I've left my fingerprints on a lot of different multi-rotors. So it's rare for me to come across a product so unique that it nudges me out of my comfort zone. The new Breeze 4K ($500) from Yuneec is one of those products. It is unlike any quad I've flown before. In some respects, it forced me to rethink my preconceived notions about what an aerial photography platform could be. At the same time, it challenged me with issues that I couldn't overlook.
Who is the Breeze 4K For?
While it definitely has many hobby-quality attributes, the Breeze is not intended for model aviation enthusiasts. In fact, it seems that Yuneec has tried very hard to remove much of the burden of becoming a skilled pilot. Most of the built-in flight modes involve some degree of automated control over the quad. Just keep in mind that there is still a minimum level of proficiency required. It is necessary to understand and become competent with the software that augments any lack of flying skill. In other words, read the manual and watch the tutorials before you hit the skies.
It appears that this quad is primarily for people looking to elevate their selfie game. The flight modes are tailored to put the user, more than anything else, in the camera lens. Think of the Breeze as a long selfie stick…a really long selfie stick!
The marketing material for the Breeze notes that it is capable of outdoor or indoor flight. It has special sensors on the bottom side to improve its indoor capability in the absence of GPS signals. One photo even suggests that it is okay to fly within the limited confines of a high-rise apartment. Personally, I would be very uncomfortable flying a multi-rotor of this size and power inside my house.
Breeze 4K Overview
The Breeze is a factory-built quad measuring 240mm diagonally. It is quite compact by current aerial photography quad standards. It's actually smaller than many racing quads. As the name suggests, it is equipped with a camera capable of shooting 4K video. The camera is the soul of this vehicle. The marketing material I received even refers to the Breeze as a "flying camera".
I've dealt with several larger multi-rotors manufactured by Yuneec and I've always walked away with a positive opinion of them. Like those larger ships, the Breeze is cleanly-designed and solidly-built. All of the external parts fit together perfectly. The proprietary batteries click into place firmly. Even the folding landing gear legs lock down with a reassuring snap.
What is most unique about this quad is that it does not have a dedicated transmitter. Real-time control of the aircraft is accomplished on a tablet or phone via Wi-Fi. The Breeze Cam app provides several different control options that are a mixture of manual and automated profiles. Managing the camera, adjusting the flight parameters, and editing the photos and videos that it captures are also accomplished in Breeze Cam. You can even upload content to social media sites directly through the app.
There are four brushless motors spinning 5" (127mm)-diameter propellers. This is the first instance of folding propellers that I've ever seen on a quad rotor. I presume that the intent of using folding props is to reduce the footprint of the Breeze when it is not in use. I guess they might also reduce the potential for damage or injury if they strike something or someone, but I definitely would not bank on that theory. A set of replacement blades is included as well.
The quad comes packaged in a plastic carrying case that measures approximately 8.5" (216mm) square by 3" (76mm) tall. It's a nice feature and it makes the Breeze easy to transport. The case holds the quad itself, both of the included flight batteries, spare props, and a set of four prop guards. There is not sufficient room to store the provided AC-powered battery charger in the case. I really like the case, but it would be nice if it was slightly larger so that I could store everything in one place.
In order to fit both batteries in the case, one of the batteries must be partially installed in the quad. A foam spacer is provided to prevent this battery from sliding all the way into position and making electrical contact. The trick here is to remember that the battery is not secured when you remove the quad from the case. If you tilt it the wrong way, the battery may go crashing to the ground.
I was thoroughly convinced that I would lose the foam spacer in short order. So I drilled a small hole in the spacer and another hole in one of the webs of the case. I then tethered the spacer to the case with a length of heavy thread.
The camera is mounted on internal dampers that isolate it from propeller vibrations. Although the camera is not on a gimbal, it does offer pitch control and some degree of stabilization. At the 1080p/30fps and 720p/60fps resolution settings, the system provides digital stabilization which works quite well to produce smooth video footage. If you want to shoot at 4K/30fps resolution, there is no stabilization option. Every bobble and lean of the quad is reflected in your footage. Personally, I felt that the 1080p setting produced the best overall results.
Photos and video are stored on a 16GB internal drive. You can offload the media via Wi-Fi or the included micro-USB cable. The app provides a function to format the drive.
Flying the Breeze 4K
I thought that my first outing with the Breeze was going to be a bust. I packed it for a trip to my RC club's flying field, but the wind was blowing quite strong when I arrived. Even a lot of big airplane models were kept on the ground that day. I eventually decided that any model named "Breeze" had better be able to handle some wind. So I grabbed my iPad with the Breeze Cam app installed and prepped the quad.
I have to say that I was really impressed with how well the Breeze flew in strong winds in my testing.
I have to say that I was really impressed with how well the Breeze flew that day. In spite of the blustery winds, the model maintained a stable hover without any drifting. I flew both batteries, but I didn't explore much of the quad's capabilities. The main point of these initial flights was to help me get comfortable with using the tablet as my transmitter.
The app offers a Pilot Mode with simulated joysticks overlaid on the video downlink. You put your thumbs on the dots that represent the tops of the control sticks and slide them around the screen. The primary issue I noted was that there is no way to tell when you center the sticks. It's very helpful to know when the controls are at neutral without having to look down or raise your thumbs.
There is another option for manual pitch and roll control where you tilt the tablet in the direction you want to steer the quad. This worked well, but it seemed to provide only non-proportional control. When tilting the tablet, it appeared that I either had the maximum control input or nothing. It wasn't really an issue that affected controllability. The Breeze is still easy to fly this way. But it does tend to make the video footage more erratic.
