[New Information added on the Phantom 2 Vision Plus on 3 October 2015 … on the Phantom 3 on 20 October 2015 … AND on new U.S. Government regulations effective 21 December 2015]
No matter where you live, there’s a good chance you’ll spot one of those new fangled, remote control quadcopters [aka drones] in the wild blue yonder.
The satellite/GPS-linked, computerized machines are about the size of a large pizza. You’ll find them hovering above a park or a neighbourhood, taking video of a sporting event, skimming over a pond … or climbing the face of a mountain.
If the ‘flyer’ is a journalist or a police officer, they’re likely grabbing video of an accident, storm damage … or a crime scene.
Perhaps a real estate company has a quadcopter hovering over a house or acreage, hoping to get some cool shots to ‘wow’ buyers. Maybe a wedding photographer has put one aloft to get some cool aerials … a farmer has put one in the sky for crop surveillance … perhaps an engineer is working on “infrastructure management” or environmental regulation. So many, many uses. Even the porn industry has climbed on board [more on that later].
What it comes down to is that these small drones are expanding the limits of photography, giving us a totally new way of experiencing our world … and a whole new perspective. They’re revolutionizing so many businesses — and enriching lives.
‘Quad’ of course means four … so when we say quadcopter [as in the DJI Phantom], we’re talking about a machine with four propellers. The six-prop jobbies are called ‘hexacopters.’ I’ll stop there because there are 8-bladed machines … and God knows what else.
No matter the label one puts on these hobby aircraft … man, they’re sure exciting!
Before we go any further, let’s be clear that not everyone is partial to the term ‘drone,’ claiming it conjures images of spying, bombings, and extra-judicial killings. They prefer ‘quadcopter.’ Fair enough.
For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on the China-made DJI Phantom, for a couple of reasons: I own two [the Phantom 2 and the Vision Plus] … and since the fall of 2013 have owned four of the machines, including the original Phantom.
The Phantom is also the most popular quadcopter on the market. Sales have taken off and the sky is the limit. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
I’m a novice at flying these; heck, I’m a novice at operating remote-controlled toy cars! But by watching tutorial videos online and by flying as much as possible, I’m much better now. The key is practice. And as a seasoned flyer said when I bought my first unit, “First learn to hover!”
My interest in aerial photography dates back to the 1950s when I was a kid growing up in Campbellton, New Brunswick. I was 10 or so when I got my first film camera [a basic Kodak]. I was intrigued with taking photos from on high, first from hills, then mountains. And as I grew older, from aircraft. For me, the camera-equipped quadcopter is a dream come true.
It is a hobby and, I fear, an addiction.
[FAIRLY] EASY TO OPERATE
Quadcopters are fairly simple to operate, certainly much easier than the standard twin-prop, remote-control toy helicopter. The beauty of something like the Phantom 2 Vision [or the Vision Plus] is that after downloading the DJI Vision app, one can see what the onboard camera sees by attaching an iPhone, iPad or an Android device to the transmitter. An operator can see everything in “real time.”
They can also check the speed of the craft, its height, the number of satellites it is connected to, how much battery power is remaining — and determine if there’s a micro SD card inserted in the camera. By touching a small icon on the smartphone, the operator can shoot either video or stills. The best part is that the angle of the camera [up and down motion] can be controlled from the phone.
A running timer shows the length of the video being shot. The operator can also make changes to the camera settings while the Fantom 2 Vision or Vision Plus is in the air. The magic doesn’t seem to end. The Phantom can also beam photos to your cell phone, and you can email them off to someone while the craft is still hovering high above you. Is that crazy or what?
Dan Zak of The Washington Post, in a March 2014 article, describes the sound of the mini-drone as like an electric weed cutter.
Click on this item by Kevin Short and Harry Bradford in the Huffington Post for a cool video on 24 Drone-Created GIFs That Show You The World Like You’ve Never Seen It Before.
Check out the HD video taken from the Phantom 2 Vision over my neighbourhood in the west end of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The clip was shot on a slightly windy, chilly 10th of December 2013. The video has been enhanced and stabilized somewhat, through Mac’s iMovie program. The clip runs 0:11.
This next clip is HD raw footage, showing my attempts to steady the craft as it lifts in the air.
This was shot on the 17th of February 2014 at David Willson’s acreage near Devon, Alberta. In the video is David’s Irish Wolfhound, Bran, who doesn’t seem the least interested in the Phantom. The clip runs 01:42.
Guys will be guys. Some fellows strapped fireworks [Roman candles] to a drone …
The following link is the ultimate in touristy drone shots … the link contains HUNDREDS of short drone shots taken around the world. Thanks to the Zurich, Switzerland-based website, TravelByDrone for this gem … good work!! This website shows the impact that flying cameras — particularly the DJI Phantom line-up — has had on our planet. This is one of the best sites out there for drone video shots.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A STUPID KIND
What happens when a toy drone is sucked into the engine of an airliner? Death and destruction, says one study. Worse than if the plane hit a bird. Bloomberg has the story …
Here’s an interesting link … a kangaroo gets ticked off and takes down a drone …
Kangaroos aren’t the only ones ticked off … so are authorities around the world. Read the story in The Verge by Ben Popper about how one bozo in England got handed a hefty fine for jerk droning. It was the UK’s first conviction against a drone pilot.
Tom Wright, a retired air traffic controller in Moncton, New Brunswick, sent us these two links …
A GAME CHANGER
The following article contains a YouTube video, slightly hyped with dramatic music, produced by a real estate company in Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta. Thanks to the Edmonton Journal for this story [great lead line by reporter Marty Klinkenberg as well].
