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.
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.