Let’s Talk About Drones: DJI Mini 3 Pro

This is pretty much what I look like when I try to make myself sit down and figure out how to use my video editors.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

You should be able to click on a photo to see a larger version. That’s Hilbert from about 350 feet up.

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.

Catching Up, Internet, Drones, and More Photos From The Roadside

It is crazy busy around here this time of year. Between processing pickles, tomatoes, carrots, beets, beans and other produce from the garden, keeping up with the grass and landscaping, plus family stuff and everything else going on, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done it seems. The woodshop has been shut down since mid-spring. I haven’t even been in the woodshop except to grab a tool or some screws or something. The 3D printer and engraver have been gathering dust. I did get my dipole antenna fixed, so that’s something. MrsGF is tackling the massive job of refinishing our big old dining room table. Stuff just keeps piling up.

Then we had internet problems. Sheesh… We were suffering multiple outages a day, often as many as a dozen or more, lasting from a minute or so up to 10 or 15 minutes. Rebooting the modem and WiFi didn’t do any good. In fact just waiting without rebooting and the service would come back by itself. We finally got Spectrum, our ISP, out here.

I know that it is something of a fad to complain about customer service these days but Spectrum was great. I got a technician in an online chat within a few minutes and they immediately set up an appointment to get a service person out here. It took a couple of days to get someone out here because they’re short on staff just like everybody else out there. But he showed up exactly on time. He ended up replacing just about everything. New cables, new box on the side of the house, new cables coming into the house, new cable modem, etc. We moved the access point from a spider filled corner of the basement to the office where it’s much easier to get at. Took him only an hour or so to do all of that and we’ve had no problems at all since then. Good job, Spectrum.

Drones: If you’re a long time follower of this nonsense you may remember that I used to fly drones, ranging from those goofy little toys that are really only useful for flying around a room and annoying people, up to a massive camera drone. But then the FAA had a hissy fit and decided that not only did you need to register bigger drones you needed a pilot’s license to fly ’em, I said the hell with that. I got rid of the big drone, flew the tiny ones until they broke and gave up on them because the tiny drones that didn’t need to be licensed and registered were all pretty much junk.

Not any more, though. I’ve been keeping an eye on the drone market and in the last couple of years there have been some very, very good camera drones in the 250 gram size that have been looking very, very good. Drones in that weight class avoid a lot of the registration and licensing requirements in many jurisdictions. And if something does go wrong and it crashes, it’s so small and light weight that it isn’t going to do serious damage to anything. Unlike the big camera drone I used to fly that weighed pounds and was about 2 feet across.

So I got one, a DJI Mavic Mini Pro 3 and I’ve had it out for a few brief flights and, well, damn the thing is good. Technology has made some astonishing advances in the years since I last fiddled around with drones. The flight technology, the duration of flights, their capabilities and intelligence have all improved enormously. And the camera is absolutely amazing. Here’s an example

This one is of the old stone bridge that’s on my regular bike route, taken with the drone hovering about 2 meters above the river. That photo is about as good as it gets, really.

This one is my neighborhood, looking straight down from about a hundred or so feet in the air.

Anyway, more drone stuff will be coming up in the future. Let me wrap this up with some photos from the roadside. I’m out biking almost every day and I take a lot of photos. Here are a few.

And now it’s time for me to get back to work.

Report: Drone ROI Averages $15 Per Acre – Crops – News | Agweb.com

Many farmers know approximately what a drone might cost. Fewer know what return on that agtech investment might bring – but a new report brings fresh ROI insights.

Source: Report: Drone ROI Averages $15 Per Acre – Crops – News | Agweb.com

I’m a fan of drones as you may know and own several, and agriculture is one area where they are genuinely useful. Still it surprised me that the ROI (return on investment) on their use is as much as $15 per acre.

