Last year, we were at the unveiling of the DJI Inspire 1 at Treasure Island. The impressive-looking drone came flying out from behind the stage, and dropped down over the crowd looking like some sort of surveillance drone out of Robocop or Half-Life 2. The crowd was astonished to see the live-stream from the included lightbridge controller on the big screen at the back of the stage, and even more impressive was the 4K camera included on the multicopter. Now that we’ve finally gotten our hands on one, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and see how it stacks up in the grand scheme of the DJI lineup.
This new multicopter has included technologies that have been applied else in the industry, but which have not really been seen before on DJI systems. In the way back history of multicopters (circa 2009), there was the Parrot AR Drone (v1). Its guidance system had no GPS, no barometer, no gyro, just accelerometers, a sonar to detect height and a downward facing camera to track the ground and see if it’s moving or not. It didn’t work out so well for the AR Drone. Moving from carpet to tile, or pavement to grass would “dampen” the sonar due to more diffuse surfaces, and the multicopter would suddenly rise or fall. Outdoor environments were limited to an altitude of 15 feet above the ground; past that, the sonar would lose track of the ground and either keep the drone at 15 feet or make it skyrocket away in an unrecoverable fly-away.
Wait, that all sounds bad, right? We thought so, too — at first. DJI was well-known in the multicopter community for their top-tier guidance systems well before the Phantom. DJI has so far been synonymous with high sample rates on the sensors, more sensitive sensors and better analysis of the data in their firmware resulting in more stable guidance. By adding the sonar and downward facing camera motif to their guidance toolset, DJI has brought more data to bear for those wonderful algorithms of theirs to analyze, leading to an even more stable flying experience, especially indoors. When we first flew the Inspire, it was hard to remember that it’s nearly twice the size of the Phantom. It’s so stable that it will leave you breathless. Mind you, at first we didn’t think so, but when we saw the trees in the background bending in winds we’d never dream of flying the Phantom in, we were impressed.
It’s so stable that it will leave you breathless.
The camera is pretty much amazing, considering it’s DJI’s first crack at a 4K camera. Why is that qualifier on there? We’ll get into that in a bit. This camera is more than adequate for any television production. Of course, don’t think it’s as good as a GH4 — it’s not. However, after you average out the good and bad with the GoPro HERO4, it’s a better camera than the GoPro with nowhere near as much lens distortion. Then, when you realize you can use a second controller to point the camera in any direction you choose, control the aperture with the included remote, snap pictures remotely and start and stop recording from the remote, you’ll definitely color yourself impressed.
One final note on the camera itself for this section: It can be replaced in about 30 seconds. That’s no exaggeration — we timed it. What does this mean? It means that as soon as they come out with more or better cameras, they can be swapped in on a whim!
The remote controller is substantial, well balanced and ergonomically designed. There could be some improvements made, but once you’re used to it, the switches, dials and controls do feel good in your hands. The remote includes a Lightbridge receiver, normally a $1200 add-on item to other multicopters. This means you get a low-latency full data and HD video connection in addition to the controls, so you can run applications developed using the DJI SDK, such as mapping software.
The airframe itself is extremely sturdy. Now this was an area we had some concerns about on first blush. Usually, H-frame multicopters have a bit of a problem with torsional flex on the main cross-beam. Given some of the problems with the older S-800 multicopter due to flexing of the airframe, we took this drone out into the middle of nowhere for its first flights. However, this airframe is way over-built for rigidity and strength. For instance, the mechanism for retracting the landing gear is a worm drive that cannot be forced manually. Given that the motors and props are part of the retract mechanism, this is a very good thing.
The props themselves are very large at 13-inches, with very powerful motors. The battery is 2X the voltage of the Phantom 2 (6S – 22.2V vs 3S – 11.1V), and everything is extremely tight and responsive — a stark contrast to the massive and thus sluggish Spreading Wings.
Prop scan lines, a common problem for drone platforms, are caused when the sun shines through the props at the lens surface, even without a sun flare. Since the sensors of modern cameras are most often CMOS — the HERO4, GH4 and Inspire cameras fit this specification — and CMOS sensors scan rather than capture a full frame at once, shadows from fast-spinning props can cause bars of darkness to appear on your video. However, since the propellers on the Inspire 1 retract upward as part of the landing gear retract mechanism, the props stay out of most shots, and prop scan-lines appear rarely if at all. Plus, the Inspire 1’s higher props add to the stability of the aircraft during high-speed flight.
The Not-so Good
Four rotors? There are a lot of good reasons to use four rotors, but there are a couple of big reasons to avoid it.
