Category Archives: Reviews

Parrot Bebop 2 improves on battery life, proves winner in the range of $500 drones

Last year I told you about the Parrot Bebop, my favorite drone for someone looking for good quality images but for less than $500.

Parrot just launched the $599 Parrot Bebop 2, a refreshed take on the original Bebop 1. The Bebop 2 will be available to the public on Dec. 14, but Parrot let me give it a whirl ahead of time.

The drone is mostly the same as the Bebop 1 but with technological improvements — an impressive 25 minutes of battery life — pretty much doubling the flight time of its predecessor.parrot bebop 2

The drone is easy to fly — able to maintain altitude and is easy enough for a kid to control. But it’s also a little more hoppy than counterparts like the smooth (and for some, arguably too slow) Yuneec Typhoon which could provide a layer of excitement for someone who finds joy in maneuvering the copter while in flight rather than just getting video footage.

I love the Bebop for taking on a vacation – at less than 18 ounces (about the weight of one and a half cans of coke), it’s incredibly light. But’s it’s powerful enough to fly at 37 mph horizontally, or 13 mph vertically. That means it takes less than 20 seconds to hit 328 feet.

And the video quality is solid — a fish-eye camera digitally stabilizes the HD video on a 3-axis framework, a type of digital gimbal.

What really sets this drone apart from others is the Continue reading Parrot Bebop 2 improves on battery life, proves winner in the range of $500 drones

Eric Cheng’s new book on drones is the definitive ‘Drone 101’ textbook

eric cheng aerial photography book cover
Courtesy Peachpit Press

What was my intro to the world of two-pound flying robots? A college class — all about drones.

The class was taught in the journalism department at the Missouri School of Journalism. And as most classes in most journalism departments go, there never really is a textbook. The mantra my alma mater’s journalism department constantly proclaims and proudly splashes upon all its brochures is “The Missouri Method,” or in plainspeak, it means “learning by doing.” I generally adhere to that doctrine of teaching journalism — that is until we start teaching drones.

Like the influx of people now getting a hold of drones with no prior RC knowledge, I learned the hard way — after my drones crashed into trees and hillsides. After a propeller popped off and it fell from the sky and plummeted into the field. After a longtime drone expert yelled at me for nonchalantly tossing a LiPo battery to the ground; I had no idea they were so volatile.

Drones may be uncharted territory, but it’s territory that needs badly to be charted

To the applause of many students, this class relieved us of having to fork over $200 on a textbook we might crack open just once. It instead was a series of trial and error and wondering what would happen in the next week of a nonexistent syllabus.

And by all means, the class was wonderful, an exciting chance to try and fail. But in reading Eric Cheng’s new book “Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones,”  ($18.77) I can only help but think this is exactly what I needed three years ago.

Cheng’s book perfectly outlines everything a beginner to drones needs to know, from safety to a basic overview of how the equipment works, to tips for better photography. I can only imagine how much less clueless I would have felt three years ago had Cheng’s book been in my library back then.

It is the first primer to cleanly and clearly chart the territory of drones for beginners.

If there is only one thing you read in this book, it’s chapter one, which discusses the basics of drone technology — including balancing propellers, sensors, and batteries. It’s much needed for someone looking to quickly get up to speed on the technical know-how of drones but wants to cut through the noise and misinformation online.

Courtesy Peachpit Press

The book also capitalizes on Cheng’s immense background in photography (he formerly served as Lytro’s Director of Photography, DJI’s Director of Aerial Imaging and is founder of underwater photography site Wetpixel.

The last chapter looks at some of the work of Cheng — as well as the work of other guest photographers including DJI’s Romeo Durscher — from shots flying over sharks to showing contrast of water color in oceans to looking at shapes in the ground from an aerial perspective. It’s inspiring — proof that aerial photography from an easily accessible copter like the Phantom isn’t just a fad for people with too much money to buy and photograph their property. It’s something capable of producing a growing genre of art. It’s an inspiring way to leave the reader: ‘you now know how this works, now do something fantastic with it!’

Snorkelers converge on two whale sharks at the aggregation off of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Courtesy Peachpit Press

There are a growing number of books geared toward beginners in drones, but without a doubt, Cheng’s is the first I would recommend. It tells me everything a beginner needs to know to fly legally, safely and not look like a completely novice with no idea what they’re talking about. Yet it is short enough to hold my attention by giving me what I need to know without drowning me in technical jargon.

Buy it on Amazon.com for $18.77.

