DJI's US$1100 Phantom 2 Vision+ is the best selling camera drone on the market – and with good reason. It's a relatively affordable, relatively friendly and relatively easy to fly quadcopter that arrives nearly fully assembled and is easy enough for a beginner to operate straight out of the box, even if we recommend you fly something cheaper first to get the hang of things. It has a decent quality, tilt-controllable camera that shoots 1080p HD video footage and 14 megapixel photos, and the camera delivers smooth footage thanks to a multi-axis stabilizing gimbal. But it has a bunch of other tricks up its sleeve.
If you want to take aerial footage from a quadcopter, DJI's Phantom 2 Vision+ (P2V+) is an excellent place to start. It's basically the cheapest all-in-one, ready to fly solution with a properly stabilized camera on the market – and if you've tried to take footage with an unstabilized camera drone, you'll realize why that stabilizing gimbal is so important.
Out of the box, the P2V+ is simple to get going. Pull the packing plastics off the camera gimbal, twirl the rotors on, charge up the battery and you're just about ready to go. It connects to a simple controller unit and range extender, and sends out a Wi-Fi network you can join with your smartphone through the DJI Vision app.
Calibrating the compass takes about 15 seconds once you've got the hang of it, and then you're ready to fly. Accessing the camera through the smartphone app, you can see what the drone sees as you fly.
Flying the Phantom 2 Vision+Ease of use is one of the P2V+'s key selling points and as such, once it's in the air, it hovers steadily in place thanks to GPS stabilization, even in moderate winds. Once you're hovering in a safe spot (away from trees, power lines, buildings or anything else you don't want to crash into), you can look down at your smartphone screen and start driving the camera through the app.
The flight control scheme is standard mode 2 flying out of the box. The left thumbstick controls throttle and yaw, the right does pitch and roll. It the drone gets out of range, or the battery level gets too low, or the controller gets shut off, the P2V+ will fly to a predetermined altitude and then return to its launch point and land autonomously, which is one heck of a relief.
There's a couple of advanced flying modes, unlockable through a PC interface, that make excellent sense. Once unlocked, you can access course lock and home lock modes through a small switch on the top left of the controller.
Course lock mode changes the control scheme such that the right stick is locked to the orientation the drone was facing when it was first switched on. This means that no matter which direction the camera is facing when it's in the air, pushing the stick forward will move it in the same compass direction. Given how difficult it can be to get your head around flying a drone in standard mode 2 configuration as its orientation changes, this mode is super handy for novices, as well as for getting tricky camera shots.
Home lock mode comes in handy if the Phantom flies out of view and you lose track of where it is. Engaging home lock, you simply pull back on the right stick and the drone will fly back in the direction of its home point. Once it's within 20 meters of home, it should be visible again and you can resume normal control. Another nifty trick that helps you return the Phantom to the launch point without having to switch the controller off.
Course lock makes the Phantom extremely easy to fly, home lock is a nice emergency backup feature. Both come in very handy.
The P2V+ flies for up to 25 minutes on a single battery. You can maximize your flight time by moving steadily and not doing a lot of quick acceleration, but even with aggressive use you're still in the air for well over 15 minutes. Wi-Fi range is up to 700 meters in optimal conditions, but where there's trees or buildings in the way the signal can easily be broken. Maximal height is locked at 120 meters (on the Australian version we tested, which complies with local aviation law), but this restriction can be removed by connecting the Phantom to a PC.
At full throttle, it moves fairly briskly through the air going up or traveling horizontally, but speed is seriously limited on descent, presumably to help prevent crashes. I felt I'd be happier if I could bring the thing down quicker, but at the same time, the slow descent rate makes it very easy to land smoothly.
Groundstation – autonomous flight modeBy agreeing to a disclaimer in the mobile app, you can enable groundstation mode. This uses your phone's internet connection to download Google Maps data about the area you're in to show a top-down view of the area.
You can then tap on the screen to set multiple waypoints for the Phantom, choosing an altitude for each waypoint and a flight speed between them, with a maximum distance of around 5 km of flight, or however much less than that the software calculates your battery will take you. The drone will launch itself and move between the selected waypoints, leaving the operator free to control the camera. It's a handy way to capture a complex moving shot.
Red zones on the map show no-fly zones – around airports and helipads – that are off limits. The drone can either complete its trip and come home to land itself, or you can assume control again by flipping the right hand switch on the controller down then up again.
Video and photo capabilitiesThe key selling point for the P2V+ is its gimbal-stabilized wide-angle camera, which takes 14 megapixel photos, as well as 1080p, 30fps HD video. We found it to have a similar level of performance to a GoPro Hero 2. Footage is not as rich as on the GoPro 3+ or 4, and the Vision's inbuilt camera doesn't support 4K video or high framerates beyond 50fps. That said, the Vision can output photos in DNG RAW for editing, which is great, and while there's noticeable jitter and aliasing issues in the video, and sideways panning needs to be done extremely slowly, the video is otherwise sharp, and usable for lower end production, particularly once you run a filter to remove some of its fisheye effect.
Controls are fairly limited. You've got the ability to adjust ISO, exposure compensation and white balance, but there's no manual mode for precise exposure control using shutter speed or aperture. The video stream back to your smartphone stream is low-res and blocky – once you're up high it's difficult to make out any real detail on the ground below until you grab the SD card out and review your footage.
As a filmmaking tool, you'd probably want to step up at least to the 4K DJI Inspire (which streams back 720p footage to the screen, offers the ability for a second operator to control just the camera, and has a significantly better image sensor) or a dedicated large octa-copter rig, but for getting into aerial photography or just for pure enjoyment, the P2V+ is a wonderful place to start.
In the latest version of the P2V+ controller, as tested, you can control the pitch angle of the camera through a small scroll wheel on the left shoulder of the controller. This is a really useful update, as previously you could only control the camera angle by taking one hand off the controller and fiddling with controls on-screen, or using the smartphone's accelerometer to tilt it. The accelerometer tilt control was a little too laggy to be useful, but the scroll wheel does a great job if you're gentle with it.
We'd like to see more of the camera controls built into the main control unit – starting and stopping video, for example, requires you to take one hand off the controller to use the touch screen on your phone or tablet. But either way it's simple enough to use and the footage is stable and looks great.
Just a couple of years ago, you needed to be pretty handy with a soldering iron to put a camera drone into the air, let alone a gimbal-stabilized camera on a GPS and compass-stabilized drone. The P2V+ is deservedly a huge seller because it puts smooth aerial video and photography within the reach of beginner pilots, straight out of the box in a well-integrated and thought out package.
We're still gonna recommend that beginners pick up a cheap practice drone like the Syma X5 before jumping straight to the vastly more expensive Phantom. Crashes are a part of learning, and they're a lot easier to take on a US$40 toy than on a US$1100 Phantom with a delicate gimbal system and a lot more weight to do damage with. If you can fly a Syma or Hubsan mini drone, you'll find the P2V+ a breeze to operate.
Rumors abound of an upcoming camera drone from GoPro, as well as a possible Phantom 3 debut in the coming months, but as of right now, the rock solid, simple and powerful P2V+ represents outstanding value and an incredible experience for aerial photography and video.
Product page: DJI Phantom 2 Vision +