First, what if a motor fails? Rumor has it the Inspire 1 can still land effectively with only three rotors, but we weren’t really prepared to test that theory for fear of destroying the aircraft. However, a hexacopter (six rotors) can still get home effectively with a lost motor, and an octocopter (eight rotors) can still get home effectively with a two-motor failure. The moral of the story? Redundant motors are good.
Second, stability of the aircraft itself is improved by additional rotors. A six or more rotor aircraft is a whole lot less “twitchy” than a four-rotor aircraft. For performance, a four-rotor aircraft is pretty much optimal, but given that the purpose is shooting stable video, it seems like an opportunity to stabilize the aircraft a bit more is lost here by going with four rotors. It seems like too much of the “heavy lifting” in terms of camera stability is placed on the gimbal and gimbal dampeners.
When giving full throttle to ascent, and pushing forward on the directional stick — basically, both sticks pegged full front — a noticeable shutter-roll effect is apparent with the Inspire 1 at 4K UHD. If you compare the gimbal dampeners (the little rubber grommets) on the Inspire 1 with those on the Phantom 2 H3-3D, or the Z-15 GH4 gimbal on the S900, the grommets on the Inspire 1 are much softer and the camera jiggles around like limp noodle. To us, this is an indication of just how much vibration the designers were expecting to account for — a whole lot — yet it still failed to eliminate shutter roll at full power.
4K @ 60Mb/s isn’t terrible, but certainly also not much more than internet streaming 4K quality. Don’t let 4K buzz-word you into submission as HD did for videographers in the early 2000s. UHD is not cinema quality. UHD is 3840 x 2160, and Cinema 4K is 4096 x 2160. UHD is literally 2X HD 1080p resolution, and Cinema has a slightly wider aspect, and 256 more horizontal pixels. Basically, all this nerd-speak means that if your final format is 1080p — like say for broadcast television — this camera kicks some serious booty. However, between bit-rate and aspect ratio, you probably will want a Spreading Wings S900 or S1000 with a GH4 to shoot for feature films and higher-end productions.
First person view (FPV) on a phone? Look, that’s fine and great for amateurs, but if you’re doing serious filming, you are watching every frame so closely that you have to remember to blink. Getting 15 fps or even less by using a phone as a preview monitor is just unacceptable for professional production. This really isn’t a tick on the bad-side though as the remote does have an HDMI-out jack. It’s just a pet peeve for this author that their primary recommendations are to use a phone with their application as a monitor. We tried a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and the frame rate was nowhere near good enough to fly FPV and not smash into trees.
We ran this head-to-head with a Phantom 2/H3-3D/GoPro HERO4, and an S900/Z-15/GH4. We’re not going to get too into specification comparison here, instead focusing on how each performed in a practical way. So, how did the Inspire 1 stack up?
First, on the cost front, the S900 combination is around $12,000 when it’s all outfitted with the Lightbridge, batteries, controllers, camera, etc. The Inspire 1 is around $2,800, and the Phantom 2, when fully tricked-out, is around $2,500. Obviously, one of these things is not like the others. So, to even be compared with the S900, the Inspire 1’s quality is a steal of a buy. If you were to transpose the cost-ratio represented here, it would be like comparing a $28,000 Hyundai to a $120,000 super-car. See what we mean? You’d normally never be able to compare that kind of price difference, but in this case you can. The cost of the Inspire 1 does make it quite a steal for the money.
Second, on the video stability front, unfortunately, it did come in last here. This is solely due to the shutter-roll we experienced during our full-throttle test. If that hadn’t happened, all three performed at stellar levels with the S900 pulling a bit ahead.
Third, on the camera quality, the S900 with a GH4 is light-years ahead here. Of course, that Olympus 12mm lens is $800 all on its own, so you’d hope so, right? However, the Inspire 1 blew the Phantom 2 with HERO4 completely away, providing a nice image with very little distortion and almost no blurring at the edges of the frame. The glass does produce a great picture.
The color response on the Inspire 1 was also much better than the GoPro, but not as nice as the GH-4. Using Adobe Speedgrade CC 2014, we found it easy to color correct to beautiful, rich and vibrant imagery. In the low-light areas of the frame, definition was still reasonably clear without dancing artifacts or mud. Granted, the GH4 is far superior in all of these ways, but the Inspire 1 is close enough to still be amazingly worth the money.
Compression in the Inspire 1 is on-par with the HERO4 with each at 60 Mb/s, but neither of those are even close to the 200Mb/s of the GH4. Here, it really is as simple as a specification. The more Mb/s, the clearer the image quality and the more data to work with in post production. In fact, during a blind test, most editors prefer GH4 footage over even RED footage. However, at under $3,000 for a flying camera, are you really expecting that kind of quality?
