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Testing: DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter Drone

By Norman Chan

We've been told that drones are going to change the world, but this is the first product I've used that really makes me believe it.

For the past week and a half, I've been testing DJI's new Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter. The RC quad, which was officially announced yesterday at the annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas, is the first real prosumer quadcopter I've flown. And in my testing time with it, I've become completely addicted to flying it. Days and nights are now framed in my mind in terms of when I can find time to take it out to fly, and how many battery recharge cycles I can fit into an afternoon. Sunny weather is quad flying weather, and I'm constantly combing through my visual memory of San Francisco and Bay Area geography to think about where I can take the quadcopter flying.

I wasn't kidding when I teased it in last week's podcast: not since the original iPhone and Oculus Rift have I been so impressed with a new consumer technology and its potential mass-market appeal. This isn't just an extremely fun toy for hobbyists and early-adopters: quadcopter technology is at a tipping point where it's ready for mainstream users to fly, hack, and utilize to do amazing things. We've been told that drones are going to change the world, but this is the first product I've used that really makes me believe it.

We're going to talk about our experience with the $1300 DJI's Phantom 2 Vision+ and its underlying technologies in-depth in a video this week, but I wanted to flesh out the salient points from that conversation and explain why I'm so excited about the quadcopter. I've also included a few videos shot with the Vision+'s onboard camera, as well as some stills comparing its image quality with that of the GoPro Hero 3's 1080p video. Let's get started!

This Quadcopter is Ready to Fly

My previous experience with flying quadcopters were split between two types of products: a Helimax mini-quad that was great for learning to properly orient and maneuver quads, and the very user-friendly Parrot AR.Drone that was flown with an iOS device over a Wi-Fi connection. Both of those RC quads were ready to fly out of the box, but had restrictive limitations. The Heli-Max is affordable and hobby-grade (meaning you can swap out components and use your own transmitter), but has a relatively limited range and is easily thrown off by wind (even indoor air conditioning). The AR.Drone is larger and had more flight power, but its Wi-Fi controls also limited its range and responsiveness. It was a fine backyard RC quad, but not one for making advanced maneuvers in an open field. I would consider both of those types of products good places to get your start flying.

DJI's Phantom line of quadcopters is a big step above both mini-quads and the AR.Drone, yet is still considered a consumer/prosumer-grade product. As our RC columnist Terry Dunn explained in this primer on RC quads, the first Phantom was extremely popular for its flight-readiness out of the box, comfortable learning curve, and ability to carry mounted accessories like GoPro cameras. But the most important thing is that it's a hobby-grade quad that has a much more flight power than a mini-quad or the AR.Drone. Previously, if you wanted to fly a quadcopter that could elevate to several hundred feet and carry video-stabilizing hardware, you had to assemble one from a kit or hack one together yourself. It was a hobbyist activity, not something to give you 15-year-old for Christmas. The $700 Phantom was a big deal in the RC quad community because it was something that didn't require much effort to get flying, yet had the muscle and hardware flexibility that hobbyists wanted. If you search YouTube or Vimeo, you'll find hundreds of videos shot with GoPros attached to Phantoms--that popular "Superman with a GoPro" video released earlier this month was shot with a Phantom 2.

The Phantom 2 Vision+ is shockingly simple to get off the ground.

The Phantom 2 Vision+ inherits its predecessors' ease-of-flying, and is shockingly simple to get off the ground. There's not much setup after you take the quad out of the box: propellers have to be screwed in the right orientation, the battery for the quad has to be charged, and the transmitter just needs four AAs (included) as well as a quick charge to the range extender unit via micro-USB. The hour it takes to charge the 5200mAh was just enough time to read through the documentation, and I was ready to put the quadcopter in the air to start practicing. I just had to slap the charged battery in, perform a quick compass calibration, sync up the devices, and take up.

GPS is the Magic Sauce

This is something that we didn't really appreciate about DJi's Phantom line of quadcopters until taking it out to fly in the field. In our very brief hands-on time with the Phantom 2 at CES, it was clear that the Phantom was a very stable quadcopter. It didn't sway or drift in the indoor netted setup that DJI used on the convention floor. I attributed this to the calibration of its on-board gyroscope and strength of its rotors, which could make micro-adjustments to balance each other out while hovering. But I since learned to appreciate the GPS capabilities of the Phantom 2 Vision+, which is the technology that really makes the quadcopter seem magical.

