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Your First Phantom Drone: Part 1 – Getting Started

(Editor’s note: Welcome Steve Eilenberg to Photofocus as a brand new author! In this series of articles, Steve covers what it takes to begin flying drones.)

You’re starting to get bored putting your tripod down in the exact same spot as everyone else. Different equipment, light, time of day and season will make big differences, but with a drone, you’ve just broken out of that rut. Here’s how to get started.

First, decide how much drone you can afford (and afford to lose). The DJI lineup is a good place to start your search. The DJI Phantom models are very popular with photographers. They are not too big or heavy, are reliable, have decent flight time and have plenty of tech to keep you out of trouble. Generally speaking, the newer the model, the more tech, the better the camera and the more flight time per battery.

As I write this, the top of the line Phantom is the 4 Advanced. It will hold its “tripod in the sky” position a bit better than the Phantom 4 Pro, but the Phantom 4 Pro has more obstacle avoidance sensors and they share the same excellent camera (1” CMOS, effective pixels: 20MP).

DJI Phantom 4 Pro (taken from DJI official website)

iPhone screen capture from the DJI Go app shows you “the Phantom’s odometer”

Check flight stats when buying a used Phantom

To save some bucks, you might be able to find a used Phantom on craigslist.org and a model to look for is the Phantom 4 (predecessor to the Pro and Advanced). It has a good camera, some obstacle avoidance, and the same battery and propellers found in the newest models. Inspect the body for cracks, make sure the rotors turn smoothly.  Start it up and see what the camera sees. Make sure the gimbal operates smoothly and doesn’t have tics or movement disorders.  Finally, ask the seller to show you how much flight time it has had, as it is all recorded automatically. Earlier models are cheaper still but have inferior cameras, poorer propellers, shorter flight time and less tech. Imagine you are looking to buy my current DJI Phantom 4 Pro. I would launch the DJI Go App on my iPhone, tap on “Flight Record” and show you the screen to the right. As you can see, my drone has flown 40 times, for a total of almost 9 hours and 63 miles. It has never crashed, has no loose parts and still has that new drone smell. At the bottom of the flight record screen is a popup list of all my flights. Tap on any flight, and you will see meticulously detailed flight data, including GPS coordinates and records showing exactly where and when each shot was taken. Understand that this data can be used against you if you get caught breaking the rules. This is your drone’s “Black Box.”

 

Flight path & data from a recent trip to the Imperial Sand Dunes in California.
Flight records from a dive trip in Indonesia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girl with a skimboard, La Jolla California. I’m not too close. The surf drowned out drone noise.

Drone registration

So, now you own a drone quadcopter, what’s next? I suggest your first action is to register it with the FAA. You must be 13 years of age or older and a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The FAA calls your drone a Small Unmanned Aircraft System or sUAS. Here is a link to the site: https://registermyuas.faa.gov/.  Registration cost is $5 and is valid for three years. Once you’ve registered, print out the registration card and label your UAS. If you have to replace your drone due to loss or accident, the registration stays with you and you can transfer the label to your new bird. If you sell your old bird, the buyer is responsible for registering it. You may have heard of a recent US Court of Appeals ruling which struck down the FAA registration requirement with the Court siding with the drone hobbyist who brought the case. While hotly contested on both sides, many hobbyists and DJI Corporate believe that requiring registration is not overreaching or burdensome and is in the public interest. As I write this, the FAA requests hobbyists register.

As part of the registration process, you will learn the basic safety guidelines:

  • Fly at or below 400 feet and stay away from surrounding obstacles
  • Keep your UAS within sight
  • Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
  • Never fly over groups of people
  • Never fly over stadiums or sports events
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
  • Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Understand airspace restrictions and requirements

As part of the human experience, you should also be aware:

  • People want their privacy respected
  • Recreational areas are not enhanced by the sound of a drone
  • Drones can and have hurt people
  • Some birds will attack drones and may be hurt or killed in the process
  • Using a drone to chase/harass an animal is just bad form

Commercial drone use

Once your drone is registered, you do not have a UAS pilot license and cannot engage in commercial ventures (e.g. inspect roofs, shoot weddings, or real estate). You are instead a hobbyist shooting for fun and if you take good photos, could sell them on the open market. If you wish to become a licensed remote pilot, you will need to study, prepare and pass the FAA Part 107 test (https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/fly_for_work_business/becoming_a_pilot/). This entails completing an application, studying the test material, scheduling an appointment with a Knowledge Testing Center, passing the test with a 70% score or better and renewing every 2 years. You can go it alone or take a license preparation course at a non-FAA affiliated for-profit drone school.

 

(Coming soon, Your First Drone: Part 2 – Unboxing and Preparation)

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