Drone diaries: Watch out, he’s got an aircraft…

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“Oh no, he’s gone and done it now…”

For a long time, I resisted. For two reasons: firstly, the flight technology hasn’t quite matured to the point that I’m comfortable enough with my own flying abilities to not crash or injure something or destroy the aircraft; secondly, the camera quality really wasn’t worth bothering with – especially when you’re used to something with let’s say, a little larger sensor. The first problem has recently been solved; the current generation of consumer-level drones packs so much guidance technology in (GPS positioning, radar, obstacle avoidance cameras, subject tracking and recognition cameras etc., inertial navigation gyros) that it’s really quite difficult to crash or hit something: it just won’t let you, unless you decide to turn all of the aids off. The second has also been solved to some degree, though not in the Mavic Pro I’ve started flying recently.

Two weeks ago, I visited DJI HQ in Shenzhen for a look around, and of course – a crash course by their best instructors in how to fly. I’ve flown a) R/C aircraft; b) real aircraft; c) crappy toy helicopters – and that’s about it. Nothing made in the last five years, that’s for sure. They brought out three aircraft: a Mavic, a Phantom 4 Pro, and an Inspire 2. The Mavic is the smallest, easiest, most automated model; the ‘entry level’ – but really quite sophisticated in its own right, and superseding the Phantom 3. The Phantom 4 is a larger, faster, heavier model with a camera that has a 1″ sensor (the Mavic is 1/2.3″, similar to what’s found in an iPhone), and the Inspire 2 is the largest of the lot before you go to custom builds – it flies a M4/3 camera on a special gimbal which can be detached and attached to a handheld handle to shoot separately, which shoots 5.2K30p and 4K60p video – in raw. It of course flies the fastest, furthest, and most stable in winds. All of them were equally easy to fly, but if I had my pick – it’d be the Inspire 2, because it has the better camera and the larger size contributes considerably to stability.

Surprise number one: the Mavic is a lot smaller than you’d expect – as you can see from the first image; the top object is of course a loaded H6D-100c with HTS and 24mm. The Mavic has a similar packing volume to a D810 or 5D-series body, with a bit more required for the collapsible controller and spare batteries. The controller is a clever affair that folds up for transport but expands to hold your phone or tablet between its jaws, with data plugged in via the socket of your choice – thereby saving space and cost (no need to provide a screen). The controller itself does the processing, and has its own battery and display – along with the usual control sticks.

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Load the app, unfold the props, remove the camera gimbal protector (I keep forgetting to do this), update all firmware, get a green light across the board and you’re ready to go. Takeoff is a remarkably anticlimactic affair – sticks down and to the centre, and the props start; a light touch on whichever one you’ve assigned to altitude and the drone climbs. There are three other important controls: forward/backward, bank left/right (think of this as fly sideways in plane) and pan left/right (yaw, or rudder). It’s important to remember two things when flying a drone: firstly, it’s not dynamically unstable like a helicopter, and will continue to hold position and hover if you let go of the sticks; this is taken care of by GPS and other sensors. It’s important to remember because smooth motion requires that you actually slowly release the sticks rather than follow your natural instinct of letting them snap back to centre and let the inertia of the aircraft dampen motion.

Secondly, the camera doesn’t have a separate pan gimbal; the gimbal moves in that axis but is used to compensate for the motion of the aircraft so the camera itself is a stable platform. You only have pitch control (on a finger wheel) – panning must be accomplished by turning the drone, which is why you still have banking control so you can bank/turn to aim the camera and track, and/or fly backwards/sideways etc. In practice, it’s somewhere halfway between an aircraft and a helicopter. I find I fly better when I think of it as an aircraft; the motion is smoother – which of course translates to better footage.

There are some gotchas, though: the vision sensors can get confused with big panes of glass (i.e. if it can’t ‘see’ edges) – and  that can cause issues compounded with ground effects and airflow next to big buildings. I’ve been flying off my balcony a lot which probably isn’t at all ideal for this reason; that, and GPS doesn’t tend to lock until I’ve cleared the building a little. One particularly bad afternoon – reflections off glass, perhaps no GPS signal – and the following carnage ensued as the result of optimism and inexperience:

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Yes, I destroyed all of the blades in the same accident. And those things are pretty tough. The Mavic survived, though the damage could have been limited if I’d had some sort of instant motor-kill switch; it was grinding itself into the wall and tile for a good few seconds after initial contact.