In agriculture they’re used for crop scouting, flying over fields to check for problems such as insect and weed problems, poor drainage, checking the condition of the crops, etc. It saves an enormous amount of time because before drones came along farmers would either have to do that themselves or pay for the co-op to do it for them. Using a drone takes a tiny fraction of the time it would take to walk the fields.

And damn, I wish we’d have had one back in the day when the heifers broke out of the pasture and got into the corn field! You ever try chasing a dozen crazed heifers running through a cornfield?

Drones suitable for this kind of thing aren’t cheap. You’re looking at starting out at around $1,700 or so and by the time you add in the cost of extra batteries which can run $75+ each, possibly portable charging systems so you can charge batteries in the field, things like that, you’re well over $2,000 and climbing. Professional quality drones with extended flight times, programmable flight plans, etc. add to the cost quickly. But you can get something like the DJI mentioned in the article or the Yuneec Typhoon that I used to have which is equivalent to it, for around $1,500.

Note: the FAA has finally straightened out all of the rules and regulations, and is now issuing licenses for commercial drone operators that does not require you to spend months of time and ten thousand dollars or more to get a airplane pilot’s license any longer. That ought to help enormously. I should point out that you do not need to get licensed if you are using the drone over your own property for your own use, only if you are going to do it on a commercial basis. But even if you’re flying over your own property you need to register your drone if it’s larger than the little indoor toys, so anything that would be useful for crop scouting etc. is going to have to be registered.

Drones: Do You Need One on the Farm

So I ran across this little item over at AgWeb, the website of the Farm Journal:  How Much Should You Pay for a Drone? – News | Agweb.com and it was a huge disappointment because it’s one of those so-called articles that just doesn’t really tell you anything about drones, what they can be used for, how they work, and gives you pretty much no information at all. So let’s take a look at drones, what you can do with them, how they work, look at the photographic and video capabilities of the different models, etc.

Oh, and there may even be video! Oooo! Well, there will be if I can figure out how to upload video to this thing. But let’s get on with this, shall we?

What are you going to do with the thing? – Well, that’s not my problem, now is it? I’m sure you’ve come up with some kind of excuse to give to your spouse to explain why you dropped $1,500 on a drone, and for all I know maybe you really are going to use it to scout crops or track down missing cows or inspect roofs or something like that and you aren’t at all going to use it to annoy the cats or race other drone owners or build 3D obstacle courses in the back 40. Let me give you a bit of advice, though. When it comes to just having fun, the smaller, less expensive drones are generally more fun to play with than the big ones. They’re faster, more maneuverable, and don’t do as much damage when you hit something with one. Also a lot cheaper to fix. You fly a $50 Walmart special into a tree it’s going to be a lot less financially painful than flying your $2,000 DJI camera drone into a silo or something. So if you’re just looking to play, start small and cheap.

(Oh, and if you are tempted to try to play with cats with one of these things, here’s a word of advice: DON’T. Just don’t. Seriously. Those props spin at hundreds and hundreds of RPM on even small drones. And while they don’t have a lot of mass, those props can slice, dice and otherwise do very nasty things to living tissue.)

That being said, they can be useful in agriculture and other serious applications. Agriculture because this is grouchyfarmer.com after all and I need to put some kind of farming reference in here, don’t I?

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-20-55-am
In case you were wondering, this is what the top of an old silo looks like

They are genuinely useful for inspecting roofs and a lot of roofing contractors are using them for that. They’re useful for scouting crops, finding trouble spots out in big fields. And they’re using them to try to find lost cows, and if you’ve ever had to try to find a heifer running around in a 40 acre corn field, you can understand why. They’re very useful for looking at the roofs of old silos as well. Exactly why you might want to look at the roof of an old silo is something you might wish to discuss with your therapist. But just in case you do, here’s one to get it out of your system. Ooo, exciting, isn’t it? And here you thought drones were just silly. I mean, just look at that! A silo! From above! Ooo!

Okay, now I’m just getting silly, aren’t I?

