't know it yet!
Warning: this is going to sound like an endorsement. It is, for drones generally. It probably sounds like I am DJI's #1 fan, I kind of am, this product is just that good (with the noticeable exception of supporting documentation) that I will be singing its praise throughout and offering advice on using it so that you do not make the same mistakes I did.
My partner Carla and I are currently travelling through South America. At 6am on our day of departure from Australia I felt the overwhelming urge to go and purchase a drone to help us document our travels. We were already bringing a lot of gear as we wanted to do some small scale documentary work over here should the opportunity arise, I figured this couldn't hurt, right? I purchased a DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal, here's why:
- It is small and light. The unit weighs 1kg and fits in a small backpack - we carry it with us between cities as backpackers easily, and on day trips we put it in a smaller bag and don't even notice it being there. It's a pleasure to carry around;
- Flight time is at a very impressive 25 minutes;
- It works out of the box;
- Learning curve is damn near instant; and
- Most importantly by far, from my perspective, the Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal is affordable, produces incredible results and in the case of this set up works straight out of the box, piggy backing off the sensors the Phantom 2 already has without any additional wiring.
What's a gimbal? A gimbal is a device with motors that are rotated in response to spatial information to make an object, in our case a camera, maintain orientation independent of the device it is attached to. In this case the drone can be flapping around mid-air but the two axis gimbal will keep the camera near perfectly steady using the information from the drones sensors (gyroscope, compass, accelerometer etc). It's incredible.
Drones, especially the DJI Phantom 2, are amazing. The Phantom 2 has an unbeatable ratio of cost to instant out of the box performance. It's worth buying even without a gimbal, they're a lot of fun, although if you plan on filming or taking photographs (which you should) the gimbal is essential, you simply won't believe the stable results it produces.
- Range - c. 1000m in each direction, including vertically, so be careful! See my advice below.
- Battery life - circa 25mins per battery, real world testing carrying a gimbal and GoPro has confirmed these numbers.
- Weight - 1kg. It's amazingly light. We carry it while backpacking without issue. With the charger and a spare battery it weighs maybe 1.4kg.
- Size - circa 30cm^3 including all accessories (remote, spare battery, propeller blades) if you pack it carefully. FYI - that's tiny.
- Speed - 15m/s although you wouldn't bother going this fast for filming, the pitch required puts the propellers in front of the camera if you're using a gimbal. About 6m/s going up and down.
- Expansion - limitless options. There is free software to tweak the drones software, in terms of hardware, there are a range of gimbals obviously, dampeners, video links, wifi goggles to receive the video display (although any old screen works), GPS waypoints to do programmed unmanned routes, the list goes on. Check out the DJI website here to see all the accessories.
I had my Phantom 2 and Zenmuse H3-2D assembled and aerial within minutes. Somewhat unsuccessfully, I might add, as I rushed to test it out in the hour and a half I had between purchasing and leaving for the airport.... I didn't read the instructions, which was my first mistake. If you read the quick start guide you'll be flying like a pro in literally 5 minutes. Avoid wind to start with, and don't turn the drone left or right, only forward, backward, strafing left, strafing right, until you get the hang of knowing the orientation of the drone. It has a forward direction, so when you turn 180 degrees all controls are reversed from your point of view on the ground. I had some issues calibrating the compass, which I believe may have something to do with taking it through so many airport checkpoints (it's sensitive to electromagnetic radiation and ferrous materials, even the steel in concrete) although it doesn't seem to have had any effect on its performance so far. Although it did highlight one of the only downfalls of the Phantom 2 - it is supplied with lacklustre support documentation. It redeems itself by being so easy to use you probably won't need it, and if you do, there are huge online communities that will be able to answer your questions. Before you go travelling download the full supporting documentation from the DJI website here as it doesn't come in the box.