How about drones saving lives? The University of Technology in Delft, Netherlands, has developed an “ambulance drone.” According to the respected technical school, each year one million Europeans suffer from a cardiac arrest — but because of slow emergency response times, only 8 percent pull through. TU Delft figures that with a speedy ambulance drone, the survival rate can be increased to 80 percent. Check out this cool video [thanks to Abe Schwartz in Las Vegas, U.S.A. for this] …
How about using drones to deliver mail? Here’s a Reuters article about the post office in Germany using drones to deliver parcels [containing much-needed medicine] to isolated communities …
How will drones change sports? That’s a question pondered by Colin Lecher of Popular Science …
In early 2016, at a trade show in Vegas, Intel showcased a drone that can follow you in real-time … Business Insider has the scoop:
Drones have opened up a new world of “selfies” … check this out: a model called “Lily” …
Here’s an article by Kevin Bullis in MIT Technology Review about hybrid power for small drones that could increase their flight time to 2 and a half hours — with a 9-kilo payload.
How about a tiny quadcopter that can fit in the palm of your hand and comes in a carry case [with a built in charger] that you can slip into your pocket? I’m not kidding. Check out what Axis Drones, a Rochester, New York, company, promotes as the world’s smallest drone. [The article is courtesy of BGR’s Zach Epstein.]
Would a drone scare off birds? Ian Affleck of Busby, Alberta, flies the Phantom One and says he notices that birds aren’t frightened off by it. “They seem to be more curious than anything,” he says.
I’ve had a similar experience with Canada Geese in a park near where I live. They didn’t seem to mind the Phantom too much, however when I approached them on foot, they took off. Go figure.
In Holland, EAGLES are now being trained to take down drones. It’s a police effort. The story, written by Jeremy Dreyfuss for Business Insider, includes a short video showing an eagle taking down a Phantom.
Here’s a ‘screen-capture’ taken at night over a Costco store in Edmonton. Again, this is not a still but an image taken from a 1080p video.
What inspired this article is the previous post, Used, Abused and Betrayed, the story of a young American TV journalist, Pedro Rivera, who landed in hot water in February 2014 for flying his Phantom 2 Vision half a block away from an accident scene in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. Police surrounded Rivera and harassed him. Officers, including the Chief, now find themselves in the crosshairs of a lawsuit filed by the reporter.
Rivera had been using his quadcopter to get images for a TV station where he worked part-time. In a mind-boggling act, the TV station turned on Rivera [at the request of the police]. Months have passed since the incident and the station hasn’t called him back in to work. How’s that for class and journalistic integrity?
The reporter’s plight has become a lightning rod of sorts for governments that will eventually bring in legislation to govern the use of the small aircraft. More on that coming up in this piece.
A majority of owners fly their quadcopters purely for fun and, of course, to take cool aerial shots and videos. Some do it for business, some to help others …
Just outside Hartford is the bedroom community of Branford, where lawyer and quadcopter enthusiast Peter Sachs flies his Phantom 2 Vision. Sachs was asked by the local Fire Department to use his machine to check out an out-of-control fire in a quarry. The fire was burning close to a building where explosives were stored. Was it safe to send in firefighters? That’s what the Fire Chief wanted to know.
After sending his Phantom into the sky to get a bird’s eye view, Sachs gave him the answer they wanted to hear: they were good to go.
Sachs — who fully supports Pedro Rivera, by the way — was given a huge thumbs up by the Fire Chief.
Check out Sach’s video of the fire on YouTube …
The more professional units [such as the six-bladed DJI F550] can fly greater distances, carry heavier [read=better] camera equipment … and because they have six or more propellers, they’re more reliable. If one prop craps out, the craft remains airborne.
The quadcopter is so popular it has spawned an entire accessories market. Phantom owners can buy special hard-shell carrying cases, flashing LED light strips, extended landing gear, extra-strength batteries, prop guards, anti-vibration mounting plates, carbon fibre props, GPS tracking systems … and of course small, rugged action cameras and camera stabilizers [gimbals], which help provide cool, smooth video.
Even bumper stickers: ‘My Other Vehicle is Unmanned.’
The machines have given a whole new perspective to photography.
The Phantoms were designed for the most popular action camera, the GoPro. When combined with a stabilizer that keeps the camera level, the result is some very smooth 1080p video.
Another sports camera that works well is the Ghost Drift. So far, I’ve only used the Drift … plus of course the built-in camera that comes with the Phantom 2 Vision.
The Phantom 2 Vision is capable of shooting “14mp” stills, but that’s misleading, which is why I used quotation marks. The JPEG photos are not all that sharp because of the camera’s tiny lens and sensor. One can get better stills by pulling ‘screen captures’ from the HD video. Or, shoot RAW.
To get even sharper stills, I attach a Sony NEX-5T camera to my Phantom 2. The 16.1 MP camera has a timer which can be programmed to take shots at set intervals. Because it has a full-size lens and sensor, the NEX-5T produces fairly sharp images. Compared to most DSLRs, the NEX-5T is light. With an SD memory card and a 16-50mm lens, it weighs only 13.8 ounces [393 grams].
The NEX-5T also shoots HD video.
Here’s an unedited RAW photo taken with the Sony NEX-5T on 15 April 2014 … about 80 feet over a park in Edmonton’s west end. The size of the file is 16.7 MB.Police will discover the quadcopters and mini-drones can save lives [monitoring a hostage-taking, say, or searching for a lost child]. There are so many possibilities; one can only imagine. It’s like another tool, and not an expensive one either.
