Best of 2015

DJI Phantom 3 Quad Copter Hands-on Review

by samster on 17th January 2016

I have been watching (and drooling over) the awesome aerial videos on YouTube and Vimeo for quite a while now. Although I am a hobbyist photographer and video-maker, aerial videos offer an unparalleled perspective in any video whether you are shooting a wedding, a car theme or landscapes. I finally gathered enough money (and guts) to pull the plug on a quad copter for myself and we will be discussing it in detail today.

Quad Copters (loosely called drones) have really kicked off globally in the past couple of years. While hobbyists have been flying their aircrafts for quite a while; big names in the industry such as DJI have turned the quad copter technology into real value for aerial imaging on a professional level.
DJI revolutionized the quad copter platform with their Phantom series of quad copters. Offering unparalleled functionality and ease of use, DJI brought the niche remote controlled quad copters into the hands of the mere mortals.
The Phantom 3 is the third installment in this series of affordable offerings from DJI. Phantom 3 comes in three variants, a Standard Edition that offers basic flight options building on DJI’s experience and lessons learned from the Phantom 2. The Standard Phantom 3 comes with 2.7k camera (offering slightly more resolution than full HD which is 2k) which is stabilized on a 3 axis gimbal (more on this later). The Advanced and Professional Edition offers DJI’s proprietary Light Bridge 2.4G wireless video downlink technology that has revolutionized quad copter range of control and functionality. The Advanced version also comes with a 2.7K while the Professional Edition comes with a 4k camera and a ton of other options. The full specifications of these quad copters are too many to mention here. You can check them out on DJI’s website. In this “brief” review, we will be covering my initial thoughts on the Phantom 3 Professional quad copter and how useful it is for aerial video-making.
Although the review is my initial thoughts on the quad, it’s still quiet detailed as I will be covering a lot of ground. So let’s get started!



Built quality and Accessories

You can view my unboxing of the Phantom 3 (called P-3 from here on) in this thread. I covered all aspects of the drone full with photos and everything. The build quality is top notch on the P-3. It’s made of plastic but the plastic feels really good quality. The entire drone is quiet light weight and that makes it very nimble in the air. The quality of the camera and gimbal again really great. The gimbal is extra steady during flight and during hovering, you get the impression that it’s literally mounted on some sort of tripod. I was amazed!! The best thing about buying DJI is that you get tons of after-market support and there are repair services available even if you crash and damage it. Just about every spare part can be made available. When you buy DJI, you are investing into a system. And that’s what makes it such a versatile platform for your aerial imaging needs.



Specifications and Tech

I will be brief here and keep it as simple as possible. If you are interested in the details of the technology implemented in the Phantom 3, there are tons of articles and forums dedicated to this type of discussion. You can refer to those via a simple google search. We will touch upon the key tech in the P-3 and what sets it apart from the rest. We will cover the camera tech and gimbal later on in this review.
GPS and GLONASS: The upgraded GPS module on the P-3 Pro can now communicated with the Russian GLONASS satellite system. This not only gives it more accuracy but also a wider network for GPS lock. In fact the quad is very GPS dependent (which is a good thing).
Auto-Pilot and RTH: Return to Home function is now offered by many other drones. If you lose sight of your DJI Phantom 3 Pro, you can press the Return to Home button on your controller and the drone will automatically return to the point of take-off. This is great in practical use. I have tried it and it works perfectly. DJI takes it one step further and offers auto take-off and landing options as well. I read too many horror stories of botched landings where the quad simply tipped over and damaged its propellers. The auto-landing feature makes it an automated process and gives you the perfect landing every time. Similarly auto take-off will start the propellers for you and take off automatically. After takeoff, the quad hovers about 4 or 5 feet above ground waiting for your inputs.
DJI Light Bridge Wi-Fi: Previous versions of the Phantom series used the standard Wi-Fi signals for flight control and video streaming. The DJI Inspire series drone introduced DJI’s proprietary Light Bridge technology to the world. Light Bridge is a 2.4G rated Wi-Fi standard which in layman terms, provides not only an exceptional range on your flight, but also direct HD video streaming from your P-3 camera to your phone or tablet. This offers unparalleled utility to view your flight in in 720P in real-time!! I have tested this and I was completely blown away by the quality I saw. This also means your quad will stream videos even if it is 3.5 Kms away!!
Vision Positioning System: In simple words, with this tech you can easily fly your P-3 Pro indoors! The Vision Positioning System or VPS uses a couple of sonar sensors at the bottom of the aircraft. They determine the surface distance and relay that information to the quad for easy flight in case GPS isn’t available. This technology is also proprietary DJI. Although flying the DJI indoors is still not easy, the VPS makes it easier if you are an advanced pilot. In practice, I have tried it only once to the utter shock of my mother when I tried to fly my quad in my lounge. It took-off just fine started hovering but then veered away towards the nearby sofa. I had to immediately land it with shaking hands. I won’t be trying that again any time soon. J

