A few months ago I started to get excited about drone photography. It provides a great angle to most places you visit and it is a great differentiator for travel bloggers and photographers because the barrier to entry are still high.
In this post I want to share my first impressions after having owned and traveled, long-haul, with a drone so that all those who may be considering purchasing one can have their expectations framed.
Firstly, let me start by sharing the type of drone I have because this has a relevant impact on my feedback.
I researched about all the options available at the time of purchase and was left with two main options to chose from.
Option 1: Phantom + GoPro
Phantom 2 Vision with own mounted GoPro. This would mean buying a regular Phantom drone and then adding all the accessories to accommodate a GoPro. That mostly refers to the gimbal and first person view so that you stabilize the drone based on the weight of the GoPro and also provide streaming to your controller to see what the camera sees and fly the drone more easily while being able to see the footage that is being recorded. You could also do away with the First Person View and simply use the GoPro’s app to stream what the camera sees. Based on my experience with the GoPro Hero 4, the streaming seems to have a latency issue that may be unacceptable for the drone
Option 2: Phantom 2 Vision Plus Integrated
The grab and go option is to buy the latest Phantom model which comes fully integrated with Phantom’s camera, stability gimbal and First Person View through their app on your phone.
I went for option 2 because of my limited technical knowledge and because comparing the specs, the default camera was better than the GoPro Hero 3 at the time. Nowadays, the newer GoPro has some improvements but I am still very happy with the quality of the default camera which provides full HD footage.
For background purposes it is important for me to explain how and when I have used the Phantom to date.
Since I live in Singapore the most obvious and easiest way for me to learn to fly it is to simply take it out to a park. In Singapore the law establishes that you can fly drones up to 6 stories high and no less than 5 km from the airport so there are quite a lot of locations within the city where I can easily practice.
Aside from the learning and playing around in Singapore I have taken the drone to the Philippines’ Boracay Island, to the Maldives Six Senses Laamu and on my 3 week trip across New Zealand, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.
In order to travel with the Phantom I had to get a backpack that protects it. It is worth noting that the Phantom is a very fragile item so you should try not to check it in when you fly. If you get the backpack, it is standard carry-on size so you can take it onboard with you. I had to check it in once because I was taking too small a propeller plane and it did not fit but the entire set-up was very casual and I could almost see it being loaded. In cases where I was traveling with an already big suitcase I decided to transfer the guts of the backpack onto my carry on so I could wheel it. It fit almost exactly and this way I did not have to carry it on my back as it is quite heavy.
After using the Phantom in these trips I have a good understanding of its limitations and the best use cases. I will start with the reasons why buying a Phantom 2 Vision Plus has been a great decision.
1. Great footage
Needless to say, the footage and photos are extraordinary and have gone viral every time I used them in social media or on a post. They provide an angle rarely seem and a very interesting way to show a place from a perspective that gives the holistic view you don’t get from the ground. For those who are already advanced users the footage that you can get is memorable. It is particularly suited to situations where the landscape is changing or where there is a small but specific area to record, for example an over water resort or an island. Because the drone is relatively small it can go through narrow places that are not reachable by helicopter and get close to people.
2. Easy to use
If someone as low-tech as me has been able to learn to fly it anybody can. I could compare my learning to that of a couple of friends who have used it and I know that I am someone who will need longer to get familiar and at ease using it. I am too worried about crashing it and too concerned over bothering others to go full on but with time I will. That being said, getting the basics right is relatively easy and with the First Person View on the app I found flying quite easy.
If you used to be an avid video-game player this is going to be a walk in the park because it is just the same. There are several free tutorials from various experienced Phantom users on YouTube from where to get a better understanding and leaning beyond the manuals included in the Phantom but the drone comes with a starter guide which has a few steps you should do first to learn how to fly it. It should take you at most 30min to do all the exercises and you are good to go.
The app is tremendously useful at telling you about possible issues, helping you control the battery life of all the components and handling the satellite signal. Plus once you are done, downloading the photos and videos onto the iPhone can be done directly from the app, although it may take a remarkably long time via the WiFi signal connection.
3. Quick set-up
Photo source here
In the Cook Islands I rented a scooter and toured the island. Because I did not have the backpack with me adn the carry-on was too bulky I literally had the Phantom on my feet and the controlled in my hand bag. As soon as I would see something I wanted to record I would stop and get to it. It takes a remarkably short time to set up the drone for flying. After turning all the parts on and connecting your phone via WiFi to the controller you just need to do a quick calibration turning the Phantom on its won a couple of times and you can take-off. It takes at most 5 minutes from the moment you decide to shoot to being in the air. For such a sophisticated machine I find this to be very quick.
Aside from these three great things I also learned very quickly what its limitations are and fully understood the magnitude and extent. Even though I had already read about it and had it pretty clear in my mind I still have to see it for myself to realize the implications of its downsides.
