Is DJI Really Inspired? [UPDATED]

EDITOR'S NOTE, April 2015: 

Since this article was written, I received one of the first Inspire 1's to ship, and have spent months reviewing it for an article to be posted soon. On April 8, 2015, DJI launched the Phantom 3 Professional. This new quad, at $1250 USD, has most of the Inspire 1's capabilities yet is less than 1/2 the cost. In fact, all the Inspire 1 offers over the new Phantom 3 Pro is:

  • Much greater stability in the wind and vastly more stable flight in general, owing to much more powerful motors, larger props, and more elegant design
  • Nearly double the flight speed over land (50Mph vs 35 mph)
  • Retractable arms, allowing for a 360 degree unobstructed pan of the camera (the Phantom series cannot pan; the craft must be moved to pan, and the propellers frequently get in the shot in fast forward flight)
  • Dual operator use for flight + camera separately
  • A replaceable camera should a better one come out some day
  • Screw on camera filters
  • HDMI out on the controller

That's it. Everything else you read about regarding the Inspire 1, including it's slightly better-than-GoPro Hero 4 4K camera, Lightbridge, extensive control via an app, vision ground tracking system, is exactly the same. Even the control app is exactly the same, with new functions only for the P3 like live streaming to YouTube.

So please consider this when purchasing. The Inspire 1 is a very sleek, fast version of the Phantom 3 now. If you don't need the bullet points listed above, do not buy it. Get the Phantom 3, which will give you amazing 4K rectilinear footage, Lightbridge, app control, vision ground system and more for 1/2 the price. The Phantom 3 may even fly longer per charge.


DJI (makers of the very popular Phantom series of camera UAS or “drones”) have announced a new follow on named the Inspire 1. This new camera drone sits in the middle of the market between the low to medium low-end (the Phantom Vision models) and their high end (Spreading Wings), including elements of each. It looks like a "beast" as a millennial hipster "DP" may say as they stroke their extra long beard (no offense to hipsters of course, I listen to Mumford and Son too). But is it truly an upgrade to your image making from the sky? These are my thoughts based on:

Months later (late December, 2014) I heavily updated this article in the face of new facts and footage.

[Then I actually got one... I think I have a bad unit, we are not sure, but the whole situation is kind of mess. I am returning it. More to follow in a new review.]

I have not used an Inspire 1 in person. But I have hundreds of flights with DJI Phantom 1 & 2 equipment and have been an early adopter of their technology in the past. These are preliminary thoughts based on what DJI and others have shared: real footage, framed in the light of my own hands-on experiences with DJI products.

DJI's Inspiration is now in 4k

This was the best footage I could find at launch. Since then it's gotten better.

So with that out of the way... both the Phantom 2 Vision and the Inspire include cameras, and you can’t attach your own. DJI’s camera on the Phantom 2 Vision is okay, but the images show aliasing, and lack of dynamic range, and often a lot of visual distortion/jello (from very high shutter rates). The GoPro Hero 3 and 4s however have the fantastic ProTune setting to dial down sharpness and preserve as much dynamic range as possible. The GoPros do not have shutter control unfortunately, but an ND filter and limiting ISO to 400 often helps and can solve the Jello problem (see video at the end of this article).

The Inspire 1 has a 4K camera that is the same sensor as the (quite good; I own it) GoPro Hero 4 Black edition. It is also rectilinear and not a fisheye, (thank God.) You can also not only tilt, but pan in 360 degrees, even as a single operator. 

Initial shots showed a relatively high amount of aliasing, and jello even in the most carefully edited of shots (oh no!). No matter what sir Philip Bloom was paid to read (hey, I'd do it too!) there were some seemingly significant jello/vibration issues with this camera drone based on some of the footage released in November of 2014. 

Then DJI delayed the release of the Inspire 1 to give it more time to cook in the oven, and the resultant footage is improved. (It should actually ship the first week of January, 2015L a month and a half delay.) Jello is now thankfully minimized (but minimally present flying at very high speeds or in very high winds.... at the limit of what the P2 could do). You can now control the sharpening and the shutter, and the contrast. While it's not a true "ProTune" image like the GoPro with some dedicated color science behind it, it's an improvement from the initial footage shown. And DJI also added a hard matte to control lens flare, which wasn't on the initial beta builds of the drone.