On 15 June 2014, Business Insider did this write-up called ‘The Best Drones You Can Buy.’
PRO VIDEOS SHOT FROM PHANTOMS
Click on this link for an assortment of videos that show the capabilities of the DJI Phantom [and some post production editing]. This post isn’t meant to be a commercial for DJI, but the beautiful videos illustrate the potential of these flying machines more effectively than any words I can come up with.
The videos are spectacular. And so concludes my sucking up to DJI. While its famous Phantom has many positives, there are some negatives too. Again, more on this later.
I chose a Phantom over other models for the same reason I chose a Mac computer over a PC. The Phantoms not only look more professional, they seem to be a better product, more cutting-edge if you will … and more reliable. At least that’s my hope. However, I’m not about to buy every quadcopter on the market to find out.
For a better overview of quadcopters on the market, check out this cool site: http://quadcopterhq.com/best-quadcopters/
Google ‘YouTube and DJI Phantom’ for a host of tutorial videos on how to operate the Phantom.
NEW GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS …
I’m about to list some negatives about drones, but try to keep a balanced view … there are far more many plusses. As Pedro Rivera points out, “Everything can be used for good or bad. A gun can save you or kill you, same as a car … it can drive you to McDonalds or it can run you over.” Rivera’s point is that misuse of the drones is no justification to ban or over-regulate them.
Finally! Washington has announced that effective 21 December 2015, it will require all drones in the United States to be registered. Tech Insider has this report …
Retired Canadian journalist Paul McLaughlin noted in the post on Rivera, the devices are a game changer, “… including the law, journalism and privacy.” McLaughlin wonders what would happen if the paparazzi had quad-copters and began covering an event. “Imagine the paparazzi at an event with 50 drones overhead?” he asks.
For that matter, celebrities sunbathing in the nude in the back yard of their estates, behind 15-foot walls, should now be wearing more than sunscreen. Magazines pay good money for some exclusive shots.
What about peeping Toms and child diddlers? There’s nothing to stop Lester-the-Molester and other deviants from buying these toys. As long as they’re 18, they can walk into a hobby shop and pick one up. Easier still, they can buy one online and have it delivered to their door.
What about stalkers?? [“My girlfriend thinks that I’m a stalker. Well, she’s not exactly my girlfriend yet …“] So much for thinking one has privacy because they live on the 20th floor of a high-rise. Make that the 120th floor, it don’t matter. A quadcopter or personal drone can park outside condos and apartments that are hundreds of feet in the air.
Hunters? What’s to stop hunters from using a personal quad-copter with a camera to stalk game? Would that not give them an unfair advantage?
What about small, crop-duster aircraft zooming low over a field? … pilots must now worry about striking a different kind of bird.
People are wondering if they can shoot down a quadcopter or drone flying over their property. As one fellow pointed out, “that’s what shotguns are for.” In a Bloomberg story by Jennifer Oldham, we see that a Colorado man wants his town to give residents the green light to blow drones out of the sky.
In the spring of 2014 travel photographer Trey Ratcliff found himself dining on Chinese food in a detention centre in Beijing after he took his Phantom [with GoPro Hero 3+] to the skies over the Forbidden City. Apparently some of what he was shooting was forbidden too. Read all about it in this piece by Gannon Burgett in Business Insider. Check out Ratcliff’s cool video as well.
Thanks to former CBC TV reporter Bill Laing for this ditty: Drones have a lot of people worried about privacy, but they can be used for good as well as nefarious purposes. Take, for instance, a spectacular display of drone technology by Intel Corporation (USA) involving 100 small aircrafts being launched skywards in formation has earned a new Guinness World Record for the Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously.
Controlled on the ground by a crew using PCs with Intel software, the mass of drones lit up the night sky in sync to a live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and executed a stunning light show resembling a fireworks display.
“Drone 100” took place at Flugplatz Ahrenlohe, Tornesch, Germany, in November 2015.
The record was set in collaboration with Ars Electronica Futurelab to push the limits of the UAV industry and to show what UAVs can be used for.
Check out this incredible article from Israel’s Homeland Security Home … it claims hackers have developed a drone that can steal the contents of your smartphone — plus grab passwords to your bank accounts. “New Overhead Privacy Thief.”
What about terrorists and other loonies? Forget about strapping explosives to your body … how difficult would it be to strap a bomb to a drone?
Larry Pynn of the Vancouver Sun did this piece on 22 April 2014 about a small, private drone that climbed to around 2,000 feet and got fairly close to an Air Canada Boeing 777-300 as it came in for a landing at the International Airport in Vancouver. According to the Air Canada pilots, the drone came to within 20-30 meters [65-100 feet] of their jetliner. Authorities said that wasn’t safe. Read all about it …
In July 2014, two men in New York City found themselves in hot water when a Phantom allegedly buzzed a police helicopter near a bridge. The New York Post has the story. The paper also sheds some light on the number of “hobby-level” drones out there.
Could mini-drones be designed to shoot 80,000 volt taser darts? Apparently so, according to this story by Mark Prigg in the Daily Mail [Mail Online] …
Would any private paramilitary group be interested in a weapons-carrying mini-drone? They’d be most interested. Just a guess, mind you.
Check out this fun video from FPSRussia, a popular YouTube site where Kyle Myers, an American born in Hart County, Georgia, USA — playing the role of “Dmitri Potapoff” — uses a modified and souped-up mini-drone to illustrate how dangerous these flying machines can be.
