Friday, May 15, 2015

Droning on ...

I have two bits of bad news for those of you thinking that one of these new drone helicopters would be a great way to spy on the neighbour who likes to sunbathe topless.
  • Drones make a racket like a swarm of bees so she's going to guess these's something going on long before you get in range and 
  • The built-in camera has such a wide angle that you'd have to get with axe range before you'd see anything and all you'd see at that point would be a brief glimpse of an axe descending before the video feed cut out.
So for those of you who'd like to use a drone for honest, above-the-board fun, here's a review of the new DJI Phantom 3 Professional.  

In the box

What's in the box is exactly what DJI says so I won't repeat it here.  

What's missing?  

To my astonishment, DJI do not ship propellor guards as standard with the Phantom 3.  This is crazy.  For many people, the DJI Phantom will be their first drone and being excited they will skip through the manual to the bit that tells you how to take off and they will get it to take off.  The next thing they will do is fly it into a tree.  Or a person.  Neither of these is good and yet those cheap and cheerful prop guards have an excellent chance of saving the Phantom when it encounters a tree (as I know from experience) and an even better chance of saving the person from having their face shredded.

Manuals are a RRPITA to read, right?  Don't care.  Read them.  They're not that long, especially if you can read without moving your lips (and if you can't you shouldn't be let loose with a drone anyway).  There's an especially useful bit about pre-takeoff checks and the order in which to do things.

Now while unpacking the Phantom 3 you will run into one of the big issues that plagues much new technology today: someone who presumably owns a shrink-wrap plastic factory has persuaded DJI that much of the Phantom, the controller and the propellors must be encased in plastic.  So instead of having fun with your new toy you ... are ... wrestling ... with ... this ... blasted ... shrink-wrap.  Why, for heaven's sake, why?  It took me somewhere between five and ten agonising minutes to get the shrink-wrap off just four propellors.  Now I need finger transplants.

So, let's assume you've upgraded the microcode, RTFMed, charged all the batteries, downloaded the pilot app to your tablet or phone and you're now ready to go.

How does it fly?


I am sorry to follow the previous grumbles with a great gush of enthusiasm, but the Reviewers' Code of Ethics compels me to say it is a joy to fly.  I hadn't flown a drone for five months when I took the Phantom aloft and it was delightful.  It seemed a lot more stable than the Phantom 2; is this a better GPS system or was I lucky?  The first time I flew a Phantom 2 in my back garden it headed straight into a tree (and was only saved by prop-guards); the Phantom 3 took off gently and just hung there moving an inch or two in the breeze but essentially beautifully stable, almost as if tethered by an anchor.

The controls seemed a little less sensitive, too.  I could nudge the Phantom 3 this way or that to get precise positioning.  I can land it to within a couple of inches of the spot I want, which is excellent.  I've flown it up to 100 metres (330 ft) height and 500 metres away, at which stage it is a tiny but still visible spec and it flew as controlled.

The camera and gimbal

I have the Pro version of the camera: basically a 12 megapixel camera and 4k video camera.  Really, 12 mp is ample and 4k is more than that.  But what's the quality like?  I'll post a video once I've got round to editing it, but in short the quality of the video is outstanding: good colours, great resolution. You feel like you're in an IMAX theatre looking at the output.  Especially if you're viewing it on an Apple iMac, or what I call "a proper computer".

But ...

But. But. But.

I haven't yet managed to get the gimbal level.  So I end up with pictures and video where the horizon is not level (in the screen grab from video above I manually straightened it).  I have run the IMU calibration - in the annoyingly undocumented DJI pilot app - which should have fixed the problem but there's still a lean of about 2 degrees - enough to be truly irritating. If this is supposed to be the Professional version of the P3, then a level camera is a prereq.  Here's a cropped shot: I did a 360ยบ turn and the right horizon was consistently higher than the left.


I'm going to give the DJI Phantom 3 Professional 3 stars out of five.  That may seem a bit harsh but while it has these great pros:

  • excellent control
  • great value for money
  • outstanding camera
it still has these things that need fixing:
  • gimbal calibration
  • packaging
  • lack of prop guards - really these should be standard
  • no documentation for the DJI pilot App - this is truly bizarre
And the good news is that all these things are fixable.  They can even be fixed in retrospect. 

Get to it, DJI!

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