This is one of the first small drones that might be really interesting to the aerial camera community. It is true that it has a limited range, and limited airtime. But for under $3k it’s a powerful tool for certain applications. We are interfacing our SmartCam3D software to it, so I got my hands on one and have begun flying it. As a long time RC helicopter pilot, I found it easy to fly – after updating the firmware. We had a lot of fun doing this first test.
There are a couple of out of the box things to be wary of. First, we flew the aircraft with the firmware as it came from the factory. The crash that followed on the first flight out of the box was not bad, but we recognized a stability issue, and we immediately updated the firmware and all subsequent flights were noticeably more stable. I would recommend not flying the factory firmware. Even after this update, the aircraft was not quite as stable as my Phantom Vision. We flew several other flights – some approaching 15 minutes, and found it to be generally pleasant to fly.
One other factor is that the aircraft has retractable gear, and this gear changes the center of lift with respect to the center of mass. In other words, from a physics perspective, the aircraft is less stable with the landing gear lowered, because the center of lift moves below the center of mass. Yikes! That means the autopilot has to work a lot harder with the gear down. It also indicates that you should retract the gear for all filming since the stability will be better.
It has automatic gear extension sensors so if you forget to lower the gear, and get near the ground (say about a meter or so) the aircraft will do it for you. We deliberately tried this, and it works well. It also has a return to base mode. We tried this and it appears to first ascend to about 100 or more feet before returning to the launch point and descending. We started to test this facility three times but were not completely comfortable with automatic landings with lots of trees and cactus around us, but it has a lot of promise.
The video capabilities are very impressive - this drone has a 4k camera stabilized in 3 axes producing 30 frames per second. It comes with a 16GB SD card, which is good given how big these 4k video files become. The video looks beautiful to my eye, and has some definite cinematic potential. My colleague, Matthew Murray, who has a great videographers eye, noticed some “jello roll” in some of the video. We expect carefully balancing of the props on the aircraft can cure this.
Some oddities. The aircraft has 3 modes gear down, gear up (flight mode), and travel mode. To get the aircraft into travel mode you have set it on a hard smooth floor with gear down, and then put it into travel mode using the DJI Pilot App. The instructions are short, and also somewhat incomplete. Another oddity is that DJI cannot seem to decide if there is or is not an Apple version of the Pilot App. Hopefully they will get this figured out shortly.
One last thought. This thing is very heavy and would be instantly dangerous if either control or thrust is lost. That shouldn’t happen given the built-in safeguards and prudent piloting, but don’t bet your life, or anyone’s life, on that. Think safety when you plan your flights. It may be helpful to imagine that every person in the vicinity of the aircraft is an accident tort lawyer.
In upcoming articles, we will look at some applications for this new class of drone, as well as practical considerations in trying to use them effectively in mission critical applications.