It’s a must-read for anyone who owns a Phantom or other consumer-level drone — if only it could have been a must-read when I was a journalism student studying drones.

The coolest drone accessory you never knew you needed — a drone wand

yuneec wizardIn need of a holiday gift for the person who already has a drone?

The coolest drone accessory you never knew you needed this season is Yuneec Aviation’s Wizard.

The creators seemingly took the functionality of a traditional RC transmitter, simplified it (dropped the joysticks), and dressed it up as a Wiimote.

What does that make? A magical drone wand. (Okay, it’s called The Wizard). And it will have flyers feeling something like:

All too frequently, the concept of flying a drone with the two joysticks has users simultaneously doing something of the essence of patting their heads and rubbing their stomachs — and consequently crashing into a tree.

Yuneec’s Wizard, made exclusively for its Typhoon drone, puts controlling the drone into a single-handed remote.

This serves two major purposes: follow-me and a new feature Yuneec is calling “Point-To-Fly.”

Follow-Me: Follow-me functionality is not new to drones, including competitor drones the DJI Phantom and 3D Robotics Iris. But those involve either having the drone follow your RC transmitter, which can be clunky and awkward to have on you, or your smart phone, which you may not necessarily want to have in your pocket as you’re surfing or plummeting down the ski slopes. The Wizard seamlessly connects via wireless to the drone, and literally seamlessly connects to a shirt collar or pocket. It’s lightweight and is easily stored in a water-resistant carrying strap (though Yuneec U.S. CEO Shan Phillips tells me it’s not 100% waterproof…it can handle a pocket on a surfboard but probably wouldn’t survive your entire swim across the Bay to Alcatraz. Continue reading The coolest drone accessory you never knew you needed — a drone wand

Review: The incredible Yuneec Tornado drone with GH4 integration for $3,499

If Yuneec’s Typhoon drone is the BMW of drones (as I once called it), then its Tornado drone is the Hummer.

But that’s not to say it feels or flies like one – it just looks like how a droneified version of one would look. It’s huge, it’s powerful, and it houses one of the best cameras out there – the Panasonic micro four thirds camera sensor on a stabilized 3-axis gimbal.

———–

The first time I flew a drone for an audience in 2013, I was terrified. What if I didn’t get the GPS lock right but needed to return to home? What if it went haywire during takeoff and land and skidded across the ground?

That was the state of drones just 2 years ago. Less than steady or reliable, and if you weren’t 100% confident on a Phantom 1, you shouldn’t be flying an S1000. (For the record, I still haven’t flown an S1000).

So let’s just say I was terrified when I was asked to fly Yuneec’s new 11-pound Tornado drone ($3,499 on B&H photo) during a fly day at Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma, Calif. to demo some of their new gear—including the Tornado.

But I had no reason to be. The Tornado flies just as simply as the Typhoon, Yuneec’s competitor to DJI’s Phantom. If anything, it’s even more stable since it’s so large. The design is impressive. It can hold three rechargeable batteries, giving users about 40 minutes of flight time.

What really makes the Tornado a standout drone is the integration with the CGO4 gimbal camera (sold separately). The CGO4 gimbal camera incorporates a Panasonic GH4 micro four thirds camera sensor with a 3x optical zoom lens, housed on the 3-axis gimbal system.

Above is footage I took from the Tornado and CGO4 camera at the winery, not color corrected or edited in any manner to show true footage out of the box. I did notice the camera has a tiny bit of a rolling shutter effect when pointed directly into the sun, as seen in the shot pointing at the winery building.

Other things I love about the Tornado:

  • Smart design: Arms fold in so it’s easier to pack (relatively – it’s still huge)
  • Lightweight: It’s a carbon fiber frame so although it looks huge, it’s not unreasonable for a tiny person like me to carry
  • Ease of use in mind: even though it’s targeted for professionals, it still has all the safety features that Yuneec is eager to promote in its hobby drone, the Typhoon. The tornado includes return to home, auto landing, and five rotors for safety
  • Integration with Panasonic GH4 camera: of course! The footage looks amazing!

yuneec tornado drone

Yuneec’s products, like a fine sports car, are consistently sleek in design. More importantly, it’s stable. It stands true to Yuneec’s mantra of “easy to fly and safe to fly.” And that’s what’s so powerful about this drone. Someone flying a drone should be able to focus on the environment around them and the photos they’re taking – not the vehicle itself.

