Saturday, January 4, 2014
I'm A Drone Pilot
DJI Phantom/GoPro SUP Surfing from WaterTurtle Media on Vimeo.
That was my first foray into drone surf videography....a test flight if you will. That footage was captured December 30th, 2013. Rob Not Robert and I made a coastal day run to get in some SUP surfing. It was a beautiful winter beach day - mid 50s, mostly sunny, and the water wasn't too cold. The wind stayed down and we had nice fun waist to shoulder high surf with many waves offering up room to get in 3 or 4 top and bottom turns (and a very close encounter with a pod of at least 8 or 9 dolphin).
So yeah, I did it - I recently got the Phantom DJI octocopter (drone). I've had it for a few weeks now and have done several test flights. Overall, its an awesome consumer device with some cool features and I'm glad I got it. It's fun to fly on it's own (actually, its very addicting) and it has a lot of potential for overhead photography and video since it has a GoPro camera attachment.
Here's what I didn't know before that I know now:
- DJI advertises this as "ready to fly" out of the box. That's not even close to being true. After assembly and software/firmware downloads, manual reading, etc....that took over 2 hours before first flight. Not a big deal, but just know that going in.
- It's not easy to fly at first and it takes lots of practice to get comfortable flying it. I like to joke that I'm getting my drone pilot's license. I've already had friends and little kids ask if they can fly it. The answer is no because 1) "its not a toy, kid" and 2) its not cheap, and 3) it takes a lot of practice time just to not crash it. How do I know?......
- The first 3 times I flew it, I crashed it. Mostly into trees. This thing is fairly durable but you wouldn't want to crash it into concrete or water. It's not waterproof. I did have to replace the 4 plastic rotor blades since the first set got scraped up (a 2nd set shipped standard with the Phantom and you can order spares). Don't fly this around trees the first few times you fly it. Find a nice big wide open space like a football or soccer field.
- I've already flown it in some wind, but its definitely harder to do so....mostly its hard to judge the amount of drift when the Phantom is a long way away from you. It also doesn't fly very steady in wind....there is a lot of vibration, especially when you hover up or down. I'm considering getting some after market carbon fiber rotor blades to see how that might improve flight stability.
- The hardest thing about flying it is the mental sense of direction that gets lost using the joysticks once you make the Phantom yawl, or turn around. There are a couple of cool features you can enable that reduces the guesswork but it can still get confusing and is a big reason why you also don't want to fly this thing around a lot of people, unless you're an ace.
- Another hard thing that I need to improve on is figuring out where the Phantom is in relation to the surfer surfing the wave. It's really hard to tell from the beach using remote control. I don't have good depth perception. You can tell from my video that I missed out on Rob surfing some decent waves....I was close but not quite in the right position to capture the critical sections. I guess this will just take more practice.
- I've been flying it in manual mode. There is a GPS mode, which enables the Phantom to hover in place when the joysticks are in neutral and it self-corrects itself to stay still in its hover position even if there is wind (but this can add vibration). This GPS mode also enables it to fly home and land in its original take off spot if remote control connectivity gets lost. I've yet to be able to get the GPS mode to work...I can't seem to get the satellites to line up to it. So I've got some troubleshooting to do to get this very cool feature to work.
- Only thing I would say is a real bummer and downside is the battery life. It basically stinks. 10 minutes fly time at best on one battery....sometimes less with the GoPro camera attached because of the extra weight. I bought a 2nd spare battery. They are rechargable. So now I have 20 minutes of fly time but I have to land it after 10 minutes to switch batteries. I'm thinking about getting a 3rd spare battery.
- Another sort-of bummer - the Phantom 2 was just announced right after I bought the Phantom 1. I guess that goes with the territory with fun consumer devices. The GoPro Hero3+ came out less than a year after I got the Hero3. Oh well.
- With the GoPro attached using the standard mount, the video stability is pretty good. There are after market gimbal setups that increase video stability and I'm looking into that for future use.
It's pretty clear that consumer drone use is rapidly growing. The potential for commercial use is interesting too (as evidenced by what Amazon is doing in R&D). But like anything that can be good, there is also the potential for the negative (spying on your neighbors for example, etc). It will be interesting to see what the FAA does in the near future and what state and local governments do for drone regulations and laws. They can be dangerous if flown recklessly around people...they have the potential for seriously injuring or killing someone if you're not very careful. I plan to fly it sparingly only in certain spots that won't get me in trouble for flying it (I think its already against the law to fly one in a National Park) and I certainly don't plan to fly it around a lot of people. Uncrowded beaches are a perfect spot to fly one. No trees and soft sand (but beware of the water). Which makes this a great way to film ocean sports and activity from new and various angles. Here are some other Phantom DJI/GoPro surf videos that are out there. I can't wait to improve my skills some more and come up with new and interesting footage in the future.
Pipeline Winter 2013 from Eric Sterman on Vimeo.
Aerial footage of surfers at Steamer Lane... by Riders-Match