Flying cameras – what’s not to love?
I recently replaced my Parrot AR Drone with the latest from DJI – a Phantom 2 Vision+. I found that the Parrot Drone has too many flaws and I stopped flying it.
Despite claiming an “HD” camera, the photo and video quality of the AR Drone is relatively poor. It is flimsy and incapable of flying in anything but perfect weather conditions. It also has an annoying software glitch that performs an “emergency shutdown” if the angle from the nose to the tail is too steep – meaning that it shuts off the rotors and drops to its death onto the concrete below. This happened to me far too many times and after rebuilding the entire thing from spare parts, I couldn’t bring myself to fly it again.
I received my Phantom a few weeks ago at the beginning of a week of stormy weather with winds gusting to 40mph. Unlike the Parrot, the Phantom can fly in winds up to 25mph but I wasn’t going to take my first flight in anything but near perfect conditions which arrived 10 days later.
My wife and I walk our dog on the beach near our house every morning. On the 14th of May, it was sunny with just a slight breeze and so we headed out with both dog and drone (which if I ever own a pub will be its name – The Dog and Drone).
I found a spot, sat down and set everything up while my wife continued on with our dog, Ozzie.
The Phantom uses GPS to making flying easier. When you stop and hover in one place, it uses GPS to maintain its position. Compare this to the Parrot drone that relies on a downward facing camera and image recognition that seems to struggle with surfaces that have few contrasts such as a sandy beach or a grassy field. The Phantom also uses the GPS position from where it takes off so that it can automatically return if it loses connection with the controller.
Once the Phantom had locked on to a couple of satellites and flashed me the green “I’m ready” signal, I started the rotors and pressed the control stick to climb.. easy.
The Phantom’s controller uses radio frequency for flight control that has a range of 2,000 feet or so but also uses wifi that connects the onboard camera to the mobile phone app. This seems to restrict the actual flight range to around 1,000 feet which is less than what I expected. As mentioned above, if you fly outside of the “control range” the Drone will get to an altitude of around 50 ft (to avoid trees and what not) and then automatically fly back to the point from where it started.
This is the video I assembled from the 15 minute first flight. I sat on the beach in one place and controlled the camera from the iPhone. I exceed the range at the end and so I let it fly home to see what would happen. It came back and landed automatically about 3ft from the spot it left. Not bad.
For my second flight, I wanted to explore the camera options a bit more thoroughly. The Garrison Church in Portsmouth is located in an open field and would make an interesting, but relatively safe flight location.
I was really nervous. Having had my Parrot drone tumble from the sky one too many times, I didn’t really want this new – fare more expensive – drone to suffer the same fate. But as before, once it’s locked on to a couple of satellites and you lift off, flight control was stable and is so simple to manouver.
The camera on the Phantom Vision+ is mounted to a gimbal which absorbs all the small vibrations from flying. This results in a steady platform for both video and stills.
The iPhone app from DJI gives you an amazing level of camera control – even while the drone is in the air. You can change the video quality, ISO and white balance levels, switch between wide angle and normal views, etc. It really is a flying camera rather than just another RC Quadcopter.
Here are some of my photos from this flight. As you can see, the image quality of this little 14M camera is pretty impressive. And I tried both the wide angle and normal perspectives.
I have to say that flying close to a building is a bit stressful as even with the GPS lock, the drone drifts a little bit. It is also easy to become a bit turned around when flying from a first-person view by looking at what the camera sees and then looking at the drone itself.
Is it a bird?
I’m not sure if it is because the Phantom is white, but there was a moment when a seagull decided to fly uncomfortably close to it for closer inspection. I had this vision of it being dived bombed out of the sky but the gull simply flew off when he had seen enough.
The Parrot AR Drone is a toy. It is fun and has some nice features, but it is simply no comparison to the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+.
In summary: Awesome
The Phantom is well-built, does what it promises, is loaded with fantastic technology and has a great camera. DJI has promised future enhancements too including different camera filters (e.g. polarising) and also GPS navigation in the app (by clicking on a map).
The bottom line is that I absolutely love it – it is fun to fly and takes great photos. I definitely need more practice as there’s some skill required (but not much); and will probably say a small prayer that I don’t crash it every time I take it out for the foreseeable future. I also expect to see more of these around town over the coming 12 months, as they are far too awesome.