The Phantom 2 isn’t even close on the controls front when compared to the Inspire 1. For that matter, we have to admit that the Inspire 1 is superior to even the S900. Why? An integrated Lightbridge, ergonomic controls specifically designed for the aircraft, smooth operation, and yes — it comes with a controller. The S900 does not come with any control, and you must get your own, program it and constantly tweak it until happy. The S900 took a week for us to get ready for production between assembly, tweaking, and test flights, whereas the Inspire 1 was ready in minutes. The Inspire 1 just works! Here, the Inspire 1 is head and shoulders above the others.
The Inspire 1 is kind of a mixed bag of nuts in the air. It feels at times deceptively small and snappy. At other times, such as during descent, it feels as though it may be the largest multicopter around. It takes a bit to get an accurate feel for it. The main theme of flying the Inspire 1, though, is that it’s almost a bit scary: it’s really easy to trust this aircraft. It just feels right. For that reason, as a pilot, you’re going to have to remember constantly that this aircraft is just like any multicopter: a flying food processor. If you’re not careful, you’re going to seriously hurt someone. If you’re an experienced pilot, you know what we mean. If you’re not a little scared when you fly, you may take things for granted. We love how easy it is to fly this multicopter in the hands of a good pilot, but we can’t help but be a bit worried that we’ll eventually hear of someone not ready to fly jumping above their navel and getting into trouble. For these reasons, we really don’t know how we feel about it. Bottom line: it’s even easier to fly than a Phantom, but much heavier and much more dangerous due to the large blades, and weight of the multicopter. Be careful, and don’t take it for granted.
DJI has built many quality products throughout the years. There are a couple of exceptions, but this is definitely not one of them. The Inspire 1 is a fantastic machine. Is it the perfect multicopter video platform? We don’t believe that has been invented just yet. It’s too large to fit through a doorway during flight so indoor flight will be limited, and the camera isn’t quite good enough for cinema. Is any tool in our trade “perfect” for any purpose? Certainly not. It does, however, fit a gap in DJI’s lineup very well. That gigantic gap between the Phantom and the Spreading Wings? That gap no longer exists. The DJI Inspire 1 is definitely a game changer, and anyone who purchases this multicopter with the right expectations will be thrilled to have it.
Dajiang Innovation Technology
- Sonar and downward facing camera allow for more stable flight
- Lightbridge receiver included
- Sturdy build
- Retracting propellers stay out of shot
- Only 4 rotors
- Noticeable shutter-roll effect at 4K UHD and full power
- Low frame rate for First person view via mobile device
Hovering Accuracy (GPS Mode): Vertical: 0.5 m, Horizontal: 2.5 m
Max Angular Velocity: Pitch: 300°/s, Yaw: 150°/s
Max Tilt Angle: 35°
Max Ascent Speed: 5 m/s
Max Descent Speed: 4 m/s
Max Speed: 22 m/s (ATTI mode, no wind)
Max Flight Altitude: 4500 m
Max Wind Speed Resistance: 10 m/s
Max Flight Time: Approximately 18 minutes
Weight (Battery Included): 2935 g
Dimensions: 438x451x301 mm
Battery (Standard): Intelligent Flight Battery TB47 LiPo 6S High voltage battery
Model: ZENMUSE X3
Angular Vibration Range: ±0.03°
Controllable Range: Pitch: -90° to +30°, Pan: ±320°
Max Controllable Speed: Pitch: 120°/s, Pan: 180°/s
Model: X3 FC350
Total Pixels: 12.76M
Effective Pixels: 12.4M
Image Max Size: 4000 x 3000
ISO Range: 100-3200 (video), 100-1600 (photo)
Field Of View: 94°
Sensor: CMOS Sony EXMOR 1/2.3”
Lens: 20mm (35mm format equivalent) f/2.8 focus at ∞
Video Recording Modes: UHD (4K): 4096 x 2160p24/25, 3840 x 2160p24/25/30, FHD: 1920 x 1080p24/25/30/48/50/60, HD: 1280 x 720p24/25/30/48/50/60
Max Bitrate Of Video Storage: 60 Mbps
Supported File Formats: Photo: JPEG, DNG, Video: MP4/MOV (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264)
Supported Media: MicroSD upt to 64 GB. Class 10 or UHS-1 rating required.
Operating Frequency: 5.725~5.825 GHz, 2.400~2.483 GHz
Transmitting Distance: up to 2 km
Video Output Port: USB, mini-HDMI
Power Supply: Built-in battery
Mobile Device Holder: Tablet or Phone
Mobile Device System Requirements: iOS 8.0 or later, Android 4.1.2 or later
Ty Audronis is a professional multicopter pilot who has shot for Discover, Sci Channel and the like, authored books on the subject and has spoken at various venues including the Academy of Motion Pictures about multicopters.