Money: So, how much is one of these puppies going to set you back? Well, it depends on what you want to do with it and how well you want to do it.

Now, if this editor put this photo in the right place, over there on the right is a Hubsan drone, one of the first video capable ones I bought, along with its controller on the left. It’s a nifty little gadget which streams video directly from the drone’s built in camera to a live video display built into the controller. It records video to a SD card that is inserted into the controller. Something like this goes in the $150 – $200 range, and it is about the bottom end of the scale for something that will give you some useful photo/video.  Well, almost useful. Okay, be perfectly honest, it’s completely useless for anything serious.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-08-02-am
TIny battery means tiny flight time for a drone. Hubsan gets about 4-8 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun to play with it, but it’s basically a toy that shouldn’t really be used except indoors. You can fly it outside, but if you do all bets are off. The range of the controller and video transmission is limited, just a couple of hundred feet at best, the video quality is, well, pretty miserable, to be honest, and flight time with the tiny batteries is about 4-6 minutes maximum. It’s also extremely unstable in even a light breeze.

Now if you’re flying around in the living room or kitchen taking photos of the dust on top of the cabinets, a 5 minute flight time is no big deal. But if you’re trying to fly around a 40 acre corn field, well, forget it.

If you’re going to do something serious with it like crop scouting, building inspection, etc. you’re going to be up in the $1,000+ range almost immediately. And even then you have to be careful, because what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. In order to keep costs down, a lot of these drones are “bare bones”, no camera, no camera mount, not even a controller. You’ll need to purchase a camera like the GoPro, and use an IOS or Android tablet or smartphone to actually operate the thing. So be careful. Before you buy one make sure you know what is actually in the box so you don’t find out the hard way that you need to drop another $500 or more just to get the thing in the air.

Video/Image Quality: Then there is the video quality on these itty bitty drones. It’s not exactly good, to be honest. Especially if you get them near the limit of their range. Let me give you an example.screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-22-36-amscreen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-23-21-am

The top image is a still from the video feed from the Hubsan drone. The bottom image is the same scene from approximately the same altitude and location but taken with my Yuneec drone. You may notice just a wee bit of difference between the two images if you examine them very closely.

Let’s see if I can figure out how to put video into this to give you a better example of the difference between the toys and the more professional versions.

The above is video from the Hubsan from about 150 – 200 feet in the air above my house. Oh, dear. This should have been well within the stated range of the controller, but obviously it was already at the limits of its communication range. If you can see through all of the static, you can also see the drone is bouncing around a lot, even though there was only a light breeze. It was almost impossible to keep under control and I barely avoided crashing the thing.

The video above is from about the same altitude and same location taken with the Yuneec, and under wind conditions that were actually worse than they were when the Hubsan was in the air. Again, as was the case with the still images, you may notice a bit of difference in the quality of the two videos if you examine them closely. Just a bit.

There is also a bit of a difference in size between the cheap drones and the Yuneec Typhoon I own, as you can see here.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-08-53-am

That’s my Yuneec with a microdrone sitting on top of it to give you an example of the sizes of these things. The Hubsan that was used to take the still images and video is a bit bigger than the red microdrone shown here, but not by much.

Let me guess, you just came up with an idea to turn a big drone into a flying aircraft carrier for micro drones, didn’t you? Hey, go for it. Who am I to tell you not to do it?

Flying: Okay, so, how do you fly one of these things? Well, it turns out they are ridiculously easy to fly. They basically fly themselves. Especially the big ones. Built in gyros, motor controllers and onboard computers and GPS do all of the work for you. In fact, if it weren’t for all of that technology built into them, they’d be completely unflyable. The basic controls are generally a joystick for up, down, left, right, spin, that kind of thing.

The Yuneec, for example, will just hover wherever you put it. Park it over a specific spot 50 feet in the air, take your hands off the controls, and it will just stay there until the battery runs out, automatically maintaining it’s position and altitude. Even if a significant gust of wind comes along it will stabilize itself and return to its set position. There’s a panic switch. If you lose control of it, lose sight of it or something, press the button. It will go up to a height of 60 feet, return to it’s launch point, and land itself.