The Phantom 2 line of quadcopters have LED lights placed under each of its four arms. Two of these lights shine red, and are used to relay orientation--red points to the nose of the quadcopter, so you want to keep that facing away from you orient properly. The other two lights can be red, yellow, or green, and blink to communicate operational information. Blinking red, for example, means that the Phantom is low on power, while alternating blinks of red and yellow means that the compass needs recalibration. But once the lights blink a steady green pulse, that means that the quad is not only ready to fly, but has signal and lock on GPS satellites.

That GPS lock is what makes the Phantom not only an RC quadcopter, but a drone. That's an important distinction--RC machines are primarily controlled by humans, and don't have any autonomous flying capabilities, Drones, on the other hand, can use GPS and flight telemetry to fly on its own, either using pre-determined flight paths or tracking a target. The Phantom uses its GPS for two purposes: it can automatically fly back to its take-off location, and use its GPS telemetry to keep the quadcopter stable at high altitudes and in high wind.

In terms of automatically flying back "home", it's a feature that we tested but never really had to rely on in the field. The Phantom has an incredible range--the included range extender unit allows it fly up to 700m (about half a mile) away from the transmitter, in ideal conditions. In our tests, we rarely had it fly more than 350 meters (~1000 feet) away. But the further you fly the Phantom from you, the more likely you can lose radio connection with it. So in a situation where the Phantom finds that it's no longer paired with the 5GHz transmitter (or in our tests, when we manually turned it off), it'll maintain altitude but fly back to the coordinates of its launch. When it reaches back to those coordinates, it'll gently descend to about 20 meters, which lets you reconnect the transmitter or wait until the batteries run low and the Phantom lands itself.

Its other use of GPS telemetry is really amazing. The Phantom always knows where it's supposed to be hovering, and when it's receiving flight commands from the transmitter. That means when wind is pushing or pulling it away from its hovering coordinates, it knows that it should try to compensate for those outside forces and try to maintain its position. This is especially useful when taking the Phantom to relatively high altitudes, like above 250 feet. One test I did was just to activate the motors to fly straight up into the air, reaching the FAA altitude limit for unmanned aircraft systems of 400 feet (though we're told that the Phantom could comfortably reach 1000 feet in open space), let it hover for a few minutes, and then descending it as fast as I could. Even with no other manual directional control, the Phantom came back down and landed almost exactly where it took off. DJI claims a hover accuracy of about 8 feet, but our experience with that has been closer to 2-5 feet.

Another way to demonstrate this was to hover than Phantom just a few feet above the ground and simulate wind turbulence by grabbing the Phantom's landing feet and dragging it a short distance away from its hovering spot. As you can see in the Vine video above, the Phantom motors speed up to resist the outside force and then try to recover and return to the original location.

It's that ability to automatically stabilize and stay situated in a fixed position that makes the Phantom 2 line of quadcopters really easy to fly. You only have to think about your own flight commands; not having to compensate for light wind means you don't have to worry about it tumbling out of control. Strong winds, like near a coastline, definitely can overpower the Phantom's motors, so it's not completely foolproof. But the technology works and makes an incredibly difference in day-to-day flying.

Flying by Video Works

The Phantom 2 Vision+ isn't the first quadcopter with a built-in camera; DJI has a Phantom 2 Vision model we saw at CES, and as mentioned earlier, hobbyists have been mounting cameras on the Phantom for quite a while. Like the Parrot AR.Drone, the camera can not only be used to capture photos and video, but live video can be piped to a smartphone app over Wi-Fi. In the case of the Vision+, the Wi-Fi signal is amplified by a special range extender unit attached to the top right of the transmitter. That means that the Vision+ can fly up to its 700m limit and still send video back to your phone. The app becomes extremely useful not only for its telemetry data (it can show you its distance from you, as well as altitude and speed), but its ability to relay live video at low latency to let you fly by video.

The live video quality is adjustable, ranging from 320x240 at 15fps to 640x640 at 30fps, but even the lowest resolution is good enough to fly using just the feed from the camera. I found that up to 150 feet high, it was best to fly the Phantom by looking at the quadcopter and figuring out flight orientation with its light indicators. But above that altitude, the quadcopter starts getting a little small to pick out in the sky if you don't track it constantly. So that's when I start using the live video feed to figure out what direction it's facing, and to admire the amazing view from that height.

