Even with recent price cuts a modern drone is still a fairly hefty investment. Can a complete newbie fly a drone without breaking it? We borrowed one from DJI to find out.
Over the years one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was fly a model aircraft. And one of the things that has always stopped me was the thought that it was a lot of money to suddenly have on the end of an inexperienced joystick. One wrong move of the thumbs and Boom! that’s the sudden and abrupt end of a decently expensive hobby. A complete lack of coordination and fiery oblivion on various Microsoft Flight Sims over the years hasn’t exactly done my confidence in the area wonders either.
But, with all the tech that goes into a modern drone, they have to be easier to fly, surely? There was only one way to find out, and so the nice people at DJI let me borrow a DJI Mini 3 Pro W/ DJI RC to try.
The preamble bit
Okay, two things first. One, the Mini 3 Pro is astonishingly small. To get under various flight regs so that anyone can fly it without a license worldwide the drone has to be under 250g with battery, and the Mini 3 Pro is by a crucial single gram. Here it is below up against a suitable Nintendo game case for reference. It’s tiny. You take it out of the box and you can’t help harking back to the low end consumer drones that got sold en masse from mall-based ‘tech shops for guys’ a couple of years ago. (Two received as presents one Christmas, both crashed - thanks for asking.)
That all belies the fact though that this unit is a) more than 10x the price of those at over £800 and b) is stuffed full of clever electronics to make sure it doesn’t crash. And also allow it to do other things, but we’ll get to that later.
Second, only a complete optimist would decide to do all this at the start of a Northern Irish winter. I live just outside Belfast and while the drone arrived at the start of November, apart from having its photo taken it didn’t actually make it out of its box until the end of the month as Atlantic front after Atlantic front crashed in. They are hardy little beasts, the modern drones, but against an Irish storm they don’t have much of a chance, and this is a country that defines a mild drizzle as effectively a nice summer’s day.
There was a third wrinkle as well and that was living right on the edge of a restricted zone due to a nearby airport. That had never even crossed my mind as a factor. Registering your details and signing an online declaration where you say yes, you know what you’re doing, will allow you to get airborne up to about 60m on the fringes of such places, but inside them it’s a no no. As a result several of the places I’d thought about going to fly it for the first time once the weather cleared were strictly off limits, and so we waited…
Up, up and away
Eventually, four weeks after it had arrived, we finally got the chance. The time in-between had been spent looking at the wealth of tutorial videos online, both official and unofficial. There really is no shortage of information; the difficulty is wading through it all and navigating the occasional point where things disagree.
But, for what is a complex piece of modern technology, it is remarkably plug and play. The one DJI sent had the full RC controller, other versions use your mobile as a screen, and it guides you through set up and take off with considerable ease. There are a few things you need to work out and a few bits of terminology that you need to lock down first, such setting the RTH altitude higher than any surrounding bits and pieces of solid obstacle, but nothing to faze anyone with a passing acquaintance of modern tech.
So, you charge the batteries, set out into a field, place it on the ground, press the icon at the side of the screen, and the rotors whirr into life. It then ascends to a height of 1.2m and hovers there.
And this is what makes it fabulous and fun and unlocks so much other stuff further down the line. Admittedly this was a still day, but even still days in Northern Ireland can be gusty and for such a tiny machine its stability is amazing; take your thumbs off the joysticks and it just hovers, making minute wee adjustments all the time to keep it in place. Get into bother or lose your way or change your mind and you can just stop what you're doing and let the drone wait patiently in midair while you sort yourself out
You get up to 34 minutes of flight time out of a single battery and we had the Fly More kit with us so potentially an hour and a half of flying. And so we started doing just that, whizzing it all round the field, marvelling at how well the RTH (Return To Home) worked once you pressed it, how good the auto land was, hovering it at head height and walking round it…all that stuff you do.
My daughter, Freya, is 11 and she took to it like a duck to water, all of a sudden proving remarkably difficult to lever off the controls. The drone is small enough to quickly lose visual on once it gets a few hundred metres away from you, especially if you have a noisy background (the actual range is billed as up to 12km, but that feels like an awful long distance for a small drone). So, when we did lose track of it, I just had Freya rotate it until we had a visual of where we were on the RC screen and then fly back. Plus, of course, we could have just stabbed the RTH button and it would have come back to us automatically (and that function is impressively accurate).
Meanwhile, the point of all this…
All of which though rather reminded us about the camera and the fact that we were flying a modern drone designed to take 4K video. However, by now there was some weather about, so we were going to be limited on time.
There is a huge amount of very clever automated photo modes available in the RC where the drone will basically lock onto a given target and then fly set patterns around it. It will circle, it will spiral up, it will track objects from the side… it will pretty much do all the stuff that you can a) think of but b) have none of the piloting skills to do and c) it will do it automatically.
Reader, we had none of the time left to investigate any of it. A band of drizzle was making its way down the Lough towards us and if we were going to get anything to share out of the experience we had to be quick. So we popped it up to 100 metres or so and did a slow, inexpert twirl of the landscape. You can see it below. It’s ungraded (watch out for the forthcoming ‘Can a complete newbie drive Resolve’ article if more than a dozen people read this) and not exactly smooth either. There is an automated way of doing this, but it was in a sub menu we hadn’t really investigated yet and the air was starting to feel damp.
Now, now, be polite…
So, look it is what it is; a newbie’s first attempt at drone photography. It’s not great but it was something we created first time out. And, to be honest, when I initially came up with the idea of writing this feature, I would have been pleased as punch to think I could get anything close to that in a first session.
Plans were to go out a couple of days afterwards and start investigating some of the more creative aspects of the software, but then the weather intervened and Northern Ireland got plunged into a — for it — significant cold spell. The drone might be rated down to -10℃, but its pilots aren’t.
So, we hope the weather will abate, and work and all things Christmas will align, so that we can report back in rather more depth on what you can actually do with it before it has to be packed up and shipped back to DJI once more. Y'know, something approach a review
But, for the moment, at least we’ve answered the question. Can a complete newbie (and his daughter) fly a drone? Hell yes. And it’s bloody good fun too…