Drones are a hot issue at the moment. Products such as the DJI Phantom 2 are not only amazing, they change the recreational market because similar devices typically costs thousands of pounds. Not so with the DJI - the price tag is closer within reach of anyone motivated enough to want to save up for one. And it's worth buying because it's so much fun.
But then there's the regulation, privacy worries and safety concerns that come with these flying devices. Those are problems that will bother law-makers for a while to come, but we do expect to see some pretty tough legislation being introduced at some point too. How does the Phantom 2 fit into the equation?
What's it for?
To be clear, the Phantom 2 Vision isn't really a recreational quadcopter, it's designed for people who need to shoot video from the air, but at a significantly lower cost than most other solutions. You might make films or YouTube videos - but whatever it is you do, the Vision's built-in camera will be able to help. It's got a 140-degree field of view and has a bright f/2.8 aperture lens, paired with a sensor capable of capturing 1080p footage at 30fps, or 60 interlaced frames per second if you prefer.
There's also a standard version of the Phantom 2. The non-Vision version doesn't come with a built-in camera but a GoPro mount is included so you can mount up one of the mini camcorders if you have one.
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This opens up a greater breadth of capture options, including higher resolutions and frame rates, but does mean incurring the cost of the additional camera unit. And the GoPro Hero series does have questionable battery life that operates independently from the Phantom 2 unit.
Out of the box and into the sky
The DJI Phantom is a quadcopter. That is exactly what it sounds like - a four rotor arrangement. This is useful because it provides a lot of control, stability and the ability to hover. Because the Phantom 2 Vision is designed to be used as a tool for video, this is very important.
We didn't quite know what to expect when it came to setting the DJI Phantom 2 Vision up. But it's fairly straight forward. With the Parrot AR Drone - that we have previously reviewed - it's a case of literally taking it out of the box, installing a battery and that's it. The Phantom is similar, but it requires charging, installing the rotor blades and taking a bit of time out with the instruction manual to make sure everything is covered.
Some complications arise with the rest of the set-up. Nothing is especially difficult, but it does sometimes feel like a bit of a dark art. For example, the drone has Wi-Fi so the downloadable smartphone app can be used to compose shots, but you're not supposed to connect your phone directly to it. Instead, you use the repeater that's attached to the remote, and this in turn connects to the drone. This is crucial, because it allows a 300-metre range for sending video back to your phone.
Ensuring you connect to the right wireless network name and that things are turned on in the correct order is also very important. For example, you need to make sure the drone is on, then turn the Wi-Fi repeater on, then the controller, then connect the phone to the repeater. Those steps are flexible to some extent, but we did sometimes find we needed to try things in a different order to get everything working.
We thought of it as three stages. The first being the drone, and its systems; the second being the calibration of the drone and making sure it has acquired a GPS lock; and the third the actual flying.
DJI phone home
The Phantom 2 is controlled by a traditional-looking radio controller. This has two sticks for control, as well as some other switches for controls that we'll talk about in due course. We never felt out of control with this drone thanks to the control set up, which is more than can be said for the aforementioned Parrot AR.
When you first turn the DJI drone on, it needs to get a GPS lock. This is crucial, because it's how the drone will return home safely if something goes wrong. Something going wrong usually means the drone runs low on power, or you send it out of range of the controller. In such cases, the drone should fly to a safe height, return to its launch coordinates and return to the ground. There are some things that can thwart this, but it's much better to have it than not. While we never needed it, we were glad it was built in, because the Phantom is a big and heavy thing at 1.1kgs - so the idea of it going out of range, running out of power the falling to earth is a scary one.
Getting GPS calibration at the start was the most frustrating thing we found with the drone. This is because it requires you to put the quadcopter somewhere it can get a good look at the sky, then you have to waggle a switch on the remote an indeterminate - but not fewer than six - times. After a random number of waggles, you should see the tail LEDs switch from red/orange to green. Once this happens, you're good to go. We noticed sometimes the status lights would go from green to red, indicating that it had lost GPS lock. We aren't sure why, as while in the sky it should have an easier time locking on, but usually this corrected itself quickly.
Using the included controller, you can ascend and descend the Phantom 2 by moving the left control up or down, or you can push the stick left or right to get the quad to "yaw" - another way of saying rotate - while maintaining its position while panning. The other stick allows you to fly forward, backward, left and right.
