The drone of your dreams: DJI inspires with 4k-shooting, 360-degree, transforming quadcopter


posted Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 5:51 PM EDT


Two years ago, DJI revolutionized the nascent market for aerial photography and videography platforms with its DJI Phantom, the first in a line of impressively capable and yet very affordable quadcopters. In a market populated by extremely expensive (and often hand-built) drones and more affordable models that were essentially sophisticated toys, the DJI Phantom found the perfect middle ground. Enthusiasts and pros alike flocked towards the Phantom series, and it's gone on to become a huge seller for DJI.

Now, the company is looking to repeat its success with the DJI Inspire 1, a much more sophisticated model that is clearly aimed at professional use. The Inspire 1 packs in a raft of new features, some of them borrowed from rivals such as Parrot's AR.Drone series, and others unique among mass-market quadcopters. The result is a drone that should be much, much better suited to photography and videography than the Phantom series, and while it comes in at a significantly higher pricetag, it's probably not unduly expensive considering that professional aerial platforms can sometimes run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The DJI Inspire 1 has an unusual transforming mechanism that ensures a clear 360-degree view for the camera.

Just a glance is enough to tell you that the DJI Inspire 1 is a totally new design. Its most eyecatching new feature is a key part of that design -- its four rotors don't sit at the end of four fixed arms as in the DJI Vision, but at the ends of two T-shaped carbon-fiber arms that can be raised or lowered when the Inspire is airborne.

But why would you want to raise or lower these arms? Well, if you've ever tried shooting towards the horizon with a quad like the Phantom series, you'll most likely have noticed that you can see the propellers in the corner of the image, especially if you're moving at speed or flying in gusty conditions. And that's just shooting straight ahead -- pan sideways, and even when the quad is completely static you're going to get its own undercarriage in the shot. But that undercarriage has to be there -- after all, you don't want your delicate camera to be the first thing to touch down when you land.

Filmmaker Philip Bloom provides an introduction to the DJI Inspire 1, including sample footage shot with the new drone.

By raising the arms in flight (or if you prefer, you could see it as lowering the body), the DJI Inspire 1 increases the separation between camera lens and the bulk of the drone. That means you can now pan the camera thru a complete 360-degree circle without getting undercarriage, props, motors, or anything else in the shot, where in the past you'd have had to spin the whole drone while being careful not to fly too fast or tilt beyond a certain angle to get a similar shot.

And when the Inspire 1 lands, it automatically lowers the arms to extend the undercarriage beyond the delicate camera, protecting it from damage on touchdown. Takeoff and landing, too, are now handled automatically. That's all achieved courtesy of some new downward-facing sensors which are also used to improve stability in low-altitude flight, even when there is no GPS signal being received.

On the base of the DJI Inspire 1 are ultrasonic altitude sensors and a downward-facing camera used to stabilize position at low altitude, much as is done by the consumer Parrot AR.Drone-series quads.

The Phantom-series drones are completely reliant on GPS signals backed up by a barometric altimeter to determine their altitude and attempt to hold a steady position if you let go of the sticks, and neither system is perfect. At altitude, that's fine -- you're not going to notice a slight horizontal or vertical drift, so long as the orientation doesn't change. When you're near an object, though, those movements are easily detected by the viewer, and so a talented pilot or a better system for steadying the drone is needed.

That system looks extremely similar to one adopted in Parrot's AR.Drone-series quadcopters, affordable toy drones that are easy to fly and readily found in stores, but which lack the sophistication or payload of the Phantom series and other enthusiast / pro-grade drones. As in the Parrot quads, the DJI Inspire 1 uses a downward-facing camera to determine if it is drifting laterally, and ultrasonic sensors to determine a very precise altitude. The latter is reminiscent of the radar altimeter in a commercial airliner, but uses sound waves rather than radar to measure height off the ground.

The DJI Inspire 1 inflight, with rotors raised to provide an unobstructed view.

This new system should make the Inspire 1 a much more stable platform when near the ground than are the more-affordable Phantom-series quads. As it so happens, we own both a Parrot AR.Drone and DJI Phantom 2 Vision, and can confirm that Parrot's similar system makes it much better able to remain stationary at low altitude, although the DJI quad outperforms it in every other way once you climb a little. It's not infallible -- and likely nor will DJI's system be, as ultrasonic sensors can be confused a bit by soft foliage, while low-contrast surfaces like smooth concrete can be hard for a camera-based positioning system to handle -- but make no mistake, this is a huge upgrade compared to the Phantom series nonetheless.

And that's not all, either. The DJI Inspire 1 now sports a 4K-capable camera that allows you to shoot Ultra High-Def video at 24 or 30 frames per second, as well as Full HD video from 24 to 60 frames per second, plus 12-megapixel stills -- including DNG support as in the Phantom series. The uprated camera is mounted on an improved 3-axis stabilized gimbal, and sits behind a 94-degree wide angle lens with nine elements including one aspheric. And for protection, replacement, or potentially even a future upgrade, the camera can now be quickly and easily detached from the base of the quadcopter body.

The DJI Inspire 1 also boasts a new detachable, 4K-capable camera with gimbal system for pan / tilt control and automatic stabilization.

That camera is made all the more versatile by support for dual controllers -- meaning that one person can be piloting the drone, while another controls the camera remotely, all from a distance of up to two kilometers. The dual-control system should make it much easier to get smooth pans and to follow precise routes all at once. (Speaking from personal experience, it can be mighty tricky to pay attention to piloting the drone precisely and safely while also controlling the camera, so again, this is huge news.) And the remote live view you'll use to help frame the camera is also uprated, now capable of supporting a 720p high-definition video feed, so you should better be able to see your subject and confirm the shot is to your liking.

And nor is that all. The DJI Inspire 1 also features a redesigned, phone or tablet-friendly app that provides even more detailed battery status information in real time, allowing you to make the best-informed judgement about when to land to protect your investment. The Inspire 1 also uses a newly-redesigned controller that packs in more and better controls including easily-reached dials for camera control.

DJI has reworked its iOS and Android apps for improved clarity, and now supports a two-kilometer, 720p live-view video feed from the drone that will look much better on tablets.

And you can also control camera settings manually (exposure, white balance and ISO sensitivity), as well as customizing the remote controls, and viewing the Inspire 1's location on a live map. All this, plus features already provided by the DJI Phantom series, including the ability to automatically return home on a loss of signal, and to view telemetry info in real time from the smart device app.

The DJI Inspire 1 looks to be an incredibly sophisticated aerial photography and videography platform. Sadly, a pricetag of US$2,900 with a single controller or US$3,400 with twin controllers will keep it out of the hands of many enthusiasts, but if you're a pro or a deep-pocketed enthusiast, you're going to want to pre-order right away. Availability is expected from December 2014.

The Inspire 1's redesigned body is aerodynamically efficient, and places the battery on the center of gravity while moving the camera much further forward for better visibility.

You can place your preorder at the links below:

Two different kits are available -- either a single-controller kit as shown above, or a dual-controller kit that lets one person fly while another controls the camera.