Preview: DJI Phantom 2 Vision flying camera
The DJI Phantom 2 Vision seems positioned to bring aerial photography to the mainstream. It is one of the first quadcopters to offer ease of use in a highly refined, sophisticated quadcopter with a built in high quality HD camera and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The big change in aerial photography: multirotor craft
Until the last two years, professional aerial photography has largely involved photographers taking helicopters up to take images and videos. Lately, photographers have been able to cut costs greatly by bringing up their photographic gear hundreds of feet up to the air in large multirotor craft, sporting sophisticated mounts -- brushless motor gimbals and their kin.
DJI and the Phantom
DJI has been a major supplier to this industry, providing equipment such as professional multirotor craft capable of lifting several kilograms of equipment hundreds of feet into the air. DJI is also the supplier of the Hexacopter, which captured the video footage of the SpaceX Ring of Fire videos. Early in 2013, it released its first "prosumer" product -- the DJI Phantom -- which was very well received, delivering incredibly advanced features for less than a thousand bucks.
The DJI Phantom was a very easy-to-use package, and came with features like GPS-assisted position hold (which lets the craft hold its position very accurately in the air when you release the controls), a return-home function -- just flip a switch and the Phantom will return to a preset "home" position -- saving owners the heart pain of loss if they lose sight of the craft.
The Phantom was so easy to use that my eight-year-old son could fly it out of the box. It comes with a GoPro mount and will let you record videos from a viewpoint which hitherto could only be dreamt of.
A great first-gen product, but...
The Phantom was a great first-generation product, but had its shortcomings. You never knew when the battery was going to go flat -- you can't see the on-craft indicator from hundreds of feet away. You never actually knew the framing of your video or photograph, and if you used the GoPro Hero 3's Wi-Fi preview, there would be a 3-second lag and since both Wi-Fi and the Phantom controls used the 2.4GHz band, turning on Wi-Fi on the GoPro would risk interference and cause you to lose control of the craft. Another common complaint was that the craft communicated with you via flashing lights -- and since we don't speak robot, understanding it required frequent reference to the "robot dictionary" in the instruction manual.
Many buyers modified the DJI Phantom via bolt-on add-ons or extensive surgery to suit their needs. These included installing an additional camera which streamed real-time video back to flight goggles so that the user could fly in first-person view (FPV), additional battery packs to increase flight time from 15 minutes to about half an hour, and professionals installed a high tech gimbal camera mount which could pan and tilt the mounted camera. Some enthusiasts installed aftermarket motors, carbon fiber propellers and even replaced the plastic bodyshell with carbon fiber for increased performance.
The Phantom 2 Vision
In late October 2013, DJI released the DJI Phantom 2 Vision after 4 months of intense anticipation. The company loaned me one to muck around with, and I must say, I'm impressed.
Crazy, fast progress
First the incredible pace of innovation: The AR.Drone was one of the first quadcopters which captured mainstream imagination, and it took two years for the company to come up with version two, sporting incremental improvements. For DJI, it took 9 months. What's more, the Phantom 2 Vision is so comprehensively upgraded from the first-generation Phantom that the company is now treating it as another product entirely and continuing to sell the first Phantom.
The incredible integrated Wi-Fi
The most important thing they put into the Phantom 2, to me, is the Wi-Fi capability. Besides being able to stream video and pictures back to your mobile phone, in real time -- something which digital camera manufacturers still struggle to do even with their huge R&D resources -- the Wi-Fi connection gives the all important real-time flight telemetry, like speed, altitude, battery life. It even has a radar-like display which shows you the position of the Phantom 2 in relation to the pilot.
Camera control and sharing on Facebook with the Phantom 2 in the air
Wi-Fi is also the key to enabling what is probably the easiest-to-use aerial camera in the world. With Wi-Fi, you can control the camera, tilt it either with onscreen controls on your smartphone, or by tilting the smartphone. You can take pictures, start the video, or copy pictures or videos to your phone to share on Facebook all while the craft is hovering in the air, holding its position. Best of all, you can see your SD card status and how full it is via Wi-Fi telemetry. The completeness of this integration is one of the most impressive things about the Phantom 2.
Top performing Wi-Fi range extender
So important is the Wi-Fi that they included a Wi-Fi range extender which ensures at least a 300-meter Wi-Fi range. This eliminates the variability of cellphone Wi-Fi -- your smartphone connects to a Wi-Fi extender device mounted on the remote control transmitter, and this extender device does the hard work of connecting to the craft 300 metres away.
This is more than the typically quoted outdoor range of 100 metres, so DJI must have done some magic to the Wi-Fi. The company is so confident that it is quoting 300m as a guaranteed figure. As you usually need to fly the craft a couple of hundred metres away to get your shot, range is incredibly important.
5.8GHz RC control: safeguard against Wi-Fi frequency conflict
DJI also shifted the control signal frequency from 2.4GHz to 5.8GHz, avoiding frequency conflicts with the Wi-Fi and any Bluetooth device you might have. This is a crucial step to increase the reliability of the all-important control signal. Remember, if you lose control, you'd probably lose your craft.