Starting Up and Pre-flight checks

Just like everyone else, whenever I receive a new box of goodies I immediately open the box and start using whatever gadget is in there. Imagine my frustration, when I received the Phantom 3 J. I obviously had no idea how to even start this thing up. I just wanted to take it out of the box, assemble and fly away. Boy am I glad I didn’t do that.
In my infinite wisdom, I curtailed my enthusiasm and sat down and started reading every bit of information I could on forums about my first flight. It took me a whole day of watching YouTube videos on how to get the quad in the air. DJI states that the Phantom 3 Professional comes “ready to fly” out of the box. This statement holds true but you still need to go through a number of pre-flight preparations before you can actually get it in the air.
I won’t go over each and every step here but there are a lot of steps between charging your P-3 and its remote controller, updating the firmware on both, installing the DJI Go App on your smart phone or tablet, calibrating the controller and the aircraft compass and actually flying. Needless to say I am glad I stayed put and took my time learning everything step by step before taking it to the air. It is highly recommended to do your research or you are looking at an expensive crash!

Flying, Recording Photos and Videos
Ok on with the interesting stuff. To keep it simple, the P-3 Pro flies beautifully. I took it out early morning (to attract lesser attention), on a whim to an outdoor ground nearby my residence. Did all the pre-flight checks and calibrations and started the props. I started off in the “Beginners Mode” on the app because I was obviously a beginner. In this mode, the app does not allow you to fly without a GPS lock and you can fly past a certain distance and altitude. This suited me just fine. I decided to take-off using manual controls and it was as easy as it can be. On initial take-off the aircraft automatically started hovering at around 5 feet above ground. At that point you can put the controller down and go have a cup of coffee, the aircraft isn’t going anywhere. The GPS module is so good that it will keep your quad glued to its place. I was stunned by the video feed on the display though. It was as though the camera is mounted on a tripod! Super steady.
I tried some basic maneuvers such as left-right and up-down motion. In one word, super-easy! After just 5 minutes of flying, I was much more relaxed with the operations. The flight controller is very intuitive and makes it very easy to fly this thing. The 720P video downlink works flawlessly and you are able to view where your quad is going in real-time.
The camera and is a 12 megapixel unit capable of 4k videos in both 25p and 30p. The maximum bit rate is at 60 mbps which is very good. The camera is capable of shooting RAW images (Adobe DNG format) for later post processing. For serious video makers, there is the option of shooting video in LOG and CineD profiles. Every parameter such ISO, shutter, aperture etc. is customizable. I read somewhere that the sensor is the same as offered by the GoPro Hero 4 Black Edition. I have the GoPro black as well but I haven’t been able to do a direct comparison but they both seem to be offering similar resolution. One interesting thing is that the camera on the DJI comes with a rectilinear lens. In layman terms it will not have a wide angle fisheye kind of effect that the GoPro has. This makes horizons and lines appear straight and not curved. It does sacrifice some angle of view but it’s a fair compromise. The camera has a FOV of 94 degree (20mm) and a fast aperture of f2.8. However, this unit is for shooting good video in good light. It falls quickly in low light. All in all, a great camera that is actually capable of professional level videos. I had the opportunity to grade the Log video in Da Vinci Resolve 12 and I must say, I am very impressed. The brushless gimbal is DJI’s own 3 axis which translates into super steady videos. There are third party gimbals available if you want to mount your GoPro for example. But the gimbal on the P-3 is very impressive indeed. I was stunned by its rock solid stability during flight. This opens up a whole new level of creativity for the professional video maker. For casual photographers, this might not be such a great tool. The photo quality is nothing to write home about. It’s just about ok for this kind of application. The pictures I found to be too noisy even at base ISO. The added bonus is that you can shoot in RAW and fix the problems later in post. All in all, a handy feature.

