UPDATE JULY 2014: I am no longer recommending DJI as a quadcopter manufacturer due to their poor customer support.
UPDATE OCT 2013: Please see my new video featuring the Phantom: "Watch My Weather Drone Hit the Clouds!"
UPDATE 9/23/2013: I have received a set of Prop Guards from DJI and have installed them. I recommend these because they will make your life a lot easier if you're not a skilled pilot like me. They help with tip-overs on takeoff, and protect your neighbor's house from the propellers :) They will only show up in videos if your GoPro is on wide-angle view and you have the camera tipped upwards.
I also got word from DJI that the GoPro3 Waterproof case is fine to mount to this quadcopter, so I am also implementing that in future testing, so that my GoPro doesn't get damaged (it also may help with the "Jello" effect where the video vibrates).
I'm also considering flying an altimeter up with the quadcopter, to see how high it can go (YouTubers have estimated, but not proven, 1800 feet). However, the manual specifcally states that you should "keep away from other electronic equipment when calibrating or flying" so this is not supported and risky.
One thing that I forgot to mention is that the battery only lasts 10-20 minutes. This surprised me, but Henry says this is not unusual in the RC world, so if you're new to this, get an extra battery or two, so that you can make multiple runs up to a storm's arrival.
ORIGINAL REVIEW (9/18/2013):
I recently had the pleasure of testing a brand new weather observation gadget: The DJI Phantom Quadcopter (UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle, or "drone") with GoPro camera mount. This allows you to get an aerial ground or sky view hundreds of feet in the air. The latest test I did enabled me to make a decision whether to chase a storm or stay put at AccuWeather HQ -- a crucial decision -- without wasting time packing up the car and driving out to a vista. Here's what it looked like:
This is a setup not unlike what Reed Timmer used in the 2012 season of "Storm Chasers." The unit isn't cheap, but it is (as of the time of this writing) on sale for $200 off on Amazon.com. You'll also need a GoPro Camera (which I have reviewed in the past) for about $200.
It says a lot about the Phantom that both Henry and I were left with a positive feeling about it. Henry is a long-time RC pilot who was impressed with the stability, while I (as a beginner) was just thankful I could fly the thing right out of the box (see setup notes below). The amazing thing about this quadcopter is its GPS control, which allows it to remain in the same flying position despite wind or pilot error, allows it to "return to home," and allows you to reverse the controls if it turns around 180 degrees from you.
Watch the video tutorials. Since the manual wasn't included in paper format (you can download it from their website) and Storm Chaser Ron warned me to not fly it until I went through the setup procedures, I decided it was time to try to learn via video tutorials and theirs led me through everything I needed to know. After a few screws to assemble, setup was more steps than I'm used to with gadgets, but watching the videos on my cell phone in the yard was a big help.
Watch out taking off in "tall" grass. The first thing I did was run my propellers into the ground. Although they say in the tutorial videos to fly it it an open grassy area, the grass can't be too tall (I typically keep my lawn 3-4" high) or it can tip on takeoff, especially with the added weight of the GoPro camera. Once you've flown it a couple times without the camera, I recommend taking off from pavement (as I did in the above video, which was my third flight, first flight with the camera attached).
Wait for as many GPS satellites as you can get before taking off. This is crucial if you want to use any of the cool GPS advantages mentioned above. If you take off before having five or more satellites connect, flight will be unpredictable. If you have mountains or buildings to your south, you may have to move to a more open area (this is the same reason Sirius XM radio or your phone's GPS won't work when obstructed).
NOTE: All these videos were with a GoPro2 HERO. The GoPro3 Black edition offers superior video quality and size (up to Cinema 4K). I didn't want to mount my GoPro3 yet because it is unprotected with their mount. My understanding is that you can attach the GoPro3 waterproof shockproof case, but it's not supported by DJI and will add weight (reducing flying time and increasing instability). I will try this in the future. UPDATE: DJI says that using the GoPro3 waterproof case should be no problem, so I am now testing with that.
NOTE: These videos (despite the temptation) have NOT been stabilized by YouTube. This is for two reasons. 1.) Stabilizing removes the outer parts of the video so it can concentrate on what's in each frame and 2.) I wanted you to see how the raw video looks. There is some shakiness, which can be headed off by either being a better pilot, or stabilizing the GoPro mount (not advised by the manufacturer but see various YouTube videos).
DISCLAIMER: Product was provided for this review.
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