It would certainly seem that 2016 was the “Year of Drones”. From the FAA at long last codifying a pathway to legal and safe commercial operation in the US to a barrage of new aerial platforms and advancements to current technology, there was no shortage of drone talk this year. This list sums up the ten best and most relevant aerial platforms, accessories, and services that filled those conversations.
As you might guess, many of the aerial platforms on our list come from DJI. The company has had quite a year, releasing four major new aerial platforms in an attempt to satisfy the needs of aerial filmmakers at every level of expertise—from Hollywood pros to vloggers. Because of that, and because there is variety between the target audiences for these various nominations, no strict hierarchy should be inferred from their order. What might make the perfect drone or accessory for one of you, might be completely inappropriate for someone else.
DJI Phantom 4 ProI own and fly an Inspire Pro but I can say with conviction that the Phantom 4 Pro (P4P) will prove to be my favorite drone once I get my hands on one. With its high-end image capture capabilities, small form-factor, and relatively affordable price tag ($1,499), the Phantom 4 Pro is an ideal “every day” drone because I will be able to easily transport it without feeling like I’m compromising on image quality.
For starters, the P4P has a 1" image sensor that rivals the quality of the MFT sensor in my X5 camera on the Inspire (which alone costs more than the entire P4P). While smaller than an MFT sensor, the 100Mbps h265 encoding on the P4P allows for more detail and higher image quality despite its size. Obviously, if both cameras were encoding the same, the X5 quality would appear to be better, but they’re not. So, with less effort to transport and less investment, you’re getting higher quality 4K video than with the X5. Not bad!
The P4P also has advanced obstacle avoidance sensors which allow you to take advantage of the smart flight modes with greater peace of mind. The use of dual front-facing cameras, down-facing cameras & sonar, and a redundancy system to evaluate and eliminate incorrect data allow you to focus on creating beautiful images without worrying about camera damage. Like the Mavic and Inspire 2, the P4P has the advanced “Active Track” flight autonomy system that drastically reduces the learning curve of creating complex aerial shots, letting filmmakers incorporate aerial sequences more quickly than ever before.
While the Phantom 4 Pro definitely has its place in your hangar, there are certain things it can’t do. You can’t change lenses on its camera so there are limitations to the looks you can create with it. The sensor size doesn’t allow the Phantom 4 Pro to capture as much light as you can with larger cameras like the X5, X5R, and X5S so in low-light scenarios, you’ll be dealing with more noise. If you need to shoot with a variety of lenses in low-light conditions, this may not be your drone. But, as a compliment to a larger aerial system the Phantom 4 Pro is indispensable.
DJI Inspire 2The DJI Inspire 2 is a true Hollywood-caliber aerial system. While its form factor and styling closely resemble the Inspire Pro, the upgrades in the image capture department are numerous. The Inspire 2 launched along with the Zenmuse X5S camera (capable of shooting and recording 5.2K RAW footage) , which gives cinematographers incredible flexibility to shoot at stunning resolution with immense latitude to tweak their images in post.
In addition, the Inspire 2 has been outfitted with multiple, redundant sensor systems (not found on the Inspire 1 or Inspire Pro) that allow operators to concentrate more on creating stylized flights than on not-crashing. It has the Active Track suite of autonomous flight controls, as well as dual-redundant batteries that increase flight times and minimize the threat of catastrophic battery failure in flight.
Like its predecessor, the Inspire 1, the Inspire 2 is capable of working with two different cameras and multiple lenses with expanded compatibility promised in the future. However, as an improvement over the original model, this drone can record RAW footage to the internal SSD while simultaneously recording proxy files to the internal SD card to speed up your workflow on set and in post production. This is not an aerial system that’s designed to compete with the Phantoms; it’s a professional production-caliber aerial system designed for use on movie sets and high-end shoots.
3. DJI Mavic
DJI MavicAt the other end of the spectrum from the Inspire 2, we find the DJI Mavic. The Mavic was designed with ultimate portability in mind. It is DJI’s first and only foldable drone and can fit in the palm of your hand. As photographer Chase Jarvis (and countless others) reminded the world, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Because it’s about the size of a water bottle when folded, the DJI Mavic can easily fit into most pockets for the ultimate in portable aerial imaging.