To be honest, the lack of images in this post is due to one main reason: I’ve been spending my time learning to master the flight part to the point it’s intuitive before splitting my brain into two looking for things to shoot. My ultimate objective remains shooting stills, in addition to simply enjoying flying – which I think will get much better once the VR goggles are available. The little fiddling I have done with the capture part has made a few things clear, though: it’s works great for video, and footage is pretty good; the camera is nothing to shout about, though. Unfortunately, payload limitations restrict size which in turn affect the largest optics/sensor etc. that can be carried; my Mavic’s camera is a bit soft towards the corners, which is to be expected (you don’t see this so much in video mode). There are also severe limitations on resolution and dynamic range: what were you expecting from a cameraphone sensor?

Those are easily solved by the old ‘more better’ method; the most annoying thing for me is that I can’t rotate the gimbal 90deg to shoot vertical orientation images; all compositions must be landscape, which of course does not happen in still photography! Basically: I’d like full roll control over the gimbal. And this isn’t going to be solved by going to the bigger drone; its gimbal can be operated independently off a second controller, but the camera still cannot turn to portrait orientation. I stand corrected: you CAN get portrait orientation, but not roll control over the gimbal.

A few more practical observations to close: it doesn’t work so well indoors, because of air currents bouncing around, because of the anti-collision systems limiting how close you can fly to objects, and because there’s obviously no GPS signal which means no holding position (something that the computer does incredibly well, making a lot of thrust changes to hover even in surprisingly heavy winds). Batteries last about 25min or a little more; I’ve been limiting my flights to 15min to have some return to home reserve in case it has to fly upwind. The drone also has a lot of other features including flying a predetermined path; auto return-to home; object tracking; tripod mode for long exposures. I’ve yet to try these, but it’s in the plan. Stay tuned for future instalments in this series…one day I might even fly the M600 combination carrying the H6D-100… MT

The Mavic, Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2 are available from B&H at their respective links, or direct from DJI.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Ming, did you do much post processing on the Science Center photo? At the web page resolution it looks very crisp and highly detailed… fits in with your other work so well!

  2. nice post

  3. Ravi Kumar says:

    Thanks for the write-up Ming. Wondering which is that domed building in the 2nd image?

  4. Would love to see more photos from this thing

  5. Would love to see more pics. This reminds me of Kite photography. French used to be quite good at that.

    • More coming – need to master my aircraft first, before trying to also frame and shoot 🙂

      I think of it as learning to walk again, in three dimensions: easier not to fall over if you aren’t carrying a camera at the same time!

  6. What a game changer. I feel old.

  7. Ming, this link is one of the nicer pieces of drone footage I have seen recently. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzUicVmXR-k
    Best wishes with your learning on around drone flying, the future potential for your image making is unlimited.

  8. Sean Tomlinson says:

    And here I thought you’d given up on the direct GAS articles. This will be a neat experience to follow with you guiding us. I’d already have a drone (probably a Phantom 3 of some style) but I’m in the US and less than 5 miles from an airport. No thanks. Not going to risk the legal issues.

  9. I’m very glad to see this report from you Ming, and look forward to you posting more flying camera stories in the future. I have yet to take the leap into the drone world due to the mediocre image quality, up to now, in an affordable drone, but from what I have read, I think the Phantom 4 may be the one that works for me. I would prefer the 1″ sensor in a Mavic body, but I think I could be quite happy with the Phantom. Also, I’m looking into the Epson Moverio BT-300 AR glasses:

    https://epson.com/For-Home/Wearables/Smart-Glasses/Moverio-BT-300FPV-Smart-Glasses-%28FPV-Drone-Edition%29-/p/V11H756020F

    These seem like a very promising accessory for FPV flying and image capture.

