Intro: choosing a drone
Drones, or unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) come in many shapes and sizes, and at wildly varying price points. You can buy a small indoor flyer for less than £25/$40 or spend in excess of £10,000/$15,000 for a heavyweight camera-carrying monster.
Cheap indoor UAV's require little explanation; simply shove the left throttle stick – whether that's a physical one, or a virtual one on a mobile device screen – and watch it soar. Most likely straight into the chandelier or your dog.
Outdoor drones, on the other hand, use GPS to locate their position in the sky and will hover in one spot if you take your hands off the controls. These GPS-equipped models are far and away the easiest form of model aircraft to fly – and the most reliable – but it is essential that you read the manual before take off, acquaint yourself with all controls and practice at low altitude and at low speed before reaching for the sky.
If you don't do this, you'll quite possibly crash it and that would be a very bad thing given the cost of these things. Also be mindful of where you fly it and know your local drone laws intimately. If you fly headlong into a car or, worse, hit a person, you alone are responsible.
Now we've cleared that up, what sort of drone are you after? If you just want to whizz about the local park, try something like the classic Parrot AR Drone or any number of budget-priced, Chinese, GPS-equipped 'copters currently flooding the market. They're cheap enough not to cause too much of a fuss if crashed but their onboard cameras – if they have one – are too low on resolution and quality to work for cinematography purposes. Which bring us neatly to the arena of the HD camera-carrying drone…
Photography and video are the two main reasons why UAVs have soared to such stratospheric popularity. It's largely because of one previously unknown Chinese company – DJI.
When, in July 2014, DJI released the Phantom 2 Vision+ with built in HD camera and three-way gimbal (the clever bit that keeps the camera rock steady no matter what the drone is doing), the world rushed at the opportunity to shoot the sort of aerial video previously only accessible to those sitting in a helicopter seat. Now suddenly anyone could shoot high definition footage of a myriad objects and natural features from a variety of tantalising perspectives just like the pros – and for a fraction of the cost of hiring a chopper.
Video and photography fans are naturally more interested in the quality of the camera on board than the mothership carrying it. But they also want a drone that integrates seamlessly with the monitor that receives the footage they're shooting. Companies like 3D Robotics and Walkera are doing their utmost to create integrated bundles but truth is right now there isn't a more reliable and complete package than DJI's Phantom 3 series or its pricier sibling, the Inspire 1.
DJI Phantom 3 Professional and Advanced
Don't expect the new Phantom 3 to look radically different from the outgoing model because, to all intents and purposes, the new incarnation looks exactly the same. However, the Phantom 3's new details are all beneath the skin and under its belly.
The new Phantom 3 is available in two variants: a gold-banded Professional model and a lower-priced, silver-banded Advanced one. Both Phantoms have been supercharged with a range of very welcome improvements: satellite support from GLONASS ensures even more rocky-steady GPS positioning and the addition of an indoor Vision Positioning sensor on the base of the drone – like that on the Inspire 1 – means it can be flown safely indoors without getting tangled up in a chandelier.
The company's excellent Lightbridge video-streaming technology has also been included along with an automatic take off and landing function (yet more features inherited from the Inspire 1). Finally, there's the classy new Inspire-style hand transmitter which is simply fantastic. So, lots to get excited about.
Nevertheless, most aerial cinematographers will be most interested in what's become of the onboard camera. The news is good, extremely good, especially for those who were thinking of forking out on the Inspire 1. Why? Because, to all intents and purposes, the Phantom 3's new camera is the same as that on the Inspire 1, only in a different shape. Both Phantom cameras now feature Sony's 1/2.3" 12mp EXMOR sensor and the same non-fisheyed 94˚ field of view as fitted to the Inspire 1.
Better still, like the Inspire 1, the Pro model is capable of shooting 4K footage at up to 30fps (the Advanced model's highest res is 1080p at up to 60fps). This is groundbreaking stuff for aerial imaging buffs that could perhaps even damage sales of the Inspire 1. After all, the price difference between the Phantom 3 Pro and the Inspire 1 is a whopping £1,220.
However, if you're thinking of changing your mind about an Inspire 1 and downgrading your thoughts to a new Phantom 3, first bear in mind the differences between the two. In terms of wind stability, the Inspire wins hands down; it's a superbly solid flyer. Also, the Inspire 1's camera gimbal can be swivelled independently of the craft's orientation (a full 360˚ in fact) and even operated using a second hand controller.
The Phantom 3, on the other hand, is fitted with a 3-axis gimbal that can only be swivelled 90˚ to 30˚; this means the craft would need to be orientated in the direction of the subject being shot. Also, the Phantom 3's legs cannot be raised. Finally, there's crashworthiness to consider. In this respect the Phantom's definitely the one to go for. This tried and tested bird is tough as nails (gimbal notwithstanding), cheaper to fix in the event of a mishap and, with that new camera on board, just as well equipped to take stunning hi-res aerials. These are, also, considerably more affordable.
