The Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4k is a camera mounted on a quadracopter and I've spent the last couple of weeks living and experimenting with it.
'Drones' are often in the news these days, but the reality is that there are many different variants as the markets for them explode into multiple market segments. There are low end toy/hobbyist drones, various midrange price points and high end automated devices that patrol and inspect terrain from above gathering data and feeding data back to owners.
There's a burgeoning scene around high performance FPV ('First Person View') acrobatic flying, where your vision is through your drone camera as you fly it via goggles. If you are in the Atlanta area and interested in this performance aspect of flying there is a major event called the F3 Expo November 12-15 at the Georgia Dome & GWCC.
I had a chat about about this separate area of fast, highly skilled flying with with organizer Chris Brann prior to trying out the Yuneec Typhoon, which is aimed at the beginner/everyman flyer and designed to be easy to use, and not a stunt device.
The mid range flying and filming market is currently very interesting and evolving fast, so I took up the opportunity to spend a morning at a northern California vineyard recently with Yuneec, who are a major global Chinese company, seeing their range of products and being shown how to fly them. Intel Capital have recently invested 60 million in Yuneec, indicating the anticipated rate of expansion of this interesting business space.
I've built and controlled radio controlled cars and boats in my past but have never flown a remote aircraft before. Yuneec's goal is to supply the core airframes and control systems for a wide variety of specialized uses while marketing a widely available mainstream range of semi automated products that are easy to use for the average person.
An example might be a realtor who regularly photographs property to sell and can now quickly capture compelling aerial footage to add to marketing materials. Aerial footage, now it's easy to record, is fast becoming commonplace and there's a huge market opening up to be captured. Usability is key to capturing the mass market....
Two years ago I was facilitating an innovation session with a well known amusement park who were looking for new revenue streams. I remember remarking that in a couple of years drone filming would be commonplace and that each roller coaster ride could be filmed and participants offered the footage for purchase when their ride finished. We are now at that point and it's not hard to imagine the Typhoon being used for this type of commercial activity.
Late last month I attended the California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Raceway near Bakersfield and Yuneec kindly gave me a Typhoon to capture some aerial footage. I also flew the Typhoon in urban settings and on the California coastline.
The following is what it's actually like for the newbie drone user once you decide to embark on capturing this type of video and still footage. There is of course masses of videos on Youtube filmed with Typhoons by skilled flyers, and comparisons with similar products such as the DJI Phantom 3 professional - this post is more what the experience of starting and getting up to speed is like.
The Typhoon and accessories live in a nicely designed, padded 19 pound, 18 inch square x 12 inch deep sturdy flight case with carrying handle. (It's also available in a backpack version).
Living with a drone obviously entails moving this around a lot, and a wheeled cart would make life easier for frequent users as it gets heavy and awkward fast when you're walking around. Once you arrive at a location where it is safe to get the Typhoon up in the air and filming, it is a relatively simple pre flight sequence to prepare for flight.
Included with the Typhoon is a separate 'Steadygrip' hand held camera mount. By unclipping the CGO3-GB camera from the drone and attaching it to this, you can use a Yuneec app on your smart phone as a monitor to control it as a surprisingly effective steady cam, making this a versatile image and footage capturing package.
Prior to my various expeditions and adventures I found it best to check everything before I left the house to make sure all batteries were charged and the equipment was all functioning properly. The old RC trick of putting colored rubber bands around charged batteries, and getting a pre flight routine organized will help you avoid unpacking everything after a long journey only to find you have a problem or forgot something.
Essentially you make sure the camera has a flash card inserted in it to capture your footage, insert a battery (they last about 20 minutes and you get two with the Typhoon), screw on the four rotors, then turn the Typhoon and the controller on.
The controller unit has two joysticks and a high resolution live display of what the camera sees, and since the purpose of the Typhoon is to record video once it is in the air you are essentially flying it through this screen in order to record your footage. If you've driven or flown radio controlled boats, cars or planes you'll be used to visually following the controlled vehicle around to control it. Since you are recording video, flying the Typhoon requires constant visual triangulation between the quadracopter, the high definition video screen on your controller and the area you are flying in, looking for obstacles.
The controller has a Tortoise or Hare mode. The former gives you slow, somewhat automated flight control, the latter much more agility and speed. A very useful 'home' button will essentially bring the Typhoon back to the controller and land it near to you.
If you're out in the wilds there is little stress around flying but around people, vehicles and property great care has to be taken in taking off and landing.
It's one thing to be flying above deserted vineyards with experienced professionals around you and something else to be at a public event with a sizable flight case of equipment to assemble and get into the air and pointed in the right direction. I wish I'd had more time practicing and experimenting with the Typhoon prior to arriving at the busy Famoso racetrack for my first solo filming efforts, but all credit to Yuneec for making an easy to use setup that really just requires a bit of flight time to gain confidence and familiarity.