Big, fat and light battery
Previously, the 15 minute flight time tended to limit the Phantom a lot -- don't forget, we have to fly to the photo spot, take pictures and fly back. The Phantom 2 has an advanced 11.1V 5200mAh lithium-polymer battery which increases the flight time to 25 minutes. With this new battery, the Phantom finally gets an on-off switch -- I previously had to disconnect the battery to switch off the craft.
Most importantly, this new battery did not add much additional weight -- even with the housing and switch, this new battery, at 320g, is just 150g heavier. But since they got rid of the irritating old battery cover, the real difference is more like a hundred grams.
Combined with battery status telemetry fed back to your cellphone, the useful flight time of the Phantom 2 Vision is probably more than three times that of the Phantom -- I used to fly the phantom back to myself just to check the battery status. As you charge any battery several times, the total capacity of the battery decreases and after several charge-discharge cycles, you can be sure that the 15 minute flight time you got when the battery was new would have been degraded to 10 minutes or so.
It's also very important that the new battery has a "fuel gauge" function. I tend to forget which battery is charged and which isn't, and putting a partially discharged battery into the Phantom would almost ensure that one would run out of juice mid flight. With the fuel gauge, you can finally be sure.
The new battery is extremely easy to install now, it's like inserting and removing a cartridge. The old Phantom required a lot of work tucking the cables into the battery compartment and at times it would be a tight squeeze. Once I even sliced off the insulator of the battery wires because of the sharp aluminium plates in the battery compartment, risking a short circuit, which, in the case of lithium-polymer batteries, would probably result in an explosion or fire.
Imagine yourself hiking up a canyon to get some great pictures with the Phantom -- you'd have to disassemble the propellers and landing skids to strap the phantom to your backpack. In the past, the propellers had to be screwed right in with a prop nut -- it was vulnerable to mistakes took time. The Phantom 2 Vision's propellers are self tightening, and is now integrated with the prop nut. Just gently just screw the propeller onto the motor shaft, and the natural spin direction of the motor will tighten the propeller automatically. Less error and less time, a brilliant solution.
The camera in the Vision
The most visible addition to the Phantom 2 Vision is the HD camera. It supports 1080p30 -- that's progressive 30fps full-HD video. The burning question would be: is it better than the GoPro Hero 3? I've always respected the GoPro imaging system, based on the excellent Ambarella imaging chip family -- the quality of GoPro videos is excellent for the package. However, I've watched the video comparisons between the Phantom 2 Vision camera and the GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition and surprisingly, the Phantom 2 Vision's camera surpasses the GoPro in quality. Judge for yourself:
Firmware changes, upgrades
There's one function which the DJI Phantom 2 Vision takes away from the Phantom: Home Lock and Course Lock. These are navigation modes which sound good in theory but in real use, they confuse the pilot and doesn't always work. Quadcopters are physically symmetrical -- it's hard to judge the heading of the craft from a few hundred metres away. DJI's Home Lock solution used the GPS to record a reference point, and allowed the pilot to control the heading of the craft according to the relative positions of the craft and the recorded reference point: moving the RC stick forward would cause the craft to move away from the reference point, and backwards would move the craft towards the reference point, regardless of the actual heading/orientation of the craft.
In practice it became confusing, and the performance of the craft would suffer under certain orientations. I have stopped using Homelock on the old Phantom, so I don't mind the Phantom 2 Vision not having it. But for those who liked Home Lock, take note -- there may be a firmware upgrade in the future, but it is definitely not in the current package.
The biggest failing of the Phantom 2 is a small one: it's possible to upgrade the remote control transmitter firmware, but there's no USB jack on the outside of the transmitter. I currently have no firm idea on how to upgrade the transmitter, and have contacted DJI to find out more. I will revisit this issue in my follow-up article, after more testing.
Great video tutorials
DJI's Colin Guinn makes great videos -- entertaining, sufficiently detailed and short. There are a lot of great videos which make flying DJI Phantom and Phantom 2 Vision simpler, and these videos are educational and fun. My eight-year-old keeps on laughing when he hears the company's Chief Innovation Officer's trademark greeting "Hi! Colin Guinn, DJI" and I'm inexplicably similarly amused. This may be a small point, but it has an impact in making the product more accessible to the mainstream audience, especially since this is something that started out as a professional photographer or videographer's tool.
I will be spending more time with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision, so look out for more impressions complete with more images of it in action. So far, it has outstripped my optimistic expectations, thanks to its incredible ease of use.
The DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter is available now in Singapore for S$1,700 (US$1,358). It can be found in hobby shops in Fook Hai Building, located in Singapore's Chinatown.
About the author
With his grandpa building a tapioca processing plant from scratch, and his dad a spook Engineer, even Michael Tan's formal title as General Legal counsel for his company (tech product distributor Convergent) can't overcome his genetic predeposition for tech. Through the years, his mere presence would make tech work--Apple II copy programs would just manage to make the one and only workable copy, QEMM386.SYS would yield that final 3KB needed for Wing Commander and that sticky Fujifilm X100 shutter would affect everyone but him. Leading a technically charmed life, it's no wonder he goes through life with rose tinted glasses when tech is concerned. It just works for him. He is a member of CNET Asia's regional blogger network and is not an employee of CNET Asia.