Whether you call it a quadcopter, quadrocopter, quadrotor, UAV or (gasp) a drone, DJI’s new GPS-equipped Phantom is certainly a nifty little radio-controlled aircraft. We first heard about the Phantom when it was officially launched this January and since then I've had a chance to try out the, uh – let’s call it a quadcopter – for myself. Here’s a quick look at my experiences with it, and I'll say this right now: the thing was more fun than a barrel full of flying monkeys.

Getting it together

Upon opening the box, I discovered that the Phantom required some basic assembly. I followed along with one of the well-produced instructional videos on the DJI website, though, and it turned out to be pretty straightforward. I also downloaded the Quick Start Manual, just to make sure the video wasn’t leaving anything out.

Those videos – along with the manual, to a lesser extent – also proved invaluable when learning to fly the quadcopter.

Adding an eye in the sky

The Phantom is promoted as being an excellent aerial platform for the GoPro HERO actioncam, and it comes with an adjustable-angle mount designed specifically for the camera. Unfortunately, in order to fit the camera into that mount, you have to remove its protective outer housing. Additionally, that mount doesn’t have room for any of the HERO’s add-on modules, such as the LCD screen or extra battery.

Given that I anticipated making some unavoidably rough landings on the hard, uneven late-winter snow, I decided that my HERO wasn’t about to fly “unclothed.” There is a solution to this dilemma however – the GoPro’s housing can be mounted to the quadcopter in exactly the same way as the provided mount. Whichever method you choose, the camera ends up upside-down, so you’ll either want to enable its video-flipping feature, or flip the footage yourself in editing.

Does anyone here speak Phantom?

When it was time for my first flight, I took the quadcopter to a nearby field, turned on its control unit first (as per the instructions), and then turned on the aircraft itself by installing its rechargeable 2200mAh 11.1 V lithium-polymer battery.

The Phantom proceeded to perform a self-check on its systems, and relayed its findings via its single prominent RGB LED indicator – something that it does every time you use it. While the GoPro mount is really just a nit-pick, this method of status display is one of two things that I think could actually stand to be improved.

The LED flashes on and off in various patterns of colors, first of all letting you know that the systems are warming up, and then potentially alerting you to the facts that the Phantom’s compass can’t be calibrated, it can’t find enough GPS satellites, or it’s just too cold. Unfortunately, unless you’ve used the aircraft many times, there’s no way of knowing which of those things these patterns mean, without having a printout or download of the manual close at hand – even then, cross-referencing the rapidly-blinking multiple colors with the written descriptions can be quite challenging. It would be far easier if the controller had a one-line calculator-like LCD screen, that displayed simple text messages like “Wait, initializing” or “Insufficient GPS satt.”

Getting it off the ground

I did eventually get it into the air, although I still wasn’t entirely clear on whether or not it was able to access enough satellites for all of its GPS features to work. This was the first time I’d ever flown a remote-control aircraft of any kind, plus it turns out the field I’d chosen wasn’t really big enough, so ... well, the rough landings I’d anticipated did indeed happen. Some of them even incorporated a violent descent through tree branches. To the Phantom’s immense credit, though, the only damage it appeared to sustain was a snapped landing strut – not a disabling injury, as it turned out.

The next few times I flew it, I chose a much larger field and ensured that there were enough satellites, plus I was just generally more experienced. It was a blast. Really opening up the throttle, I found that the quadcopter could go fast (10 meters/32.8 feet per second, going forward), it could go high (I don’t know how high, but it looked kind of scary), and it responded to commands instantaneously.

Battery life for all of my flights was about ten minutes, which is right in keeping with DJI’s figures. Although I definitely would have preferred a longer duration, existing battery technology will only take you so far – additionally, the Phantom was lugging my GoPro, and the temperature outside was right around freezing.

Some people might not like the idea of having to pay for its dedicated controller, as the AR Drone (which at US$300 costs a little less than half as much as the $679 Phantom) simply utilizes the user’s smartphone. I found that the two physical joysticks really made controlling the quadcopter intuitive, however, in a way that I doubt touchscreen controls could.

A sense of direction

Making things easier was the option of flying in GPS Attitude mode. This allowed the Phantom to hold its position in mid-air, automatically compensating for wind gusts. Additionally, it kept the quadcopter’s inertia from carrying it forward when coming to stops – as soon as I released the throttle control, the aircraft stopped moving.

The Phantom’s Enhanced Fail-safe feature also made the whole experience less intimidating. If the quadcopter had lost contact with the controller (such as if it had exceeded its 300-meter/984-foot radio range, or the controller’s batteries died), it would have simply flown itself back to its take-off point.

I additionally experimented with its Intelligent Orientation Control, which is a handy feature for newbies like me. Ordinarily, when you want a remote-control aircraft to turn to your left (as an example), you have to first consider which way that aircraft is facing. If its nose is facing away from you, then the aircraft’s left is still your left – if the aircraft is coming towards you, however, then a left turn for it involves its moving to your right. The controls become reversed, which can be very disorienting.

By selecting one of the two Intelligent Orientation Control modes, however, a left turn on the controller will always result in the Phantom moving to your left – regardless of which way its front end is pointing. The same thing goes for right turns, obviously. While this would be impossible with a fixed-wing aircraft, it’s not such a tall order with a multi-directional, symmetrical-bodied quadcopter. It definitely makes those first flights simpler, although it’s probably not a feature you should come to rely on, plus it only works if the aircraft is at least 30 feet (nine meters) away.

Roll the video

Viewing the GoPro footage afterwards, I noticed that the vibrations of the Phantom’s motors and/or props caused the video to sort of roll and jiggle. This is something that other users have also complained about, and it’s known as the Jell-O effect. It’s not a deal-breaker for people who just want to watch the footage for fun, but it could definitely be an issue for people who want to use it in a video project.

When I asked DJI about it, I was directed to a YouTube video in which it’s suggested that the camera be set to 60 fps, GPS Attitude mode not be used (the constant adjustments make the quadcopter fly rougher), and the propellers be balanced. It may be good advice, although it involves more tinkering and compromise than some people might like. I'm wondering if it could have been possible to include a layer of vibration-dampening material between the quadcopter and the camera mount, as a way of keeping the video from resembling a popular jelled dessert.

Of course, if you’re not even interested in shooting video at all, then it's not a problem.

Summing up

I’m still very much getting the hang of the Phantom, and look forward to improving my flying skills. So far, however, things that I’ve liked have included:
  • Tough construction
  • Simple assembly
  • Built-in GoPro attachment point
  • GPS-enabled position-holding
  • Intelligent Orientation Control
  • Physical joysticks, as opposed to touchscreen sliders
  • Impressive performance

As for some of the things that could be better ...

  • GoPro mount requires you to take off the camera housing
  • Those enigmatic LED codes
  • Jell-O video

A picture’s worth a thousand words, though, so check out my video review below. It contains some rather spectacular crashes, plus you’ll get to see my home-made snow-landing pontoons in action.

Product page: DJI Phantom