3D Robotics Solo
American brand 3D Robotics has nailed it with the newly announced launch of the Solo. This is, to all intents and purposes, the first UAV to truly measure up to DJI's all-conquering Phantom range.
Like the DJI system, everything is integrated with impressive simplicity. The craft itself is completely built and ready to fly (just clip a battery onto the top-mounted loading bay) and it comes with a superbly designed hand controller with extremely easy to follow labelling, along with a mount for a Wi-Fi-linked iPad Mini or similarly-sized Android tablet.
The Solo is a sleekly aerodynamic, beautifully designed craft with a striking matt black finish that is much easier to spot in the sky than DJI's white Phantom range. It also looks less like a toy and more like a professional product that's sneaked out of a military R&D department.
Build quality is exemplary and that extends to the controller which is a similarly gorgeous piece of kit. It feels weighty in the hand and looks not unlike something Sony might design. The controller comes with a raft of well-labelled buttons, an HDMI output, a left-mounted gimbal control lever with integrated record start button and a right-mounted camera angle-cum-shutter release toggle with auto tilt speed adjustment.
Like the Phantom 3 range, the Solo's camera view is streamed in crisp High Definition to your iOS or Android device. Every element of camera operation and all inflight telemetry, smart commands, customisation settings and firmware updates are accessible via 3DR's superb dedicated tablet and smartphone app.
Unlike DJI's Phantom 3s which use a dedicated own-brand camera and gimbal arrangement, the Solo utilises the tried-and-trusted GoPro and an in-house three-axis gimbal to hold it. This area is likely to be the most contested. Both cameras are excellent but where DJI's unit shoots with a fairly narrow field of view, the GoPro has a spherical, fisheye-style lens that distorts the horizon and makes objects bulge out in an unsightly manner that just doesn't suit aerial videography.
This can be rectified in editing software (not advised unless you want blurred edges) or by electronically narrowing the GoPro's FOV. However, doing this also crops the image, resulting in slightly lower resolution. Given that camera quality is arguably the sole reason for buying a drone of this nature, the Phantom 3 wins in this respect.
However, the Solo is on a different planet when it comes to setting up smooth, mistake-free aerial shots. Select Smart Shots on the app and you're presented with four automated procedures: Cable Cam, Orbit, Selfie and Follow. Cable Cam is like having the drone attached to a virtual cable. It basically involves setting an A point (the beginning of the shot), then flying the drone as erratically as you like to point B where you'd like the sequence to end. Press the play button and the Solo will shoot the entire sequence and even control the camera's tilt and pan, producing a smooth finished article that would thrill the pants off any director of photography.
Orbit is another clever shooting aid that locks the camera onto a predetermined subject while the Solo circumnavigates it, producing a beautiful circular shot in the process. Selfie, meanwhile, allows the user to frame himself or any other subject and set the trajectory of the craft to produce a fast rising sequence. Finally, there's Follow mode which locks the drone to your mobile device and allows for hands-free filming while the Solo follows you from above.
This is incredible tech, though it must be said that all of these features (bar perhaps Cable Cam) will soon be available for all versions of the current Phantom 3.
And that brings us to the million dollar question. The Phantom 3 Pro is cheaper to get in the air, its camera has a better field of view and it logs onto more satellites. But one can't overlook the Solo's Smart Shots function which is just what the industry has been crying out for.
Walkera Tali H500
The Tali H500 has six blades instead of four so there's every chance you'll land it in one piece should a motor give up the ghost. It's also several inches bigger and more powerful than DJI's Phantom, and it comes with retractable landing gear so the camera's view isn't obscured by the legs.
The Tali H500 is superbly built. This isn't some shed-made Heath Robinson affair – it's a bona fide, factory-produced UAV equipped with a reliable set of pilot-aid components like GPS, return to home, even a fly around setting for circular flights. The 5400MAh battery delivers around 18 minutes of safe flying time. Like DJI's Inspire 1 and Phantom 2 Vision+, the Tali H500 comes out of the box ready to fly and is equipped with a 3-axis gimbal and Walkera's own iLook+ GoPro-style camera. Unfortunately, the camera might be the package's weakest link. It's no match for the GoPro or the Phantom camera, but it works seamlessly with the rest of the system, allowing pilots to control the camera and gimbal from the ground while viewing what the camera sees on the transmitter's small but decent colour monitor. Thankfully, the gimbal cage is just the right size to retro fit a GoPro, though you will need to spend an extra £100 or so on some video uplink components if you plan to fit one.
