What person hasn't watched some soaring bird and daydreamed about what it would be like to see the world from the bird's point of view? To go where the bird goes, to look down on all the world, and to gain some new perspective?
In many ways, landing and takeoff in a plane are the closest many of us get to this sensation. The runway gliding by, the homes, roads, and trees racing past just below. But all too soon, we’re tens of thousands of feet high above the world. Everything below, while gorgeous in its own right, loses a dimension. We’re no longer birds; we're satellites.
For these reasons alone, ever since aerial drones became a consumer possibility, I’ve been eager to try one out. I live in a rural part of central New York, a place dominated by glacial valleys, wetlands, farms and dense woodlands. The vistas here from the ground are gorgeous, but how about from 400 feet above? Could an aerial drone really give me — or anyone else with a love for the great outdoors — a refreshing perspective on the world? Would it really take to the air as easily as, well, a bird?
DJI, a commercial and recreational manufacturer of unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs), was kind enough to send me its Phantom 2 Vision+ for testing. The all-white quadcopter features a camera and gimbal system capable of 14 megapixel shots and 1080p HD video. When I received it, I literally felt like a kid at Christmas — albeit with the hesitation of a 36-year-old who understands he’s about to send a $1,300 camera into the sky.
What follows are my thoughts on using this UAV these last few months in a variety of weather and settings. If you’re looking for a more in-depth review on the hardware, I’ll guide you here and here. This article is meant to highlight more the experience of using a drone, the present-day pros and cons, and the quickly evolving future.
1. Take the time to read, watch and prepare
One of the benefits of aerial drones, in particular those from DJI, is that they are incredibly easy to fly. I say this with some reticence, however, because that ease of flight is truly only a given if you’ve taken the time to understand how everything works. My first night with the Vision+ was spent with the manual, online communities, and helpful YouTube videos more than anything to do with the actual hardware. Taking off, while easy once you get the hang of it, does require some initial understanding. Getting a handle on how everything works ahead of time will reduce the chance of making a critical mistake high above. As Ben Popper over at The Verge recently put it,"the word toy doesn’t come close to encompassing the danger, power, and potential of these machines."
2. You will fly like a superhero
The first few moments after you get your UAV off the ground are hard to explain. You’ll feel a rush as it hovers 10 feet above you, like something out of science-fiction movie. You’ll also be somewhat afraid to make it do anything. There’s something both oddly terrifying and exhilarating in knowing you’re in control of a flying robot awaiting your next command.
The other thing to note is that you’ll feel torn between glancing down at your smartphone to see what the drone is seeing and glancing up to make sure you're not on the verge of crashing it. UAVs come with GPS positioning to allow them to accurately hover, but confidence in that feature takes some getting used to. Take the time (with your drone safely above you and away from any trees or buildings) to gently try out the pitch and roll, yaw, and vertical gain.
Once you're ready, soar higher. The noise of the rotors will disappear (another unnerving moment) and you’ll get this surreal experience of letting the drone hover in place at 300 feet and playing with the camera. Shoot some video, take some photos, and gently pan the unit around — all the while keeping an eye on it from below. It takes some getting used to (and your heart will be racing) but it’s an amazing experience to suddenly see the world through the eyes of your own robotic bird.
The battery will last you between 20-25 minutes, but save yourself time to fly home. When the Phantom does lose power (as happened to me once), it will gently descend to the ground. You’ll want to make sure there’s nothing below it but earth when that happens.
3. Stay away from dense neighborhoods and keep the altitude reasonable
Look up: At around 400 feet or more, the Phantom can be hard to pick out against the sky. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
My Vision+ came programmed ahead of time to only reach an altitude of 400 feet. You can override this setting in the firmware (under the right conditions, some Phantoms have been known to soar thousands of feet), but I’ve found the default offers the perfect flight range for a variety of shots. Unless you’re in the mountains or something, I don’t really see the need for anything above this height. Keeping a visual on your drone above 400 feet is quite difficult. And please, stay away from neighborhoods — especially those with traffic. This crash video in particular highlights both points and is worth watching as a cautionary tale.
If you really want to fly your drone with decent peace of mind, head out to a park or open natural area where the chances of interfering with someone else's world are minimized.
3. The wind is your enemy
The Vision+’s GPS stabilization is really good — but encounter a strong gust while flying and you’ll find there’s little room for error if there are trees or other obstacles nearby. I found this out the hard way when I was about 10 feet from an oak tree. A 30-35 mph gust came up and pushed the Phantom just close enough to clip a branch and send it into a dramatic freefall. Thankfully, it crash-landed into a sandbox with very little prop damage (replacements are included with your purchase) and I was up and flying again after my heart settled down. If it’s really windy out, just wait another day to fly.