The State of Connecticut may pass a law that would give judges the power to imprison anyone for up to 20 years for flying weapons or explosives on a drone or quadcopter, and up to 10 years for using the craft for voyeurism.
Don’t think drug dealers know about these things? They’ll see a remote-controlled quad-copter as another way to transport drugs across a border, and an easy way to transport contraband over prison walls.
Check out this story by Patricia Laya [based in Mexico City] where a drone carrying 3 kilos [6.6 pounds[ of drugs crashed in a supermarket parking lot in Tijuana, Mexico … destined for the United States, about 1,000 yards away. Now that’s a surprise. Wow, think of all the ‘mules’ the drones will put out of business …
According to Laya, Amazon is selling 10,000 drones a month.
What’s to stop someone from shipping a small weapon with ammo to a prison exercise yard … or to a spot in the yard, such as a loading dock, where inmates are gathered? How would guards stop these things? Keep in mind, they’re fairly small and difficult to detect when they’re hundreds of feet in the air. And they don’t make a lot of noise.
In Canada and the U.S. mini-drones have already been used to carry contraband [smokes and drugs] over prison walls. Here’s a story on Liveleak about how a machine was used to get cocaine into a correctional center in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 7 March 2014. According to the story, prisoners had previously used pigeons and cats to smuggle in dope. Cats?? Where could one hide dope on a cat? Wait. Never mind.
It’s been said by many to never fly a drone indoors. Here’s a story by Vanessa Ogle in the Courier Life’s Brooklyn [New York] Daily about a restaurant owner who had been operating a ‘Mobile Mistletoe’ service …
Click on the following link from Dronestagram for a collection of cool drone videos …
And out of England we have this Daily Mail story by Sam Creighton about how thieves are using inexpensive, heat-seeking drones to spot marijuana grow operations in houses — then break in to steal the weed.
Let’s talk about liability. Who’s responsible when one of these suckers spins out of control and comes down on a busy freeway, resulting in a pile-up where people are hurt or killed? What happens when a child is hurt by an out-of-control flying lawnmowers plunging from the sky?
Manufacturers claim they are not liable, but that may not mean too much in a court of law. A judge will decide who is on the hook for some serious money. That may be the operator, the manufacturer — or both.
Although I’ve listed some nefarious uses of quad-copters, I believe a huge majority of operators are law-abiding folk who want to have fun, act responsibly … or earn an honest dollar without putting people at risk.
Drones are about to enter a whole new era … models have been developed that will follow you and video yourself. Great news for mountain bikers, runners, ski-boarders … on and on. Find out what a California-based company is up to in this Business Insider article by Dylan Love …
And check this out … a boat captain with a Phantom captured this dramatic footage of a 24 million dollar yacht — in for dry dock repairs — going up in smoke in San Diego, California. For the story, we go to Paul Szolda of Business Insider …
Matthew Schroyer, founder and president of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, threw his support behind Pedro Rivera, the beleaguered TV reporter. Schroyer’s organization, which has members from around the world, has its own Code of Ethics. Good for Matthew. He’s not waiting for the government to tell him what’s right and what’s stupid. Check out his Code of Ethics by clicking on this link:
Remote-controlled quadcopters are safer … and way, way cheaper than helicopters. I can’t imagine a newsroom without a couple of these. Wait. What am I saying? I can well imagine, given the cutbacks newsrooms are facing.
Speaking of helicopters, what you’re about to see next will stun you. It’s the world’s first electric drone that you can actually ride in — and it also flies itself. This ditty courtesy of Steven Tweedie of Business Insider …
Legislators now find themselves in much the same position as law-makers did 100 years ago when “horseless carriages” started becoming popular. A host of laws were introduced and as the years went by, more laws were brought in. The same will happen today to govern the use of quad-copters and the larger machines.
The bureaucrats will have a field day determining what’s okay … and what’s a no-no.
Enter the California-based website WantToKnowInfo.com. Founder Fred Burks makes the point: “Do we really want only the military and government to have the right to use them?”
Here’s an ‘infographic’ from Bloomberg on who is for and against drones … http://www.bloomberg.com/infographics/2014-05-12/advocating-for-and-against-drones.html
Okay, the clip you’ve been waiting for … drone porn, or as some call it, drone-boning. We knew it was coming. Thanks to Insider.com for this piece:
TUG OF WAR
In the U.S.A., the Federal Aviation Agency, the outfit that deals with flights over American soil, has weighed in on the debate over its involvement with unmanned aircraft. Click here to read a statement the FAA issued on 26 February 2014:
Just to muddy up the waters a bit more, on the 6th of March 2014 a judge with the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the FAA has no authority to regulate drones, striking down a 6-year ban on commercial drones. The problem with the FAA is that all it had was a “policy statement,” no enforceable law. Duh. Thanks to PetaPixel for this story. Read all about it:
The FAA says it will appeal that ruling.
A GREAT IDEA, BUT …
The DJI Phantom is a terrific concept, but flawed. The company must be given credit for trying to improve its product — such as adding an extra antenna to the craft — but after experiencing four flyways [with three recoveries], I remain ultra-cautious about these and other issues — including low-end communication from DJI.
DJI has poor customer service. Keep that in mind, and you won’t be too surprised if you have to deal with them. The following says all you need to know about DJI’s customer service: the first Phantoms were sold without instruction manuals.
Perhaps you should be cautious too … after reading accounts by other owners who have watched their expensive quadcopters and cameras fly away, never to be seen again. Or, have seen them drop for no reason.
In its initial instructional videos, DJI claimed that once the craft was locked into at least six satellites, it would automatically return to the point where it took off — even if the transmitter was destroyed while the Phantom was in flight. Sounds great, but that didn’t happen with my machine. It simply drifted out of sight.