Well, if there’s nothing in the way, that is. This unit doesn’t have collision avoidance systems like some do so it can’t avoid obstacles.

The point is that just about anyone can fly one because they essentially fly themselves. The more sophisticated models allow you to plot out a flight plan on a map, and the drone will fly the route all by itself.

Still, you can get into trouble with the things. If the drone goes out of range of the controller, all bets are off. Some models will return to their launch point if they lose communications with their controllers, but a lot won’t.

Wind can be a real problem. The bigger ones are amazingly stable even in a good breeze, but I would not want to fly one if winds of more than 20 mph or so, especially anywhere near a structure or tree.

Regulations: Well, there are a lot of them. And there is still considerable confusion despite the FAA recently updating and clarifying things. If you’re just a hobbyist flying them for fun, you don’t need any special licensing or permits except for registering the drone with the FAA if it exceeds a certain size/weight category. The Hubsan shown above does not need to be registered. The Yuneec does because of it’s size and weight. If you’re flying for a business, you need a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate and have to pass a TSA background check. I won’t go into all of the rules and regulations. You can find them at the FAA’s website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/ That will give you all of the information you need about how to stay legal.

So let’s wrap this up: Prices on these things are fluctuating all the time. You can get some real deals on even the better quality drones if you keep an eye out. I dropped about $1,500 on the Yuneec drone I’ve shown you here, but I’ve recently seen it going for under $700 because Yuneec is coming out with new and improved models. I don’t know what the used market is like, but I’m sure there is one. I’d be very cautious about buying a used one, however.

Recommendations: Ah, well, that gets a bit difficult. I’d like to recommend that if you’re interested in a camera drone you start with one of the cheap, small models before you drop a thousand bucks or more on one of the big ones. But it’s difficult to do that because they are entirely different beasts. The small, cheap drones are suitable only for flying indoors, are often twitchy to control. The slightest breeze can send them tumbling out of control. The cameras, if they have them at all, are virtually useless for any kind of decent photography or video. They are basically cheap, unstable toys. Don’t get me wrong, they are a lot of fun to play with, but that’s all they’re good for, play.

Drones like my Yuneec are much more stable, easier to fly outdoors, can handle wind better, feature gimbal mounted high def cameras that provide good video and still photos, but they are much, much more expensive than the $59.99 specials at Radio Shack or Amazon, or even the $180 Hubsan I have. So if you buy one and now decide it’s not something you want to do, well, now you’ve spent over a grand that you could have used to pay off your student loans or something, and you’re going to be mad at me because I recommended it.

Let’s say you’re thinking of doing actual serious work with it, like scouting hundreds of acres of corn or soybean fields. If you’re thinking of that kind of thing, well, even something like my Yuneec isn’t going to work all that well for you. Yes, it’s a damned good flying camera platform with a good, stable camera. But you only get about 20 minutes out of a battery so you’re going to need a lot of pre-charged batteries to scout any kind of significant acreage. You can’t pre-program a flight plan into it…

If you want to seriously do that kind of thing for a large far, you’re moving up into an entirely different and more sophisticated level of technology and, of course, an entirely different price range. For that kind of capability you’re getting out of the $1,000 – $1,500 range and getting into the $3,0000+ range and you might be better off getting one of the professional crop scouting services to come in and do it for you.

Addendum: I really need to point out that the claimed flight times for drones are often wildly optimistic. If the manufacturer claims you can get 30 minutes flight time from a fully charged battery, you can generally assume it’s going to be closer to 20 or even 15 minutes out in the real world.

The same is true for the claimed range of the controllers. As with battery life, the range of the controllers are estimates at best, and done under ideal conditions, not under the kinds of conditions you will find out in the real world.