4. Build quality is excellent
Just in case: The Phantom, thankfully, comes with some spare parts for when you screw up. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
Everything from the packaging to the sturdy design of the Vision+ is top-notch. It's extremely comforting, especially for something costing over a grand, to know that DJI built its machines to take a beating. You'll still handle the thing with extreme care (it's definitely an awkward piece of machinery to lug around sans custom case), but it can take a variety of situations.
5. The video and photography are stunning
The Vision+’s integrated gimbal is almost magical for anyone who has ever flown without one. Even when you're banking hard or fighting against wind, you’ll find your images stay nice and level, with little to no interference from vibration. The integrated camera is also excellent, with plenty of options for white balance and color correction — though I’ll admit to not really tinkering much with any of the settings right out of the box. No sound is recorded (mainly because all you would hear are the four noisy props), but the visuals are all you're looking for anyway.
The real-time video feedback is excellent, but don’t depend on it exclusively to fly your Phantom. I’ve found that sometimes, there can be just a bit of a lag, especially at long distances from the controller. If you’re getting creative, this can put your drone in a dangerous situation. If you do find yourself flying long distances and relying on the camera to navigate obstacles, lower the real-time video resolution and FPS for better performance. Always keep an eye on both the drone and the camera in relation to objects around you.
Warnings aside though, that video — it's something else. Even in the low-quality setting, you'll get a rush seeing the world from an entirely different perspective. It's like the airplane moment I mentioned above, but sustained. Flying the Phantom is really cool, but letting it just hover and look down on the world is even better. To see from such a height in real-time is just wild.
6. Automated return flights home are helpful if needed
If you happen to lose contact with your Phantom (or exceed the control range), it will automatically return and land (within a few feet) of where it was launched. While I did not need this particular function during my many tests, I did decide to try it, sending the drone about 1000 feet away and nervously cutting the power to the controller. Almost immediately, it detected the drop and returned home, gently landing about a foot from where it took off.
7. The Phantom is extremely responsive
One thing I learned quickly how to do in the winter is landing on a 3-foot by 2-foot piece of plastic that served as my portable take-off and landing pad. With the record snowfall we've been experiencing here in the Northeast, dry level earth has been hard to come by. While take-off from such a platform is easy, landing after coming down from 350 feet takes a bit more care. Thankfully, the controller that comes with the UAV is extremely responsive. You'll find that just a slight nudge will gently move the drone in the right direction. I never once missed my little landing zone.
8. Winter flying is fun, but keep flight times short
Frosty morning: You'll find yourself braving cold temps to capture some amazing shots. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
As expected, when flying the Phantom in below-freezing temperatures, you're going to get reduced battery life. Surprisingly, it was my iPhone that died the fastest, a problem I remedied by keeping it in an insulated case while operating the drone. Otherwise, flight times were a respectable 10-15 minutes in 15 to 25 degree Fahrenheit temps. Gloves were a hindrance for accurately moving the sticks, so I just let my hands get cold. Believe me, you won't notice your fingers are turning blue until after the drone lands.
9. Get an extra battery
A no-brainer. It's just good to have one always charged in the pack and one in the drone.
10. Drone technology is evolving quickly.
You’ve likely already seen the absolutely stunning shots and videos being captured by both amateurs and professionals alike using drones. In the past, only expensive helicopters with giant gimbals could achieve something similar. We’re still early in the consumer world of drone technology, but already we can explore glacial ice tunnels, fly dangerously close to volcanoes, and soar above abandoned regions too dangerous for humans.
Next gen: DJI's new Inspire shoots in 4K and features more advanced flying technology. (Photo: DJI)
The Phantom Vision+ was DJI's top consumer model, but it's been replaced over the last couple months by the Inspire, a new design that adds such features as 4K video, re-engineered propulsion and gimbal system, and a 720p HD video feed, among other tweaks. At $2,899, it's more than twice the cost of the Phantom 2 Vision+, but any of these models in my opinion are a bargain for the nature photographer/videographer interested expanding their reach.
It's worth noting that the remote control for the Phantom has also been upgraded with gimbal controls now built in (instead of only on the app) and a "trainer port" on the back that allows you to fly simulations on your computer first, before launching your drone into the air. This is one feature I definitely would have enjoyed using in the beginning.
And naturally, competitors are springing up everywhere (including some new models from 3D Robotics and Parrot and later this year even GoPro), which will only further advance the tech and drive down prices. It's no wonder that sales for the consumer industry in 2015 are expected to pass $100 million.
Below is a short video compilation of some of my flights using the Vision+. If you have any other additional questions about the tech, hit me up in the comments below.
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