First Steps on the Drone Path

Bird’s-eye views are not normally possible unless you have a helicopter at your disposal. So when I found out drones were becoming affordable I bought and sold a few second-hand ones (starting in October 2016), experimenting with them a bit. I started with a seemingly (long story) dysfunctioning second-hand DJI Phantom Advance. Gave up on that in January 2019 when I got the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Elite Edition. That one worked fine, but I thought it was really bulky and noisy and somehow didn’t motivate me to use it. So none of them really ticked all the boxes, but thankfully I discovered an Indiegogo campaign for the Micro Drone 4.0, initiated by Extreme Fliers. The specs were amazing, the price was under $200 and I went for it straight away. It hit the required funding (over €1.5 million) in late March 2019, so that made me quite happy. Now all I needed to do was wait. I also ordered some extra batteries, at which time I had only spent a little over $200 (drone was €145, 3 extra batteries €65).

Those of you who have heard of the Micro Drone will by now already realise what I didn’t really want to realise until mid May 2020: the specs had deteriorated (in particular a flight time of less than 5 minutes per battery charge) and the entire device was not going to get delivered until after the summer (well over a year later than projected). In fact, the whole thing might indeed be a scam. Over 14000 comments on the Micro Drone’s Indiegogo page and a “backers unite!” effort to get their money back will provide you with plenty of disaster tourism to whet your appetite on.

Be that as it may, sometimes you’ve just got to take your losses and move on. Thankfully the Covid crisis left me with nothing to spend my holiday money on, so I could get a proper drone. Not second-hand, not via eBay, but new. And the kind backers at the Micro Drone page on IGG had been going on about another and much better drone to get as a replacement, the DJI Mavic Mini. It was about twice as expensive, but a flight time of up to half an hour on a single charge, and a range of up to 4 km sure seemed to more than compensate that. At just under 250 grammes (amazing!) you also don’t need to officially register it. I went for the DJI Mavic Fly More Combo, which included two extra batteries, a smart charger, propeller protectors, a carrying case and a bunch of spare propellers. More than enough to have a lot of fun with.

In the days between ordering the item and receiving it I watched quite a few videos n Youtube. There was a guy who made it fly 5 kilometres and back (over a flat landscape), and someone else who made it go up 500 metres. Exciting stuff, with beautiful videos as a result.

But it wasn’t until I actually got my hands on the Mini that I truly realised what it was like to have a properly manoeuvrable sky camera at my disposal. You suddenly view terrestrial objects in a different light, like how to approach them from the air, where to take off and land without trees or too many inquisitive people, which viewing angles would be most advantageous. It gives you a feeling of tremendous freedom, and a rekindled appreciation of places you visit, or even the town you live in. Seeing things from above is just, well, frikkin’ awesome.

Obviously, the first flights are adrenalin-fueled. The first time I got a “connection lost” message, or a “strong wind” warning made my bollocks drop and stomach knot. The first time flying over water. The first time you see a bird flying by under it. The first time you accidentally use  “sport mode” when you’re pretty close to trees. The first time you actually lose sight of where it is. When you see some birds showing semi-aggressive interest in it. But after a couple of flights you get a feeling of how to navigate and, quite literally, the sky becomes the limit.

PROS:

  • it is really very compact: drone + remote + 3 batteries fit in a modest 26x20x6 cm carrying case
  • single-charge flight time is almost almost 25 minutes or more, which is usually enough for at least 2 and usually more sessions
  • very good video quality, more than good enough for a non-professional user
  • easy to use for an utter novice such as I was (and still am, a bit)
  • nice automatic video shoot options (though you eventually won’t use ’em that much I guess)
  • very convenient “go back home” option to get it to fly back to where it took off
  • wonderful range

CONS:

  • no collision detection – if you pay no attention, it will just fly into things
  • no tracking option (I understand they didn’t include it in the software because otherwise DJI would not be abe to sell the somewhat more expensive models anymore)
  • the batteries take quite some time to charge (up to 90 minutes per battery)
  • the propellors seem pretty fragile
  • it sees where it is, and will automatically adjust maximum height depending on where it is, or even not take off near an airport (I can see how that could be a “pro” rather than a “con” for many people 🙂
  • flying at night is really not useful, the camera doesn’t pick up too much
  • the camera is always horizontal, so no yaw like on a helicopter

I made a bunch of short-ish videos of flying around Gouda that I edited (without sound) and put on a Youtube playlist in case you’re interested. Despite there being more cons than pros, I would unreservedly advise anyone who wants to get a drone that is more than a child’s toy yet no expensive professional one to get this Mavic Mini. The pros are much, much bigger than the cons, for sure. Expect to pay a bit under €500 for the Fly More Combo package.

Update on 27 September 2020: By now there are nearly 19000 comments on the MicroDrone IndieGoGo page and I have needed to replace two Mavic Mini propellor blades. I am still very happy!

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