The Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter rose into the air for the first time in an alleyway in San Francisco’s SoMa district. We cheered. But then a strong wind buffeted the drone and I panicked, crashing it into the ground before bouncing it into a car.
It was a good lesson in what was to come. While the Phantom drone is a joy to fly, it can be nerve-wracking. Sending a $1,200 piece of equipment up 50 feet or more just feels like a stupid idea. What if it falls? What if the wind grabs it and carries it away?
But quickly, you start to feel more in tune with its controls. You start to feel less concerned about flying perfectly. Its built-in camera let you see and take photos or video in a totally new way. In short, it’s an awesome piece of technology, and it’s exciting to see a $1,200 consumer drone on the market with this level of features.
The Phantom 2 Vision released this month is an update on a Phantom quadcopter DJI debuted earlier this year. While the last Phantom was compatible with GoPro cameras, the Phantom 2 Vision includes an attached camera that captures 14 megapixel stills and 1080p30/60i video. It weighs 2.6 pounds and can fly for 25 minutes when fully charged, with a range of nearly 1,000 feet.
Flying the drone
Every session of flying with the Phantom begins with a little dance to the drone gods. Along with connecting it wirelessly to its book-sized controller and a phone or tablet, you also need to hold it to the sky and spin in a circle to help it calibrate its GPS. Then you clutch it to your chest and turn it like a steering wheel. Different colored lights flash to let you know when the process is complete.
The drone takes off straight into the air. Using a combination of the two joysticks, you can fly the drone in any direction, spin it in a circle and move it up and down. It feels a bit like using an Xbox controller.
After the alley incident, we decided to find a more open space. We settled on an empty parking lot across the bay from the city. We crashed a few times, but then started flying higher and farther. Emboldened, I returned to the cramped, steep streets of San Francisco. From the top of Telegraph Hill, I filmed panoramic views of the downtown skyline, Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge. I followed a cable car as it made its way down Mason Street and then captured a cotton candy pink and blue sunset over Alcatraz.
It’s addicting to use. But there were scary moments when I wasn’t sure if I could steer the drone clear of a building or keep it from tumbling down a hill. It’s very clear that it isn’t a toy for everyone and much more suited to wide-open spaces far, far away from San Francisco.
To help avert dangerous situations, the Phantom has some assuring built-in safety features. For example, if you fly it to a certain spot and let go of the controls, it will stay there via its built-in GPS. If the controller battery dies or the Phantom flies out of range, it will autonomously return to the point from which it took off.
One of the Phantom’s greatest strengths also turned out to be its greatest flaw. The camera connects wirelessly to an app on your smartphone or tablet, where you can view a live video stream of what it sees. On-screen controls allow you to reposition where the camera is pointing, take photos and start recording video.
Generally, it’s a convenient way to capture photos and videos. Using the manual controls on the camera, which can be set before take-off, leaves you operating blindly, and it’s rare to get a video with the camera actually pointing exactly where you want it.
But every time I used the app, it lagged. That left me shooting blind within seconds of getting into the air; enough time to get the camera into the right position, but not enough to accurately grab photos and ensure video was recording smoothly. I compensated by over-capturing different sites to ensure I got at least one shot right.
It’s very possible that the iPhone 4 and iPad 2 I tried with the app weren’t powerful enough to keep up. I was also only able to use the iPad to take advantage of another nifty feature: wirelessly transferring photos from the Phantom’s micro SD card to a mobile device. Both the iPhone and iPad worked for browsing photos and videos on the card wirelessly.
Overall, the Phantom 2 Vision is fun to work with. The camera takes nice video and photos and survived numerous nasty crashes on concrete. And best of all, the ease of the controls enables even beginners to learn how to fly. It competes ably with other higher-end consumer drones; a genre I can’t wait to watch progress even further.