Flight over Kauai – getting to grips with the DJI Phantom with H3-3D gimbal

Guest post by Scott Hui:

Kauai 2014 from PowerUP Motion on Vimeo.

It seems like I spend a lot of my life running and gunning. It could be for documentaries, music videos or TV shows here in Hong Kong. Along with the shooting I do my fair share of directing and editing too. One thing I would not have put on my CV, though, was drone pilot. That was until a few months ago when I had several requests from clients specifically asking me to shoot aerials (flying a small drone for commercial purposes is seemingly legal in Hong Kong under current legislation).

My first thought was: no way. I’ve watched so many videos where drones crash into things or get lost. The thought of losing a drone I was piloting terrified me. Despite my fears I went ahead and bought two DJI Phantom quadcopters – one as a back-up. A great little shop called Special Camera Services here in Hong Kong helped me with all the gear and extra batteries I would need.

For the first few test flights I didn’t attach cameras and used the prop guards as an added precaution. Honestly, it’s a great way to start when you’re first learning to fly. I lost count of how many blades and guards I broke just by flying into things when practising. I crashed into fences, walls and even trucks. Finally, after getting more comfortable flying, I got enough courage to stick a GoPro Hero 3+ and the Zenmuse 2-axis gimbal onto my Phantom. I followed the instructions and it was a breeze, apart from some tiny screws which were fiddly to install. The results were surprisingly good and I was very happy with the results. The shots were smooth and my clients were satisfied too. A result.

Then, a few days before I left for vacation with my family in Kauai, I discovered DJI’s new Zenmuse 3-axis gimbal could be retrofitted to my Phantom 2 with longer landing skids. I upgraded my quad with the new gimbal and at the same time picked up a new transmitter and a monitor to give me further control over the Phantom. This was going to be fun.

Ready for takeoff
Ready for takeoff

My trip was a total of ten days. The weather was beautiful and I took out the Phantom and flew whenever I had the chance. I travelled with four DJI batteries which gave me enough time to fly in every spot we went to. Set-up was fairly quick – I just needed to power on the quad and the GoPro and I was set. I made sure I always had a home point so the Phantom knew where to return to. I made sure the GPS was set every time – better to be safe than sorry.

The opening beach shot is probably my favourite. It was a hot day with no winds and there was a large mountain on one side. The GoPro was set in 2K mode with narrow field of view. I flew pretty far out over the waters to film my Uncle, who was paddle boarding. I was warned to be careful not to shoot any local people on the beach – they can get a little apprehensive so I took that into consideration. (Ed – make sure you check the local laws in different countries or places you may travel to before flying).

The monitor I used worked perfectly. I could see clearly what I was shooting as I stood under a shaded tent. When I flying my only real fear was incorrectly judging the distance between the Phantom and the object being filmed. Obviously I didn’t want to crash or hurt somebody, so I felt it best to keep my distance.

There is a really huge difference between the H3-3D 3-axis gimbal and the older 2-axis version. Using the old H3-2D gimbal I would have had to have stabilized most shots even more in post. With the new 3-axis version it is much improved – I did no post stabilisation at all at worst all there is is a mild jello effect. I have heard that in a recent firmware release the jello has been reduced further, but haven’t yet had a chance to check this out.

Setting up the Phantom from the bag
Setting up the Phantom from the bag

My flight ceiling for the Phantom was about 1,000 ft. It can likely go higher, but again, just to be safe, I flew at a max of 984 ft. That’s the height you see from the overhead shot of the beach. You can’t stay up there too long for fear you don’t have enough power to return to the ground. I was told when the Phantom battery reaches about 30% it’s best to bring it on home. That said, when I did get it down from that height, it was still about 15% charged.

Other shots I got were pretty straight forward. I just made sure I was set up correctly and flew out over the waters. It was a cloudy day but even so you’ll see the GoPro doing slight exposure adjustments here and there. There were some instances of the shutter going crazy when facing the sun and from my understanding this could be a combination of various things like the shutter combined with direct sun and vibrations. I didn’t use Protune on the GoPro, but that might have improved things.

Another thing that happened at around the 1:20 mark in the video was the appearance of sea turtles on the right hand side of the frame. Sadly while the monitor is great for flying you can’t quiet make out all the details. As a result I had no idea the turtles were even there. Had I known I would’ve gotten much closer. Until a true long range HD system for small quads like the Phantom there’s little else you can do.

I don't recommend you set up your Mac and G-Drive like this but it worked
I don’t recommend you set up your Mac and G-Drive like this but it worked

There is definitely an adrenaline rush from flying a Phantom and trying to frame at the same time. I found going through the goal posts, past trees and the close approach to the waterfall felt exhilarating. However, when I noticed the water spraying all over the Phantom I knew it was time to fly back.

The canyon sequences were also quite something. I had no wind meter, no way of knowing how strong the winds were or if the Phantom could handle it. As it turns out, the Phantom did a pretty good job in these conditions.

I really had a blast just flying it around the island. I hope you guys enjoy the video.

Equipment used:
Phantom 2
Zenmuse H3-3D
AVL58 DJI 5.8G receiver for the video transmitter
GoPro Hero 3 +
7 inch LCD monitor

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