Games of Drones: The Phantom Menace

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Last week it was that time of the year again: time to buy myself a birthday present. The one I wanted had been ordered months in advance, but as things go, it was taking much to long so the night before my birthday I ordered the DJI Phantom. To be honest I was not expecting much more then a toy, which is why I had placed an order for a much bigger Quadcopter.

My big plan, just a few months ago, was to get a gimbal and use it with and without a multirotor, obviously we now know after NAB this was not a very original idea :) The slick video with the new Go Pro Gimbal convinced me that even though it looked like a toy, it might be of some use after playtime is over. It will be a good cheap option for practicing and finding out if this is something to try on a bigger scale. Most people who operate camera’s have pretty decent hand-eye coordination, but only in real life situations will you find out if it is good enough to fly some big monster with a Black Magic 4K on it.

This is the drone I am looking for.

The package arrived in a nice white box and was pretty easy to assemble, you just need a screwdriver and a bunch of AA batteries to get started. The only problem was: no manual, but let’s face it, manuals are for wimps, real men are born with a deeper understanding of technology. So I turned on the transmitter and plugged in the battery! To infinity and beyo… hmm wait a minute why is nothing happening? Checking switches, battery, nothing. So who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The nice guy in the shop said he better send me the manual, and so he did. I found out a few things:

-Calibrate the compass! Simple really but because the thing probably came from China, north is not what it used to be. Here is a link to the official DJI Compass calibration video:

-To get the thing flying to need to put the control sticks on the transmitter in opposite bottom corners, but only after you let it find all the satellites, because here is the good part: If you let it find more then 6 satellites, wait for another 8 seconds, it will remember the point it took off from and return home in case the transmitter drops or the battery is close to it’s safety margin. It will also start blinking red and come down to a lower level when it hits the first safety level.

-Find a big empty space to start! Even with all the fancy GPS stuff build in, you want it to be as far away from people and objects to start with. Take a cap (preferably Zacuto, off course because it makes you look like a pro), sunglasses and get a macho flight jacket, this way all your complete failures seem like creative choices to people who are looking at whatever you are trying to do with the Phantom.

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picture: Hans Veldkamp

Sadly this is less of a joke, more a weird fact: most people who come to check it out, even friends you brought with you, don’t get how busy you are keeping it from chopping peoples head off, killing off the wildlife and cutting grass in the very first flight. All the extreme panic moves seem like highly skilled stunt patterns. Only when they see the Phantom bouncing off a tree or digging holes with the propellers do they realise this was probably not planned. Space and distance, and lot’s of it

-Wind is not your friend, the Phantom is relatively small and get’s blown allover the place. In GPs mode this means it tries to hold position, battling wind, make it swing allover just to stay in one place.

- Taking off from a dusty field will get dirt allover and inside the Phantom

- Start it level for best result, it will calibrate itself in whatever angle you put it, start it up tilting to the left, it will fly a bit to the left.

- The top left buttons with CL and HL do not work by default, you need to active them by connecting the Phantom to a Windows machine (or VMware/ Parallels on a Mac as I found out) and turn on IOC: Intelligent Orientation Control. You should check out what this means, it is pretty clever but to be honest it is not a good idea to mess with this until you learn to fly the thing because it just get’s things more confused.

-The right top button has two ATT settings, the bottom one can be set to “manual” in the windows software, this means no support from the clever autopilot. You have to battle the wind by hand now. Just leave it in ATT for now until you are sure your brain can handle the flipping crazyness of having a drone fly right at you. Left is right, right is left.

- When in doubt, just let go of the sticks and see what it does, make sure it is in GPS mode and it will try to hover in place.

- Guessing distance becomes pretty hard after a while, be careful when people are around. Make sure you have the right glasses for sunny weather or contrast glassed in foggy London weather. It’s a pretty small dot in the sky.

- Go slow, turning the Phantom around flips the controls, make sure you get used to it, just because it is logical doesn’t mean it is easy

Games of Drones

When you actually get the thing off the ground, the second thing you might want to try is add a GoPro Hero3 black, simply because any of the other sissy options are not manly enough. But let’s start with a older less manly GoPro, the Hero2, it fits the GoPro frame that comes with the Phantom (I guess Dji did not know about the format change either) and in daylight it still does a nice job:

For my previous multirotor option I had already bought “moongel” harvested on the set of the film “Moon” from the hair of Sam Rockwell and added a vibration damping carbon frame for the GoPro. As you can see, the blue stuff, or “Moongel” is stuck to the bottom, it’s a bit sticky and gel-like. The black rubbers are the soft version, I also have the slightly harder red ones as well.

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But it is not just adding fancy dampening stuff, the propellers need to be in good shape, after a few unintentional creative moves they might not be in the best condition. This can cause some weird jello, with the soft rubbers it got so bad the whole GoPro started to oscillate, especially when accelerating UP. Which is still my favourite thing because you can those lovely shots from the city.

The stronger red version did help and gave some nice stable footage as long as the Phantom was at speed going in a straight line, or in ATT mode letting it drift on the wind. In GPS mode it is too busy battling the wind to stay still.

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Jello and vibration comes from unbalanced propellers, this is pretty easy to fix, the real problem you will find when trying to shoot stable footage is keeping things levelled. This is where you get into gimbal territory, so now it is waiting to see if DJI will deliver that fancy Go Pro Gimbal.

Reviewing the first shots from the GoPro might cause some n00b deja-vu, because it is new and exciting, and to be honest a bit scary, you do end up with a lot of nervous shots. Make sure you use the old counting trick, count the time it is actually hanging or flying to make the shots you want. Especially when it’s waay up high, so high you want to get it back down as soon as possible, but you have about 10 minutes with the proper batteries, so set a timer at 9 minutes and feel free to let it hang a bit to get some nice stable shots.

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The cool thing about a DJI Phantom is that it’s based on the DJI NAZA, in fact it has a complete unit inside. If you open up the Phantom is even has a spare power supply for a gimbal and there are X and Y control ports for any gimbal you might want to add. for the money they really did not have to pack it with so many features, but they did and it makes it a very nice package.

Stable enough to take your camera out of the pocket and shoot a picture. Or even a video (warning, unedited everything!)

Is this the drone we are looking for?

Without a gimbal to keep things level it is not very useful, who knows if the $995.- is going to seed the magic bean, let us use the force and make that impossible stable shot? The GoPro Hero3 in cine mode gives some lovely images, but because of it’s size / mass the wind does blow it around a lot, even if you get the image level you can’t stop it from going up and down. It also takes a lot of practice to fly it without all the electronic support from the autopilot / GPS, something you need to do if you want smooth video image. It would also need a video transmitter to see where you are actually going, because after a certain distance you have trouble navigating, adding more weight and to be honest, i’m not sure this machine will not just drop out of the sky one day if you overload it.

Flying and taking care of tracking the camera becomes difficult when the Phantom is flying away from you and without telemetry it is really hard to guess how high and where it is going after a while. What you realise is the big boys have all these tools for a reason, but let’s not forget that limitations breed creativity so I’m curious to see what will come out of this!

For a bit of fun it’s fantastic, as a pro tool used on many jobs, I guess we will have to wait and see. Not sure how long the motors and ESC will hold out!

The Phantom Menace

One small note: Dogs seem to love the Phantom just as much, here is Paco being a Phantom Menace and chasing it for 45 minutes.

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picture: Hans Veldkamp

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picture: Hans Veldkamp
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picture: Hans Veldkamp