    • The P4 isn’t quite as portable, but its larger size makes it a lot more stable. I’d say it’s only a matter of time before the larger camera makes it into the Mavic, given the past evolution route of the Phantom…

      • I am willing to give up some size and portability for image quality and stability…but yes, given DJI’s product cycle, I expect (hope) that the Mavic II has the 1″ sensor…so maybe I’ll wait a little longer. I have a palm-size quad copter that I’m practicing with in the meantime…lots of crashing, but no real damage (so far!).

  10. One of my past hobbies was flying small single-rotor RC helicopters: Blade mSR was a favorite of mine. I loved to fly it at maximum speed avoiding collisions indoors and wrecked a couple of heli bodies. Also tried the quad-rotor Blade mQX — it was very stable in the wind, but the body eventually cracked after too many falls to concrete (I was trying to do barrel rolls on them).

    Probably my crazy piloting skillz could be translated to flying a camera drone around, but I’m only interested in the cities for now, and I think it would surely be a nuisance for people with all the high-pitched buzzing, and surely would attract attention.

    And so far I haven’t seen much good drone shots in the city, they’re mostly top-down with not much abstraction going on. The wide lenses installed by default on them probably don’t help much.

    • The wide lenses mean you have to get pretty close to have anything other than a top down shot that looks strange – and there are limits to how close you can safely fly…

      • Yeah, I’d prefer to have at least a normal perspective, preferably a tele, but that’d require a much larger drone to adequately stabilize, which would attract even more attention and be much more difficult to carry around.

        My ideal drone would be a silent and invisible one 🙂

        • The Inspire 2 will carry M4/3 lenses up to the 45mm – which should be interesting, but that thing is seriously large and not silent at all (but the image quality is great!)

  11. Excellent! I was dearly hoping for a Ming review of the Mavic (or any of the DJI drones) – I think drones are the technology with the most potential for rejuvenating photography as they offer the possibility of genuinely new viewpoints; there is an almost infinite number of shots of e.g. the Giant’s Causeway, but far fewer from directly above. This is why I was interested in the DJI / Hasselblad relationship, not for what DJI could offer Hasselblad but for what Hasselblad could offer DJI, as while their drone technology is the best, it’s the camera side of things that has the most room for improvement, especially as, as you say, payload restrictions make improving the camera much more difficult. The Mavic seems to have hit the sweet spot in terms of size (the first usable drone you can put in a shoulder bag… with your camera!), now let’s hope that the Mavic 2 can stay as small but sport a 1″ sensor.

    • Agreed – the limit is the payload, which of course can be circumvented with a bigger aircraft but then we go in circles and land up hanging out of Cessnas again – a 1″ sensor would be a significant improvement, though.

      More to come on the Mavic as my experience increases. The problem is I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable about this field as other types of hardware, so my point of view is perhaps not as useful…

      • Personally I think your perspective is more useful – as you know what you want to achieve in terms of image / video quality and are evaluating if you can get there or not – rather than just someone posting “hey look at this cool toy” 🙂
        Keep posting how you get on – I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering whether a drone is worth the money or not. The one that takes MFT lenses looks interesting, wasn’t aware of that before, but I do wonder how much quality I’d practically be able to extract, particularly given the atmospheric haze around these days…

        • More than you’d think – often interesting subjects might not be more than a couple hundred meters away, less when you factor in the (usually) wide lenses. Would of course be much better with the interchangeable M4/3 thing; I don’t think I need supertele, but a long normal would be nice…

  12. Before you rotate that Hassy into the air on a gimble, get some flight sim time. 10 hours on either RealFlight or Phoenix and you’ll be ready for some barrel rolls 😉 Fly the Helis. If you can demonstrate proficiency on the Helis, the drones will be cake. Personally, I think Phoenix has the best physics: https://www.amazon.com/Runtime-Games-Phoenix-SIM-V5-5/dp/B01BT18SFC/ref=pd_sbs_63_img_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=VYZ6A9KMWRQAWFFS8RBX

  13. So, will we be seing a custom Mavic ACR/LR profile down the line?

    • I thought about it, but have some concerns about usefulness: because of the elevation and distance of subject matter, you’re always going to have to compensate for blue haze to varying degrees; there’s no clean way to profile this out. It’s easy to do one for downward-looking images, but not so much for sideways/forwards. I’ve not found a uniform solution for this when working with larger cameras from aircraft, either – the images still have to be treated individually.

