Eye in the Sky: Review of the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced

DJI’s Phantom 3 is the latest iteration of their Ready-to-Fly (RTF) consumer-grade quadcopters or drones, as they’re more commonly called. For the longest time I’ve always wanted to buy a remote controlled (RC) aircraft to the point that I even bought 3 small helicopters from local toy stores. When Henry’s Professional, a local camera and photo supply store, started bringing in DJI products as an authorized dealer, the Phantom suddenly became within reach of Philippine customers. Retailing at 48,999 PHP, or around 1,083 USD (1 USD = 45.22 PHP as of 16 July 2015), local prices are pretty close to the U.S. retail price of 999 USD plus sales tax (ranges from 5% to 9.45% depending on the the state).  For cash-strapped customers, Henry’s Professional also offers the Phantom 3 at a 6-month, 0% interest deferred payment term using major local credit cards.  Since it is a bit pricey, my friend and I decided to buy the Advanced version and split the cost between us.

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Professional vs. Advanced

Before deciding on the Phantom, I admit I was hesitant because of another drone, the Solo by 3DR, which hit the U.S. retail shelves sometime last June. The Solo has advanced autopilot features, preset flight modes and full integration with a GoPro camera.  But beyond the product videos, I can’t tell you anymore as it is not yet available in the Philippines.  Being a sucker for instant gratification, we went for the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced.

Why the Advanced and not the Professional?  We took into consideration what we wanted to use it for.  My friend and now co-owner of the Phantom 3 Well is a professional photographer, and he plans to use it to take aerial still images.  As much as I would have liked to buy the more expensive Professional version, it didn’t really make that much sense for us to pay 60,999 PHP when both models use the same sensor (Sony EXMOR 1/2.3” with 12.4 megapixels) capable of taking photos in RAW (.arw) format. The only real difference between the two models are video resolution and charging time. Here’s a comparative table showing the differences in their specs:

Phantom 3 Professional Phantom 3 Advanced
Stills 12.4MP 12.4MP
Video 4K 1080p
  • UHD: 4096x2160p 24/25, 3840x2160p 24/25/30
  • FHD: 1920x1080p 24/25/30/48/50/60
  • HD: 1280x720p 24/25/30/48/50/60
  • FHD: 1920x1080p 24/25/30/48/50/60
  • HD: 1280x720p 24/25/30/48/50/60
Charger 100W (60mins from 0 to full) 57W (96mins from 0 to full)

For more detailed hardware specifications, please visit DJI’s site.

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First Flight

Due to vague regulations on drone usage in the Philippines, we had to be cautious on selecting the place for our first test flight.  We settled on an empty field devoid of people and structures somewhere in Alabang and nervously made our initial lift off.  Before the test flight, I did my homework by watching a lot of tutorial videos and reading various articles on pre-flight preparations and flight controls.  While it is always best to be prepared, the test flight was a breeze using the automatic Take Off command on the DJI Pilot App (available in Android and iOS).  The drone pretty much flies itself, and is smart enough to know how to maintain its altitude and position without me having to do it via the remote control.  Once the drone is up in the air, it was a matter of getting used to the controls to move it to where you want it to.  Left stick controls altitude and rotational direction while the right stick controls lateral movement (front, back, right, left).

The controller has a sleek and simple design, with a clamp to mount smartphones or tablets that will serve as your display unit or monitor. Advanced features and settings can be accessed within the Pilot App.

Here are a few sample shots we did during our first test flight:

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A trip to the Beach

When I was packing up for my Boracay vacation, I decided to bring the Phantom 3 with me.  I thought that this would be the best place to practice flying and take some aerial shots of the island. I bought a spare battery thinking that 20 minutes of flight time won’t be enough for practice. It was a good thing that I did because I discovered that you can’t charge the battery immediately after use. The battery needs to cool down to room temperature, which may take about 20-30 minutes, before the charger will actually charge it.

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I was nervous flying the Phantom 3 beachside because of strong winds, thinking that I might lose control of it which would then lead to it crashing into the sea. After flying for the first 10 minutes, those fears were allayed as the Phantom 3 was able to maintain its altitude and position thanks to its GPS system.

The drone needs a GPS lock first before taking off. The GPS helps when flying at high altitude where winds are stronger, as it prevents the drone from drifting off by maintaining the relative coordinates it receives from GPS satellites. The Phantom 3 also has the Vision Positioning System (VPS) initially introduced in DJI’s high end drone platform, the Inspire 1. The VPS consists of ultrasonic sensors with a down facing camera that searches for patterns on the ground to determine its position and make sure it stays where it is supposed to be.

Here are a few shots of Boracay from Station 1:

Shutterbugs and professional photographers alike will appreciate the ability to manually set the shutter speed, ISO, etc. on the Pilot App. Or you can just set it on automatic like a regular point-and-shoot camera. Here are some night shots taken with the long exposure setting:

Final thoughts

I am a frustrated pilot. Since I can’t really fly an actual aircraft, I played A LOT of flight simulators to overcome my frustrations.  Having a Phantom 3 is the closest thing I can get to flying.  But the Phantom 3 IS NOT A TOY! Yes, we get all excited and act like children from time to time when flying this thing but the Phantom 3 is certainly not a product for children. Prior to even considering the purchase of the Phantom 3, I practiced with toy helicopters, studied rotary wing flight dynamics and watched a lot of video tutorials on various quadcopters.

There’s also an issue of interference. It is always recommended to fly in a wide open space without obstructions. Since the drone operates on a 2.4 GHz band, wireless phones and Wi-Fi routers may interfere with controls if you fly it at home. During my test flights at the beach, there were cellphone towers nearby. At one point I lost my video feed above 300 ft. but I was still in control of the drone and just to be safe, I lowered the altitude until the video feed was back on.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of carefully selecting and planning where you intend to fly the drone.  General rules are: (1) Stay clear of populous areas; (2) Avoid airports; (3) Keep within the 400 ft. above ground level (AGL).  [See CAAP Memorandum Circular No. 21-14, series of 2014]

Is it a must have? If you dream of flying AND you actually have a professional use for it, a definite YES!  But if your aim is to play around and fly irresponsibly without any consideration for public safety, please don’t ruin it for all drone users and do us a favor by getting yourself an RC toy helicopter from Toys R Us.

[All photos taken with the Phantom 3 in this article are jpeg files taken straight from the camera with no post-processing.]

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