Hands-On With DJI’s New Inspire 1, the iPhone of Drones

It's the drone for dummies—if the dummy wants to shoot 4K video and run a business.

Nov 13 2014, 12:35pm

If you've ever seen a drone fly, chances are it was DJI's Phantom 2, a white quadcopter that has, more than any other aircraft, successfully co-opted the word "drone" back from the Predator. That's brought a bunch of fanboys out of the woodwork, along with a fair share of haters who say the company's flagship drone attracts a bunch of idiots.

In other words, DJI is the Apple of drones. And the Apple of drones just announced its new iPhone.

The Phantom is the hobby drone for dummies (in a good way); the brand new Inspire 1 is the drone for dummies who also happen to want to be business owners. Ahead of Wednesday's announcement event in San Francisco, DJI came to Brooklyn's Seaview Rotary Wings RC Helicopter Club to let me test it out a bit in what were some pretty horrific weather conditions. That being said, my first impressions of the thing are that it's better than the Phantom 2 in just about every way save battery life, and that this is probably going to be a game changer for entry-level drone business owners.

At the moment, most aerial photography companies—and there are many of them, FAA-be-damned—either bootstrap a GoPro to a Phantom 2 (the general consensus being that DJI's built in camera isn't good enough for professional work), figure out how to build their own rig, or buy a high-end pro setup that costs many thousands of dollars. Those who aren't doing it all that seriously, either as a side business or because they're simply new to the game, stick with a Phantom 2.

With the Inspire 1, that's going to immediately change: The Inspire 1 is the first drone to come with a 4K camera stock, and it's also got a separate, downward facing camera, which is useful for mapping and that sort of thing. Like the Phantom, the only assembly required is some quick hand rotating of the rotors. Unlike the Phantom, it's going to cost about $3,000, compared to the $1,159 a fully-loaded Phantom 2 will set you back.

The thing looks like an alien's head, and that's for a reason

It's also got a new remote, and with that comes the capability for one person to fly the drone and another—with a separate remote—to aim the camera. That's a huge development as well, because many a Phantom has been lost by pilots who were trying to multitask flying and camera-operating (via an iPad) at the same time, which often leads to mistakes on both tasks. For people who still want or have to do both at the same time, the camera's gimbal can be controlled using new shoulder wheels.

There are other, cool new things about the Inspire 1, but I'm not here to read DJI's spec sheet to you: The question that matters most is, how does the thing fly?

Well, again, it was really windy out and I only got a few minutes with it, so consider this more of a first impression than a full review.

Image: DJI

That being said, it's much better than the Phantom. The thing looks like an alien's head, and that's for a reason. It concentrates the weight a bit, which, along with some new algorithms and that downward facing camera, stabilizes it better. I have no doubt that a Phantom would have been blown away when I flew it in the rain and wind whipping off the bay; the Inspire 1 mostly did what I told it to.

When my hands weren't on the remote's joysticks, it visibly pushed back against the wind and remained relatively stable. When I pushed the throttle and really made the thing zip horizontally, it was extremely responsive. With a Phantom, when you let go of the sticks, it'd drift a bit; the Inspire 1 pushes back and stops almost immediately, kind of like an air brake.

Image: DJI

It's worth noting that the thing's legs actually retract and move above the body of the drone, so that the camera is completely unencumbered and the propellers are much higher than they appear they'd be while it's sitting on the ground. The whole thing feels very futuristic.

I didn't get the chance to fly it long distances because of the weather, but its onboard camera can broadcast video back to an iPad or iPhone from about a mile away, and the camera control software it has built in can be set to a first-person view mode, allowing you to fly that way if you want.

So, should you get it? Admittedly, I only flew it for about one full battery charge; the weather was simply too bad to do anything beyond that. But my general thoughts are that, like the whole iPhone vs Android fight, there are probably other drones you could rig together that perform as well or better than the Inspire 1. You can buy a GoPro HERO4 and put it on something you build yourself, and it'll be just fine and maybe do everything you want it to do.

Or, you can just buy one that does all that stuff without thinking about anything and have a perfectly good, perhaps great machine.