Filming from Above
It's too easy. Really. Plug it in, screw it down, off you go. You'll initially be nervous as you can't put the GoPro's protective casing on, but it seems safe enough - my girlfriend hit a bee the size of a thumb and it didn't do any damage. The gimbal keeps the GoPro perfectly stable and is tuned for the weight of the GoPro Hero 3 or 3+. It even charges the GoPro using the Phantom's battery, so it'll never run out while you're flying. The only difficulty is getting the angle of the camera right - you can control it's pitch directly from the remote controller while it's airborne, I recommend the following settings:
- Keep the angle almost completely flat at 0º in all instances other than when trying to be artistic and angling it straight down, or following people / objects over distances.
- For everything other than landscape shots, use ProTune to lock the white balance and 1080p 60fps with a medium field of view for an SLR feel and enough frames to slow it down for extra smooth footage.
- For landscape or anything where you want a wider field of view use ProTune, lock the white balance and choose 2.7K 30fps. It'll look glorious.
Advice for First Flight
This is the moment I almost lost my new toy. There was terror in my heart. There was the obvious financial burden of losing a camera, drone and gimbal. Then there was the true source of my terror: the sickening feeling of knowing how awesome this device is, and how many experiences wouldn’t be documented with it over the course of our journey through South America.
Getting going should be easy - it's much more likely to be so if you make use of the incredibly easy to follow, yet impossibly difficult to find, Phantom Pilot Training Guide. Check it out here.
It prompted some reflections on my first 60 minutes of flying time. Here they are:
- It is the best thing. Possibly ever. It’s easy to use, (relatively) affordable and produces astonishing results.
- Make sure you wait for the GPS to lock on to 'home' before flying so if something goes wrong the drone can fly back without you. You'll know this has happened when the back LED's flash green slowly.
- This device is smart. I am stupid. You probably are too. Correction: I am a little bit stupid, I am (was) very overconfident. After a very very near drone-death experience, I am now a tad more cautious. But only a tad. Whats the point in having it if you aren’t really using it?? But still, be cautious. Avoid wind and oceans until you know what you are doing, I was told 40 hours flight time, although I seem to be doing OK with long ocean shots in the right conditions after a fraction of that.
- Fly with a friend, at least when filming. The camera is precariously close to the bottom of the legs - if you don’t have an even surface to land on, which I rarely have, you’ll need someone to hold on to it.
- You’ll attract attention. It’s a so-new-there-aren’t-laws kind of technology, so be careful. Authorities will either love it or hate you and want to jail you and people will either think its the best thing since sliced bread, or they will think its the best thing since sliced bread, knife you and steal it for nefarious activities.
- Flying is easy, but not so much when its a long way away and you don’t know which way is front or back any more. I’ve had it out to well over 500m away without any difficulty - except at this distance its the size of a fly. When wind comes along, good luck. Its hard enough working out which way is forward and back as moving up and down tends to slightly change the orientation of the drone anyway. This is how I very nearly lost it on my fourth flight. A good reason to buy the video uplink accessory (licks lips with anticipation).
- Don’t fly in wind. Or at least, be extremely cautious, and be wary of the direction its blowing, especially near water or large objects. It can definitely handle small amounts, a breeze and a bit, even though it says never to fly in wind on the instructions.
- Flying and filming is easy, but hard to get right. Adjusting the angle of the camera to be correct at significantly different heights takes practice, and there’s no immediate feedback (at least on my setup) so its only when you get back and analyse the footage you realise you stuffed it all by having the camera angled too low and cry yourself to sleep. It goes up 500m+ very easily - getting your camera angles right at this elevation can be challenging.
- If using a GoPro, think about using a medium field of view rather than wide. You won’t get the propellers or legs in your view which, by the way, only happens when accelerating, which you will want to be doing as this is what makes aerial video engaging.
Video Reel: just how well does it work?
And some example shots from my first 60 minutes of flying. As I write this I am now sitting on about three hours and it’s starting to come together, however I can't upload new footage as the internet speed here in Argentinian Patagonia leaves a little to be desired. Regardless, you'll be able to see just how quick the learning curve can be! Also check out a little video postcard of Puerto Madryn and the UNESCO world heritage area Peninsula Valdes my girlfriend and I made filming from the drone.
Go get one and have fun! You'll see every place you go through newly opened eyes, soaring like an eagle, and you'll hear the faint voice of Attenborough on the breeze every time you film a natural place......
I promise you won't regret it.