Category Archives: Drone / UAV

DJI Phantom 3 Pro Review: A damn near perfect drone

DJI Phantom 3 Professional Drone Multicopter Review

The Phantom 3 quadcopter may look nearly identical to DJI’s previous Phantom 2 model, but these two devices are worlds apart.  I’ve owned the Phantom 2 for well over a year, and have had the Phantom 3 since April 2015. I’ve travelled the world with both of these drones and have many hours of flight time into both models.  The Phantom 2, for the most part, has felt like an experimental product. Phantom 3 feels like the future.

About the author: My passion is photography and videography.  I have never been interested in any kind of remote planes / multicopters before getting my hands on a Phantom drone. While there may be better/faster drones out there for the multicopter or RC enthusiast, I am writing this review from the viewpoint of an amatuer photographer.  I have no affiliation with DJI.

What makes the Phantom 3 so different?

Before going into detail of the camera, copter specs, or anything else, take a look at this picture:

Flying the Phantom 3 Professional with a Nexus 9 tabletOver the 4th of July weekend, I was able to show my 94-year old grandfather his property from 1000 feet in the air – in real-time 720p resolution.  This image so perfectly sums up what I love about this drone: Out of the box, this thing is amazing.

Yes, there are many ways to do a live-view with the Phantom 2 or other drones, but DJI has this working out of the box on the Phantom 3.  You just supply your own tablet (The Google Nexus 9 shown in the picture is my preferred choice).  The streaming works incredibly well:  I’ve flown the drone from indoors, from behind buildings, and even while in a moving vehicle travelling at 40 mph down a mountain road… and everything just works.


The Controller – Now with HD Live view!

Flying the Phantom 3 is a blast.  Within 30 minutes, any adult that has ever played a video game will get the hang of the controls.  In addition to the flight sticks you would expect, the controller also has a dial to control the angle of the video camera in real-time, among other customizable buttons.

DJI Phantom 3 Drone Controller

The previous Phantom 2 had this camera angle slider/dial as well, but it was difficult to keep calibrated,  and the sliding mechanism was inaccurate. The only way to know where the camera was pointed on the Phantom 2 was to bring the drone back down close enough to see the camera.  This entire situation is resolved with Phantom 3’s live view.

The controller has a built-in battery that uses the same battery charger used by the drone LiPo batteries. One minor annoyance is that DJI does not recommend charging both the controller and a drone battery at the same time.  The cord is split out to make this possible, but for some reason DJI advises against this.  But in the last two months I’ve only had to charge the controller twice – not a big deal.

Currently the DJI app and controller are only compatible with a handful of devices:

If you don’t own one of these devices, you’ll need to buy one to get the most out of the drone. While the iOS app seemed to work okay on my iPhone 6+, I loved the extra screen space provided by the Nexus 9.


The DJI Pilot App – Everything but the kitchen sink

Maybe I’m just getting old, but mobile apps these days on both iOS and Android seem less stable than most traditional desktop applications. So when I heard the Pilot app was going to not only feature a live 720p video stream and flight tracker, but also have a fully functional video editor built in, I almost didn’t even want to pull the trigger.    “There’s no way this app is going to be anything more than a bloated, unstable pile of crap”, were the words that came out of my mouth when I found this out.

Fortunately, I’ve never been so wrong.  This app is the most impressive mobile app I’ve ever used.  DJI absolutely nailed it.

The app is divided into a few major areas: Flight Mode, Pilot Log, and Director (video editing!)

Flight Mode has two different views – a map-centric view, and a camera-centric view. The map won’t help you much if you are somewhere without a cell signal or wifi.

The memory card onboard the drone captures video in 4k, but the app does a fine job of capturing the live feed from the drone directly to the mobile device (albeit, in 720p).  This means that there is a cached video of your flight on your tablet or phone as soon as you are done flying.

Using the Director, you can then choose clips and some background music and within 10-15 minutes, have something fancy to show whoever is around.  I can not express how cool this feature is.   The templates provided in the Director app are limited, and you won’t be making anything “professional” without a real video editor, but you can show off your shots in style if you’re just buzzing around your friend’s house.

And there are many more corners to this mobile application.  You can change drone settings, camera settings, log your flights, view your real-time battery charge. Even taking off is as simple as a flick of your finger (I love the auto-take-off feature!)

Here’s is an example of what can be made all from within the DJI Pilot app:


The Camera

Phantom 3  Professional CameraAt first I wasn’t thrilled about getting an integrated camera. I like being able to easily swap out the GoPro on my Phantom 2.  But once again, DJI surpassed my expectations with this powerful camera.

The resulting videos are clear, vivid, stable, and just amazing to watch on a 4k display. Although you can take both stills and video from the app while in flight, the picture of my neighborhood above is actually a still frame from a 4k video.

The 12 megapixel camera on board shooting in 4k on the Professional version, and 1080p on the Phantom 3 Advanced.  The Professional version sports a f/2.8 lens with a 94⁰ viewing angle. The first thing I noticed is that the distortion you usually see on GoPro cameras didn’t exist. The horizon appears flat – very different than that signature GoPro curve. Phantom 3 Drone Neighborhood Shot

Compared to my Phantom 2, the video footage I get out of the Phantom 3 is much more stable. The gimbal does such a nice job stabilizing that long-exposure shots are possible from mid-air!