I have been able to get some raw (untouched) footage from the Inspire 1 camera. This footage wasn't even after the sharpness and contrast improvements were made, but it was from the middle of the delayed development cycle following the November launch event. I was able to grade it and get a rough approximation of GoPro Hero 4 4k footage quality. The GoPro with its ProTune flat profile still preserves more dynamic range, but the Inspire camera is now capturing enough to be look decently filmic. It's not a GH4 or A7S, but they are close enough to the GoPro now to say "very nice."

DJI advertises the camera as being replaceable and upgradable (though to what we have no idea). They also offer in the box a screw on ND filter, and you can add your own as well. I would have thought this would solve the jello issue (along with the ability to fix the shutter which GoPros can't even do). However, it seems in fast flight there's still a little. Then again, that was mostly true with the Phantom 2.

Overall, not bad at all for a Ready to Fly system. The 4K is worlds better than the Vision 2 Plus from DJI, and at least meeting the Hero 3 + from GoPro in quality. It is relatively well stabilized on a gimbal, and can rotate any way you want - both as a single operator or with another camera operator. Well done DJI, enhancing the camera before production.

Improvements GALORE

This unit is around $2900 US and available for pre-order at B&H and other authorized DJI dealers. However, for $850 or so, plus $400 in video downlink gear and $500 for a Go Pro Hero 4 Black 4K camera, you are at $1750. It’s not quite half the price of the Inspire, but it’s close. Add a light bridge to be fair and you get to $2250, so $2900 is within the realm of fairness. 

In the delay period, DJI took time to take in the feedback from a large group of real world beta testers and refined a bunch of things on the drone. They also made clear the improvements made. 

So, what are some of the major differences between the two platforms (the Phantom 2 aka P2 and Inspire 1)? Turns out there's a lot

  • The Inspire looks like an angry Star Wars droid or gun turret which is cool though may freak out your neighbors even more (I'll admit it, I like the look a lot but I am a sucker for sci-fi);
  • The Inspire, it turns out, is twice as big as the P2 and probably twice as powerful. It has much larger rotors, an entirely new propulsion system, and can hold steady far better in high winds than the P2 can. Preproduction units could even fly at 55 Mph (!). This is a big deal people.
    • Feedback from early testers (with video to back it up) is that the Inspire is a faster, more nimble, and far more stable platform to fly than the P2. It is very powerful, and this is huge for people who want to fly in little more than a light breeze. While the drone specs say it's still only designed to hold against a 35 Mph wind (like the P2, roughly), it can do it with more finesse and ease. This is absolutely huge; I have had a tough time fighting wind with the P2. It was possible, but not easy.
    • You can fly faster, farther, and smoother with the Inspire 1.
  • The Inspire has a 3D “ground optical flow” camera system called the Vision Positioning System, so it can safely hover indoors or close to the ground (about 6-10 feet or less against "brightly lit patterned surfaces") - yet this does not offer any kind of obstacle avoidance otherwise in flight (a major oversight if you ask me);
  • The Inspire has retracting/transforming arms, which allows the camera to have an unimpeded 360 degree view (and it indeed rotates independently on a gimbal);
  • The Inspire also has a very neat built in implementation of the outstanding DJI Lightbridge technology, giving you a clean, 720P POV image from HDMI right out of the controller with telemetry built in; no need to add anything yourself.
    • This is far nicer image-wise than than the analog video transmitter you can add to the Phantom 2 (light bridge can be added to that too, but over $1000), and the image and control link are on the same digital feed
    • The light bridge comes out of the controller to either an HDMI screen, or a fully featured app on an iPad or Android device for full control of the unit
    • Light bridge is much clearer, much farther out. It's rated clean out to 2 km I believe (roughly 6500 feet, or over a mile) unobstructed and probably 1km obstructed. I was lucky to pull a video signal on the P2 out 1km in an open field. The Inspire 2 can double that.
  • The Inspire also has a 6S battery for approximately 5-8 min more flight time (real world) over a loaded P2, though the overall capacity is nearly the same;
    • You can get 18 min roughly on the battery included; the P2 was rated around 15 min fully loaded. You can also buy a higher rated battery that will get you about 20 minutes. So this is a notable improvement
    • The batteries are smarter than the P2 and track individual cell health and usage
    • The iPad app will tell you how much time you have left to fly on that particular battery, and give you a bar graph showing you when you need to start bringing it home based on that information. This is huge; it'll even fly home itself if it gets too far if you want. This was added to the P2 firmware but not as powerful as the Inspire can do it.
  • Two people can control it! Add a second ($600) controller and one person can pilot, while the 2nd aims the camera. Nice, but not cheap;
  • Includes a Phantom Vision style app, with far more power and features. You connect via a lightning cable to a USB port on the transmitter (which also has a built in battery and gauge now.) Some new features I loved:
    • You can point the camera anywhere you want with your finger independent of the craft
    • Battery and distance before battery dead info
    • Full manual control of the camera including shutter, sharpness, and contrast
    • Start/stop of video and stills at any time (also on the controller)
    • A Map mode showing you just where on the map the craft is
    • A simulator for learning to fly
    • A flight data recorder, for telling you where you went
    • Firmware updating
    • Video preview of recorded video and stills while still in the air (it records to a card in the camera too)
    • A 720P live view with low latency
    • a built in GPS in the transmitter dynamically updates home point status every few seconds
    • No ground station mode though (awww)

