Welcome to the first article in our new Drone and Robotics Discovery Series, here on ZDNet. Like our 3D Printing Discovery Series, this set of articles and videos will be all about hands-on testing, tinkering, and exploring.
As with the 3D printing series, I'm coming at this unencumbered by the curse of knowledge. I'm new to drones, so we'll be learning and exploring them together.
We're kicking off this series with the DJI Mavic Pro. If there's any single drone that is the benchmark device, this is it. The Mavic has reached a level of popularity that has spawned a strong aftermarket of add-on devices, courses, 3D printable models, cases, and more. It is pretty much the iPhone of the drone market.
That makes it perfect for our kick-off for this series. As we explore this and other drones, we'll often be comparing them to the Mavic Pro. In my early experimentation with the Mavic Pro, I found out why it's so popular: it does just about everything right.
First, the Mavic Pro is small. Its propeller arms fold up, so you could put the entire device in a jacket pocket, or as I've been doing, in a single lens sleeve in my camera case.
It's also very, very stable in flight. In some of my early tests, I flew the Mavic Pro in 20 mile per hour winds, and the resulting video was amazingly stable. It's got a full range of intelligent features, including the ability to return to its launch point, explore a point of interest, follow the drone operator, and more.
As with all technology products, there are some limits on this approximately $1000 device. It has optical sensors in front, and on the bottom of the drone (in addition to its GPS positioning system), but it doesn't have sensors on top or in the back.
That means, for indoor flight, the Mavic Pro requires some care and finesse. It won't be able to sense a ceiling and, if you leave the return to home feature running, it may try to rise hundreds of feet in the air if there's a glitch in the signal. This could result in bashing into the roof, if you're not very careful to perform a special pre-flight check for inside flying.
I'm as interested in indoor use of drones as I am in outdoor use. I'm convinced that it may be possible to use a drone to replace a bunch of camera equipment, including a hand gimbal, a jib boom, or even a larger crane. In future articles, we'll test all that out.
Before I discuss more about the Mavic Pro, I'd like to send a special shout-out of thanks to the folks at Wellbots. These discovery series require a constant stream of hardware and gear to put together our hands-on projects, and it's with the support of vendors and partners like Wellbots, who provided the Mavic Pro to me, that I can get all the gear together to put these devices through their paces.
Stay tuned at the end of the article. Wellbots has a discount code for the Mavic Pro. Neither I nor ZDNet get any cut of sales -- they're just being cool and giving you a discount if you choose to buy one.
First experiences with the Mavic Pro
So let's get back to my first experiences with the Mavic. The kit I got came with a small controller, the drone itself, a single battery, and a charger. You can charge both the controller and the drone battery at once. There's a USB cable to charge the controller, and a special clip for the battery.
Once charged, the battery gives you roughly 25 minutes of flight time. So far, in my initial flights, I haven't even come close. But that's because I've been a bit nervous about sending the Mavic Pro too far away, until I'm completely sure I know what I'm doing.
Drone flying is a bit of a mind game. Think about it this way. It costs as much as a PS4 and an Xbox One X, together -- about as much as a brand new iPhone X. Now, imagine sending those expensive toys hundreds of feet in the air, and then thousands of feet away. It's nerve-wracking.
On my first flights, I was also constantly concerned that the device would just stop running and crash down on my head. Like I said, I'm new to this.
Fortunately, the Mavic Pro is a very solid machine, and it did most of what I asked of it. I did have a weird experience where it would work perfectly launching out of my back yard, but lose its connection to the smartphone app when I tried it at the park.
The difference was that at home I set everything up on a table in stable conditions in good light, while at the park I was fumbling around in the middle of a cold windy field trying to connect up all the devices. The micro USB to Lightning cable that attaches the controller to the iPhone is a little too short for Plus-sized phones, which makes attaching it somewhat finicky.
When I took the Mavic Pro to the park again, I used a slightly longer cable and everything worked flawlessly. I got some great video.
I would have had a really awesome video to show you if I hadn't forgotten to push the record button before I flew over the really nice view of a farm and its animals. Like I said, I'm new at this.
The Mavic Pro controller works with either Android or iOS phones. Initially, I thought I had to take my case off the phone to get it into the controller's little grippy arms, but the design works well enough with the case remaining on the phone. The longer replacement cable helps as well.
One of the big advantages of the popularity of the Mavic Pro is that if you want to use a larger tablet as your control surface, there are a whole bunch of controller add-ons that make it possible to mount all sorts of screens to the controller.
