Whilst the world waits for Amazon to (literally) deliver on it's promises of drones, you don't need to wait: drones have already become something that normal (albeit relatively affluent) people can own. One of the newer drones - or quadcopters as they're known - is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision - which comes complete with a built-in camera. Here's our review.
What's in the Box
The Phantom is made up of a central unit containing the battery and the camera, and four stems, which each have helicopter-style blades on the ends (hence quadcopter). Assembly is relatively easy - just screw in the blades, charge the battery and plug it in and you're half way there. There's also a big jumbo remote controller with two control sticks on and a range extender device that will boost the distance you can fly with wifi. Helpfully, it's possible to mount both the range extender and your phone on the remote control - it comes with a clip to make it easy.
It's then simply a case of powering up the battery, switching the camera to on, and turning on the controls and you're ready to go. The Phantom will make a noise and flash lights to show you that it's ready to fly... flip the control switches into the go position and you're ready.
Let me tell you a story... I actually got hold of the drone about a month ago, but had a slightly frustrating time finding an opportunity to test it.
If you take one thing away from this review, then let it be this: for god's sake, make sure you've got enough room to fly the damn thing! I live in a tiny flat, and when I got the drone I made the mistake of switching it on inside. Though relatively diminutive compared to, say, Obama's flying death machines, at only 29cm square (and 18cm deep), as soon as the blades start spinning at flight speed, you realise that taking off next to the TV might not be such a wise idea. You start to understand why the Taliban get worried when they see one in the sky.
Undeterred I then took the drone to a fairly large hall in central London to fly it inside there (with permission of the people who run it) - thinking that it'll be easier to avoid the winter weather, and also decrease the chances of me being shot for flying an unidentified flying object in central London. Unfortunately after switching it on I realise that maybe this wasn't wise either - as even in the open expanse of a hall, the Phantom lifted into the air and drifted terrifyingly close to an expensive lighting rig.
So finally I managed to get round to taking it out of London - to a large park where I could fly it outside. As far as I was aware, there wasn't a royal palace or world heritage site nearby, so all was well - and I finally got to experience the Phantom 2 in full.
Here's a ropey video of me and my girlfriend giving it a try:
Essentially if you're going to commit to the Phantom 2, then make sure you have somewhere to make the most of it. If you live in a big city then this could be problematic - but if you live in the country, you might just be about to find a brand new hobby.
Control & Flight
In short: Wow!
It's pretty weird to be in control of a flying machine - which can move in three dimensions, at some speed too. It's super easy to control - what was slightly unexpected was all of those hours flying helicopters in Grand Theft Auto 5 had actually provided some decent training, as it flies on the same principles. On the controller, one stick controls height and rotation, and the other controls movement in horizontal directions... and just like GTA5 (or, er, a real helicopter, I guess), to move forward the whole drone tilts forward a little, and so on.
The real magic is in what the drone can do itself. The reason flight is so easy is because the Phantom's on-board computer does the difficult job of making sure it stays in the air - it uses built in gyroscopes and accelerometers to ensure that it will remain stable and upright, so if you like you can leave it ominously floating in the same place in the air.
I was relatively timid with what I tried - I didn't go too far off the ground, or let it fly too far away but it seems capable of extraordinary range - especially with the range extender. Check out this video which DJI have made to prove this point:
And if you want to see how high these things can go, check out this video of Edinburgh. The drone used was nearly identical (it was a DJI Phantom) but lacked the built-in camera - so they mounted one themselves. So don't judge picture quality from this - but look how high and how far!
I've no doubt with a little practice though it'd be possible to do lots of nice swishing about with sweeping dives that don't end in a crash at the end.
Brilliantly, it seems fairly durable too. Obviously I have tried my best not to test the durability, but during my time testing there were a few bumps and scrapes. Luckily, even during a hard landing, the Phantom remained intact. The blades are flexible when not spinning, so will not snap at the drop of a hat. That said - when I, umm, hit a wall one of the blades definitely snapped in two... but luckily DJI expect this, so have included spares in the box - and a quick Google suggests that spare parts are available in abundance. The main drone unit itself - where all of the expensive stuff sits lives inside some pretty tough plastic casing.
So I've covered the control - but what about the camera? This is what truly makes the Phantom seem futuristic. Not only can it video what it sees when it flies about... but it can beam it back to your phone in real time. All you have to do is download the associated app from the iPhone or Android app stores, and connect to the wifi hotspot that that drone itself creates - then you'll see the view from the camera. From the app you can then move and tilt the camera in real time - independent of the movement of the drone - and record video and take photos. And this works in real time - isn't that incredible?
The camera itself is 14 megapixels and can record in full 1080 HD resolution - at 60 fps interlaced, or 30fps progressive scan. It can take photos in either JPG or even RAW format. It's not messing about. The video that is sent back to the app is somewhat lower res - but the full quality recording is saved to a Micro-SD card that is in the back of the camera.
Whilst I can't claim to be an expert on lenses, there's three different fields of vision available: 90, 120 and 140 degrees, so you can make sure that you capture everything.
Bells and Whistles
There's a few extra niceties built into the Phantom that make it a more awesome experience (other than the fact you can watch the camera in real time!). As it has GPS built in, and you have GPS on your phone, you can tell it to automatically come back and find you if it flies off too far/out of range. If it's out of sight, you can even view it on the "radar" on the app.
Similarly the app will give you real time flight data - such as the altitude and speed the Phantom is moving. It's pretty incredible.
My favourite feature too is the fact that the battery is easily removable, and crucially can be charged separately. This means that if you pick up an extra battery or two, it's perfectly possible to charge one whilst using the other - meaning more flight time.
When testing the Phantom at the back of my mind was the assumption that it costs around £350. Having done a bit of Googling since then, I've since discovered that it costs... around £850. I wish I'd been a bit more careful now.
Let's not be coy - the done is awesome fun to fly, and it's so fully featured I can imagine all sorts of professional uses for it too - it's not just a toy. It's surely inevitably that the Phantom 2 Vision will end up being used by news broadcasters and filmmakers too?
So in principle, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this in a second. It's the Ferrari of unmanned aerial vehicles.
In practice though - I am also a sensible consumer. £850 is a lot of money - and if I had £850 to spare (I wish I did), I'm not sure a drone would be top of the list. Though if you do have £850 and want to buy the ultimate toy (perhaps you're one of the Rich Kids of Instagram or having a midlife crisis) then this is a good bet. Just remember to find somewhere with lots of space and that every time you send the drone into the air... that's £850 you're essentially gambling every time the drone dips or falls a bit too steeply. What I mean is, you don't tend to throw your Macbook Air into the air with as much regularity as you would a Phantom 2.
So in conclusion - it's awesome. But expensive - so go and buy one! But at risk of sounding like a concerned parent, make sure that you can afford it first!