The Walkera's Devo 10 remote is one of its strongest facets. Aside from two gimbal controls, there are switches aplenty: one for retracting the landing gear, another for auto take off, another for GPS and manual modes and yet another for setting the circular flying mode. The flip-up colour monitor isn't iPad Mini standard but it's good enough for composing shots and seeing where you're going. If you're looking for a UAV that flies exceedingly well and doesn't look like a toy, then this is the one to go for. However, we advise you swap the iLook+ camera for a GoPro.
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
Not content with having cornered the 'mid-priced' marketplace with the Phantom 3 Professional and Advanced, DJI has just launched a more budget-friendly Phantom aimed predominantly at the beginner. And it's another cracker. The new Phantom 3 Standard is similar in many ways to its more expensive stable mates but there are still several key differences worth noting.
Where the Pro and Advance models use DJI's rock-solid Lightbridge technology to stream live video back to one's tablet or phone, the Standard harks back to the Phantom 2 Vision+ and incorporates WiFi instead; all this means is that the Standard's video range is up to one kilometre instead of two. The camera, too, has had a revamp.
Granted, it may look the same as that on the Pro and Advanced models but beneath the casing there's a different 12MP sensor (from Panasonic instead of Sony) capable of producing both 2.7K and 1080p video at 30 frames per second. The inclusion of 2.7K is sure to upset those who recently forked out for the Advanced model with its 1080-only resolution but, hey, that's the price of rapidly advancing technology.
In order to cut costs a little further, the Standard's controller drops a few dedicated control buttons and the system is now more reliant on the excellent DJI Go app for taking snaps and video. But that's no big deal.
What may be the biggest deciding factor here is the omission of DJI's indoor Vision Positioning System and a downgraded GPS positioning module that forfeits Russia's GLONASS satellite system in favour of a smaller cluster of Western satellites.
Despite these omissions, the new keenly-priced Phantom 3 Standard clearly remains an extremely attractive proposition. It shoots stunning hi-res visuals, is a doddle to control and it comes with the same out-of-the-box Apple-like integration that only DJI provides.
Sure, there are many other UAVs out there for around the same price but none hold a candle to this little bird. If you're a newbie pilot who wants to get into aerial videography in the easiest way possible, then step right this way.
Parrot BeBop Drone
When Parrot launched its camera-equipped AR Drone back in 2010, it inadvertently kick-started a whole new category of consumer electronics. Well here's another Parrot to add to the flight list. The lightweight, four-motor Parrot Bebop Drone is ready to soar out of the box and comes rammed to the hilt with an ample shedload of electronic wizardry that makes it both chimp-easy to control and extraordinarily stable in flight, especially when flown indoors.
Most current drones use a range of sensors and a GPS receiver to help keep them steady in flight, but this one appears to have the Full Monty, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer and ultrasound. The HD camera-equipped Bebop is available in two packages. The basic kit is comprised of the drone and a pair of small LiPo batteries and you fly it using an Android or iOS tablet. The Bebop's free app provides full control of the drone by simply tilting the tablet screen in the direction you want it to fly. The app also includes camera controls, in-flight stats and a button for automatic take-offs and landings. The posher package adds another £340 to your spend but for that you get a damn decent hand remote which increases the Bebop's flight distance from a bogstandard 300 metres to around two kilometres. It's called the Skycontroller and we highly recommend it.
The Bebop eschews a camera-steadying gimbal in favour of a fixed fisheye lens and a cluster of complex algorithms that cleverly keep the image stable and allow the user to tilt the view up or down without the camera actually moving. The result is pretty steady video imagery with no barrel-like horizon distortion like that on the GoPro. However, it's a far from perfect solution as you can only tilt the camera down a certain degree; a proper motorised gimbal can usually tilt a full 90˚. Image quality, too, is nowhere near as good as that of the GoPro or DJI's Phantom 2 Vision+. Nevertheless, if you're new to drones, not too discerning about video or picture quality and don't have enough cash for a Phantom, then by all means give this tough, well-built bird a whirl.
DJI Inspire 1
Not content with having cornered the consumer drone market – and every news bulletin – with its amazing Phantom 2 Vision+, DJI has now launched a stunning mid-range drone aimed at prosumers. Like the Phantom, the new Inspire 1 is ready to fly straight out of the box using an iPad or Android tablet to monitor the action. The high-tech hand controller is a joy and equipped with ultra smooth joysticks and extra switches for controlling the quad's retractable carbon fibre prop arms and its new 360˚ 3-axis, modular gimbal. Naturally, it all comes pre-configured with DJI's trusted GPS technology and all the usual fail-safe modes, including auto take off and landing. It can even fly steadily indoors without GPS using its clever Optical Flow positioning sensor.