On subsequent outings under better conditions, I explored all of the flight modes. Pilot Mode is the only mode that is not specifically tailored for photographing the pilot. The user manipulates the simulated joysticks (or the tilt option) to fly and film wherever they want to.
Selfie and Orbit modes are very similar. In both cases, the quad revolves around a central location. The camera is pointed inward on the arc by default but there is some latitude to change that. Selfie Mode allows you to control how fast the Breeze crabs around you. In Orbit mode, you choose clockwise or counter-clockwise motion and the quad goes around at a fixed speed with the push of a single button. It goes until you push the button again to stop it.
In Journey Mode, the Breeze heads away from you and then back. Again, the camera is pointed towards you during the entire round trip. The interface allows you to select the distance and upward angle that the quad travels.
Follow Me Mode allows you to highlight yourself (or something else) on the screen and the Breeze will automatically track the selected object with its camera. In my tests, the system usually did a pretty good job of yawing the quad to keep the camera locked on to me as I walked around. There is also an option to have the Breeze translate in Follow Mode, but I have not yet figured out how to make it work.
The flight performance of the Breeze reaffirms the notion that its main purpose is to shoot photos of the operator. All of its movements are very sedate. Except when using the tablet tilting control option, the quad maneuvers as if it's balancing a raw egg on a spoon. This is a good trait if smooth video is your goal. Just don't buy a Breeze thinking that it has sport flying chops too.
I get approximately 10 to 11 minutes of flight from each 3S-1150mAh LiPo battery. One battery at a time can be attached to the included charger. The charging process takes about 45 minutes.
It's All About Control
Piloting the Breeze required a little bit of personal growth on my part. Flying with a tablet or phone is a foreign concept to me. As an old-school RC flyer, I am comforted by the familiar heft of a traditional radio transmitter in my hands. It makes me feel like I am in control of things. Yet, I am fully aware that with any GPS-equipped model, it is the onboard flight controller that is really running the show. It's going to do whatever it has been programmed to do. I am merely making suggestions via the transmitter and praying for the flight controller's benevolence.
Given that situation, there is effectively no difference whether you are using a legacy radio system or a tablet via Wi-Fi. As long as the signal is reaching the model, your level of authority is the same either way. But authority is just one part of the flying equation. A tangible joystick definitely offers an advantage over emulated controls in terms of precision. That is especially true when dealing with the tiny emulated joysticks are on the small screen of a phone.
A preconceived concern I had with using a tablet for control relates to the sketchy reliability of Wi-Fi, especially given the potential distances involved. It turned out that my anxiety was only partially justified. With about two dozen flights (alternately using iPhone and iPad) in the logbook, I only lost the Wi-Fi connection once. The Breeze did just what the manual said it would do in such situations (pause then return home if the connection is not restored).
Unfortunately, my experience flying the Breeze suggests that limited range is just one of a few possible hurdles when using smart devices for control.
Unfortunately, my experience flying the Breeze suggests that limited range is just one of a few possible hurdles when using smart devices for control. There were several times when the Breeze Cam app crashed during the middle of a flight. In every instance, the quad patiently hovered in place while I restarted the app, and no harm was done. That the Breeze never went rogue during any of these episodes is reassuring. At the same time, the variety and frequency of potential control interruptions is unnerving.
While the Breeze never did anything that I did not tell it to do, it sometimes refused to do what I asked it to do. On nearly every iPad-controlled flight of the Breeze in Pilot Mode, it would stop responding to control inputs in a certain direction of the compass. For instance, it may stop responding to eastward control inputs in the middle of an otherwise normal flight. When this happens, it doesn't matter which direction I point the nose of the quad, it will refuse to go east while it will happily go in other directions. There are no other obvious signs of trouble. The app is still running and Wi-Fi is solid.
I have not analyzed the problem sufficiently to uncover any clear trends, but it does seem that the refused direction is often toward the home takeoff point. That basically means that I've found myself in multiple situations where I could not fly the Breeze back to me. I discovered that I could clear the problem by changing to a different flight mode or engaging the "return home" function. I don't necessarily have to let the Breeze come all the way back to the takeoff point. If I pause the return somewhere along the way, it will resume normal flight.
I've only flown the Breeze in large, open fields, so the control interruptions have never created a hazard. Although it does make me wonder if a new user flying in a more confined location (especially indoors) could affect the same consequence-free outcome. Would they even be able to recognize that there was a problem before it was too late? The first time it happened to me, I blamed it on my lack of familiarity with the tablet controls.
Perhaps the control problem I'm seeing with the Breeze is unique to my example. Is it the app? Maybe it has something to do with my iPad (the problem never occurred with my phone). There are too many variables involved for me to point any fingers. All I can say is that I've tried everything I can think of (latest firmware, calibrated compass, etc.) and the issue still occurs consistently for me. I'll report back here when I find a resolution.
I think that the Breeze 4K is a solid concept. Having a 4K-capable camera on a compact frame is certainly alluring. While the quad itself is high-quality, its full potential is hampered by the tablet-based control system. When you're flying a brushless-powered multi-rotor, even one that only weighs about a pound, intermittent control shouldn't be tolerated.
The new technologies found on RC models allow amazing capabilities, but they also introduce new potential problem areas. It seems that every time that I begin to release my fundamentalist RC views and accept the new high-tech normal, some glitch reignites my doubts about "smart" models. I truly want to fully embrace the newest RC technology, but I go forward with caution.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.