So much for another theory: that by taking one’s hands off the spring-loaded controls on the transmitter, the craft will hover automatically — in the same spot. Nope. Doesn’t always work. I believe this is the main reason there are flyaways. Keep your eyes on the craft at all times. If it starts to drift, and drift quickly … straighten it out [get square to it], and bring it back. If you don’t know which way the craft is orientated, and if no one’s around, take it DOWN!
FAULTY BATTERIES ON PHANTOM 2
DJI neglected to tell consumers that the flight batteries for its Phantom 2 models are essentially booby-trapped. If one leaves the battery fully charged for an extended period of time [for a month or more, say], the battery can be destroyed. I now own three ruined batteries because — unlike the batteries for the new Phantom 3 — they do not have an automatic discharge feature.
Who would have thought that leaving a battery fully charged would ruin it?
It’s disappointing that DJI hasn’t recalled these batteries, or offered to replace those that have failed. I have written to the DJI customer service people about the problem of defective batteries but haven’t heard back.
SPEAKING OF FACTORY RECALLS …
A DJI dealer in Calgary advised that a high number of people who bought the Phantom 2 Vision Plus unit discovered that the image on one’s smartphone will suddenly go black while the unit is in flight. [The Phantom will still fly and still capture images, the pilot just won’t be able to see them on their smartphone.] The dealer’s explanation was that this was because of a faulty chip — and that the owner will be out of pocket about $200 if they want it replaced. The company will replace it for free — but not if the warranty period has passed.
DJI is no Costco, that’s for sure.
I would have thought that based on safety concerns alone, that a reputable company would have had a voluntary recall.
We can now appreciate why government agencies try to make companies responsible for marketing defective products. Consumers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for blown research.
EXPERIENCING A FLYAWAY
Here’s what happened with me: It was broad daylight, September 2013, no wind and I’d been flying/landing the Phantom One in a large, open park for about 20 minutes. Everything was going fine. The machine had been calibrated, no electrical wires or power lines were nearby, fresh batteries in the transmitter — but the little bugger suddenly took off, towards a suburb a mile or so distant. God knows where it is now, or who has it. Maybe some little old lady now owns my Phantom, showing it off at bridge parties as proof there really are UFO’s.
My second flyaway happened late in the evening of 27 October 2013 in Beresford, northern New Brunswick. Same thing: locked into satellites, no wind to speak of, flying for about 15 minutes, everything going fine. The Phantom suddenly started to misbehave, doing large circles on its own [searching for satellites, I was told] — and traveling at a good clip, making it difficult to orientate it.
[Half a year later, I discovered a very important bit of information — that the compass needs to be calibrated after another battery is installed! Thanks DJI, first I heard of it. Wonder if this was a ploy to boost sales. Apparently neither the control unit nor the craft itself has a built-in memory, so after a new battery is installed, the flyer is back to square one: calibrating the compass — and you do that of course by quickly flipping up and down the small metal switch on the right of the controller. Do that anywhere from half a dozen to 10 times and you should be good.]
The Phantom was now over a forest and making a beeline towards the Bay of Chaleur, about a kilometre distant. I put the craft high above the trees so I could track it, then scurried frantically through the forest, the bright light on my iPhone showing the way as I dodged tree branches and boulders. That wasn’t just an out-of-control remote-control aircraft. It was $500 flying out of my wallet.
The craft continued to ignore commands from my controller. The little bastard was now searching for water, as though it wanted to go for a swim.
I watched my Phantom drift over a small body of water, then a small breakwater peninsula dotted with cottages. Last I saw, it was over the Bay of Chaleur, headed towards the province of Quebec.
The Phantom went down in the cold waters of the bay, its LED lights flashing red as it slowly sunk beneath the waves, not unlike the Titanic — but without all the screaming and stupid band music. The electronics on the quadcopter would not have lasted very long in the salt water. Death by electrocution. So long, $500.
What a heart-breaking loss that was. I was fast becoming an owner of Phantom transmitters. Given my two losses, I came to the conclusion it would have been cheaper if I had just rented a real helicopter.
Two officers with the B.N.P.P. Regional Police pulled up in a cruiser after getting reports of a mysterious craft with flashing lights headed towards the bay. Next morning, I filed a report with the B.N.P.P. Regional Police: file #2013-2401. These folk were very friendly, helpful — and professional. They didn’t seem to mind that I couldn’t speak French.
I’m not alone. Here’s a Kijiji ad placed by someone in who lost his Phantom 2 Vision in west-central Edmonton. Click to enlarge.
On the 25th of April 2014 I received a surprise phone call from Reginald Comeau of Beresford who came across my lost Phantom while walking on the beach that morning. Merci, Reginald!! Appreciate your honesty. The craft had just washed ashore, thanks to big waves the night before. Reginald called my cell number, which was on a label stuck to the Phantom.
Owing to the salt water, the props were seized — but the body was intact.
There was no Drift camera attached when the Phantom did its flyaway, otherwise I’d find out how waterproof the camera was and what the final, exciting footage looked like.
Reginald returned my Phantom. I’ll likely use it as a “parts” craft. I flirted with the possibility of bringing it back to life with new electronic gizzards, but my Phantom distributor says the unit is now garbage. “Throw it out!” he says. He points out it’s cheaper to buy a new unit than replace the transmitter, motors, GPS device, wiring, etc.
If you’re wondering what kind of label I had on the Phantom — one so tough that the ink withstood the ravages of salt water for more than half a year — it came from a Brother P-Touch 1090.
