Ground Control

Drones are a hot-button topic. It seems every few days there’s a new story considering the implications, good or bad, of aerial photography and videography, not to mention the contentious debate pertaining to the legality of using them commercially. But, really, with so much chatter about drone use, what’s it actually like to fly one of these things in the first place? More specifically, what’s the experience like for someone with little to no experience using a remote-controlled aircraft?

To find out, I did what any self-respecting technophile would do. I hit the web, looking for an unmanned flying vehicle (UAV) that’s easy to use and provides acceptable image quality for capturing sports, landscapes and other outdoor events. After countless hours watching sample videos and tutorials on YouTube and reading tech spec reviews on as many blogs, I settled on the latest model from the increasingly popular DJI, the Phantom 2 Vision+ (P2VP).

The P2VP ($1,299, with two batteries) is DJI’s newest and most user-friendly quadcopter, to date, sporting a four-blade design with a built-in camera and camera gimbal. If you’d prefer a model with a GoPro mount instead of the built-in camera, that’s available, too. I wanted the simplest experience I could find, and the built-in camera comes with a handful of advantages I couldn’t pass up.

WHAT’S INSIDE MATTERS

Likely, you’re not a professional remote-control hobbyist. I’m not, either, so I’ll spare you a heavy technical explanation on how the technology inherent in the P2VP actually works. All you need to know is that the aircraft connects to multiple GPS satellites, much in the same way your cell phone does. This enables the device not only to fly with stability in the wind, it also means the aircraft can identify where it left the ground, how far it is from the controller and—in the instance you lose sight of your aircraft or it veers too far from you—it will return to the point it left the ground automatically. For a newbie, this never-lost insurance certainly makes flying a little less nerve-wracking.

The controller features two sticks that resemble the types of controls found on most remote-controlled cars and toys. Now, here comes the cool part. The controller is also equipped with a WiFi transmitter, which syncs not only with the aircraft, but also my smartphone. Through the DJI Vision app, I was able to turn my smartphone into a first-person-view (FPV) monitor, which not only showed me what the camera sees in real time (there’s about a second or so of lag), but also flight data such as height, speed and direction. Additionally, it serves as a means for selecting different recording modes, adjusting the camera and so on—all of which could be adjusted mid-flight, if need be.

As I said, I wanted the simplest drone I could find, and using FPV is possible if you’d rather use a GoPro camera, but that requires some serious electronic work and a bunch of additional hardware. With the P2VP, it’s a cinch. Granted, I was leery to use my phone as a monitor, at first, expecting the performance to be a bit wonky and unstable. My assumptions were wrong. The app and my phone worked great, and I was able to see firsthand what my aircraft could see, despite being up to 1,200 yards away.
Perhaps the most incredible feature of the P2VP is the Ground Station feature. Using my smartphone, I can pick coordinates on a map, the altitude I want to reach those coordinates, and in a matter of seconds after hitting "Go," the camera takes off on its own and flies my preprogrammed route. I’m still amazed by how that works!

The built-in camera shoots 1080p at 30 fps and 720p at 60 fps, with an assortment of manual controls for a finely tuned image. The gimbal is truly groundbreaking, and I’ve never seen such stable footage come from such a small aircraft. It helped correct my nervous flying and turn it into some seriously useful footage and photos. The camera on the P2VP also takes remarkable photos in both Adobe DNG and JPEG formats, and via the app, the camera can be easily tilted up and down (including straight down) for some thrilling perspectives. The camera image quality is spectacular, as long as there’s some good light to work with. It’s not a tool for nighttime shooting. Shucks!

EASY HAS NEVER BEEN SO FUN

Often, when we hear the word "easy," it generally means limited as far as performance, that is, if something is easy to do, you won’t get the kind of result that comes from something that requires more of a challenge. Well, toss that theory out the window. Flying the P2VP is easy, scary easy, actually. Taking off and flying is a breeze, and thanks to the simple interface in the app, I was doing aerial maneuvers that I didn’t think I could ever do. If I let go of both sticks on the controller, the aircraft stops and hovers. That doesn’t mean it won’t fly into a tree or hit a telephone line, but the precision controls made flying the P2VP not only fun, but incredibly useful for photos and video that, until now, were practically impossible to get without renting a full-sized helicopter.

Now, what’s the catch? There has to be something negative about flying a drone such as the P2VP, right? Here are my hang-ups, as minor as they are. First, the whole legal thing. Technically, I and thousands of other drone owners aren’t supposed to use them for commercial purposes—for now, at least. Second, flying well and executing maneuvers do take practice. If you’re not careful, you’ll crash into something, or worse, someone. And while taking off is easy, I don’t have the courage to land on the ground anymore. I actually prefer to catch the P2VP with my hands and power-off while holding it. (Neither I, nor DJI, recommend doing that.) Again, the built-in camera also doesn’t hold up well in the dark, so it’s not a viable choice for nighttime shooting.

Obviously, none of those cons is a deal breaker for me, and they shouldn’t be for you, either. I’d recommend any photographer or videographer with an interest to get their hands on a drone such as this one and familiarize yourself with how they work and the near- endless ways they can be used. It’s just too simple to pass up.

The P2VP has some remarkable capabilities, and the footage is buttery-smooth thanks to the remarkable built-in gimbal. I wish it shot in at least 2.7K, or had 1080p at 60p for better slow- motion, but on the other hand, at $1,299, it’s a good value for capturing footage from vantage points that were, until recently, too expensive to reach for most photographers and videographers.

Contact: DJI, www.dji.com.

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