  14. I haven’t flown a drone before, but the way you describe the controls reminds me of the old 2.5D FPS games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Heretic, Duke Nukem 3D, etc. If I remember correctly, Heretic and Duke Nukem 3D also had flight (basic up/down elevation control), which fits the drone controls almost perfectly.

    If I ever start learning to fly a drone, I think I’m going to take the approach of treating them like Duke Nukem, rather than a helicopter or plane. 😀

  15. However, the worst problem with the nice Mavic is his lens.
    In addition to being often defective (strongly blurred on 1/3 and sometimes almost half of one side of the frame, optical centering defect) it returns images with a warm spot in the center and with cyan-greenish, cool colors on the sides (color vignetting, color shift!)

  16. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    LOL – they’re perhaps less prevalent, but in many circles more popular than smartphones. Basic rule for ANY flying machine – fly it up, or down. In this context, another basic rule – do NOT – EVER! – throttle back on anything like a ‘copter or a drone.

    A couple of other things you will have to learn about and learn how to avoid – up/down drafts (with obvious implications, if your drone hits one) – and “wind shear”, which has disposed of a number of drones near where I live. The way wind shear works is this – below a “certain level”, there’s no effect (or very little, anyway) – then quite suddenly, when the drone rises only a few feet further, there’s a strong air current cutting across the landscape, and confined to a higher level. It’s not usually just “a sudden gust” – more commonly, it’s quite a strong wind (maybe a hundred knots, sometimes) – and a drone entering that kind of airspace can simply vanish over the horizon, before crashing in some unidentified location. No doubt bigger, more powerful drones weather these things more easily – but they’d still have their impact.

    The cam doesn’t have to be a ‘blad, or even one of the less expensive rivals – you can take perfectly good photos with far less expensive gear, Ming – although it could limit the degree of enlargement.

    Since you are interested in this field, you might find this URL worth looking at:
    http://s103126886.t.en25.com/e/es?s=103126886&e=9038&elqTrackId=2396088e64de4c57bf0b28308c4e7afb&elq=6c4b1b0f1f434c2280cf585db69b95b8&elqaid=888&elqat=1

    • There’s no ‘throttle back’ – it operates more like an aircraft in that sense; it will hold position with hands off the stick.

      Noted on wind shear – there’s quite a bit of it as I come back in to my balcony to land…

      “The cam doesn’t have to be a ‘blad, or even one of the less expensive rivals – you can take perfectly good photos with far less expensive gear, Ming – although it could limit the degree of enlargement.”
      True, though there’s a massive difference in quality between what is effectively a flying iPhone and a ‘Blad…I couldn’t submit the former to a client, not by a long shot; even printing would be limited to at best A3, and non-critical viewing. The age old question again: if you’re going to bother at all, surely you don’t want to regret it if there’s a unique opportunity… 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        True – my cams are basically three grades. The one at the bottom is mostly used for testing & learning, and for shots of things like friends’ pets. The one at the top is always used for serious stuff. And the one in the middle plays both sides. If I am on a serious shoot, the only reason I’d ever have one of the others with me would be as a backup. But I’m not remotely interested in hanging an Otus from a drone, no matter how interesting the shot might be 🙂

        • It isn’t necessary, either – you can stop down quite a bit, and something like an 85/1.8G would be more than enough. Or better yet the Contax Zeiss 2.8/85, which is tiny and has an infinity stop.

  17. And you can also customize (to activate and disable the portrait mode) one of the function switches as the two that are present on the bottom of Remote Controller, or the 4 ways mini joystick on the right of display. I have choosen this one, giving at both, up and down, the portrait function, just to be more easy to activate it in the field.

  18. You can turn the Mavic camera vertical by going into camera settings and turning on “portrait mode”

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