When this little guy debuted in September, it was the first of DJI’s drones to feature the full Active Track suite of autonomous flight control including: Active Track, Spotlight, and Tap Fly. While you won’t get the same image quality as you will with the Phantom 4 Pro or certainly the Inspire 2, you can still shoot 4K video and 12MP RAW still images with it, which is plenty of resolution and detail for documenting family trips, personal adventures, and for adding a unique perspective to your vlog entries.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKbBratqPNsThe DJI Matrice 600 was designed with heavy-lifters in mind. Portability isn’t the name of the game here—lifting power is. The Matrice 600 has a maximum takeoff weight of 34 pounds making it ideal for lifting professional cinema cameras. The Matrice 600 is capable of lifting and controlling the Ronin MX gimbal, freeing filmmakers to fly just about any camera that the Matrice can lift.]
The Matrice boasts a centimeter-accurate flight controller making it ideal for use in situations where precise positioning is required (as shown in the video). The Matrice is also the first hexacopter on this list. Its six propellers are what give it that lifting power and offers some measure of redundancy should a motor fail in flight. However, with a price tag of $4,999 just for the copter (no gimbal or camera included), this is not a hobbyists’ investment. The Matrice is designed for dual-operator control (one pilot + one camera operator) to create the precision action sequences carried out on professional film sets.
5. Yuneec Typhoon H
Yuneec Typhoon HThe Yuneec Typhoon H is a very exciting piece of aerial kit. For starters, it’s a hexacopter that is designed with the consumer market in mind. While it has six propellers, it’s designed to fold into a travel-friendly size, so it’s not prohibitive to take with you on your next camping trip.
Like many of its competitors, the Yuneec Typhoon H is equipped with a 4K/12MP camera. One of the advantages the Yuneec Typhoon H has over the Phantom 4 Pro is that it features a 360-degree gimbal. This is a really nice feature that enables the camera to tilt and rotate while the drone either hovers or flies straight, which helps to minimize disorientation in flight.
The Yuneec also comes with an all-in-one remote control, the ST16, which means you can skip the step of connecting your tablet or smartphone to it (and it means not having to remember to charge your iOS or Android device prior to a flight). The Yuneec Typhoon H also includes a proprietary secondary flight controller called the “Wizard” that acts both as a basic flight controller and a GPS beacon. If you want to track a subject, hand them the Wizard and then tell the Yuneec to follow it while you focus on capturing the moment using the integrated remote.
Also like its DJI counterparts, the Yuneec also features some automated flight controls, an aerial selfie mode, and the “Curved Cable Cam”, their version of Waypoint flying whereby the operator can create a pre-determined flight path and program the Typhoon to fly that path automatically.
The Typhoon H starts at 999.00. The high-end model features “Real Sense” technology that allows the drone to sense and avoid obstacles in flight making it ideal for safe, autonomous flying, along with two flight batteries, the Wizard, and a backpack. It retails for $1,499 making it a true competitor to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro.
6. 3DR Solo
3DR SoloTo round-out our drones, we have the entry-level 3DR Solo–a $500 quad copter that is designed for use with a GoPro Hero camera or a commercial use Sony R10C sensor and your iOS/Android device (for preview & telemetry).
Like many of the flight systems on this list, the Solo features intelligent & autonomous flight control and has the ability to capture shots in a variety of ways, including selfie, orbiting around a specified point, following a specified subject, and the zipline mode, which flies your Solo along a straight path while you manipulate the camera (pan and tilt) to capture your surroundings.
While the base price of the 3DR Solo seems attractive, you must bring your own camera and smart device. With a retail price for the Solo set at about $500, and the Hero 4 Black at $450, the total price point is in-line with DJI's consumer offerings. It seems this is a decent consumer drone for the money, but what remains unclear is whether or not there will be future compatibility with GoPro cameras. The most recently released Hero 5 (designed for use with the Karma…an epic failure) is not listed as one of the compatible cameras so it seems as if, for now, you can only use this with your Hero 4 or Hero 3+ Black.
7. DJI Osmo
In addition to actual drones, there are several complementary products and services worth mentioning, and the Osmo is one. Released at the end of 2015, it really gained popularity this year and DJI has since introduced four variants that greatly improve the user experience, so I’m counting it as a 2016 innovation. The DJI Osmo is a hand-held, 3 axis stabilized gimbal and camera that is designed to bring the stabllity and smoothness of DJI’s aerial cameras down to Earth (literally).
