Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Get Above It All
Aerial imaging using consumer-level “drones” is now within reach of any photographer. In this first in a series of articles, we embark on the steps to get started.
The camera sweeps low and steady across a field of large boulders, trees and a wide river whose water churns inexorably toward an unknown destination. Suddenly, the ground drops away revealing a thunderous waterfall. Millions of gallons of liquid are in free fall and a colorful rainbow arcs across the billowing mist.
The Quadcopter That Changed Everything
In December 2012, a Hong Kong-based company called DJI Innovations released a ready-to-fly (RTF) quadcopter called the Phantom. Inexpensive, toy quadcopters had begun to be available on the market, but the DJI Phantom differed in that it targeted mainstream pilots rather than hobbyists wielding soldering irons. It was truly ready to fly out of the box, featuring a GoPro camera mount and a GPS flight mode that would hover the quadcopter in place, by default. Overnight, it made aerial imaging accessible to just about everyone.
DJI has since announced the Phantom II and Phantom Vision, which likely will be shipping by the time this issue hits newsstands. The new quadcopters feature more power and extended flight times, and the Phantom Vision includes a built-in camera and a mobile iOS app that supports real-time video previews, camera control and telemetry via a repeater that clips onto the transmitter (allowing for app-to-aircraft communication far beyond typical Wi-Fi range). Competitors have also emerged on both sides of the Phantom, including the Blade 350 QX ($469.99) on the toy/hobby side and the 3D Robotics Iris ($729.99), a proper "drone" with autonomy and open-source community support as emphases.
It only takes a few minutes to set up the Phantom for flight, and its GPS flight mode allows a prospective aerial photographer to launch the quadcopter into a stable hover at any altitude without requiring advanced piloting skills. The Phantom comes with a GoPro camera mount and the mount supports both housed and unhoused GoPro cameras. Although an unhoused GoPro reduces payload weight, new pilots might want to fly with their GoPros housed to protect the camera during crashes. Lighter cameras are certainly available, but GoPros take both high-quality stills and video, and are a good value for their size and cost.
Setting Up For Flight
The Phantom comes packaged in a box that takes cues from Apple product packaging, and all one needs to do to get in the air is to screw on the landing struts, attach the propellers, put 4 AA batteries in the radio, and charge/attach the battery. The Phantom uses DJI's Naza-M flight controller, which DJI also sells as a standalone flight controller targeted at multi-rotor hobbyists. A Naza-M flight controller with GPS costs $399 by itself, which suddenly makes the Phantom especially attractive.
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