Into 'Oblivion': DJI Phantom drone test flight over Iceland's black sand desert

Sometimes we get asked to do the craziest of things. Crazy in the most brilliant of ways. So when a phone call came through inviting us to visit Iceland to explore shooting locations from the Joseph Kosinski movie Oblivion - starring Mr Top Gun himself, Tom Cruise - we were left a little stumped. There's tonnes of science fiction action in the film, but where was the tech angle?

"You'll get to fly DJI Phantom drones over the black sand desert - the same location where Cruise rides his bike in the movie."

Our ears more than pricked up. The inner geek in us got excited about flying some awesome techie kit - we've already had fun with the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 - and what better place than the unique landscape of the ash-laden lava fields in Iceland?

READ: Parrot AR Drone 2.0 review

The scene was set. Just as the somewhat sinister drones from the movie target the "Scav" resistance we now have a target of our own. A week ahead of the Oblivion Blu-ray and DVD release we strapped ourselves into an easyJet flight and it was game on. "Another day in paradise, Sally".

Mission Impossible

The weather on the ground in Iceland also seemed determined to put our quadcopter drone mission at risk: we scoured through the black sand desert for many miles through mist, low-cloud, wind and persistent rain thinking all along that it was game over.

If you haven't yet seen Oblivion then we urge you to check it out. It's an audio-visual feast of epic proportions and navigating through that landscape - which feels truly out of this world - did, at points, leave us feeling just as isolated as the movie's protagonist.

Then, finally, there was a break in cloud, a dash of sunshine and that was it: that now or never moment.

We unboxed our DJI Pantom at pace - it's not a fan of the rain which would cause it to fizzle and die - which, while it may not look like the distinctive drone designs from in the movie, ought to prove a visual treat for radio-control fiends.

Ours was custom-built by buildyourowndrone.co.uk and came paired up with a GoPro HD Hero3 to capture some footage; we even had transmitters on board to relay the live signal to screens to keep an eye on the action from the ground. It was like we were directing our own movie in the landscape of another - how about that for an inescapable paradigm?

READ: GoPro HD Hero3 Black review

A dream to direct

The DJI Phantom is more square than other drones we've used before. It measures 35cm across the top in all directions when counting the rotor blades, while height-wise it's a little bit more Tom Cruise-esque at 19cm. It's a good size and lightweight.

Phantom radio controller at the ready - already paired up with our DJI drone - we pull inwards and downwards on both the controller's joysticks to set the drone's blades going. It buzzes like a swarm of bees, but remains stationary until we command it to do anything. Very cool. This is as close as we'll get to commanding our own Bubble Ship - Oblivion's iconic scout craft.

A gentle push upward on the left control stick and up she goes, hovering delicately in the air. It's like it's sat on an invisible perspex plinth or something - there's so little movement from the DJI Phantom that we're immediately impressed. So's our Icelandic guide - a flight fanatic - who's impressed with how the onboard gyrometer keeps everything level and auto-adjusting to compensate for the wind.

We're happy, so now it's time to really see what this baby can do. Stunt team at the ready.

A firm push up on the left stick and it climbs at a rapid pace. With a climb of six metres per second it's soon up to what appears to be 100m up in the sky. Not that we measured - it's hard to even tell in such a vast landscape. Left and right motions from the same stick control rotation in our configuration - it's possible to reprogram, so we're told - while up and down on the right stick command forwards and backwards. As it can get a bit confusing as to which way the drone is facing the green and red light arrangement - almost like port and starboard on a boat - help provide the necessary visuals.

At the greater height there's more considerable movement when hovering on the spot - not a surprise given how strong the wind is on flight day. But the Phantom is one stable customer, that's for sure.

Icelandic adventures

The only - and rather amusing - limitation we found is the range of the stock Phantom radio controller. Exceed 300m and while the drone doesn't cut out and fall to the floor at this point, it does lose signal and then it's what we'd call out of control; a stunt gone wrong.

And so ensues our drone vanishing at a rapid pace of around 10 metres per second - it's fast, a lot faster than we can run - off into the distance. "Oops" wasn't the first word that fell from our lips, but in the interests of keeping this a family-friendly U-certificate piece we'll spare the profane details.

Our Icelandic guide speeds off into the distance with Cruise-like vigour. It's more Mission Impossible than Oblivion and, eventually, we get our rogue star back in hand - all the while watching the action on the live feed, complete with fuzzy feedback and all.

Some more play and just as we're getting good the wind starts to push the rain our way and the batteries deplete - but with a life somewhere under the 30-minute it's fairly standard stuff.

And that's it, it's on to the next phase of our adventure. Throughout our excursion we snapped a batch of pictures - from the inside of a dormant volcano through to a helicopter ride over Reykjavik, there's a whole lot to do as curated by visiticeland.com - which formulated the base of our Fujifilm X-M1 review.

READ: Fujifilm X-M1 review

Whether it's following in Tom Cruise's footsteps, flying drones, taking pictures or just to get away for an active break - easyJet fly to Reykjavik with fares starting from £35.99 one way - Iceland is a unique landscape to do it all in. Bleak yet beautiful, it charmed us just as much as Oblivion - the movie that made it possible for us to be there in the first place. 

Oblivion is out now, available on Blu-ray, DVD and via download.