It seems that “Pro” will go down as the 2016 buzzword for prosumer products, or in the Mavic’s case, wannabe prosumer products. Late 2016 saw the introduction of two new “Pro” drones from DJI – the Mavic Pro and the Phantom 4 Pro. Since I was in the market for a backup drone for the business, I bought both. I now have all three drones listed in the title of this blog post, so lemme share my thoughts on each:
Before I begin, yeah these are all DJI drones and yeah, I was the guy who said I’d never own a DJI drone. DJI customer service of “so sorry your drone flew away; please buy another” has always rankled me as hugely inappropriate and insensitive. And yes, the level of trust I have with each successive DJI firmware upgrade is minimal. However, a great analogy I heard was that DJI is like the Empire of the drone world where 3DR (R.I.P.) and Yuneec are the Rebel Alliance. Aerial photographer Parker Gyokeres put it best though, when responding to this Star Wars analogy of DJI said, “Say what you will about the Empire, they do build a hell of a Death Star.” DJI does indeed make a hell of a drone.
The Mavic Pro
The Mavic release has been an interesting story in the drone industry. In September 2016, feeling the pressure of GoPro’s imminent release of the Karma foldable drone, DJI was compelled to leak photos, generate buzz, and present the not-quite-ready-for-production Mavic to the world a mere week after GoPro announced their entry into the consumer drone space. For me and the Mavic it was love at first sight and I ordered one from B&H only 45 minutes into the release announcement on September 27th.
It turns out that DJI was not fully prepared to mass produce the Mavic. So while they said it would begin shipping on October 15th, unless you were Casey Niestat, Colin Smith, or iJustine, you would have to wait. A leaked internal DJI email revealed that they only planned on releasing a handful of Mavics to the general public in order to “calm the market” until full production was ready in early 2017. So wait I did…until December 6th when my Mavic preorder finally arrived.
Well lemme tell you that the Mavic was totally worth the wait. The compactness and portability of this drone cannot be overstated. The hand controller is fantastic, the flight characteristics are superb, and the battery life of 22+ minutes is excellent. The camera sensor leaves a bit to be desired for professional purposes, but with the right post-processing techniques, stills and video are perfectly acceptable for advertising and promotional videos.
My only real complaint about the Mavic is related to the prevailing Wyoming winds. It’s only powered by a 3S battery, so the Mavic struggles a bit when the winds are over 15mph sustained. You can switch it into Sport mode and gain some extra oomph, but you lose the advantages of the multiple sensors on the front and bottom of the drone that aid in attitude maintenance and position hold.
Other than that minor gripe, the Mavic is a great drone, however “Pro” it is not. At least not to my standards (although admittedly I’m fairly persnickety when it comes to image quality for customers). For an actual Pro drone, we will need to move onto the Phantom 4 Pro.
The Phantom 4 Pro
Undoubtedly DJI’s Phantom line of drones will go down in history as one of the seminal models that helped bring drones to the masses. I’m not gonna lie – I generally dislike Phantoms for a lot of reasons, but grudgingly have to admit that they’ve become exponentially better designed and integrated with each successive generation. Once the Phantom 4 was announced I knocked off the badmouthing – the engineering had improved to the point where the Phantom was truly becoming a great drone. Aerial photographer Petr Hejl’s workhorse is the Phantom 4, and he achieves some extremely impressive results with it, so once I realized that I’d need a backup for the Inspire I started to seriously consider purchasing one. I couldn’t get past the small sensor on the P4’s camera; it’s the same as the Inspire’s X3 camera which I’d already quit using.
On November 15th, DJI announced the hotly anticipated Inspire 2 and surprised us with the Phantom 4 Pro.
The P4P added rear and side facing obstacle avoidance sensors and upped the camera to a 1-inch, 20 megapixel sensor (rumored to be a Sony Exmor CMOS). This new camera coupled with the Phantom 4’s already impressive flight dynamics is what sold me. As icing on the cake, the P4P can handle up to 100MB/s for video encoding, which should result in significantly fewer compression artifacts on video than all previous Phantom generations and even the Inspire with the X3, Z3 and X5 cameras.
Talon Six Aerial’s Phantom 4 Pro arrived the same day as the Mavic – December 6th.
I opted to stay away from the Phantom 4 Pro Plus model, which includes a very nice 1000nit 5″ touchscreen built into the hand controller. The controller runs a DJI in-house version of Android and is supposedly optimized such that latency is reduced to 150ms. Ultimately my distrust of DJI’s software QA department is what led me to stay with the bring-your-own-iPad version of the P4P. Additionally, I use several aftermarket apps for flight control, so I didn’t want to get locked into DJI’s closed software ecosystem. I stripped the HDMI module from my spare Inspire controller and placed it on the Phantom controller, so now I can plug in any HDMI monitor for clients or rebroadcast.