Early on, I also discovered that one of the battery chargers for my Phantom One was defective. A dealer revealed he’d returned to DJI a few faulty battery chargers. Hmmm. Sounds like growing pains.
On the Amazon customer feedback I came across one account by a Phantom owner who witnessed her machine suddenly rev at a high speed and fly high into the sky, never to be seen again. Hmmm … the first Phantom Two I owned, on its initial flight, also revved at a high speed, zipped by my face [the blades leaving a cut mark beneath my left ear] … and was slow to respond to commands. So it too had gone crazy. I brought it down as fast as I could. Did DJI hire its throttle engineers from Toyota? [should you find your Phantom suddenly revving at a high speed when you turn it on, shut it down and start it up again.]
A faulty transmitter was suspected and that transmitter was replaced. However, even with a new transmitter the high revving continued. In the end, everything was replaced. I’m now saying prayers every time I put this bird in the sky.
Examination of my Phantoms by a DJI supplier has twice led him to conclude their transmitters were faulty, even after calibration. Staff at a hobby shop in Edmonton wondered if a software update had in fact made things worse. Who knows?? Like I say, growing pains.
What it comes down to, the Phantom is a new product and while it’s a lot of fun, bugs must still be worked out –just as legislation needs to be worked out so that people are not at risk.
TRAX GPS TRACKING DEVICE
In April 2014 I took possession of a small GPS tracking device manufactured by TRAX GPS of Stockholm, Sweden, which I bought to attach to my Phantoms [using Velcro strips].
I can’t trust these birds to consistently respond to commands from my controller. Neither should you.
Grant it, there is a ‘Find My Fanthom’ feature on the DJI app — but given what I’ve experienced, sorry, I don’t have much faith in it. In any case, the feature is only good when your unit is within Wi-Fi range … and the battery is good. Your last reading will be when the battery died.
An official with TRAX says their small, waterproof tracking units were initially designed for children and pets — but they’re now getting calls from owners of remote-controlled aircraft. I’m not surprised. [Well, to those who love their quadcopters, I suppose they are pets.]
TRAX engineers have improved the battery life of the gadget. In the beginning, the battery lasted only six hours or so. What that meant was that if your child or pet went missing, you wouldn’t have that tracking signal very long. Now battery life is a couple of days — a great improvement.
In May 2014 my TRAX unit was also giving completely false readings, showing it to be blocks away — and to a spot where it has never been. Now the false readings have stopped. The readings are now accurate. However, battery life is nowhere near what was first advertised [96 hours], and the unit’s on/off switch needs to be redesigned. When it’s “off” the battery continues to drain somehow.
A tip when using the TRAX with your Phantom: get the TRAX going before you start up your Phantom, then make sure your quadcopter is responding properly to commands from the control unit.
My recommendation? Don’t buy a TRAX, not yet anyway. These devices — as cute as they are — are still in the experimental stage and you, the consumer, are the guinea pig. Simply put, the main complaint about the TRAX is that it doesn’t work — and when it does work, it isn’t consistent.
For a list of reviews on the TRAX, go to http://www.amazon.com/Trax-Personal-GPS-Tracker-Raspberry/product-reviews/B00IAIFF0Y
On the 5th of May 2014, I welcomed the fourth Phantom into my life … the new Phantom 2 Vision Plus. The plus stands for a number of things, including money.
But the unit works pretty good. It comes with a tiny HD camera and a 3-axis gimbal [which stabilizes the camera], allowing for fairly smooth, near-broadcast quality video.Check this out … it’s as if the video was shot by a professional camera attached to a boom.
Another feature is that the camera can be adjusted so that it shoots straight down, great for sporting events. The unit also travels at a faster clip than the previous models. And when it connects to a smartphone, there’s now an icon that shows the battery strength of the ‘range finder.’ That’s important. You won’t be doing much flying if the battery in your range finder is kaput.
In the Spring of 2014, DJI introduced an app called Vision+ Wi-Fi Booster, designed to give the unit extra range. Note that it is compatible only with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus. The booster app is very easy to use. After you fire up your Phantom, click on ‘Boost up!’ on your Booster app. You’ll get a notification that you’re boosted and ready to go. Some users report the device increases range by about 35 percent, although I haven’t tested it myself. The price is $9 Cdn.
All in all, some great improvements to the Phantom Vision. Gotta give DJI credit, it doesn’t stop reaching for new heights.
And a bonus: this time you can understand the written material that comes with the Vision 2 Plus.A climbing aerial shot by the Phantom 2 Vision Plus showing part of the subdivision where I live …
And here’s a shot taken just over a pond …
The photos taken from the Phantom 2 Vision Plus are as sharp as photos snapped from the Phantom 2 Vision. Check out this pic from the Vision Plus. Again, the west end of Edmonton.
From 400 feet things look rather neat and organized. The curvature is because of the lens setting I chose: wide angle. You have a choice of wide angle or regular.
The unit also has the ‘Going Home’ feature which — when it works — is a life-saver. It still hovers safely to the ground. In military parlance, a controlled landing.
This is another example of a terrific idea — when it works, and it seems to most of the time. Ground station is a GPS-controlled set-up where the flyer pre-determines the route the craft will take, at whatever height they determine. One must make allowances for trees and other tall objects.
You’re allowed up to 16 way-points. Although be careful to plan the route carefully or you might confuse the Phantom. I had one flyaway, a near-disaster, but I believe it was because the routes got crossed.
