A closer look on the DJI Phantom

On January 6, 2014, in Andere Hardware, DJI, English, Hardware, Photography, Review, by Stefaan Lesage

I had a few requests to write my impression of the DJI Phantom in English, so here we go …

A Phantom, UAV, Multi-rotor, Quadcopter … what are you talking about?

Well, before we start, it might be a good idea to let you know what a DJI Phantom actually is. The DJI Phantom is a so called Multi-rotor UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). “Oh … a Drone?” will probably be the reaction most of you have. Personally I don’t like it when people refer to all UAV’s as being drones. For me a drone is a military vehicle which is quite often used to execute unmanned aerial attacks. So … lets agree not to use the military term but lets just simply call it a multi-rotor, quadcopter or even UAV.

DJI Phantom with Remote

DJI Phantom with Remote

The DJI Phantom is a helicopter with 4 rotors which you can control using a remote. If you still have no idea what I’m referring too then think about the remote controlled cars we had as kids. Still no idea? Well, no problem at all … a bit more than a year ago I had no idea neither. And it was only a few months ago that I had seen my very first quadcopter.

A few months ago a colleague of mine showed me his Blade MQX and gave me a little demo of what he could do with it. I was sold after 2 minutes 🙂 The MQX was the first UAV I have seen, but quickly I realized they could be used for a few things. The quadcopter was flying quite stable and could be used to hover over an object to take pictures from the air. With that idea in mind I went and did some research, and that is how I discovered the DJI Phantom.

The DJI Phantom is in fact a bigger quadcopter which has some nifty technology on board. It can use its integrated GPS chip for quite a few things. A quadcopter can hover above an area, but would drift away with the wind. Thanks to the GPS the DJI Phantom can correct for that since it will try to stay at the exact same GPS location. The GPS is also used for a few other things which I will be covering later. The thing which caught my eye was that the DJI Phantom was built to cary a GoPro camera in the air. An ideal setup to shoot some pictures or even video from the air!

After a little more research, I was complete sold on the DJI Phantom and drove to a local shop near Brugge (Aerobertics), since they had one in stock for me. Even better … they completely assembled and configured it for me. Not that it a hard thing to do, and the folks at DJI have a few instruction video’s on their support website. A few minutes later, I was driving home with a DJI Phantom, 3 spare batteries and a GoPro Hero 3.

My fingers were itching … waiting to try it all out

Ready for the first flight

Ready for the first flight

When I got home, I updated the software on the GoPro Hero 3, and downloaded the GoPro app to my Samsung Galaxy S4. I think about an hour later I had read up enough to go out for the first flight. There was a small field walking distance from our house which was an ideal spot to start.

I quickly connected the batteries, turned on GPS mode and did a pre-flight check, keeping an eye on the LEDs at the back of the Phantom. Those LEDs are used to show you the status of the Phantom and the GPS and what mode you are in. Using a combination of quick or short red / orange / green flashes it indicates what is going on. It starts with lots of short orange flashes which indicates the system is booting / warming up. A green flash followed by 3 red flashes indicated that the Phantom was in GPS mode, but had access to fewer than 3 GPS satellites. I knew I had to wait until the GPS had 6 satellites, which is indicated by 3 green flashes of the LED. At that moment the system is able to accurately determine its GPS location which is very important to determine its Home location. When it acquires its home location the system gives about 8 to 10 short green flashes. Once the sequence was completed, I was ready to take off.

And we are airborne

And we are Airborne

And we are Airborne

Since this was my maiden flight, I decided to remove the GoPro before taking off. Better safe than sorry, right? Taking off for the first time was really exciting and quite stressful as well. I don’t think I went higher than 50 centimeters (I think approx 2 feet), and I took my bird one meter forward, backward, left and right … no problem at all … I had everything under control. Time to make the Phantom spin around its axis … and even telling my son Jens that it was pretty easy. When he asked “If its so easy, can I try it too?”, I had to quickly think about something which made it sound difficult …

I decided to try out a few things, travel over longer distance and even take the Phantom farther up in the air.

GPS, ATTI, Manual mode and the IOC

On the controller there are 2 switches which can be used to set the mode in which you fly (GPS, ATTI or ATTI/Manual) and how the IOC (Intelligent Orientation Control) should be used (Off, Course Lock or Home Lock). Lets start by explaining what the different modes do.

The mode can be changed using the right switch on the Transmitter. In the top most position the Phantom is flying in GPS mode. In this mode when you push the Pitch stick the DJI Phantom will move in the corresponding direction, but once you release the stick the the DJI Phantom will halt and hover at its current location. In ATTI or Manual mode the DJI Phantom would keep drifting away until it lost momentum. I tested this a few times by making the DJI Phantom hover in GPS mode and manually pulled the Phantom away from its location and the Phantom returned to its original position (be careful when trying this). Manual mode is something which can be configured using the Assistant software, and can be used to gain full manual control of the Phantom. In GPS or ATTI mode, the system will make sure your Phantom can’t roll over when pushing the sticks too far. So by default, you won’t be able to make rolls / loopings or other acrobatic figures.

The IOC or Intelligent Orientation Control is a different story, but still I will try to explain it. When using the Pitch stick you tell the Phantom to move forward, left, right or backwards. All of those commands are executed in relation to the nose of the craft. If you are facing towards the north and the nose of the phantom is facing towards the west, pusing the pitch stick forward will make the Phantom fly forwards in regards to its nose, so it will fly away to your own left. This is something you have to remember and be very careful with (as you will read later on).