In addition to a 25+ minute battery life, the Phantom 4 Pro has considerable power, enough so that I had no issues flying in 25mph sustained winds with 31mph gusts during flight tests yesterday. The camera is also very impressive for the size of the drone. Did I mention that it comes with a mechanical shutter and an adjustable aperture? This is a seriously impressive camera package on the P4P and, in my mind, makes it a fine backup to the Inspire 1 Pro’s micro 4/3 X5 camera.
So I don’t really have any gripes with the Phantom 4 Pro other than…you know, it’s a Phantom.
The Inspire 1 Pro
The drone industry is moving forward as such a rapid pace, that everything tends to become obsolete after only 18 months. The exception to this rule has is the DJI Inspire 1. The Inspire 1 was first announced in late 2014 – months before the Phantom 3, which puts the Inspire’s age in perspective. Despite this, the Inspire 1 is aging gracefully and the upgraded Inspire 1 Pro is still an excellent professional aerial photography machine. One of the best things about the Inspire 1 series is the interchangeable camera payloads. As of this blog post, there are six different camera payloads available for the Inspire 1 series:
- X3 – 12MP 1/2.3″ sensor camera
- Z3 – 12MP 1/2.3″ sensor camera with 3x optical and 2x digital zoom
- XT – up to 640 x 480 thermographic imager
- X5 – 16MP micro 4/3 camera
- X5R – 16MP micro 4/3 high bitrate camera
- NDVI X3 – 12MP 1/2.3″ sensor Normalized Difference Vegetation Index camera (specially built by Aerial Media Pros for precision agriculture applications)
This wide range of sensors makes the Inspire 1 an attractive option for just about all professional operators.
The litany of aftermarket flight control apps also increased the utility of the Inspire 1. Additionally, the X5 camera when matched with quality micro 4/3 lenses is hard to beat for still imagery, particularly because you have full control over all the camera’s settings while in flight. This is not the case with other drones where you just strap on a DSLR, fly your mission and hope for the best.
One of the few downsides of the Inspire 1 Pro is portability, which is a non-issue to me for commercial shoots since the imagery quality is so high. It is a large drone though – about 650mm across and with the X5 weighs in at nearly 8 pounds. Since it’s the company workhorse, I transport it in a large purpose-designed protective case the size of a footlocker.
While the cameras on the Inspire all remain very relevant (with the exception of the X3), the aircraft design is beginning to show its age. DJI has since switched to an all dual Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) architecture for their drones, so the single IMU Inspire is not as stable as the dual IMU Mavic or Phantom 4 series. Despite this, the Inspire is far superior to the Mavic and slightly better than the Phantom 4 Pro for wind tolerance. I recently shot an hour of video with the Inspire in 26.5mph sustained winds and the drone handled it without any problems whatsoever.
It’s worth noting that the Inspire 2 that DJI announced on the same day as the Phantom 4 Pro looks to be a superb aerial cinematography drone. It incorporates the now-standard dual IMU architecture and is a true dual operator setup with separate flight and main payload cameras allowing both the pilot and camera operator to focus on their individual tasks. At release however, the Inspire 2 only has two camera payload options. One camera, the X4S, is identical to that of the Phantom 4 Pro. The other camera, the X5S, is a micro 4/3 camera. The big difference with the Inspire 2 is that it offloads video processing from the camera to the drone itself, which allows max bitrates for uncompressed RAW video – something that will make it a viable option for Hollywood quality cinematography. Unfortunately the Inspire 2 doesn’t have backwards compatibility with the Inspire 1’s camera selection I listed above, so time will tell with regards to the utility of the drone for anything other than cinematography.
So which drone is the right one?
It depends – purpose, budget, desired image quality, portability, et cetera are all different factors to be considered. For what it’s worth, I registered the Phantom 4 Pro as a Talon Six Aerial commercial drone and the Mavic under my recreational FAA ID.
Given DJI’s strange product map loaded with internally competing drones, I’m curious about the future of the Inspire 1 Pro. There was only one camera for the Inspire 1 until the X5 was announced in the summer of 2015, so it’s entirely possible that it will be just as long until there is a greater diversity in payload availability for the Inspire 2. This would mean that the Inspire 1 Pro will continue to be the versatile drone it is today. In the end, however, I envision the Inspire remaining my workhorse with the Phantom taking video and confined space duties.
The Mavic will mostly be in a small bag at my side, ready to fill the role as “the best camera is one that you have with you”.
UPDATE: Talon Six Aerial’s Inspire 1 Pro has been officially retired as of April, 2018. DJI just keeps making them better and better, so my trust workhorse has been replaced by an Inspire 2.