Vision Positioning

Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should. I feel like this still applies to one of the top features being marketed with the Phantom 3 Pro and Advanced: Vision Positioning. The Phantom 3 has a new camera and ultrasonic sensor facing the ground so that it may track its position without GPS. It looks for patterns on the ground! Yes, this means indoor flying.  But just because you can fly this thing indoors, why would you want to?

The DJI commercial shows a wedding being filmed with a drone in a church.  If you’ve ever heard a Phantom drone flying above your head, you’ll understand why the idea of using this (admittedly cool) technology in a church is laughable.

My experience with vision positioning so far is limited to my living room, and it probably won’t go too far beyond that. I’m sure there are use cases out there for some of us, but I’m guessing most of us won’t be flying a drone through a church anytime soon.

 


Pricing and Summary

The Phantom 3 Pro has changed the way I take photos and shoot video.  Getting out the drone is no longer a chore, and being able to see what you are filming in real time while whizzing down the highway in a car makes me feel like some kind of wizard from the future.

Pros:

  • Paying between $1200-$1400 bucks for a tech gadget on the surface seems steep, but with the awesome 4k camera, gimbal, controller, and the crazy robust apps for the smartphones, I see the value.  I consider this purchase as one of the best I’ve made in the last several years — Especially considering this was the cost of the Phantom 2 at release.
  • 4k video with setting that you can control while in flight. The 3-axis gimbal seems more stable than anything I had on Phantom 2.
  • HD real-time video from your drone from up to a kilometer away – changes the way you film.
  • The mobile app for flying, tracking, and editing your video is top-notch.
  • SDK  – Develop your own applications and automation for the drone!

Cons:

  • The battery life is still about 20 minutes, and extra batteries cost $175 – ouch.
  • The safety features may be an annoyance to some.  There are a lot of things that could go wrong on an automated flight home.
  • Updating firmware (as of July 2015) is kind of a pain.

DJI has this market cornered – with good reason.  The Phantom 3 Pro is an amazingly polished piece of technology. So if you’re looking to add some excitement to your vacation (and your vacation videos)…  and want a reliable experience out of the box, go with the Phantom 3.

Here is what my drone travel kit contains (as of July 2015):

 

Phantom 2 Bundle is Amazon’s Deal of the Day

Phantom 2 Quadcopter with Zenmuse GimbalThe same exact bundle that I’ve been using to create drone videos lately is on sale for about $400 cheaper than the price I paid. This is the Amazon deal of the day, so the deal only lasts 24 hours.

The DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter V2.0 Bundle with 3-Axis Zenmuse H3-3D Gimbal for GoPro
is on sale for $683 (regular $1099).  Great deal for a solid and proven quadcopter.

Here some of the videos made using this set up (along with a Hero 3+ Black):

DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter – Travel Tips

After my first international trip with my Phantom 2, I have a few tips to pass on that may save you some headache in the airport or on the plane.

Get a case: 
My choice of case is absolutely ridiculous,  After trying several of the ~$200 cases on Amazon, I ended up finding the PERFECT solution at target: Hello Kitty Child's Suitcase

The Hello Kitty child’s suitcase. Update (3/15): The “Hello Kitty” suitcase is no more, but they have the same shell re-branded for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles now. Maybe only slightly less embarrassing when walking through an airport.

While this case doesn’t provide great support from the top and bottom, it holds form well, and provided enough support for me to feel safe throwing it into the overhead on the plane. Additionally, this little guy can also fit under the seat – so if you have bad luck finding overhead space on a plane, this is a perfect solution.

There is also an elastic strap on the inside that holds it in place – as if it was made for the Phantom II.

Put your batteries in a LIPO bags: 

I breezed right through security multiple times with all of my batteries and gear.  SoLipo Safe Bags from Amazonme airlines have regulations regarding LIPO batteries and how they are transported.  From my research, the safest bet is to bring them as a carry-on, in LIPO-safe bags.

You can pick these up from Amazon for a few bucks.

 

Don’t split your gear up: 

When going through security, it is best if you have all of your gear with you. Don’t try to have your wife take some of it through the TSA checkpoint. Here’s why:

A guy with a quadcopter, remote, LIPO batteries, and camera gear is going to be less suspicious than someone ONLY taking two or three LIPO batteries onto a plane.  Of course this won’t guarantee that you won’t get hassled a bit, but in my experience, this has helped!

 

That’s it for now. I’ll maintain this page and add more tips as time goes on.

Your vacation video needs drone footage

The days of our parent’s vacation videos are over.  Nobody wants to watch 25 minutes of unedited, shaky, hand-held video of your kids running around in a hotel room.

I’ve never been drawn to do a vacation video until I bought my quadcopter, and the results were inspiring!  I am a total newbie when it comes to flying the Phantom 2, and this is by far the most video edited I’ve ever done at one time. But for a first video, the results weren’t too bad! The drone footage ups the production value quite a bit! Check it out-

About the gear used:

Locations visited included Sint Maarten (St. Martin),  Île Fourchue (island near St. Maarten), Sint Eustatius (Statia), and Saint Barthélemy (St. Barths).