With a little bit of patience and practice you can get the DJI moving about with grace all over the place. The advanced flight controller will keep it at a constant height and position - as long as the wind is reasonable - and you can get steady shots from a fixed, hovering position no problems. It's swift to fly around too, maxing out at 15 metres per second, even if the DJI website doesn't recommend pushing it to this limit!
It's perhaps best not to worry about how a quadcopter works, but suffice to say, it requires a decent amount of computational power to get it in the air, and keep it stationary, while allowing you to move it around. This involves two pairs of rotors spinning in opposing direction, and then the speed varying to move the copter around. But we're not as interested in the science as we are the results. And here the Phantom 2 flies - and not just literally.
Video and picture quality
Video is monitored via the DJI app so you can see what you're shooting and the results when shooting in good light are pretty amazing. For one thing, there is lots of detail.
There are some shortcomings though. Exposure isn't perfect automatically, but you can make adjustments manually from the app on your smartphone, while quality is a touch on the soft side in dimmer lighting conditions. The app's preview quality is only reasonable rather than amazing too, but that's a limitation of signal quality.
Another problem is that sometimes a little bit of wind can blow the drone in a way that disrupts the stability of the image. There's no way around this, because you'd need a full gyroscope to stop such movement, and those devices are expensive, heavy and power-hungry. The good news is that we were able to remove a lot of shake by simply running the footage through the Warp Stabilizer built into Adobe Premiere. Most editing software has something similar, as does YouTube these days. This took minor shake out, and gave a really stable image.
Still images are also terrific. The 14-megapixel snaps have huge amounts of detail, and with impressive colour balance too. We noticed some image noise and softness when we zoomed into images at 100 per cent scale, but this is a really minor concern.
Using the app it's possible to trigger recording direct from your smartphone mounted to the controller. The camera can also be independently controlled using a simple up/down slider and there's visual information on offer such as how many GPS satellites are in range and the remaining battery level of the drone. It's a great monitor.
Footage is captured on a microSD card, or there's a handy feature where files can be sent from the drone to your phone's storage. Useful for opening up more space should your card fill up. Do remember, it's very important to format the microSD card through the phone app, as we had some recording problems if we didn't do this.
As promised on the spec sheet, we got about 20-minutes or so from the supplied battery. This is good enough for most people and the ease of swapping out the battery means that you can simply buy more power packs if you want to fly for longer.
What this does mean, though, is that you think more about what shots you want - which is a better way to make videos. And while some natural problems with, say, excess wind speed or you messing up the controls might mean that you need to sometimes re-shoot, for the most part the whole system lends itself to getting the shot you need quickly and simply.
More to come
DJI is also being proactive in adding in future features. For pro users there's a 46mm lens mount kit coming, which will allow photographers to add filters to the camera. That might be very helpful, especially for shooting in bright light when a neutral density (ND) filter might help, or a graduated ND filter to avoid over-exposed skies and underexposed ground.
The company is also going to offer native support for DNG format raw file capture in the camera in an update early in 2014, while an additional update will allow waypoint programming. Information is a bit light on this one - it will get announced at the Consumer Electronics Show 2014 in January - but it looks like you'll be able to preset a route for the drone before you set off. Could be very helpful for some users.
What these updates do tell us is that the Phantom 2 Vision is going to get better all the time. This is great, because it means that - not inconsiderable - investment will last a lot longer.
Although "fun" isn't perhaps the main objective of DJI in the Phantom 2 Vision, it's still a brilliant bit of kit to play with. It flies superbly, and you can get some genuinely amazing footage out of it. Remember the limitations of the camera when the copter is "rolling" rather than "pitching" and you'll get results that look amazing.
Of course, professional video-makers might prefer to go with a proper gyro-stabilised camera mount, but those add weight, cost and drain batteries far quicker. All in all, as a video tool, the Phantom 2 Vision is pretty much perfect for the price point.
And yes, that price is a fair old whack. Certainly, results nearly as good could be had from mounting a GoPro on a cheaper version, but then you would lack both the stability and the tilt control that the Vision offers.
So, we're sold. If you do anything that requires aerial video or photography then we think you could make this device pay for itself. In the near future we suspect people will be using these things for shooting weddings - at least, the outdoor bits - and all sorts of other fun stuff. We even tried to survey our roof to see if our guttering was blocked. Okay, so that was far less fun but incredibly helpful as an aside.
But whether it's weddings or whatever, when you're not using it as a proper tool the DJI Phantom 2 is great fun to fly. It's easy as pie to use, produces amazing results and you'll feel like a big kid in the best possible way.