New Drone

I’ve been thinking about getting a drone for a couple of years now, and I finally bit the bullet and bought one right after Christmas, a DJI Phantom 4. At the time I first started looking into them, the Phantom 4 was around $1,400; it’s come down to around $1,200 and there was a $200 off sale at Best Buy right after Christmas. (There will probably be a Phantom 5 within the next few months).

It took me a while to get around to reading through the directions and watch all the video tutorials. Strangely enough, the instruction material doesn’t mention that you have to register it with the FAA; it costs $5, good for 3 years.

I finally took it out for a short spin at the beginning of the month. I’ve been using the fields around Medfield State Hospital as a testing ground. You attach a mobile device — in my case, an iPad — to the remote, and control it via a pair of levers and the DJI GO app.The drone has a beginner mode; when enabled, the drone will not let you fly it further away than about 30 meters, or higher than about 30 meters. I flew it a couple of days in beginner mode, to get used to the way it flew. It’s actually pretty easy to fly. The second day I flew it, there was a pretty stiff breeze, which caused the drone to drift a little when hovering, but it managed to stay stable. The controls are responsive, but not overly so, and you can actually see what the drone is seeing on the iPad. It’s awesome.

The software is less so. I’m still stumbling through the various options of the DJI GO app. I’m still not sure I know where everything is, or even everything that’s available to me. I’ve seen some displays that I still don’t know what they mean, and I’ve had some trouble taking pictures. The DJI Assistant software for the Mac is frankly an abortion; about the only thing useful you can do with it is update the drone’s software. I wasn’t able to download the flight data, or download the pictures with it. The camera generates DNG RAW files, but Aperture is unable to edit them directly; they need conversion first via Adobe’s DNG converter.

This past weekend, I went back to Medfield for my first flights out of beginner mode. Medfield State Hospital is a former insane asylum that was built in 1892, in a college campus style. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, and closed in 2003. The buildings are boarded up, but still extant, and many of them are gorgeous, at least from the outside. The Town of Medfield is trying to redevelop the campus; it would be a shame to see it go to waste.

I flew all over the campus on Saturday, but it turned out I wasn’t shooting any photos or video. I practiced a bit with the app controls, and went back on Sunday to try shooting again. I got some fantastic results.

The videos I shot are stunning. It’s clear I’m going to have to learn how to edit them. The longer one is about five minutes long, as the drone makes several passes over the campus and out to view the Charles River. (Update 4/22: You can find the video here.)

I’m really looking forward to doing more with it.