War of the Drones: DJI Phantom 3 vs. 3DR Solo, Episode 3

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

Today is Day 3 of our 5 part series this week entitled “Holy crap, now I need to learn how to do this other thing, too?” — in which I’m handed two of the hottest drones in town (the 3DR Solo vs. DJI Phantom 3)  just long enough to put them through their paces as a first-time drone operator. Today, I get the birds in the air, make all kinds of mistakes, find unexpected things happening, and in so doing learn a great deal.  Overarching point #1? Mistakes are part of the process, though I have no doubt some of you will make none of the ones I did, while some of you will make new ones.  Please feel free to share! Overarching point #2: even if I'd been perfect, nothing is perfect, from glare on the iPhone 6 and iPad Mini 3 screens  to DJI updating its Pilot app to a new app altogether (DJI GO) without mentioning it (no email, no nothing — I show up at the airfield and suddenly the app is gone, and something that at first looks like an online marketing brochure shows up in its place). Overarching point #3: flying these things is a LOT of fun. Onward.

Remember The First Time You Flew a Kite? This Is Similarly Exhilarating. But Much Harder.

I went out to the VFSS RC Club airfield three times in the course of five days, and by the end I was already itching to go beyond the Solo’s Smart Shots, looking to explore the performance envelope of the Phantom 3, and harboring ambitions of following RC planes as if I were Howard Hughes shooting HELL’S ANGELS.

Hold that thought.

There is something deeply satisfying – maybe it’s a guy thing – about mastering a piece of machinery and manipulating it from a distance. I think many of us first discover this when flying a kite.

On the other hand, kites are much bigger and more colorful (thus easier to see), and you have a physical connection via the string. Quadcopters have no such organic feel to them – there’s no feedback through the joysticks (a good AND bad thing), and at 300 feet up (the maximum height I took the Phantom 3) I couldn’t see the darned thing at all.

And even with the good folks at VFSS, I made just about every mistake or suffered most every misfortune a newbie is likely to experience, all in service to you, dear planet5D readers.

· I loved that I could use – both manufacturers expect me to use — my iPhone or my iPad mini as a monitor and touch screen complement to their controllers, but both iOS8 devices (all smartphones and tablets, really) are horrible in direct sunlight. They’re not bright enough, and the glare is terrible in bright sunlight. This made it exceptionally difficult to see the screens (and therefore what I was filming), even when I came back the next day with DIY sun hoods. Sun hoods and anti-glare screens are MUSTS.

· I was so anxious about how much I wanted to learn that I didn’t read closely the absolute minimum I had to learn: the quick start guides. I use my GoPro (Hero3+ Black) so infrequently that I have to relearn every time what little portion of the totality of its capabilities I use — and two buttons and a tiny menu don’t make me happy. I was so busy switching from “Superwide” to “wide” that I didn’t notice the setup guide recommended “medium” to avoid props entering the frame and – in my case – the copter itself in the extreme upper right corner. I didn’t know I could invert the image of the GoPro (even though it’s right there in the setup guide as well and probably one of the first things any self-respecting GoPro user learns), so I flew the Solo with an upside down image (you mount the GoPro on the base model upside down) and flipped it in post.

The second time I flew the Solo with GoPro I knew about its inverted mode, and set it. I forgot, however, to hit record. The image looked fine while I was flying it, but…no footage. The third time, I couldn’t get the feed to work properly among the GoPro, Solo and iPhone, so I had to fly only as far as I could follow it from the ground with my own eyes. Yeah, the shots didn’t work out well, although recording to the GoPro itself was fine. Turns out all it took (confirmed by 3DR Tech Support) was setting the GoPro to 1080/60p medium – though it would be better if 3DR’s literature put out in big bold letters “Set your GoPro to inverted mode, 1080/60p medium FIRST” [NB: as one person has suggested, this might be a function of the GoPro HERO3+ model we used – I don't know].

DJI Phantom 3 4K vs 3DR Solo for Newbies: Hands-on First Impressions

· The first time I landed the Phantom 3, I cut power just as the guide says I should – and it promptly flipped on me. A few wipes of a paper towel and a little Windex on two of the rotors were all that were required to make everything right again, but I was confused. We found a thread in the DJI forum addressing this exact problem – turns out the instructions need to be updated. Whew.

· At one point I began to get carried away by the speed of the Phantom 3 and — misjudging distance and height — nearly put it into a stand of trees. There’s no obstacle avoidance on the DJI nor the 3DR, so in this case it was the calm but urgent warning from my partner Claudia that saved the day.


· I didn’t have time to learn how to finesse rotation with either unit, so the footage for rotation is all very abrupt. I’ll call this less a mistake than an observation: “liso y sedoso” (a line from YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN which means “silky smooth”) takes time to master. Oh — and both devices allow you to tune panning speed with a couple of taps and drags inside the app. I didn't figure that out until afterwards.

· In an abundance of caution, I filmed two RC aircraft flying over the field from too great a distance, so the footage wasn’t nearly as exciting as I wanted it to be. But you know what? I’m not calling this a mistake, either. I’m calling it prudent. I’m also calling it a perfect example of why you should practice a good amount before trying complicated shots.

· The second day I flew the Phantom, I was certain I was going senile. The DJI Pilot app was nowhere to be found on my iPhone nor my iPad mini. Instead, there was some marketing-collateral-looking thingy in its place. Took me a good couple of minutes (again, with Alex’s help) to think that maybe this was a pretty radical update, and that the piloting functionality was somewhere inside. Turns out it was – but DJI didn’t tell me. Not cool when I’m already on the field, with other RC pilots lining up behind me for their turn.

· The Phantom also put up a screen telling me I had to update the firmware, and couldn’t do it over air and had to use a USB disk. This happened to me – again – while about to take off. I couldn’t remove the screen until Alex, with his younger and better eyes, saw that a back button would dispatch it, and we could get on with flying.

· I didn’t realize that I’d have to recalibrate the Solo every time I turn it on (turns out I didn’t) or pick it up and move it before lifting off (it turns out I did). Again, the pressure was on as other pilots waited their turn (to be fair, no one at VFSS was ever anything but very friendly and curious about these two birds).

You getting the picture?

Tomorrow, we get into my detailed findings of the similarities and differences of these two birds.

(cover photo credit: snap from the video)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
Hugh Brownstone

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