I always wanted to try my hand at flying a drone, and an upcoming two-week trip to Hawai’i seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The drone of choice: The $1,200 DJI Phantom 4. As a flying machine, it isn’t that much different to other drones — it goes up, down, sideways, forwards, and backwards, and a single battery lasts about 25 minutes, which is unfortunately typical for commercial drones.
What sets the Phantom 4 apart is its incredibly sharp 4K camera.
Indeed, Hawaii’s unreal beauty and landscapes made for the perfect location to test a drone and its camera. For those familiar with Hawaii, I was mostly flying outside of Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.
Here’s a 4K YouTube video of Hawaii taken with the DJI Phantom 4 (not by me):
My first few flights were relatively limited, as I gingerly got used to the controls and the Phantom 4’s abilities.
At times, it struggled when flying against a 20 mile-an-hour breeze, but the Phantom 4 seemed to have an indefatigable desire to please its pilot.
And it can go far, too. At one point, I flew the drone two miles out to sea before the DJI app on my iPhone, which was connected to the Phantom 4’s controller, alerted me that it had only enough battery life to return to the take-off location. Two miles.
It just does what you want it to do during its 25-minute battery life.
Until it doesn’t.
On my final flight — which wasn’t meant to be my final flight — I took the Phantom 4 out to film along the coast on Oahu’s south shore. Before the battery alert even popped up, I pressed the “return home” button on the controller, which puts the Phantom 4 into auto-pilot to make a bee line to the take-off location.
The moment the drone began making its way home, I lost the video streaming feed from the drone to my iPhone.
It was odd, as the video feed was fine on its way out, and it raised my heart-rate a little bit. Yet, I knew that the drone was at least on its way home regardless, and I thought I’d get the video feed back as it got closer.
About five minutes went by when the video feed suddenly returned. My heart skipped a beat and sank when I saw that it was landing somewhere it shouldn’t. For reasons unknown at the time, the Phantom 4 was in auto-land mode, and it was descending upon a cluster of homes in a cul-de-sac about 1,500 feet away from my location.
I immediately tried to manually control the drone to ascend. The whole time it felt like a movie scene where alarms are going off in the cockpit of an aircraft in peril, complete with a voice telling the pilot to “pull up, pull up” in a disconcertingly calm way.
But lo, my efforts to “pull up, pull up” were fruitless, as I lost the video transmission one final time.
I was blind, and the drone continued to auto-land.
According to the DJI iPhone app, the Phantom 4’s last known location was halfway up a ridge, about 1,000 feet away from my location. There was no retrieving it, as the ridge side was sheer, and it was too dangerous to climb up or down.
After checking the flight log on the DJI app, I saw that the Phantom 4 had apparently entered a “no-fly zone” during its flight home, which causes the drone to land automatically.
I checked the map on the DJI app (below), and there was a “no-fly zone” nearby, as marked by the bold yellow line towards the top. However, the drone was never in the no-fly zone. Had I had the video feed, I could have seen the alert that the Phantom 4 was getting too close to this supposed no-fly zone, and I could have flown further around it to prevent the auto-land.
My suspicion is that ex-President Obama’s presence on the island at the time had something to do with the Phantom 4’s random behaviour. The Secret Service are supposedly very touchy about drones flying near presidents. Thanks Obama.
So now, the Phantom 4 is stranded halfway up a ridge on Oahu. To be honest, I’m jealous of the drone, as it’s still in beautiful Hawaii — enjoying a glorious view, no doubt — while I’m back here in comparatively miserable NYC.
Drones are enormously fun — at first. But soon, the novelty wears off. Unless you have a reason to film beautiful footage from high altitudes, there aren’t many reasons why you should buy an expensive drone like the Phantom 4, or the newer Phantom 4 Pro, which can record 4K at 60 frames-per-second (the Phantom 4 records 4K at 30 fps).
So, unless you’re a photographer, buying a drone is essentially buying a very expensive remote-controlled toy that needs a battery-swap every 25 minutes — and extra batteries can get quite expensive.
And if you lose it, there goes your money.
However, there are options to rent drones for much less money than buying one. For example, this website lets you rent a Phantom 4 for a week for $250, which is perfect if you know you’ll only use a drone a few times, and you can always rent newer models when they come out. Unfortunately, however, the optional protection plan from the website I mentioned doesn’t cover lost or damaged drones, so you’ll need to be careful!
Take a look at my ultra-amateur Phantom 4 video, and make sure to select the highest possible setting for video quality in YouTube:
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