There are a few other advantages here, but that’s the gist of it. You do not currently get any waypoint capability, but it's coming.

On the whole, this thing looks pretty amazing, right? I used to doubt this but now... I'm not sure I do. Sure you can essentially get the same (or better) quality 4K images out of a P2 platform... and the P2 can be computer programmed with waypoints. But you don't get any of the improvements noted above. None of them. The P2 is still a viable backup to the Inspire 1 however. You will get the same quality footage, at the cost of a much more fiddly operational platform to actually fly it on.

DJI OWNED UP AND DID IT RIGHT

My biggest issue with the Inspire 1 was with its rather insulting launch.

I said this:

If you are fooling around and have money to burn like DJI’s rich vineyard visiting couple in their videos, the Inspire 1 is amazing. It seems like you'll get one and become an aerial imagery rockstar.  That's the devil in me talking, and dammit I want to drive in a fancy car with a super attractive young woman and capture it on my own Inspire 1 too! Nice! Philip is the man!
(Deflates). Ah... but if you want to get actual work done and make it sing without having to make compromises, you might be better off with a P2/GP 4 combo, or spending $2500 more and getting a Spreading Wings model and attach a GH4 onto it. At least it's worth waiting until DJI works out the vibration/jello issues and improves the camera. You'll either save money or have a better image than a GoPro, and both options will quite likely give you better images than the Inspire One.

I caught a ton of heat in RC forums for saying so, as they could see the end state and I couldn't.

Thats said, the fact of the matter is if DJI had launched this prosumer/professional "bridge" device as it was a month and a half ago, there would have been a lot of unhappy people. The jello, the aliasing, the half-baked app, all of it would have been a big problem. 

It is rumored the DJI product manager missed the holiday shopping season because he said "the camera is the most critical thing; we must get it right". DJI's experience in flight mechanics and so forth is well proven, and the Inspire is pretty damn fine in those areas. But they are not a camera company, and it showed.

Instead of further insulting us with dumb marketing of rich people in vineyards and Philip Bloom reading a script (he is far more talented than that), they actually listened to him and all the potential customers and improved the product. It is looking good now. A ready to go, very powerful and nimble platform that can fly 20 minutes and lets you be in full control with the help of some very smart computers. With one or two operators. This thing has come a long way. They even added a hard sided case to the package.

It's not perfect of course. I'd like to see a ProTune mode on the camera. And I'd like to see the Inspire actually adding something new to the game. Right now, it doesn't. For example, I'd like to see some real collision avoidance and a user-camera option before I can say DJI is truly inspiring anyone. (The US FAA may demand it sooner than you think.)

And you still need to learn how to fly these things. These are not "automatic" by any stretch, and the Inspire 1 is a lot more weight (twice a P2) to be dropping on someone's face or property. This is not a "get it and go make magic" device, no matter what the couple in the fancy car says. You need time, and you need to practice. There are so many things that can go wrong, and do, even for experienced pilots.

And then there's all the other drone manufacturers with neat product coming out. And let's not forget that the FAA is breathing down everyone's necks too.

Ahh... decisions decisions.

My decision? I put my order in (again). This thing finally looks ready. DJI is inspired.

My full review will come when I get it, probably in February after the remaining bugs are worked out. It is worth noting that DJI continued to improve and refine the P2 firmware (and hardware ) over the past year - and I have no doubt they will do the same here.

 

YES I FLEW A BIT

Here are some of my videos about the P2 - which were very helpful to flyers on that system.