DJI Go App
The DJI Go app is available both for iOS and Android platforms. It’s a very powerful and versatile app and gives you full control of your quad copter and its camera. It’s also very intuitive and allows you to operate the aircraft and the camera simultaneously without any problems. Since you are connected to GPS, you can view your quad as it moves in real-time on a map overlay. Plus it gives you tons of information about the status of your aircraft. You can also auto take-off and land via the app, making it rather effort free. It also has voice feedback so you don’t need to be always looking at the screen. The app itself is quiet detailed and covering all aspects goes beyond the scope of this review.



Flight Safety Features and Conclusion

If you decide to buy the DJI Phantom, you have to be careful not to fly it where it invades other people’s privacy. Such a thing could get you in a lot of trouble. The US government recently launched a mandatory drone registration campaign whereby every owner has to register their drones. You can read about this here.
Anyway, DJI has also implemented “geo-fencing” on its newer quad copters including the P-3. Quoting from DJI’s website “DJI’s No Fly Zone (NFZ) feature can help you avoid inadvertent operation in locations that could raise safety or security concerns, such as near airports. NFZ will in many cases warn you about these areas if you fly towards them, or try to takeoff within them. In certain locations, the device will automatically be prevented from takeoff, or if already in flight towards the location, will pause at the boundary and not enter.”
I was able to test this as I also live at the edge of a no-fly zone in my area. The Phantom 3 simply stops midair when you try to enter a NFZ. It’s amazingly accurate since I couldn’t even enter the next lawn near my residence as it fell into the NFZ. And since my own house falls in a NFZ, I cannot even take-off there. I believe these are important safety steps and most users are not aware of the dangers posed by these drones. Almost all reviewers on YouTube cautioned the users not to fly their P-3s in crowded markets with a lot of vehicles and people and near tall buildings or electricity lines. I must admit that my initial test flight was done inside a residential area. I will not be flying there any more as I could easily see why such cautions have been issued. The P-3 is a very well controlled device. However, if you lose control of the quad, you may genuinely injure or harm someone.



Final thoughts?
I love the Phantom 3. It’s an amazing quad copter and I am looking forward to spending more time flying this beauty and taking more stunning footage meanwhile.

Price As Tested:
PKR 155,000 Quad Copter and Controller + PKR 48,000 Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.4 + PKR 8,000 SanDisk Extreme Pro 32GB Card = PKR 211,000
Price as tested is more or less in-line with similar quad copters but none offer features as rich as the Phantom 3. The next best thing is the DJI Inspire One, which will set you back around $3200 and offers only a small number (but essential) professional video-making features.

Pros:

  • Extremely user-friendly to fly out-of-the-box. You would have to be a real goon to crash this thing
  • Professional level features including the 4k camera and gimbal that easily rivals the best image quality in the market
  • Range of flight is 3.5 Kms. Best in class
  • Auto take-off and auto-landing. Return to home is another extremely useful feature
  • Amazing 720p real-time video downlink via DJI Light Bridge
  • Complete solution for the most demanding videographers

Cons:

  • Pricey. The base price for the Professional Edition starts at 155,000 which quickly adds up if you include a fast memory card and a good tablet pc or smart phone
  • Battery lasts for “only” 24 minutes of flight. Albeit, its still best in class compared to other quad copters
  • Batteries are proprietary and very expensive.
  • Cumbersome and lengthy firmware update procedure. Not for the faint-hearted
  • You really have to be a professional level videographer to take full advantage of this device. Its not for beginners.
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