I’ve been messing around with drones for many years now. I don’t talk about them a lot here because there’s not much point to it when my internet speeds are so slow it takes an hour or more to upload a 1 minute video. Well, that and the fact that I’ve been too lazy to actually figure out how to use my video editing software. But that may change in the future. In any case I wanted to talk about this new one.
I’ve been flying drones all along, though. Sort of. They’ve ranged in size and capabilities from massive camera drones with high res cameras to tiny little indoor toys that aren’t good for much more than annoying the cat (and MrsGF). And drones have gotten very interesting in the last year or two as the manufacturers have been shrinking them in size while at the same time making the cameras and software much, much better.
Which brings me to the DJI Mini Pro 3 which I just got a few weeks ago. It’s fairly new and it is, well, wow. It’s replacing a DJI Mavic Mini (which I absolutely hated for reasons I won’t get into. I wished I’d never bought the thing. Despite rave reviews about the M2 it was utterly horrible in almost every way.)
Before I talk about the Pro 3, let me talk about drones in general for a moment if you’ll put up with stuff you may already know.
As soon as drones hit the market, it seems every jackass, jerk, and (insert unflattering term of your choice here) in the world bought one and started using them in ways specifically calculated to endanger people, aircraft and just generally piss people off. This is why the rest of us can’t have nice things.
The result of all of this was, of course, a whole host of rules and regulations coming down from the FAA and other government agencies, and even requiring a type of pilot’s license in order to operate some types of drones. I’m not going to go into the specifics about all of the rules and regulations. You can find all that out for yourselves in about ten seconds with a simple Google search. But what I do want to talk about is the 250 gram rule.
The FAA, in its infinite wisdom, came up with the 250 gram rule which basically says that any drone weighing 250 grams or more has to be registered with the FAA and must be prominently labeled with a registration number. So the drone makers have been trying to squeeze more and more sophisticated stuff into drones in the under 250g category figuring that people aren’t going to want to go through the hassle of registering the drones.
Sidenote: I should point out that registering a drone with the FAA is not difficult. You go the FAA website, plug in some information, pay the nice people five bucks, and you get a registration number you have to stick on the drone. It’s easy, fairly fast, and I’ve done it myself.
This has resulted in some absolutely amazing equipment turning up in the last few years in this category, with the Mini Pro 3 being at the top of that list.
This thing is really, really nice. Almost too good to be true, really. Every time I fly it I find it hard to believe they’ve crammed so much capability into a drone this small. And when I say small, I mean small.
The whole drone, when folded up, fits in the palm of my hand. And the whole package, including batteries and controller, can easily fit into a small backpack.
I’m not going to get into the actual operation of the drone. Like most modern drones in this price range it’s simple to fly. You can find dozens of videos on YouTube demonstrating it in actual use so there’s no point in me duplicating that information here. It even has some autonomous operation functionality. It can, for example, automatically follow a moving target around when that target is selected with the controller. I’ve highlighted myself, and then walked all around the backyard and around the house and the drone maintains a specific distance and height, following me wherever I go, keeping me centered in the field of view of the camera.
It has some really useful features as well, like object avoidance. Take a look at this thing in the photo on the right. Those “bug eyes” above the camera and the black spots on the bottom of the drone are sensors for the object avoidance system. It’s damn near impossible to run this thing into a tree or pole or anything else for that matter. Once it gets within a couple of meters of an object it might possibly hit alarms go off on the controller along with a visual indication of where a potential obstacle might be located. And it will simply refuse to get any closer to an object when it gets too close. I’ve tried. I had it hovering about 5 feet off the ground and tried to walk into it. It backed itself up away from me when I got within a couple of feet of it. I tried flying it into a tree (slowly, ready to stop if it didn’t work). It got within about 3 feet of the tree and simply stopped with the warning signals going off.
It has excellent battery life too. On a full charge I can fly it easily for 20 minutes before it starts yelling at me that the battery is getting low. There is an extended range battery that’ll give me up to 40 minutes of flight time, but that battery will nudge the weight of the drone over 250g.
But since I’m a photographer my real interest in these things is as flying cameras, and the camera on the 3 is excellent. Let’s look at a video first, if I can get this thing to put in a Youtube link
That’s one of the first videos I shot with the 3 when I first got it and I think the quality is pretty darned good. Especially considering it was windy with gusts up to about 20mph and the poor little drone was bouncing up and down all over the place. Despite that the video is surprisingly smooth and steady.
Still images taken with the camera are just as impressive.
Overall I really like the Mini 3 Pro and you’ll probably be seeing images and maybe short videos from it in the future.
Does it have any issues? Sure it does. Nothing is perfect.
It feels cheap and flimsy, to be honest. But that’s probably because they’ve had to shave off weight wherever they could to keep it under 250g. So the plastics are as thin as they can possibly make them. I haven’t actually measured temperatures, but the drone and batteries seem to get very warm to the touch. The drone will get hot to the touch just sitting there while turned on. I’m not sure if that’s going to be an issue in the future or not yet.
Getting the battery out of the drone is often difficult and I’m not sure why. It’s like it is getting wedged into the compartment somehow. I think that what’s happening is that as the drone and battery heat up during use the plastic expands making it more difficult to get the thing out.
Getting at some of the options on the controller is unnecessarily awkward. To get at one set of options, for example, I have to swipe down twice on the screen. Swiping down the first time seems to do absolutely nothing, but if you look close a bar will appear on the top of the screen. Put your finger on that bar and swipe down again opens the options screen. Why do I have to do it twice? No idea.
DJI will sell you the “Fly More” kit which gives you a couple of extra batteries, a nifty charger to plug the batteries into, and some extra props. Oh, an a case for everything. Don’t bother. It isn’t worth it. The drop in battery charger and batteries and props can be bought individually. The case is utterly worthless. It’s a generic soft sided camera case you could pick up for $5 at a thrift shop. Personally I’d spend the extra money for the extended range batteries anyway, even though they push the drone over the 250g limit. And as for a case, get something like this:
They’re not that expensive, especially when you consider you’re lugging around a drone system that’s more than $1,000. The one up there in the photo is about $50 and is waterproof (it will actually float), hard sided to protect the equipment, and has room for everything including batteries, props, etc. I can either strap it to the luggage rack on the bicycle or carry it with a shoulder strap.
The most frustrating thing has been trying to find time to take it out and actually fly it, but now that fall is here and gardening related stuff isn’t occupying so much of my time I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to get out with it more.
Another issue I’m going to have to deal with is the amount of data this thing generates. One day’s worth of messing around with the drone resulted in about 50 gigabytes of video and still photos. Sheesh… Most of that will eventually just get erased but I’m going to need extra storage space for the Macbook if I’m going to be editing videos with it. I have a 4TB external SSD on order for the Macbook so I’ll have some space to play with. I could use my gaming system down in the basement. That has more than enough storage space but that’s a windows box and it’s also used to drive the laser engrave, 3D printer, my amateur radio equipment and for stuff like this I’m more comfortable using the Mac. We’ll see.