Famoso drag strip is where a lot of very expensive cars are going extremely fast. There is a fear factor in putting any sort of aerial device up in public as there is always a chance it will come down and damage something or someone, or that you will crash it on a race track, lose it in the ocean or crash it into a tree or some other hard to retrieve place. I was very conservative, putting the quadracopter in tortoise mode, but still managed to mess up my take off and break a rotor as I hit a truck on the way up in the car park. (It didn't do any damage to the truck).
The lesson learned was to take off and land in plenty of empty space, you can always move location once the device is up in the air. My second attempt, shown here, was more successful and as you can see the picture quality is astounding and the steadiness of the device really impressive. You get an excellent view of what the camera sees through the controller and ability to pan the camera up and down, but no zoom. Bright sunlight is a problem as it can be hard to see the screen: I found the best solution was to hold the controller high to block the sun and so I could quickly see the Typhoon's location above. Rotating 360 degrees in place is very easy. Once you get competent it is seems reasonably easy to do fly bys, panning the camera on your subject. I would have loved to get closer to the racing action but decided to be cautious until i got more competent.
Following a hectic and epic weekend of racing action I had more time to experiment and fly in more mundane circumstances, and found putting the rotors on and getting the Typhoon in the air was a lot less stressful. I was able to get it above the utility poles and wires in town quickly. In urban environments you will quickly draw a crowd, not least from people who heard the rotors and wonder what you were filming. Small boys love it and you have to get them away from your landing area.
This past week I had time to experiment in mildly windy weather over the ocean off northern California cliffs. (flight is not advised in winds over around 14 mph) Again it's quite stressful watching the expensive drone flying over the ocean with seabirds flying by and coastal winds blowing. Despite my nerves I found the Typhoon to be very predictable. Interestingly the Typhoon seemed really stable when up in the air but a little twitchy on take off and landing in a flat car park. As you can see the footage I shot is glassy smooth, and the stability remarkable. I was able to see all of this in real time on the screen once the Typhoon was up in the air. This makes it easy to make sure you are capturing the footage you need as you consume your battery power while in the air - a major advantage over flying and hoping a 'blind' GoPro or Ion camera will record what you want as you fly around.
The Typhoon descends pretty rapidly when you hit the 'home' button and there may be some flying required to navigate it around obstacles as it descends back to you. Once it is about a foot off the ground it does a couple of experimental 'touch downs' before finally landing and turning off. What you can't see, except for the 'ground action' at the end of the video here, is that a gust of wind blew the Typhoon three or four yards under my car as it was landing, shattering all four blades. I therefore found this was a time to be particularly vigilant and ascend rapidly back up again if there were any landing issues.
The blades are a consumable and are available at Best Buy and online for around $30 per set of four. The Typhoon comes with two sets and two quadcopter batteries. These seem to be the only extra costs and I'm pretty sure a new user will go through a few blades as they learn how to fly...I know i did. The blades seem to shatter before damaging anything you might hit, which is reassuring around cars and people, but I've heard they can cut you if you aren't being sensible.
I also tested a separate Yuneec product, the ' wizard', a TV remote like controller that you can use to fly the drone 'blind' and to allow it to follow you around at up to 22 mph. This means for example that you could launch the Typhoon, snowboard down a mountain with it following the wizard on your sleeve from an angle you set up, and then land it. I attempted to pair the typhoon with the wizard at home prior to my recent trip to the ocean but couldn't get it to work. I also had to call tech support from my car to rebind the main controller to the Typhoon. The call wait time was 20 minutes on a midweek lunchtime and Sergio, the tech who helped trouble shoot my problem, walked me through how to solve the problem successfully. To be fair I should have read the instructions properly.
So in conclusion, a highly successful semi automated flying experience that enables incredibly stable, high quality video and still aerial photography. Most of the 'hobbyist' learning curve has been taken out, making the basic flying experience pretty straightforward. Despite the slick product design and packaging (including graphics manuals i didn't spend enough time reading), there are still inevitably some complexities and skills that need learning and the usual wires and wall warts to recharge batteries and devices.
I wasn't able to view the raw footage on my warhorse early model macbook air as it couldn't display all the data without hiccups and pauses, but a new MacBook pro was able to play the footage back smoothly from the memory card. Uploading to YouTube was simple and the resolution of these videos will go up to 2160dpi if your bandwidth will play that back, which is pretty amazing and futuristic. What you see here is essentially what I see on my memory card.
For anyone in the visual professions and for those who need a low end aerial visual monitoring device this seems like a very well thought out and easy to use package that would be extremely useful and easy to work with. They are being mass marketed through Best Buy which is encouraging for longer term spares and service longevity.
My only question would be at this price point how long the Typhoon will be cutting edge given the rapid pace of innovation in this area. The caveat to this is that this is a well integrated complete package of visual controller, camera and Quadracopter in a space where there is endless futzing with Go Pros and semi matched components. For my knowledge of this space I'd go with the Yuneec package to get up and running having seen the excellent and controllable image quality.