The Inspire 1's own-brand camera is equipped with a Sony 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor and shoots 4K at 30fps and 1080p at up to 60fps with no GoPro-style fisheye to taint the view. It also takes excellent 12MP stills in JPEG or RAW. What's more, the camera and gimbal can also be operated by a second person using another hand controller; just like the pros do it. Expect around 20 minutes of flying time from the drone's intelligent 5700mAh 6S battery.
In the pantheon of camera-wielding UAVs, the Inspire 1 is an unequivocal winner. Think of it as the Audi R8 of drones: its gentle controls are perfectly dialled for smooth, rock steady videography but slam the stick forward and it shoots off at speeds in excess of 45 mph, twisting and turning like a dragonfly on steroids. Right now, this thing is matchless.
Turbo Ace Matrix
Yes it looks like it was built in a shed but this drone bucks the cottage-industry trend by also being available in ready-to-fly form – and Turbo Ace has been involved in aerial cinematography for some time so the company knows what it's doing.
Depending on your budget, there are 15 different configurations available. Most, though not all, are constructed from quadruple carbon fibre for ultra stiffness - double check when placing an order. Wingspan is one metre across so this is a fairly big bird that can be configured to carry a range of cameras. However, the humble GoPro is your best bet as it can sit up front unobscured by legs and propeller shadows – a common problem with many UAVs. It's also a little bit safer from belly-flop crashes and bad landings, there.
Like the Steadidrone Flare, the Matrix can also fold down to a tidy portable package. This is one of the most stable camera-carrying UAVs on the market and also one of the fastest; it positively shrugs off 40mph gusts and has a top speed of around 60mph. And that's stupidly fast.
DJI Spreading Wings S1000+
This is the style of drone that first put DJI on the international map. The new S1000+ is the mother of camera-carrying drones and is the first port of call for most professional aerial cinematographers. However, this heavyweight octocopter's not for the fainthearted, for several reasons.
Firstly, it costs as much as a small car and that's without figuring in the price of a separate DSLR camera and a hoard of expensive batteries. It will also need to be assembled by someone who knows what they're doing. Phantom-like integration between video monitor and the drone itself isn't an option, as this system is essentially a pile of different carbon and electronic parts all bolted together like some weird Meccano creation.
The S900 measures over one metre across (1,045mm to be precise) when in ready-to-fly mode and its eight folding 15-inch carbon fibre props are sharp and tough enough to sever a finger. Yet despite all this intimidating stuff, the S1000+ is as easy to fly as a Phantom and extraordinarily stable, even in the stiffest breeze.
The S1000+'s eight oversized motors are powerful enough to lift a Canon 5D with ease and its huge gimbal – controlled by a separate camera operator – is capable of full 360˚ rotation. However all this weight and size comes at the expense of flying time which is a lowly 15 minutes per battery. Mind, this factor is of little consequence to most filmmakers who are fully aware that most aerial scenes very rarely run for longer than a few seconds at a time.
If you have the money and the space – this craft should only be flown in rural areas or around venues where permission has been granted by the relevant, local authorities – then by all means empty you pockets. But just be aware that you have seven grand up there in the sky and there is no room for mistakes.
The lesser-known, South African-produced Steadidrone Flare costs nearly £1,000 more than the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ but around £450 less than the DJI Inspire 1. However, it isn't anything like as integrated a package as the DJI models; for instance, you will still need to buy a monitor to view what the camera sees for FPV flying and aerial videography. Nevertheless, the Flare does have a few tantalising features up its sleeve. Firstly, it isn't camera specific so it can carry a variety of small cameras like the Sony RX100 and, of course, any model of GoPro.
Given that a delicate camera gimbal is usually the first thing to be destroyed in a crash, we like the fact that the camera on this drone is mounted up front, away from most of harm's way (unless, of course you fly straight into a building). You can also mount a GoPro in its protective underwater housing which adds extra peace of mind. But perhaps best of all is that the whole drone can be easily folded into a very tidy and portable package; a boon for anyone hiking out to suitably cinematic flying areas. The Flare is constructed almost entirely from carbon fibre and features the usual gamut of in-flight safety features – including the now obligatory GPS for steady, user-friendly flying.
Sky Hero Little Spyder
This UAV manufacturer has adopted a modular design system. That's fantastic for avid modellers and those with a keen knowledge of UAV terminology, though it's not so good for the casual consumer who just wants to fly straight out of the box. Nevertheless, being able to mix and match components can be considered a big bonus for serious droners.
There are seven main base models in the Sky Hero range and each one can be upgraded at will. For instance, you might start with a basic Little Spyder, Spyder, or Spyder 6 and decide later on that you'd like it to have a bigger footprint and perhaps have it take a heavier payload. No problem: just order some longer carbon fibre arms, more powerful motors and a few extra components.
Sky Hero is a highly respected manufacturer of top-quality UAVs, but it will need to start offering ready-to-fly models en masse if it really wants to compete with the likes of DJI, Walkera and Parrot.