DJI Phantom

The quadracopter is designed to be easy to fly, and it's made for capturing aerial photography.

Phantom

Fast Company recently took the Phantom out for a test flight.

Phantom

Neal Ungerleider works on his piloting skills.

Phantom In Flight

A view more and more people might find familiar as lots of new drones take to the skies and the FAA considers guidelines for domestic and professional uses of drones.

Rocky Landing

The Phantom touches down.

Bird's Eye View

An example of aerial photography taken from the Phantom.

Phantom Photo

Another example of a shot from the Phantom.

Phantom In Motion

The quadracopter zips around with relative stability and ease.

Phantom In Motion

The Phantom retails for between $675 and $700 and has a super-fast learning curve.

Phantom In Motion

Another example of aerial photography taken from the Phantom.

Phantom In Motion

Fast Company's Senior Drone Pilot Neal Ungerleider perfects his landings.

Phantom In Motion

The Phantom is equipped with a hookup for a GoPro camera.

Phantom In Motion

With a battery life providing about 15 minutes' worth of flight, the Phantom is a tool for short scenes (or long web videos).

Phantom In Motion

The moment the drone shoots 75 feet into the air during a test flight in Central Park, it's easy to see how real estate agencies could use this UAV for aerial shoots of sprawling rural estates or car dealers could use them for aerial footage of their vehicles winding through the streets of New York or farmers could quickly view the whole of their properties or paparazzi could hover over a pool party at a celebrity's house.

Test Flying A Drone That Makes Anyone An Aerial Photographer

The new DJI Phantom UAV sells for under $700 and lets anyone shoot professional-quality aerial video within minutes.

Not long ago Hong Kong-based firm DJI Innovations released the DJI Phantom--a quadrocopter designed for quick and easy aerial photography. It retails for between $675 and $700 and has a super-fast learning curve.

Unlike other entry-level UAVs for the consumer market, the Phantom is designed to be used for photography and includes a hookup for a GoPro camera.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aimed at hobbyists are easy to purchase nowadays. The most popular is the Parrot AR.Drone, an iPhone controlled-drone that is easily available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, The Sharper Image, and a number of other outlets for approximately $300. Several other quadrocopter drones are also readily available.

The Phantom took approximately 60 minutes to set up out of the box. A review copy obtained by Fast Company was up and running within minutes of construction; despite some challenges triangulating the drone's GPS capabilities (which allows the drone to hover in place and return “home” from a flight) learning to fly the UAV took less than an hour. The UAV's undercarriage contains a camera gimbal designed to fit the GoPro camera, which costs an additional $200 and is not included with the Phantom.

Below is a short Vine clip of the Phantom out for a ride in Central Park.

Rather than using a Parrot-style smartphone app to control the quadrocopter, DJI instead provides a separate controller with two joysticks. DJI North America CEO Colin Guinn told Fast Company that the decision to go with a dedicated controller was made to offer faster reaction time for users. While this is true, learning to fly the Phantom took more time than the comparatively simple Parrot.

That said, the Phantom's true strength is its integration with the GoPro. Once the drone lands and the rotors power down, users can view aerial footage in seconds. The Phantom can fly at a maximum vertical speed of 20 feet a second and at a maximum horizontal speed of 33 feet per second; it can be sent more than a thousand feet into the air. Users can knock out professional-quality aerial photography in a matter of minutes. Despite the Phantom's relatively limited battery life--about 15 minutes of flight time--that is more than enough time to film stunning aerial video.

Here are some examples of aerial videography from the Phantom:

In media interviews, DJI is emphatic that the Phantom is intended for use by aerial photography hobbyists. However, the drone's possibilities for businesses purposes are evident the minute it shoots vertically 75 feet in the air and hovers over a crowded Manhattan park. Real estate agencies can use this UAV for aerial shoots of sprawling rural estates. Car dealers can use them for aerial footage of their vehicles winding through the streets of New York. Farmers can quickly view the whole of their properties. Paparazzi can hover over a pool party at a celebrity's house. Surveyors can quickly document the whole of a property. Landscapers' jobs are made considerably easier. Energy companies can scout out locations. Event organizers can use the UAVs to discretely monitor concerts for overcrowding and fights.