My expedition to Sonoma to demo the Tornado was with about a dozen people who had never flown a drone before, and each one of them was able to take off, fly and land the drone with no prior experience other than the Typhoon just minutes earlier. The Tornado is not for hobbyists (unless you are a hobbyist who has about $8,000 total to spare on the camera, drone and lenses). But for a filmmaker or anyone else needing mega high-quality video for professional purposes in a ready to fly product, this copter is a no brainer.

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Drone plays pivotal, refreshing role in sci-fi film “Rotor DR1”

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 11.32.01 PMHollywood likes killer drones. Over the past two years, drones have killed mutants in “X-Men,” attacked the good guy in “Elysium,” served as weapons in “Iron Man 2” and struck down shopping malls in “American Ultra.”

But Chad Kapper, who rose to fame in the drone community as former director of beloved web series “Flite Test,” is creating a new archetype for the drone in Hollywood. A drone stars as the protagonist in the movie “Rotor DR1,” a film produced and directed by Kapper in partnership with Cinema Libre Studio. It is set to release on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on October 20, 2015.

The film “Rotor DR1” hinges on a post-apocalyptic world where most of the population has died because of a viral outbreak, and the world has fallen into a state of disrepair. But, one thing kept working — the drones — carrying out monotonous duties like inspections and vaccine deliveries. One of the drones, named DR1, befriends the main character Kitch (Christian Kapper), a teenage boy on a mission to find his father. Along the way, he meets up with an abandoned and charismatic teenager, Maya (Natalie Welch), fights off the antagonists trying to track him down, and enters a drone race in one of the film’s most exciting scenes.

The film went into production in July 2014 with a budget of about $350,000. Written by Steve Moses, Megan Ryberg, Scott Windhauser and Seth Yergin, the film is more intellect than action. Not to mention it is gorgeously shot – though not a surprise coming from the creator behind Flite Test. But the real joy in this film is watching a drone come to life and shaping the story beyond the cliche’d prop of the villain’s weapon. Continue reading Drone plays pivotal, refreshing role in sci-fi film “Rotor DR1”

REVIEW: Lowepro introduces compact drone case

Lowepro DroneGuard drone case

This year’s hottest new drone item might not actually be the drones themselves, but the cases that carry them. The newest case to the market, the Lowepro DroneGuard series, is another high-quality case to enter the competition.

Lowepro has a history of making camera equipment cases and today announced a three-piece collection of cases designed for the Parrot Bebop, DJI Phantom 1, 2 and 3, 3DR Solo and other similarly sized quadcopters, with dedicated space and organization for accessories such as blades, props, mounts, cables and batteries.

The CS 300 is sized for the Parrot Bebop, while the CS 400  is designed for larger drones such as the Phantom. I tested out the CS 400 with my Phantom 1.

lowepro droneguard

The cases  are constructed of tough 600 denier polyester and use what the company refers to as “Lowepro’s FormShell technology for superior impact protection without added bulk or weight.”

The cases also come with removable backpack straps and dividers.

I’m a tiny person (4’10”) and I like this case because, while it’s big enough to transport my Phantom without even having to take off the propellers, it doesn’t seem bulky on my small frame. The rounded edges help give the case a softer look, but the case is most certainly large enough to hold batteries, an RC transmitter and anything else you would want to bring (I’m thinking snacks).

lowepro drone case
Lowepro (left) and ThinkTank (right)

Until the last year or two it had been pretty impossible to find a good drone case. I had been partial to Think Tank Photo’s Airport Helipak, but it’s much larger, and comes with a steeper price tag.

For the super-budget conscious, Lowepro also manufactures a DroneGuard Kit, essentially an ultra-portable tray rather than a case, but with grab handles and a rigid, durable base and honeycomb interior.

The Lowepro is a great option for someone looking for a relatively low-cost way to carry a drone in a safe, sturdy case without feeling too bulky. It’s light, smartly designed and makes drone transportation easy. Happy flying!

lowepro drone case phantom

 

Yuneec’s Q500 Typhoon might be the best consumer drone out there yet

q500 typhoon

There’s a newcomer on the consumer drone market, and it’s already a contender for gold.

Yuneec’s Typhoon Q500 4K is a newbie to the drone market, but you wouldn’t know based on the maturity of the copter.

The Typhoon (starting at $1,299) does it all — shoots 4K video on a smooth, 3-axis gimbal with video streamed through the RC transmitter to allow for first-person view flying.