Phantom 2 Vision+ (left) vs. GoPro Hero 3 (right) at 1080p

Video and photo recording is also activated via the app, and the Vision+ uses the same 1/2.3" image sensor found in the original Vision. In my tests, the 1080p video looked good, but was noticeably lower quality than 1080p video captured from the GoPro Hero 3. There's noticeable edge enhancement in the Phantom video that draws out edges, but the bitrate is about half of that of the GoPro, and dynamic range is limited (shadows look noisy and highlights can get blown out). Neither the GoPro or Phantom capture great video in the dark, and I wouldn't recommend flying by video at night. There are advanced photo and video settings to save photos in RAW, adjust light metering, ISO, and white balance, but the automatic settings worked well for me. In terms of video quality, my biggest issue was that the 30fps video wasn't as smooth as I would have liked for fast turning and flying (slow pan look great). You can adjust the settings to record in 1080i at 60fps, but I found the sweet spot to be 720p at 60fps.

Even though live video is capped at 480p, full-HD video is saved onto an included microSD card, for which 4GB gives you plenty of space for a full battery flight--about 20-25 minutes. Because the video feed is sent over Wi-Fi, DJI is touting the ability to transfer photos and video directly to your smartphone while the Phantom 2 Vision+ is still in the air. JPEG photos moved over fine, but I found that video took too long to pipe over the air, and it was easier just to have a laptop ready with a microSD-SD adapter to pull the footage between flights.

The Gimbal is Awesome

The new 3-axis gimbal is why the Phantom 2 Vision+ rocks. In the previous Vision model, the camera was attached to motors that you could activate to til the camera up and down, but you still had to keep the quadcopter relatively steady or still for video that didn't look shaky. And on the camera-less Phantom 2 models, hobbyists could buy and attach their own gimbals to mount GoPros--DJI actually makes their own accessory--but those gimbals ranged from $100-$400 depending on how many axes of stabilization, plus you'd have to supply your own camera. The fact that the Vision+, which now has a built-in 3-axis gimbal, is only priced at $100 more than the previous Vision model is pretty bonkers. (It also means that you can expect the price of the Vision to plummet in the coming weeks).

In flight, the gimbal uses a gyroscope to try to keep the camera locked into an orientation while the Phantom makes its maneuvers. It's primarily used for vertical stabilization, since the gimbal doesn't do 360-degree rotation, but the result is video that looks more like it's coming from a camera attached to a large boom pool than a flying quadcopter. It's so incredibly stable that you really have to watch the videos to believe it.

The gimbal motors also allow manual vertical tilt of the camera, which you dictate using the on-screen smartphone app. The app also taps into the phone's own gyroscope, so you can actually tilt the camera by tilting the transmitter with the phone attached, to keep your fingers on the two flight sticks. That's the best way to get smooth camera tilts while flying, otherwise I was holding the quadcopter in a hover position every time I wanted to tilt the camera by tapping the screen. The combination of the 4-axes of flight movement on the Phantom with the tilting capabilities of the gimbal afford some really interesting aerial cinematography shots, some of which you'll see in our video later this week (shot by DJI's Director of Aerial Photography, Eric Cheng).

The battery takes about an hour to charge, and lasted ~20 minutes in our tests.

Sample Videos

Processed 14MP RAW photo taken with the Vision+, resized. (Click the enlarge)

Conclusion

The Phantom 2 Vision+ isn't going to be for everyone--there are undoubtedly some enthusiasts who would rather stick with the $700 Phantom 2 and use their own gimbals and cameras. Production companies shooting television shows and movies may opt for higher-end multi-rotor drones that have better carrying capabilities and longer battery life. Our tests showed that the Phantom 2 Vision+ could fly and record video for just over 20 minutes on a full charge, which is short of DJI's 25-minute claim. That's not a big difference, and I would recommend picking up at least one spare battery ($160) if you're going to be flying one of these frequently.

There are other limitations--you shouldn't fly it normal households with 8-10 foot ceilings, the signal can be interrupted by power lines and line-of-sight obstacles, and the video is susceptible to moire artifacts and rolling shutter. The built-in camera is perfect for live-video flying, but isn't something I can see directors using as a primary camera for their films or TV shows. It could be effective as a secondary coverage camera for reality shows or concerts (think explosions or crowd shots). Right now, I'm just having a ton of fun seeing my neighborhood and city from a whole new perspective.

DJI's Phantom quadcopters are the first I've flown that really open my eyes to the potential of RC and autonomous drones. It combines a mix of technologies--gyroscopes, GPS, Wi-Fi, smartphones--in just the right way to make it much more than the sum of its parts. The flying experience really feels magical; it's something you may have to fly or see in person to appreciate. But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it if you're in the market for a prosumer RC quad. Let me know if you have any questions about the Phantom 2 Vision+ and I'll do my best to answer them in the comments.