We recently had a chance to spend some time with the most advanced all-in-one video drone on the market, DJI's Inspire 1. It's a clear step forward from the Phantom 2 Vision+ we've been playing with lately, but what's it like to fly, and where does it sit against DJI's new Phantom 3?
The Inspire 1 is a physically bigger quadcopter than the Phantom 2. It's a little more than twice as heavy, and everything about it from the chunky props and motors to the battery, the carbon fiber arms and the camera itself looks beefier and more durable than its little brothers.
With that extra physical beef comes extra power and range. At full throttle, the Inspire takes off considerably quicker than the Phantom drones, which are no slouches themselves, and at top speed it can manage 22 meters per second, or just a hair under 80 km/h (50 mph). That's a seriously quick piece of kit, and it opens up opportunities to film cars, bikes and boats in ways the Phantoms simply can't manage at their top speed of 16 meters per second (closer to 35 mph). It also feels a lot more agile in the air, changing direction a lot more suddenly. This is a machine for experienced operators.
Stability in the air is excellent – its extra size makes it noticeably more resistant to wind buffeting, and the Inspire also adds an extra layer of optical and ultrasound technology to keep it in position more accurately closer to the ground, and in situations where there's no GPS signal. A downward facing camera detects when the drone moves relative to the ground beneath it. This works at a much higher fidelity than GPS signals can provide, so you can fly the Inspire indoors and in difficult conditions and still enjoy very stable positioning.
The ultrasonic sensors provide a ground proximity reading that the drone can use to decide when to lower its "landing gear" – the props each have a landing strut beneath them, and as the quad rises off the ground, the arms with the props and landing gear on them are raised up so that the camera sits down below. This completely eliminates the annoying habit the Phantom drones have of getting spinning propellers in your video, even when the camera is totally horizontal.
Speaking of the camera, its 4K sensor gives an image light years ahead of the Phantom 2 Vision+. A rectilinear lens corrects the marked distortion of the P2V+ image, and the Inspire vision is crisp, colorful and clean. Still shots are 12 megapixel DNG raw files (or JPGs for the commoners) and the sensor provides a lot of dynamic range – you can pull a lot of detail out of the shadows and highlights in a RAW editor.
The Inspire is the first all-in-one, ready to fly package that makes way for multiple operators – add extra controllers and you can have a separate cameraman and pilot. The Inspire's camera rotates 320 degrees and tilts more than 90 degrees, plus there's a greater degree of manual camera settings control than with the P2V+, so if you've got a pilot watching the drone in the sky and making sure it doesn't run into things, a cameraman can take fine control of the vision.
It's worth nothing that the Inspire streams video back from the drone in 720p high def through its integrated Lightbridge transmitter, which operates beautifully up to 2 km (1.25 mi) away. That's an astounding range, you can't see the drone with the naked eye at a quarter of that distance. And it makes a huge difference to your ability to compose shots; the lower resolution feed on the P2V+ is far harder to work with.
The Inspire is a giant step forward from the Phantom 2 Vision+ as a complete aerial video package. But DJI recently dropped news of the Phantom 3, which we're yet to get our hands on.
The Phantom 3 Professional is a huge upgrade to the P2V+ that brings in what appears to be the same excellent distortion-free lens and 4K camera that the Inspire uses. It also uses Lightbridge to stream 720p video back to the controller at distances of up to 2 km, and uses the same visual and ultrasonic sensors as the Inspire to stabilize itself indoors and low to the ground, it'll fly for around 23 minutes where the Inspire can only do about 18, and it's much smaller and around half the price.
So where does the Inspire earn its higher price tag? Chiefly in its higher speed, greater power and multi-controller capabilities. The rotating camera on the Inspire, coupled with the fact that the propellers get right out of frame, makes it a much more convenient aerial filmmaking tool.
Filmmakers on a budget will be able to work around most of the Phantom 3's shortcomings using a little creative piloting, but the Inspire holds its ground as the most sophisticated and advanced all-in-one flying camera you can buy.