This article was contributed by Simon Beer, a longtime DVi member
from the Hertfordshire / Norfolk region of the British Isles.
Discuss this article in our Flying Cameras forum.
The Phantom from DJI is a very respectable, out of the box, ready to fly quadcopter. The simplicity of the Phantom and what makes it so great is that unlike most other quads on the market you don’t need to build it yourself. The total amount of assembly required is eight screws to fasten the undercarriage to the body and a bolt to hold each propeller in place.
The Phantom is sold as ready to fly, however in reality once you have assembled it you will need to undertake a quick calibration of the compass. DJI make this very simple with an online video showing you how to complete this necessary step. That’s it, you’re good to fly! But wait, although it is as simple as that, you still need to spend some time learning the LED sequences that the Phantom uses to communicate its status. If you rush this and try to fly before it has warmed up, the Phantom will simply tip over and mash its propellers.
The Phantom from DJI is ready to fly out of the box for less than £440 BPS / €600 EUR / $680 USD.
The Phantom is supplied with a matching white hand held transmitter that has all the required knobs and sticks that you need. All are neatly labelled; there’s nothing to confuse you here except the intelligent orientation control switch which is disabled until you set it up with the downloadable assistant software.
It’s important to realise that this isn’t a toy. The Phantom is a quadcopter, a four rotor craft of the multirotor family. These aircraft can be compared to food blenders… flying food blenders that without a shadow of a doubt are indeed dangerous. They are certainly cool; they can be fun but they are not toys. They need to be flown safely and with respect for people and animals in the area they are being used as well as aircraft above and around them. You need to be thoughtful as to where you fly them, around what buildings, taking off from whose land and flying in restricted or congested airspace.
To me the Phantom is a tool to which I can attach a camera to take stunning photographs or video from an angle that is totally alien to us. To some and sadly a few of our newspapers the Phantom is a drone, a device which is seen as being used for surveillance, to strip away our privacy. As responsible pilots we need to act in a manner that doesn’t harm this emerging market for aerial video and photography. My fear is that sooner or later a member of the public will be hurt by somebody flying irresponsibly. The press that will follow will put all multirotor pilots in the spotlight in a negative way.
My involvement with multirotors has up to this stage been as a hobbyist. I was introduced by a friend to this technology about 18 months ago and have fallen in love with it. I was involved with building my first rig, went on to buy a Phantom and have almost finished building the larger DJI S800. From this point on my interests are of a commercial nature, I want to provide aerial footage to a niche and specific market. To do this though however brings about what appears on the surface to be another set of complexities.
To fly commercially — or as the UK CAA phrase is, “for valuable consideration” — you must first obtain a CAA permission to fly. To do this you need to pass two exams run by an organisation called the EuroUSC and write an operations manual. There isn’t a great deal of information on the web about this with the exception of their own website. Once completed EuroUSC will issue you with a qualification known as a BNUC-S that will enable you to get from the CAA the permission you need to earn money from flying. As of April 2013 I have passed the first part of the exam.
The first stage of the EuroUSC exam is the two day ground school. On the afternoon of the second day you are presented with a 60 question multiple choice test, and you have just 90 minutes to complete it. If you have been paying attention, and read and re-read the book you are given prior to the course, then this test shouldn’t be a problem. The two day course focuses heavily on safety and procedure and gives you a head start with writing your operations manual. You will also leave with a basic overview of manned aviation (after all, we will be sharing the skies with manned aircraft).
The operations manual is an altogether different beast. These are closely guarded technical and procedural documents that you and you alone must write to demonstrate how you plan to operate your multirotor aircraft. I have almost finished writing my manual and so far it has posed more questions than the ground school. I will update this blog as and when I take the flight test to keep you up to date. But back to the Phantom…
So, you’ve assembled it, calibrated it, you’re happy flying it and now finally you’re going to film with it. Firstly bear in mind that the Phantom is good, and it’s great for the price, however you won’t get blockbuster quality video out of it. There are some great examples of Phantom video on YouTube and a lot of bad examples. It’s all down to how you fly, when you fly, what framerate you choose (50p) and your subject. To get the best from the Phantom you want to balance the propellers to reduce vibrations and also insulate the GoPro mount from the body of the craft. I use a small sticky foam pad between the GoPro and the body secured with two longer screws which are loctited in place.
The other consideration with the Phantom is that you can’t see what you are filming. My Phantom is fitted with a 25mW 5.8GHz video transmitter that I can view on the ground with a monitor. The GoPro plugs into the transmitter and I can frame my shots. For photography I leave my GoPro set to take a photo every 5 or 10 seconds as I have no control over the shutter button.
The Phantom / GoPro combo is ideal for photography. However for video you will need to work on your shots from the camera to get the best out of it. Considering the low price of the rig this isn’t a terrible hardship. If you want higher quality, rock steady, HD video to start with then you need to think of investing a few thousand pounds before you even consider a camera.
So the question remains, should you buy a Phantom? For photography an absolute positive yes. For video, once you understand that you need to fly in optimal conditions (i.e. not on a windy day and invest some time in learning about balancing your propellers and post stabilising the footage), then I would also say yes.
The Phantom is an ideal toe-in-the-water aircraft for those new to aerial photography and video. Even if you are looking to invest in a larger aircraft the Phantom is the ideal place to start and to gain experience.
About the Author
Simon Beer is the founder of UK based equipment supplier Production Gear and tutor at the Wildeye School of Wildlife Filmmaking. His interest in camera technology grew at an early age from his own grandfather’s enthusiasm towards home cine and 8mm film cameras. On leaving school in 1993 Simon secured his first job in the industry where he worked until starting his own business in 2005.
Simon is also a keen filmmaker and has a special interest in natural history and wildlife film, a passion ignited some years earlier. Simon produces his own short films shot on his Scarlet and XF100 as well as specialising in remote aerial video. Simon lives in rural England with his wife and young son. Visit Simon’s site at www.simonbeer.com and follow him on Twitter: @sbeertv.