Where this device functions as a compliment to the DJI drones is that—for those of you who already own an Inspire—the X3 and X5 (with optional adapter sold separately) camera/gimbals can be detached from the Inspire 1 & Inspire Pro quadcopters and attached to the Osmo handle, allowing you to create a consistent look between their aerial and ground-based shots.
It’s also the kind of thing that drone enthusiasts would gravitate toward. It’s a compact, high quality (shoots in full 4K and in 1080p), portable device that allows you to create beautifully smooth, cinematic footage wherever you go.
8. HPRC Cases
A good case protects your gear investments, and with a little thought and planning, can also help you save time getting on and off shoots while minimizing the frequency of lost and forgotten items. I love getting cases for my gear almost as much as I love getting new gear, and HPRC makes some of my favorites for drones. They are Italian-made, stylish, functional and durable. Everything from the handles, to the toggles, to the foam feels built for traveling and keeping your gear safe on the road.
I have an HPRC 2700 for my Phantom 2 Vison Plus. It has room for the drone, 4 batteries, controller, props, iPad, and accessories.
For the Inspire, I use an HPRC 2780w (w for “wheels”).I bought the HPRC 2780w because it’s one of the only cases out there that lets you transport the Inspire in “landing mode” (meaning landing gear down with the camera attached). One of the time-sucks of flying the Inspire before I had this case was preparing it for flight. I had to take it out of the supplied case, flip the switch on the controller a bunch of times to put the landing gear down (didn’t work very well on uneven terrain) then turn it off (to save battery), attach the Zenmuse X5, and turn the Inspire back on. It felt so cumbersome! With this case, I take the Inspire out, remove the gimbal lock, turn on the control and the Inspire, and in a few moments I’m ready to fly. Not only is it great to save time, but I’m not fumbling around in front of clients who are waiting for me to be ready to shoot.
This case has room for my Inspire, eight batteries, two remotes, two iPads, my chargers, my props, FPV goggles, an extra lens, filters (though I now use a variable ND so I don’t have to keep changing filters every time the sun changes), and a bunch of other random stuff like micro SD cards, lens cleaning cloths, HDMI adapters & cables, manuals, etc. It’s definitely heavy but the wheels help with that and the time saved on set is well worth it!
Finally, I have an HPRC 2500-01 for my Osmo kit.
HPRC 2500 for DJI OsmoThis wonderful case holds the Osmo, both the X3 and the X5 camera/gimbals, my batteries, chargers, the tripod & extension stick, the car mount, accessory attachments and more. Gear is a serious investment, so it makes sense to me to spend a few extra bucks and get it properly protected in purpose-built cases. Besides offering protection in transport, not having to bundle up all your accessories and pieces of kit means less chances of forgetting something at home (something I’m all too good at).
Airstoc began as a stock video site that focused exclusively on licensing aerial stock footage. While you’re probably not going to get rich licensing stock, what’s wrong with a little “mailbox money”? Since its launch a couple of years ago, Airstoc has branched out and has begun pairing local drone operators with clients who need specific aerial footage for various projects from real-estate to broadcast production. In addition, they have now begun offering website hosting so that drone operators can have a centralized web presence that connects them to both a back end host for their stock footage, and work opportunities.
The web hosting just began a few months ago and starts at around $15 per month. If you already have website and domain name established, they allow you to point your domain name to their servers.
No one likes to talk about insurance. I know. But, the truth is, your aerial rig is expensive and fragile and in the worst-case scenario where your drone malfunctions and comes down onto someone or something, you don’t want to be stuck with the bill.
As the universe would have it, just a couple of months after I paid $1800 for a year of hull & liability ($2M) insurance with another aerial insurance company, Verifly emerged as the first on-demand drone insurance company offering rates as low as $10/hr for $1M of liability insurance. It’s a service that you can access from your smart phone and get near-immediate approval and proof of insurance. Verifly might not be appropriate for every scenario, so do your homework and consider your particular "what-ifs". Verifly could offer affordable peace-of-mind for our situation. If not, look into aerial insurance anyway. At some point you’ll either need it or a client will insist you have it. Don’t wait until you’re under the gun. Take your time and get an insurance plan that fits your business and budget.
I hope that 2016 has been productive and creative for you, fellow aerial folks, and that 2017 will bring even more great opportunities your way. Meanwhile, if you're thinking about getting your FAA license, get some test prep tips here. Fly safe!
Featured image by Liz Nord.