Course lock and Home Lock can be used to make sure the DJI Phantom moves in relation to a course or in relation to its home position. In Course lock this means that pushing the stick forward will make the Phantom move forward in relation to where its nose position was when it determined its home (remember the quick green flashes from earlier?). In Home lock movement is done in relation to its home position. In that case, it doesn’t matter in which direction the nose of the Phantom points, pulling the stick down will make sure the Phantom flies towards its recorded home position.

The IOC is pretty hard to explain, but I hope you understand what it does. If not, feel free to post in the comments and maybe I will make a short video about it.

The first crash

After about 10 minutes of flying the LED flashed indicating a low battery warning, and it was time to bring the bird home. Since I had a few spare batteries, I decided to take the Phantom up in the air again. I think after about 5 minutes of flying I felt comfortable enough to explain a few things to my son. I told him pushing the stick to the left makes the plane move to the left and I show it to him. I push the stick to slightly the left and I get scared since the plane moves to the right towards a few trees. Of course … in a panic and without any thought … I move the stick even further to the left … the phantom gains more speed and flies even faster towards the trees. A few seconds later the Phantom reaches the trees, hits a few branches and falls down from about 2 or 3 meters.

This was pure piloting error and a stupid beginners mistake. During the flight I had been toying with the Yaw control to make the Phantom spin around its axis. Meanwhile the Phantom was flying with its nose pointing to me (Nose in flight as they call it), and pushing the stick to the left made the plane move to its left (in relation to its nose) which was … to my right of course. And the more I pushed the stick to the left, the faster it was flying to my right.

Luckily the Phantom didn’t crash on concrete soil and my bird was undamaged. With the exception of a few green marks on the shell and a little scratch on a propeller there was nothing wrong with the Phantom. After about a minute or two the Phantom was back up in the air.

So, what about the images and video?

The Phantom equiped with the GoPro Hero 3

The Phantom equiped with the GoPro Hero 3

A few days later I had done enough test flights and was ready to attach the GoPro Hero 3 to the Phantom. I was really looking forward to do some aerial shooting (pictures & video). After a few flights it was clear to me that I was missing a few things in order to do some aerial shoots. It is a good start, but we’re not there yet …

My first problem was that there is no real way to see what the GoPro sees. Of course you could use the GoPro app on your smartphone if you have a Wifi enabled GoPro, but I heard it was a bad idea to turn on the Wifi signal on the GoPro, since it is using the same frequency as the RC transmitter. I was able to take a few pictures, but framing the shots is purely based on luck. At that point it was already clear to me that I was missing a few things.

My next step was trying to shoot some video, but I had similar problems. If you as the cameramen don’t know what you are shooting, then it’s pretty hard to frame your shots. Once I got home I took a look at the video footage, and I noticed another problem. Since the GoPro is fixed to the Phantom, it follows every movement the Phantom makes. When the Phantom moves to the left you will notice that the horizon ins’t straight in your footage. Additionally the Phantom is always correcting for wind and other things, and this is clearly noticeable in the footage. I ended up with lots of shaky and wobly footage. Of course I could correct that in Final Cut, but that made didn’t improve it a lot.

The Verdict

Well … the DJI Phantom combined with the GoPro Hero 3 is a good way to start shooting some aerial video or images. But this basic configuration won’t be usable in a more ‘professional’ environment. The biggest issue I had was that I didn’t see what the camera sees, which makes it nearly impossible to frame your shot. I did get a few quite nice pictures after a while. But you end up shooting tens or even hundreds of images hoping that one will we framed nicely.

For video shoots it gets even tougher. The DJI Phantom and GoPro Hero 3 it its default setup can be used to shoot video, but if you want good looking footage, then you will require some additional gear. After all … nobody wants to see shaky video or footage where you have to tilt your head in order to get a straight horizon.

For more professional footage you will need an FPV (First Person View) system which beams the footage your camera sees down to your own position. Some solutions here are FPV glasses or an FPV monitor. Another thing you will need is some Gimbal which will be used to compensate for the movement the Phantom makes. It does result in more stable video and could give you the additional benefit of being able to tilt the camera in flight. I did invest some additional money in an FPV system and a gimbal, but I think that’s something I will be covering in another blogpost.

Meanwhile I have added some pictures and video which have been shot with the default DJI Phantom / GoPro Hero 3 configuration:

Gerardsmolen (sun was starting to set)Gerardsmolen on a windy & cloudy afternoonLandscape near ErtveldeLandscape near ErtveldeLandscape near ErtveldeLandscape near Ertvelde
Landscape near ErtveldeLandscape near ErtveldeAerial Sunset Landscape near HoofdplaatAerial Sunset Landscape near HoofdplaatAerial Sunset Landscape near HoofdplaatAerial Sunset Landscape near Hoofdplaat
Aerial Sunset Landscape near HoofdplaatAerial Sunset Landscape near HoofdplaatAerial Sunset Landscape near HoofdplaatSunset over RiemeSunset behind treesAerial Sunset
Aerial SunsetView on the KluizendokReime vanuit de luchtSunset in ErtveldeSunset near ErtveldeFarmers at work near Vosselare Put

Aerial photography, a set on Flickr.

Some shots I took using the DJI Phantom and the Go Pro Hero 3.

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One Response to A closer look on the DJI Phantom

  1. […] he needs. Check out Stefaan’ Lesage’s great article bout the DJI Phantom Quadcopter at itutorpodcast.com. In Chit Chat Across the Pond, Knightwise from Knightwise.com joins us to help NosillaCastaway […]

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