All of these commercial applications for drones, however, are quasi-legal. The FAA is not expected to issue licenses for private drone operation until 2015. Lobbying is already taking place to bring UAVs into existing industries; for instance, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) recently disclosed in mandatory filing papers that they are lobbying the FAA to permit drones in the movie industry. Critics--who range from privacy activists to industry associations for crane operators and helicopter pilots--are arguing against this trend.

Beyond the standard issues of privacy and the consent of the monitored, there are also everyday safety concerns: Both Parrots and Phantoms fly at fast speeds and can easily harm unlucky people or animals. Although the Phantom feels in some ways like a luxury remote-controlled toy, it's a very real aircraft. That is one reason professional aerial cinematographers have very detailed and clear liability policies, something amateur hobbyists and small businesses mostly lack.

In the meantime, the FAA has issued an advisory discouraging the use of UAVs by businesses. The FAA is focusing instead on creating protocols for the domestic use of UAVs by law enforcement, the government, and critical infrastructure such as electric and gas companies. With that said, enforcement of UAV use by businesses is primarily up to local law enforcement. Based on this journalist's personal experiences as a well-dressed white male flying Parrots and Phantoms in urban airspaces for recreational use, law enforcement seemed as likely to be bemused or fascinated as hostile.

The DJI Phantom is “our answer to giving people a taste of professional aerial photography with a low barrier of entry and a low price point,” Guinn told Fast Company. While it's a fascinating device, it's not perfect. In addition to GPS difficulties, the drone also lights up and makes a variety of beeps and buzzes which make flying the device fun but which also make it challenging to use for nature photography. Most worryingly, drivers from Hong Kong-based DJI to operate the Phantom's USB hookup and computer diagnostic features triggered a Microsoft unverified driver security warning on a PC running Windows 7.

Still, DJI (and Parrot) have created relatively inexpensive drones that can be flown by anyone and require little training to get up in the air. While the Phantom's $675 price point still makes it a luxury item, it beats paying $5,000 for a small UAV. Prices for similar future products are likely to drop even farther, with access increasing in tandem. Just as we're now used to seeing cheap Netbooks in the electronics sections of Walgreens and Rite-Aids, the future requires us to get ready for the rise of the personal drone.

Co.Create recently wrote about how drones are being used for filmmaking in Germany and Fast Company predicted increased drone use by the film industry last year.

Despite the rise of drones for recreational and commercial use in the United States, they are still associated in the minds of many with violence, assassinations, and collateral attacks on civilians in foreign lands. Much like how technological advances in World War II changed the automotive and aviation industries, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the use by global powers of armed drones in many other countries) also propelled the unmanned aircraft industry. While armed UAVs are still used for killing abroad, their civilian cousins are available to any hobbyist with an Amazon account and a few hundred dollars to burn.

[Images: DJI | @anjalimullany]

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the DJI Phantom can fly up to 70 feet in the air; it can in fact reach more than 1000 feet.

Add New Comment

36 Comments

  • f.tripoli

    Hey Neal! Your DJI Phantom quadcopter was really amazing in taking pictures and videos! I agree that by having drones and a quality camera (like GoPro), anyone can can capture a professional-quality photographs since having an aerial photographs is a rare thing. Its also useful to have a drone (UAVs) in mapping, surveying, hobby, mapping, etc. Keep making an astounding photos and videos there! God Speed!

    Fervil - Precision Hawk

    http://precisionhawk.com/

  • f.tripoli

    Hey Neal! Your DJI Phantom quadcopter was really amazing in taking pictures and videos! I agree that by having drones and a quality camera (like GoPro), anyone can can capture a professional-quality photographs since having an aerial photographs is a rare thing. Its also useful to have a drone (UAVs) in mapping, surveying, hobby, mapping, etc. Keep making an astounding photos and videos there! God Speed!