I've also been testing the Parrot Bebop 2, which is roughly half the price of the Mavic Pro. One of the bigger advantages of the Mavic Pro is that it has a removable Micro SD card, where you have to plug the entire Parrot drone into your computer to download images, or wait a rather long time for the vides on the Parrot to transfer to your smartphone wirelessly. I'll showcase the Bebop in a later article, as well as other drones that are coming in for this series.
Although I'm not including a video with this article, I will be publishing a bunch of videos showcasing the Mavic Pro. I haven't quite figured out how to film a drone while controlling it. When I do, I'll not only have videos for you of the drone, but I'll do a Discovery Series article on how to film drones in action.
The Mavic Pro comes with a 4K camera, along with an entire array of image customization options in the app. For all intents and purposes, the Mavic Pro is really a high-end 4K camera that just happens to fly. That means you can do things like record using specialized color spaces, adjust a wide range of photographic settings, manage white balance, and more.
Getting started flying
When you start using the Mavic Pro, you have to do a bunch of calibration procedures. You need to rotate the device both for the inertial measurement unit and for the GPS. Once that's done (and I only had to do that once, so far), you're ready to go.
Flying involves removing two plastic brackets, one to protect the gimbal on the camera from flopping around while you're carrying it, and one to protect the lens. The camera gimbal itself doesn't rotate left or right. You accomplish that in the air by rotating or sliding the drone.
And yes, I forgot to remove the plastic protection housings on one of my flights. Fortunately, I figured it out pretty quickly and returned the drone to the ground. It is really important to remove these units, because the aircraft is cooled by an air intake right behind the camera. If you leave the protective cases on, the drone engine can't vent, and might overheat.
The gimbal on the aircraft rotates up and down in response to how you move a little thumb wheel on the back of the controller. That lets you point the camera straight ahead, straight down, or anywhere in between. Moving the gimbal down in flight feels like using an arm on a tripod. It's that stable.
You can even increase the stability of the flying platform more by entering into Tripod Mode. This reduces speed and motion considerably, but locks the drone in place in the air. Imagine that you rented a crane truck and stuck your camera on a tripod on that crane, and you get a feeling for how stable this thing can be.
Autonomous flying vehicles
Drones have a lot of benefits. Certainly, for professional filmmakers, the Mavic Pro does a good job. Big budget movie makers may want to use much larger drones that can lift full-size cameras with heavy lenses, but for many kinds of everyday filmmaking, the Mavic Pro is more than enough camera platform.
It also has many other uses. For example, you can use a drone to inspect a roof after a storm, without having to climb up. Not only are you able to see any damage, you can record it and provide those recordings to your insurance company.
Many years ago, I bought a couple of radio controlled helicopters, thinking I would happily fly them around. it turned out the learning curve was huge, because there's no friction in the air. When you lift a helicopter, all the work is done by the pilot to constantly compensate for the wind, rotation, position, and the fact that the thing is supposed to float in the air.
RC helicopter flying is not for novices. I crashed my helicopters numerous times and not once was I ever able to establish a solid hover. On the other hand, with drones like the Mavic Pro, getting something to stay stable in the air -- even in 20 mph winds -- is merely a matter of pressing an on-screen button.
Drone piloting becomes knowing about flight rules and composition, and less about how to manage the collective pitch control, the cyclic pitch control, and the tail rotor. You just move the drone forward, back, left, right, and up and done, and the AI inside the drone does all the fancy piloting work. It's truly amazing.
Mavic Pro popularity
As for the Mavic Pro, there's a reason it's so popular. You really can't go wrong getting one. Sure, you can get something less expensive or something far more capable in terms of lift capacity, but if you're starting out, have the money, and want to go for the most mainstream drone possible, the Mavic Pro is a clear win.
DJI has recently announced the Mavic Platinum, which is a slight upgrade on the Mavic Pro. It has quieter props, gets a little more range on one battery charge, and is a slick silver color. That's about a hundred bucks more. If you don't care about the hundred bucks, get the Platinum. If you want to save a few dollars, get the Pro. Both are essentially the same device, with the same camera, and well worth considering.
As I mentioned earlier, the Wellbots folks were kind enough to provide the drone. They're also providing a hefty hundred dollar discount if you decide to purchase a Mavic Pro from them. Use the discount code ZDNET100. Neither I nor ZDNet get any sort of fee or bonus if you buy. It's just nice to be able to share a good deal with you.
Let me know about your drone experiences in the TalkBacks below. If you have any ideas or suggestions for this new discovery series, please be sure to let me know. This is exciting stuff. Just remember to press the big red button if you want to record video. Pro tip.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.