The DJI Inspire 1: finally, a drone that flies well indoors

A drone carrying mistletoe at a TGI Friday’s clipped a photographer on the nose earlier this month, drawing quite a few rounds of “well, duh!”

It sounds like a stupid idea. But flying drones indoors makes a lot of sense in certain situations, and there is finally a drone that’s great at it.

Meet the Inspire 1, the latest quadcopter made by DJI. DJI revealed the alien-looking drone last month, and wow, have I wanted to get my hands on it ever since.

My chance finally came when DJI’s director of aerial imagery Eric Cheng stopped by Gigaom’s office. It was raining, so we opted to stay indoors. I was a bit nervous; last time I flew a drone at the office, I crashed it about 50 times (sorry management).

The DJI Inspire 1. Its legs lift when it takes off, giving the camera a complete view.

The DJI Inspire 1. Its legs lift when it takes off, giving the camera a complete view.

In the end, there was nothing to worry about. I’m sure it helped that Cheng, a more experienced pilot than me, was flying it the whole time. But the Inspire 1 also has something other drones do not: a floor tracking system that keeps it level with the ground. Most drones only have GPS to rely on, which rarely works indoors, leaving the pilot to fly 100 percent manually. I crashed that other drone over and over because they have a habit of drifting and then getting caught in their own drafts when they get close to a wall. The Inspire 1 kept its cool the entire time.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”902019″]The best word to describe the Inspire 1’s aesthetic is “badass.”[/pullquote]

Cheng was confident enough with the Inspire 1 that he flew it past Gigaom’s long row of desks and had it dart from side to side. It’s clearly a very maneuverable drone that’s equally comfortable keeping a steady shot or doing tricks. The floor lock is strong enough that I was able to shove the drone while it was in the air; it quickly glided back to its original location.

“You can see it from the maneuvering: It has a lot of power. It will be a lot more responsive, especially in thin air,” Cheng said.


It really is a photographer’s dream

The best word to describe the Inspire 1’s aesthetic is “badass.” It looks straight out of the mind of H.R. Giger. Upon takeoff its jointed legs lift up to give its camera a full 360 degree view. The camera sits on a reimagined gimbal — the part that secures the camera underneath the drone — that can turn the camera in any direction and keep the picture stable, even during sharp maneuvers.

“Each one of (DJI’s earlier drones) has led up to this,” Cheng said. “The pattern is introducing and refining a particular technology … that will help people get the shot.”

One of DJI's newly designed controllers.

One of DJI’s newly designed controllers.

DJI’s new controllers are also finely tailored to photography. While the Inspire 1 is compatible with two controllers at once — one for steering and one for adjusting the camera — the camera actually looked easy enough to control that it wouldn’t be too tough a job for one person. Buttons within easy reach reposition the camera and even adjust the brightness of the video. The level of control you have is far beyond what a GoPro or even DJI’s older cameras offer.

Cheng did reveal something I had not realized: the gimbal’s mount is proprietary. That means you can only attach DJI-approved cameras, or other devices, to an Inspire 1. There is only one camera available at the moment. That’s not that surprising, but it is kind of a bummer considering DJI was already advertising applications like package couriering and specialized cameras.

DJI is reestablishing itself in the U.S.

At this time last year, it felt a bit scary to be a DJI customer in the U.S. DJI fired the CEO of DJI North America, Colin Guinn, along with the marketing and support staff it had on the continent. Operations were transferred back to its home country of China. DJI North America, AKA Guinn, then took legal action against DJI China. The two eventually settled out of court. Guinn and part of DJI’s former staff were snapped up by Berkeley, Calif.-based 3D Robotics.

DJI China is now expanding back into the U.S., which Cheng said is DJI’s largest market. The Inspire 1’s big reveal happened on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, where Cheng made a celebratory remark about DJI’s new San Francisco office.

Cheng flying the Inspire 1.

Cheng flying the Inspire 1.

During our interview, Cheng said the San Francisco outpost is currently only a few people. The team is focused on marketing and growing support for DJI’s new software development kit. It has also established an office in Los Angeles, where a growing team of 50 people handle customer support.

“I think there is a lot of room to improve,” Cheng said.

While DJI’s old team may still be hurt, the public took little notice of what might have been the drone industry’s first proper scandal. DJI’s popular Phantom drone has appeared on South Park and the Big Bang Theory. The company makes some really great drones, and the Inspire 1 is proof that it is dedicated to continuous innovation.

This story was updated on December 21 to reflect that DJI did not make the TGI Friday’s drone.