    Fervil - Precision Hawk

    http://precisionhawk.com/

  • Quadcopters are definitely gaining popularity. More people want to see different views. And the last remaining untapped view is aerial photography. DJI is doing a great job at commanding this space. I think if they are able to package these quadcopters smaller and make it more accessible to the general consumers, I think they can grow to be as big as GoPro.

    TL http://bestquadcopterkits.com/quadcopter-camera/

  • Jim Pennington

    It would be great to hear more about the "jello" issue and the process of adding better balance blades,and the cost, of course. Thanks.

  • Camera Repair

    Google V959.  Aerial drone videography for about $60 (now THAT'S for "anyone").

  • Marcel M

    OK I want one but for different reasons. I am a shore fisherman in South-Africa and sometimes need to get the lines in further. This would be perfect for that. I don't need height I need distance. about 180m. How does this drone handle in windy conditions. And where can I get one  
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  • B1milehigh

    Quadrocopter.com has these and they have the best support in the industry (world wide). This is such a great photography tool! You really have to fly it to believe how easily you can get great footage. 

  • Nikolay MirchevCreativeMedia

    Another tool/gadget that I need to add to my photographers arsenal ;)

  • MichaelMcBain

    I have been flying my DJI Phantom around my local park in Melbourne, Australia since January. Apart from the Parrot, which really is just a toy, this is quite a serious aircraft, weighing in at a couple of pounds. When you turn it on, see it rise into the air and just hover there waiting for your command, it really is awesome. I believe it is the first serious consumer ready-to-fly quadcopter [i.e. not just a kit for people who know how to use a soldering iron], and I think it is the logical next thing for Parrot owners.It is beautifully packaged, but even a novice user [like me] will quickly want to improve the flying experience.

    Using it as an aerial photography platform is not quite so straightforward. The Phantom comes with a mount for the ubiquitous GoPro camera, but out of the box there is a lot of vibration, which causes 'rolling shutter' or 'jello' in video. This can be ameliorated by 'balancing' the four [plastic] propellers, or by buying and fitting better ones, so already we're starting to move into the hobbyist realm. I've ordered fancy new rotors, because the jello is really annoying, but then I will have to drill out the centres to fit, which is not something I look forward to at all.

    After an hour or so flying at the park, my ten-year-old son wanted to put a camera on the front and fly it with a video downlink. I've now bought a kit to do this, but since then I have been struggling to connect all the bits together. I wish DJI had anticipated, and put a little DC power connector in the fuselage, so I could just plug in my dinky CCD camera and go fly. Once we get that working, the next thing will be a pair of video goggles, and those things are roughly half the cost of the Phantom itself. We're also thinking 'ground station', so there never be an end to it.

    What I both love and hate about the Phantom is that it makes it so easy to get into the pleasure of flying it; but then you end up just pushing [and paying] for more.

    Australia's equivalent of the FAA has a simple response to the use of UAVs. If you can see it to control it, it's a model aircraft [hobbyist, not requiring certification], if you can't it's a UAV [requiring pilot certification]

  • Greg Overland

    I just got mine from ALL e RC and it was really easy to set up and fly.  The GPS and altitude hold are AMAZING!  They shipped the same day I ordered and I had it two days later!  Great service.

  • Ljmagnuson

    I'd love to have one of these ... and I may actually be able to get one once I get full time work. I'm a photographer/filmmaker and ham radio operator, and definitely could have some fun with it. Expensive toy though :)

    The only concern I have is, like the article mentions, safety. It would be hard for traditional aircraft to see because of it's size. Might be a good idea for anyone flying one of these in an area with a lot of air traffic to notify the FAA and/or file a flight plan if you're going to launch it higher than 500 feet. You're probably safe below that altitude because it is illegal to fly an airplane under that altitude in a populated area except in the landing pattern of an air field.

  • MichaelMcBain

    The cognoscenti use Fat Shark Dominator goggles. The term of art is FPV {first person video]. Type FPV into YouTube and you'll see aerial footage and HOWTOs.