But I remembered the “Find My Phantom” feature! A red pin indicated exactly where it was. I could see the blue dot [my iPhone] pulsating as I approached the red pin. An exciting moment, it was. According to the pin, my baby had come down in a field near a tall fence and some houses. Nope. Unfortunately, the pin wasn’t accurate.
Turns out, my Phantom 2 Vision Plus had landed gently in my sub-division, on an “island” of short grass and trees, just a few feet away from a busy road.
The quadcopter had made a controlled landing and for more than an hour it lay there — in full view of everyone driving by and those out walking their dogs. Yet, no one touched it. Had I been flying in Detroit, that sucker would have been up for sale in 90 seconds.
Two things to keep in mind: make your first, second or third way points fairly close — and within a line of sight. If you notice the craft is misbehaving, take control, bring it back home, turn it off … and start all over again. A dealer shared that one time his Phantom also had a mind of its own while he was showing a client how the ground station feature worked.
Another thing: give good altitude to the distant way-points. That way, you’ll stand a better chance of maintaining contact.
NEW PRODUCTS ALL THE TIME …
PHANTOM 3 DEFECT!
The top arm of the gimbal on the Phantom 3 does NOT hold up well under stress. One dealer shared that he’s now seen more than a dozen Phantom 3’s returned with bent and broken gimbal arms — particularly the main arm that connects to the bottom of the craft.
With a “hard landing”, he says the arm can bend … and in a crash, it will break easily.
Here’s a photo showing how the main gimbal arm was severed after the Phantom struck a tree.
MORE TIPS FOR FLYERS
Practice flying first with the tiny quadcopters, the ones that fit in the palm of your hand. These units, which go for $100 or so, will give you a feel for how the controls work. Yes, they’re more difficult to maneuver — but if you can work these, you can handle something like the Phantom.
When calibrating your compass, first rotate the craft ANTI-clockwise. And even if you get green lights, continue to rotate the craft with the nose pointing at the ground.
You might want to calibrate your compass after every flight because — according to DJI — the Phantom does NOT keep track of its previous location. In other words, the unit may not go “home” if it doesn’t have a fresh calibration … it may go out of sight.
It’s disappointing DJI never warned buyers of this potential booby-trap. Many flyaways could have been prevented had the company let customers know about recalibrating the compass after every battery change. Mind you, the first Phantom on the market did not even come with an owner’s manual.
Don’t throw out the tiny clamp for the camera!! It’s not just a shipping clamp! You’ll need it when you move your Phantom here and there. And do start up your Phantom with the clamp on, it may bugger up the settings and cause the camera to fly at an angle.
If you don’t trust the Phantom ‘Going Home’ feature to work, purchase a waterproof GPS tracking device [TRAX, Spot Trace, Garmin, for example] and attach it to your machine. Google TRAX, Spot Trace and the Garmin GTU10 on how to get these gadgets. Note that a custom-made bracket for the Garmin GTU10 — one that snugly fits onto the Phantom landing gear — is available from Shapeways.
Think of a GPS tracking device as insurance. Let’s hope you never have to use it. Some have faith in the ‘Going Home’ feature of the Phantom working. I don’t, and my bias comes after two costly flyaways at a cost of more than two thousand dollars.
It’s also wise to put your phone number on your craft. If there’s a flyaway, some honest person may find your baby and give you a call.
Before you attach your iPhone or Android phone to the controller unit, first put your phone on ‘aircraft’ mode. [To do this, go to your phone’s settings] This will stop calls and texts from arriving while you’re trying to pilot the craft.
If you want prop guards, buy ONLY DJI-made guards. Then go one better: spray paint two of the four guards a bright colour. This will help GREATLY with orientation once your craft is hundreds of feet in the air. A quick glance and you’ll know the direction it is pointed.
Perhaps future DJI prop guard sets will consist of two white and two red, for example.
One downside to the prop guards is that the craft may not as stable when a strong wind is blowing. The guards become an surface area the wind can catch. I watched two Phantoms fly at the same time — one with prop guards, the other without. It was windy, though not gusty. The Phantom without the prop guards remained perfectly level. The one with prop guards, however, pitched slightly to the side to compensate for the wind. Perhaps the solution is not to use the guards when it’s windy.
The guards can’t be beat however when the Phantom tips over on landing, which is easy to do since the stock landing gear is a bit rudimentary. It would be great if DJI designed that were not only taller, but bowed out [wider] to provide more stable landings.
A tip I got from Jim Bowers of the U.S. is to point the tiny white antenna stick on the transmitter so that it is at a 45-degree angle. This gives the antenna more exposure.
After you’ve landed, first turn off the Phantom battery, then turn off the transmitter. If you turn off the transmitter first your Phantom will think it’s in a “fail-safe” mode and take off again. You’ll also have a mini panic attack.
How to improve battery life: don’t store your batteries fully charged!! I made the mistake of leaving mine fully charged over winter … and come spring, one hardly worked at all. A DJI dealer explained the batteries don’t like to be stored with a full charge. Something DJI didn’t pass on to consumers when they bought their units.
Another thing: try not to fly on a nearly drained battery. This causes the battery to be stressed … and you’ll notice it when you see the battery bulging. And that’s why obese people bulge … they’re stressed.
HOW TO SAVE $30 OR MORE
Prop guards come with their own, slightly longer screws. They replace the short screws that come with the Phantom. Do NOT use the longer screws if you are not using the prop guards. Without the prop guards mounted, the longer screws will cut into the motor, destroying it. A new motor goes for about 30 bucks.