The attention to detail on Yuneec’s drone is fantastic; a SteadyGrip hand-held device allows users to take handheld shots with the camera, there’s a “FollowMe” mode, and it comes with two batteries — a clear sign that the drone’s maker has the user in mind rather than trying to skimp on costs.

The drone is mostly ready to fly out of the box — just screw on the propellers, charge the batteries and you’re good to go. It carries beautifully — the flight is smooth and steady, not to mention it just looks elegant in the air.

RC Transmitter

The RC transmitter (what Yuneec calls a ‘Personal Ground Station’) really takes it to the next level by providing first-person view on the transmitter. To start with the bad news, the controller does look complicated — too complicated. There’s something beautiful about the sleek simplicity of DJI’s controllers. But for the good news, the controller is also the reason I loved this copter so much.  Powered by Android, the Personal Ground Station displays the camera’s video feed on a screen, eliminating the need to hook up your tablet or smartphone. The screen on the transmitter also helps guide pilots through changing settings on the camera or the flight mode.

The Video Quality

The camera captures:

  • 4K/30fps ultra high definition video
  • 1080p/120fps slow motion video
  • 12 megapixel photos with No-Distortion Lens

The RC transmitter allows pilots to control video resolution, white balance and light exposure during the flight. The camera offers a 115° field of view, allowing you to control whether the camera points straight ahead or downward. The camera isn’t perfect; I did experience some lens aberration when the camera pointed directly into the sun (see test footage video), but it wasn’t a huge issue. The camera can also record stills simultaneously while shooting video with the click of a button.

Here’s some test footage I put together while taking my drone out to test during a weekend trip to the American River (for review purposes, this video was not color corrected to show how the video quality looks directly from camera to computer):

The colors are not quite right — you can especially tell this in the scene facing downwards with the yellowish rocks on the water. The rocks and people are washed out, while the water appears too dark, a sign of too much contrast. The camera lacks the ability to see details on the ground, but in general, it’s smooth video perfect for consumer purposes.

The verdict?

The Yuneec Q500 Typhoon really is an incredible piece of equipment. Where DJI’s Phantom is the Mini Cooper (it’s cute, easy to fly, small, dare I say, even lovable), the Typhoon is a BMW — sleek, strong, powerful, gorgeous.

I can’t tell if the Yuneec is intended to be a competitor to the DJI Phantom or the Inspire, but it’s certainly a competitor to both in some capacity.

It’s priced nearly the same as the Phantom 3 Professional, and its specs are quite similar. But the Typhoon comes with a bonus of a full Personal Ground Station and two batteries (buying a second battery for the Phantom 3 will cost you $149).

Unlike the Inspire ($3,399), the drone doesn’t allow dual pilot operation, so my shots weren’t as good as they likely could have been had someone else been controlling the camera. It also doesn’t have the Inspires’ HDMI output, so users wouldn’t be able to record the live feed to a video capture device. But like the Inspire, the Typhoon offers a detachable payload, high-quality flight performance and a slick design that doesn’t resemble a toy a la the Phantom.

The Typhoon offers a wealth of features that – for the cost – may make it the best drone on the market yet. The camera could be slightly improved, but the design of the drone and attention to detail far outweigh the slight problems with the camera. I’m shocked by how low the drone costs compared to its competitors, and how far the technology has come in just a few years. I’m eager to see just what a possible Typhoon 2 or other Yuneec-made drone will be capable of doing.

The drone market is desperately in need of competition. DJI makes great copters, but they are Goliath in a market of very few Davids. Yuneec is a huge underdog; their name is largely unheard of against DJI or drones like the yet-to-hit-stores Lily, that survives solely off huge marketing hype. And then there’s this Typhoon, a greatly underrated copter that you can buy now. With a marketing push from Yuneec to become a household name the way the Phantom is, the drone market may finally have two Goliaths.

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Parrot Bebop: Here’s a drone with first-person video that costs less than $500

The Parrot Bebop drone flying around the UC Berkeley campus
The Parrot Bebop drone flying around the UC Berkeley campus

All my friends who know The Drone Girl exists: “Hey Sally, I’ve been seeing drones everywhere lately! I want to buy one! Which should I buy?”

Me (Drone Girl): “What’s your budget? Including camera?”

Friend: “Under $500.”

This is the dreaded question. And I get it way too often.

Well, it was a dreaded question, until I took the Parrot Bebop drone for a spin myself. Continue reading Parrot Bebop: Here’s a drone with first-person video that costs less than $500