The latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, in which Kike profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on using drones, UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography.
This article has been on the pipeline for some time now. I have been field testing the Phantom 4 on my recent expeditions to Svalbard –going up to about 800 km. from the North Pole– on the National Geographic Orion, and to Galapagos on the National Geographic Endeavour.
The Phantom 4 became my favorite working tool since it came out. I attended the official launch in New York City and I knew I loved it even before trying it, based on the specs presented. The P4 is compact enough to fit in an easy-to-carry backpack, like its predecessors, but it incorporates the most advanced features available. When DJI had several models to choose from, dozens of people reached out to me asking which one was the best option. The issue has now been solved, as the only model available is superb at all levels.
The first time I flew the Phantom 4 was in the Combeima River Canyon in Colombia’s western Andes. My first impression was that it was really easy to maneuver. Steady, robust. Memories of my early days experimenting with modified P1s and P2s came to my mind. I do need to admit I still love flying my older quadcopters like the P1 and my racing QAV250 minicopter. They are fun and a great way to keep manuals skills up to date, allowing me to be a little more daring and risky in my maneuvers. But the P4 is definitively a new generation.
When I got the P4 my immediate question was, what will be most efficient way of transporting it when going on an international expedition. As I had a Manfrotto Phantom backpack that I used for my P3, and no time to buy a new one, I tried that, and honestly, it works great in my opinion. I am curious to try the Manfrotto D1 backpack, as I have not been disappointed with their sturdy and greatly designed backpacks.
When traveling to very humid ecosystems, such as mangroves and tropical rain forests, especially if the transportation required includes small wooden boats, canoes or zodiacs, I try to fit the gear into a waterproof pelican style case. I learned this lesson a few years ago when navigating the Amazon River on a small boat from Leticia in Colombia to Iquitos in Peru. We hit a submerged tree, and we basically capsized and sank, loosing most of my gear in the process in the middle of the night. Not a good experience, believe me.
Extended Flight Time:
Back to the technical aspects of the P4, I love the fact that the gimble has been integrated into the body of the quadcopter. The SD card is also right in the body. Great design choices. It is also important to notice that flight time has been increased to up to 27 min. (25% more than the P3). This means, as it happens with all cameras and most gadgets, that you will need to buy a new set of batteries. I didn’t feel this was a problem, considering that I can now stay longer in the air. I do usually buy at least four batteries for each platform I work with. I learned this while working in extremely hot and humid temperatures in Tortuguero National Park. My client required aerial views of a property, so we continuously flew missions, charging right away almost with no rest. Big mistake, as I did not allowed the batteries to cool down. So go for that extra expense on batteries. You can fly with peace of mind, and without the stress of having to charge all the time.
I still need to experiment a little more with the sports mode that allows you to reach up to 45 miles per hour. I think it is a fun asset, but like everything, it needs to be taken seriously to avoid an accident. It is great to follow fast moving subjects such as a car, a speeding boat, a skier, or a mountain bike descending a trail. I did notice that the propellers show up on the frame when flying full speed. Don’t forget that the intelligent flight modes are not available when flying in sport mode. When flying an automatic mission, if anything goes wrong or you need a stand by, you can just press the new ‘pause’ button and the aircraft will hover waiting for the next directions from the remote control.
As a professional photographer, like many of us, I try to piggy-bag on assignments and projects. On this occasion, I decided to test the Phantom in very extreme conditions. We recently explored a remote area in Colombia around Los Nevados National Natural Park.
A Ready-to-Go Aerial Assistant:
My goal on this mission was double. To explore from the air the landscapes around the snow-capped volcano of El Ruiz, and to produce images for my project ‘World of Dances’, photographing the traditional dances from the culturally rich area.
Many of the landscapes that I flew on this last mission were the witness of a major natural disaster in the 80s, considered the deadliest lahar in recorded history (A lahar is a combination of mud and debris flows.) On November 13, 1985, a small eruption produced an enormous lahar that buried and destroyed the town of Armero in Tolima, causing an estimated 25,000 deaths. The devastating tragedy is still a frequent topic of conversation with locals in the area.
In this type of rough environment, the flying conditions are rather extreme. Very strong winds rapidly increased as we progressed on the ascent. There were constant transitions between sunshine and rain, making the flight operations a permanent challenge.
In conditions like this is when I really love the new propeller system. The propellers are so quick to change. Just a matter of pushing and twisting. This was very convenient when I wanted to take off quickly, before the impending rain reached us.
It is clear to me that the P4 is more agile and precise than its predecessor the P3. When I fly in rough conditions, it gives me peace of mind knowing that I can trust my gear. As you may know, the new magnesium skeleton reduces the platform weight and its stiffness minimizes vibration. I would say that overall this drone is more balanced. DJI added the much-needed redundancy. The Phantom 4 has two IMUs and two compasses. Needless to say it’s a good practice to calibrate your platform each time you set a new home point.
Our starting point for this adventure was the small, colorful Colombian town of Murillo. Work days in these rural areas start well before dawn. In complete darkness, we started our ascent to up to about 4,800 m. (15,748 ft.) The landscapes were quite surreal. As we got to the Páramo zone, the vegetation was dominated by endemic plants such as bunchgrass and Espeletia. The Nevado del Ruiz volcano lies within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a region that contains some of the world’s most active volcanoes.
For some reason, in several points of the ascent there was not enough GPS signal. As I mentioned on previous articles, I think it is crucial to develop good manual skills for situations like this. And while I am very comfortable flying fully manual. However, having an array of downward-facing cameras and sonar sensors (Visual Positioning System) on this system, allows me fly without totally relying on GPS.
When you take off from a cliff in high altitude, seeing your quadcopter conquer the air, flying over rivers, waterfalls and other stunning geological formations, in areas where not many humans have stepped on, I guess the feeling can be described as happiness. I had to work hard to stay focused and pay attention to the wind, which is quite powerful at this altitude.
The P4 is also particularly useful to achieve stable flights indoors. For instance, if you try to fly into something, the P4 will stop and the transmitter will start beeping. This system has its limitations, so don’t blindly rely on it. The horizontal and vertical sensors are fixed on the frame, so depending on your speed, you could potentially hit objects above the quadcopter. Keep an eye on this. Objects can only be detected directly in front of you.
As when shooting with any camera, always go for the maximum resolution available. On the P4 that implies filming at 4K (3820×2160) at 30 fps. You can now produce very cool slow motion footage by recording at 60 fps or 120 fps. I will not elaborate on the built-in features, but I feel active track is a wonderful tool for any filmmaker. Remember to always do slow moves when filming from the air. We don’t need our viewers to get dizzy while watching our footage. And if you are still a beginner, flying straight-in or out works quite well. And of course, don’t forget the concept of continuity, allowing your subject to enter and exit your frame.
Once back into town, I connected with the local “Tolimense” folkloric dance group to photograph their dancers with the P4 for World of Dances, a project that mixes dance with local flavors highlighting intricate architectural and spatial relationships.
In a world of digital tools, drones will very soon become a brush, a palette and why not, drones may become actors of our very own creations. I believe DJI has set new standards with this platform, and I can only imagine what the future will bring to us.
Special thanks to Heriberto Valencia Gomez, Secretario de Salud, Desarrollo Social y Comunitario from Murillo City Hall, Matilde Antia Ruiz, Director of the Yulima Foundation and the dancers from Aires del Cumanday.
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