It’s best to fly in a safe place; an open field is ideal. A light wind is fine, the Phantom can handle it. But if it suddenly becomes gusty, bring it down — and the sooner the better. Trying to fly the Phantom in very strong winds is like trying to fly a helicopter in a hurricane. Your video will also give you a feeling of seasickness.
When you first put up the quad-copter, it may start to drift. No problem. Hover it about 10 feet off the ground for a minute of so until it stabilizes and that GPS is locked in. If you take your hands off the sticks and it stays put, the compass is locked into satellites and your craft has stabilized. [If the compass hasn’t calibrated, shut everything down and start again.]
There are two switches on the controller, one on the left and one on the right. Remember to ‘clear’ the previous compass reading by quickly flicking the right switch up and down half a dozen times. For some reason, DJI positioned S2 switch on the left and S1 switch on the right. A tad confusing.
Once your Phantom has liftoff, move it forward, backwards and sideways until it “adjusts” itself and stays in the same spot. Just don’t shoot your craft 100 feet high to impress people and then try to stabilize it; you’re rolling the dice if you do that. It’s easier to stabilize a craft zipping around looking for satellites if it’s 10 feet off the ground as opposed to 100 feet.
Stay focused! If I’m with someone when flying the Phantom, I keep conversation to a minimum … and sometimes don’t talk at all. I give full attention to the craft, and I NEVER take my eyes off it.
Take along small battery chargers for both your smartphone and the range extender on the transmitter. Owing to the video being played on the screen, the smart phone tends to drain quickly and the last thing you want is for your range extender to crap out because your phone has died.
I use the small i/oMagic batteries, available at Costco for less than $20 Canadian for a pair. The same are available online from American outlets at $40 U.S. The i/o Magic people also manufacture a larger charging device which according to the reviews I’ve read, kicks ass.
BUY ONLY GENUINE PARTS
Purchase prop guards and extra blades because you’ll need them. Not every landing will be soft, and trees and other objects tend to jump out of nowhere, especially when one is a novice flyer.
It’s said that the plastic, stock blades are not as durable as the more expensive, carbon fibre blades. I’ve used two types of carbon fibre blades and neither worked that well. As far as I can tell, DJI does not make carbon fibre blades.
Another tip: you take your chances if you do not buy straight from the manufacturer or an authorized seller. Beware of knock-offs, especially Chinese-manufactured products stamped O-XOXO. Replacement blades and prop guards made by this company are a total waste of money. Thank God these people aren’t making condoms or we’d have a population explosion.
I have a good supply of blades and even extra motors. Don’t want to ruin a bright, sunny, calm-weather weekend because a motor has crapped out.
SUGGESTIONS FOR DJI …
Consider designing your Phantom One so one doesn’t have to use a PC computer to install an upgrade or calibrate the equipment. Millions of Mac owners do not own a PC.
Why design your Phantoms so that only GoPro cameras can be mounted? Why not have the international, standard camera screw attachment so that other cameras [such as the Ghost Drift] can be attached as well?
Re-design the landing gear on the Phantom so that it provides more stability in take-offs and landings … and increased clearance for gimbals and cameras. A great option would be remote-controlled retractable landing gear skids. Some whiz-kids have already made these, and they not only look great but allow for interference-free photos.
The LED flight indicators are a good idea, but try to simplify this. Solid green works. A flashing red works. A combination of these plus a glowing yellow is confusing as hell.
It’s great flyers have the choice of either JPEG or RAW photo formats. My computer [a new iMac] recognizes the JPEG image — but not the RAW image generated by the camera on the Phantom Twos. Having a usable RAW format would be great. DJI says their RAW pictures are work with Adobe. Not with the Adobe program I have. I contacted the DJI office in California about this. They were “looking into it” and would get back. Haven’t heard a peep in half a year.
Try to incorporate ‘obstacle avoidance’ technology in future models.
Owing to the complexity and popularity of the devices, encourage someone to come up with a book called Dummies for Phantom Users. An easy-to-follow instruction manual would make life a lot easier for owners, and it would increase sales, one would think. PS: Dummies is a U.S.-based company. Deal with them and you will be exporting some work to the United States. That’s a nice switch.
Improve your Customer Relations. I can’t think of another company that has customer relations that are as terrible as DJI. A Costco this company is not.
You’ve set up a help/call centre in California that operates 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. [the number to call is 818.235.0789]. That’s right. It’s not a toll-free number. In any case, it’s a start, DJI. Try operating 24/7. And hire additional staff. The last ten times I’ve called I could not get through — not even to be put on hold. A recording said to call back when it wasn’t so busy [one call was put in 15 minutes after the office opened]. The next time I get through I’ll buy a lottery ticket because it’s my lucky day.
When company representatives respond to emails, it would be professional if they could assign a file number and identify themselves.
A major hobby store in Edmonton, Hobby Alley, has stopped selling the Phantom because it got fed up waiting for parts to arrive. DJI, please consider having parts readily available for loyal customers who have already invested some good money in your products.
To sum up, Phantoms are great when they work properly — but when they don’t, there are consequences. Right now, customers are on the hook for flyaways and sudden, unexplained drop-downs. It always seems to be operator error. That may be true in some instances, but not all.
GOPRO TO DEVELOP OWN DRONES
Check out this report in the Washington Post … The GoPro camera people are developing their own drone
Have you had a flyway or something unusual happen to your Phantom that you’d like to pass on? You can leave a comment at the end of this post, or tell me about it in an email … click here.
Quadcopters such as the Phantom are opening up a whole new world … not just for photographers, reporters or emergency personnel. Click on this site to see what’s being done to develop an air-borne motorbike …