DJI quadcopter test and review

Ever since I got my hands on a GoPro many years ago, I used to toss it up in the air hoping that I would get some interesting perspectives from 15ft off the ground. Even those shots were minimal as I would perhaps get one usable photo among 500 odd. I’ve often curiously wondered if it could be attached to an aerial device and how difficult the process would be.

I haven’t come across many quadcopters but among the few RC planes I have, they were highly complicated at least in terms of flying them. The controllers were huge with too many dials for pitch, yaw, roll etc.

When I heard that there was a quadcopter that was specifically designed for the GoPro, it all sounded too good to be true. Unfortunately, most of them were quite pricy but for the DJI Phantom 1. I heard a lot of good things about it and did some general research to learn more about it and the types of footage you could get from it. Yet, I was still a bit perplexed by all the technical mumbo jumbo.

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Anyway, I ended up getting an unexpected call from a guy named Sandesh Kadur, who’d already bought the DJI Phantom 1. He added that that there was a National Geographic shoot happening in Mumbai in a month and half, and that he needed aerial footage. He told me to go by his place, pick it up and learn how to use it thoroughly.

Though I was very excited about it, at the same time, I was reflecting on the seriousness of the situation thinking, “HOLY SHIT! I’ve a month to get familiar with something that looks so complex and has oh-so-many variables. Will I be able to manage it in time?”

After picking up the DJI, I followed the usual routine of watching countless YouTube videos made by expert pilots and other noobs. Yet, I wasn’t confident enough about using the unit, especially with the lingering, timid thought nagging at the back of my head echoing, “Don’t bloody crash it.”

DCIM105GOPROFinally, the day arrived when I was certain I had watched enough videos and read what I could about the unit to fly it without tanking it. I took it to the park outside my apartment, laid it on the ground, did the initial pre-flight check and with some curious onlookers, I managed to get the DJI off the ground hassle-free. I did a few basic manoeuvres: up, down, left, right and so on but never taking it higher than 15 ft. and out of sight. After gaining a little confidence, I changed the battery and wanted to take it a wee bit higher (approx. 60f-70ft) and the crowd was in awe on how this thing worked.

With time, I felt more assured and with that came cockiness. Amused kids and passersby asked if I was doing this for research, the presence of a camera and so on. Suddenly, my smug smile disappeared as the quad came down smashing into the ground. I was dumbfounded, as I had calculated all the known variables and had no cluehow to solve, what seemed like at the time like, the Sherlockian mystery that had just occurred. I had just put in a fresh battery before I attempted this cocksure stunt. This was literally the worst thing that could have happened to me before the big project shoot in about a month. I was left wondering if the unit was still functioning and about the parts which were broken and which weren’t. The silver lining to the fiasco was that nothing was damaged, despite the gimbal taking a proper beating. The motors were still intact. So was the structure. Everything seemed to be functioning good as new. Damn! He’s a tough bastard!

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 3.50.17 PM After the shoot and several crashes later, I was getting quite comfortable with the unit and realized that it was not as complex as I had earlier made it out to be. It was very similar to the RC car I used as a kid (only it burnt a bigger hole in our pockets than my dad’s).

We realised soon that one of the biggest drawbacks with the DJI Phantom 1 was that one could not see what one was recording, which meant that all our shots from the beginning was all based on guesswork and assumptions. It also meant that if and when the drone flew too faScreen Shot 2014-08-02 at 3.51.55 PMr away, we could not possibly know which way it was turning, or whether it was coming back at all. Thus, it makes for a very stressful, fearful experience. The simplest solution is to get an FPV unit (First Person View). After some digging and recommendations from fellow flyers, we ended up picking up the Boscam 5.8G kit. This little unit has saved me from stress-induced baldness. We are able to now see exactly what we are doing and which way we are flying, all in real time. The FPV unit is a must-have if you intend to get proper material from your aerial flights. It helps you get a firsthand view of what it’s like up there.

Ok then, I shall stop with the rambling and drama about my tale of suffering, pain and eventual mastery of the quadcopter. If I go on, it could well end up becoming a Hunger Games sequel.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Here are the overall pros and cons:

PROS: CONS
  • The quadcopter is a very simplistic unit to learn.The controller has two control functions: One for up-down and left-right rotation. The other is for directions.
  • With the gimbal, one receives some top- notch aerial footage.
  • In GPS mode, the unit handles itself well by trying to keep the quadcopter in the marked position, even in the eventuality of a gust of wind.
  • Upgradable: with better motors and propellers.
  • Easy replacement of damaged parts.
  • Battery life (A seven-minute flight is a bit too short.)
  • No battery indication
  • Complex light sequence code

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GOPRO settings:

1280×720 60FPS: If you are concerned about hard drive space, this would be a good option. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

1280×720 120FPS: This option does not make much sense since you would need a lot of light to make this resolution look good. In case it is a very bright and sunny day, then this might help but there’s nothing a post-production can’t fix.

1920×1080 30FPS: This option gives you a clean and sharp image. It clearly is one of the best, in terms of resolution but there is a good enough chance you could get the propeller blades in the shot. And if the camera is angled down, due to its wide shooting ability, getting the struts in the frame is a sure thing.

1920×1080 60FPS: Shooting at 60FPS gives you a nice smooth clip and eliminates some of the smaller bumps that could occur due to wind conditions.

1920×1440 30FPS: This is the resolution that I would personally and strongly recommend. The GoPro sensor is 4:3. So, the full sensor is being utilized, gives highly sharp clips. In addition, this enables you to crop out the propellers without losing any resolution and quality of the clip. You get an extended view only when the camera is pointed down.

1920×1440 50FPS: This option is if you need smoother actions, in case you are recording an action sequence. But remember higher the frame rate, more the light required.

2.7K 30FPS: In case you want to shoot at 1920X1080, you might as well shoot at 2.7K as this would give you the option of scaling down the clip and cropping out the propellers and the struts, without any loss of image quality.

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