Parrot’s AR Drone Quadricopter might be the most well known thanks to its association with the iPhone, but it’s hardly, and by far the best. Course, one wouldn’t know this until they lay their hands on a legit four bladed helicopter. Case in point DJI’s Phantom 2 Vision.
To be honest, my quadricopter experience is far from vast. Knowledge aside, though, I can, without a shred of doubt, attest to how much fun and enjoyment one can garner from flying the Phantom 2 Vision.
What’s in the Box
There are a set of replacement blades – you’ll need and want these on hand when the craft takes a plunge onto pavement. And if you’re not careful, can become razor sharp if they scrape the ground – Gabe found this out the hard way with a sliver removed from his forearm. There are also a set of tools, some stickers, a battery, charger, WiFi range extender, remote and a mount for your smartphone (iOS or Android compatible – more on that in a bit).
Physically setting up the DJI Phantom 2 Vision takes no tools. Just add the propellers – you can do this by hand by screwing them on. If you need to replace one of the blades (i.e. unscrew it) you can sometimes accomplish this by hand, but you might need the included tool which is designed to hold the rotor steady as you unscrew it. Included are a set of stickers that are intended to indicate the direction the Phantom Vision 2 is facing. Skip these, since they’re near impossible to see when in flight.
It looks and feels like a traditional RC remote. The left joystick controlling altitude (up and down) and rotating the Phantom 2 on a y-axis. The right joystick controlling the direction of travel (x-axis); forward/back and left/right strafing. Two indescript switches are used to control absolute positioning and can be used to reset the Phantom’s compass. They’ll largely go unused and for the easiest flight experience both should be set to their middle position.
WiFi Range Extender
This is used to connect your smartphone to the Phantom 2′s camera, hence the “Vision” part of the name. It works in tandem with the aforementioned smartphone mount. It charges via microUSB. I’ve never had the battery die, though I charge it after each use.
Built-into the Phantom 2 Vision is a 1080p capable camera. It records at 30fps. Switch it to 60fps and it becomes 1080i. To help reduce shake it attaches to the base of the Phantom 2 by way of 4 rubber bearings. The camera also automatically adjusts its angle to compensate for the tilt of the Phantom 2, which occurs when flying forward or back. To be clear, it’s not a full on gimbal, which is to say it won’t completely reduce shake, but nevertheless, it has an affect. Of note, there is version of the Phantom 2 that is sans camera that can be optionally outfitted with a gimbal for those using a GoPro3.
First install the app (iOS or Android) on your smartphone. Turn on the remote control, the Phantom 2 and then WIFi Extender. Fire up the app, and connect your smartphone to the Range Extender’s WiFi signal – look for the “Phantom” SSID. Once completed return to the app. This is where it gets a bit confusing and frustrating.
In order to connect to the Phantom’s camera, you’ll need to “bind”. To do this, you’ll have to have the retail packaging handy, which bears a QR Code on its right side. Select the Binding option in the app, scan the QR code on the box, and then the SSID and Mac Address will automatically populate. If all goes well the camera should connect to your smartphone and show its view in realtime. However, what makes ZERO sense, is that you need the retail packaging on hand to connect the camera to your smartphone. I learned this the hard way: I left the box at home, went to Joshua Tree and came home without any footage. Why the QR code isn’t plastered directly on the outside of the Phantom is beyond frustrating and stupid!
To take off just pull down and inward on the joysticks. This starts the propellers. Once they’re up to speed, and the back lights blink green you can take off and the Phantom 2 Vision should hover freely in the sky. If the lights blink yellow, then the Phantom 2 hasn’t quite figured out how to sit still and will waver left and right. Careful, it’s easy to crash it at this point.
I took me about 10 minutes to get a hang of the controls. Since we only have two batteries – 15-20 minutes a piece of flight time – it wasn’t until the third outing when I got the hang of the Phantom 2. Instead of just pushing left and right, up or down on the joysticks, I was eventually, over time and with practice, able to modulate them with much greater proficiency and all the way control the direction of travel that wasn’t just simply a straight line. The result was better, steadier shots.
That said, the Phantom 2 is remarkably nimble and fast enough (see the videos) to beat a group of 10 year olds in a foot race. Changing direction happens almost instantly, and unlike Parrots offering is far easier to control since you can modulate speed and direction with much greater ease thanks to the joystick remote. Like any quadricopter, the windier it is, the harder it is to fly, but given it’s design and small nature it holds up fairly well against the elements.
GoPro long ago set the bar when it came to cameras of this size. And if you’re like me skepticism is probably abound in terms of the Phantom 2′s camera quality. But take a look at the footage. I think it speaks for itself. Thanks to the wide angle lens footage it’s fairly distorted, though DJI says this can be fixed in post using an Adobe plugin – I never did this since I didn’t and don’t edit video. There is a fair bit of shake in some of the recorded footage, but by incorporating slow turns and a slow flight speed, much of this can be reduced if not removed. The smartphone app allows you to also control the tilt of the camera, capture photos (RAW or JPG) and manipulate other camera settings to capture shots that wouldn’t otherwise be feasible with a jib, crane or whatever other gear you might have in your photography arsenal.
Durability and Battery
We (as in I) crashed it a few times in our trial. One time was particularly bad with the camera casing popping off. However, it still works and still records full HD video. Moreover it flies as if it were brand new, at least from what we can tell. That said, it’s far from indestructible and the propellers will break and become sharp if they meet concrete while spinning.
You’ll experience a slight reduction in battery life when recording video, but on average you’ll get 15, maybe 20 minutes of flight time per battery. If you’ve got a smartphone connected you’ll receive an audible warning before the battery is going to die, and if you really push it the craft will try to land itself – this usually happens when the battery indicator on the smartphone app shows less than 20%.
I’m no pilot. I’ll likely never fly a fighter jet. The DJI Phantom 2 is probably the closest I’ll get to doing so. Sure, it’s a gross exaggeration. But as I said, you can experience a fair bit of exhilaration, especially once you start to get the hang of it. So suffice to say, it’s fun. But the real return on your money will come from the camera, where you’ll be able to record stunning shots, hi in the air. The camera isn’t nearly as durable as a GoPro3 encased in the company’s rugged container. But with that comes the trade off of being able to view the camera’s view in real time and control it when out of sight – according to DJI the GoPro’s WiFi remote option interferes with the Phantom 2′s operation.