The entire Phantom with the accessories, the extra batteries (you need them because each one lasts for about 25min), cables and propellers weights around 5kg. Although that is not a lot it can become a hassle if you are traveling around or taking it around town. For a girl, lugging a 5kg backpack across airports and tarmacs can become a heavy item. Then add all the rest of your personal belongings you have to carry too and it adds up. So if you plan to be moving around a lot consider the weight. In my 4 week trip it became a real hassle.
2. Not for wind or rain
It is obvious that when it rains you cannot take it out. It is not just because the rain drops could de-stabilize the drone but mostly because all the electronics are in plain sight and so as soon as a drop falls you should land it. if like me you plan to use it in tropical weather beware of the flash tropical storms which came from nowhere and threatened to kill my little friend. On the wind side, you don’t need a lot of wind to flip it over or simply de-stabilize it too much for it to take any relevant footage. This is an issue because a little breeze is very common and, after being made aware of this I noticed that this can deem more than half of the recording opportunities impossible. It is a major show stopper, especially if you are filming in open spaces or by the sea where the wind is more common.
3. Hard to master
I said earlier that it is easy to fly the Phantom. After a quick exercise I was able to take control. However, in order to become truly a master of the flying you need hours of practice. Since you can move the machine up/down, right/left and also rotate it on itself right/left and go forward/backward there are a lot of combinations you can achieve with the two controllers. Then once you know how to fly the drone you need to learn to take good footage and photos which is not easy. You need to learn to fly the drone at the right speed and doing the right route to showcase the view in the best way. I have found this to be quite difficult.
At the same time, it is very easy to crash the drone into a tree or to lose control in which case your chances of survival are quite slim as the Phantom is very fragile. It did not take long for a friend to crash it onto a palm tree after which it plunged to the ground and, surprisingly, it did not break but lost stability and one of the propellers broke. It is key to always have a set of extra propellers should something like this happen.
For such a small device the Phantom is extremely noisy. This would not be such a problem if you were intending to record in the open space but once you start doing this in an area where there are other people you run the risk of bothering everyone. The zooming noise can be quite piercing and can be heard from quite far away. Even if you fly it far up in the skies you can still hear the propellers from the ground.
5. Occasionally losing signal
The Phantom 2 Vision Plus is much improved from previous models but it still uses satellite and WiFi connectivity to fly and to connect with the controller. Therefore, you can’t fly it farther than 600m. Although this seemed to be like a decent distance you have to bear in mind that you need to calculate the height plus the distance. Moreover, the controller and my app lost signal even though the drone was much closer than 600m. If there are trees or walls between you and the drone the signal is at risk of getting lost. If that happens the drone could potential collapse onto the ground below.
In case you were wondering, for the drone to fly the controller needs to establish connectivity with at least 6 satellites. This takes away all opportunities to fly indoors. I have been to pretty remote places and there were always more than 6 signals so that was not an issue even in the middle of the Pacific.
Most countries don’t have clear legislation with regards to drones but this will change rapidly. Expect that in the months to come most countries will draft regulations with regards to who can fly them, where, how high and where. Some countries are considering requiring a pilot license to fly a drone whereas others may be more pervasive but expect these changes to have dramatic impact on how much juice you extract from this hobby. If privacy issues become pervasive, you may not be allowed to fly them around residential areas. Recent crashes in Yosemite Park have sparked an outcry as the environmental proponents worry about the effects of a drone crashing into one of the natural hot springs. As a result, drones have been banned in all of US National Parks since June 2014. To read more head here.
7. Risk of injury
This may be just me but having seen what happens if the drone crashes onto a tree or if one of the components is de-stabilized speeding it against whatever is closest I worry that the Phantom is known for out of the blue crashes. If this happened on someone’s head it could cause severe injuries. Call me an doomer but I consider this risk when I fly it and try not to go over people’s heads.
8. Low battery life
Like all of the electronics connecting our lives the Phantom has a very short battery life. At around 25min of flying time it will start beeping and you will have to land it. That is just for the batteries of the quadcopter but then you also need to make sure you have battery on the iPhone, the controller and the WiFi repeater so you basically need to have 4 elements fully charged. Although the drone’s battery is the shortest and it will set the timelines for the rest charging the actual controller takes a very long time.
I bought 3 extra batteries to extend flying time and each takes about 2h to charge. I did not buy the parallel battery charger but I also found that aside from the batteries, the controller also runs out of juice pretty quickly. You are basically setting yourself out for constant charging for 1.5h of recording time with 4 batteries so it does provide limited autonomy.
As a side note I also wanted to point out that the Phantom 2 Vision Plus can only accommodate memory SD cards of up to 32 GB. Larger cards are not supported so bear this in mind when you buy additional cards. The drone comes with a default 4GB card which should be enough to get started.