First flight

When I received my drone, I flew it that next day. Batteries were in short supply in the early days of the Phantom 3, so I only had 20 minutes or so on a single charge.

Ahhhhh-mazing. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. A single tap of my iPhone screen and the bird was hovering 15 feet in the air. The live feed on the screen was incredible. The real-time telemetry was exciting. The swarm of bees was unmistakable. Even causing me to give a stink-eye to the flower garden at the park to make sure I wasn’t being attacked by hundreds of bees again (long story).

With over a decade of experience with remote control airplanes, from balsa gassers to electric foamies, the next step is always to open it up and see if the Phantom 3 is all it claims to be. As I slammed the left stick forward, the Phantom 3 zipped straight up to 200 ft. It was at that moment that I realized the Phantom 3 was exactly what I was looking for. I felt like a bird, without the fear. It was like the movie Surrogates. You realize you’re doing something incredibly dangerous, but you’re not actually in any danger. That is the type of connection the live feed elicits. I wanted a first-person experience and I had it.

After spinning 360 degrees to take in all of Santa Barbara from 200 ft. in the air, I punched the right stick forward at full speed. Even though I was traveling at a decent speed, up there, it feels much slower. A feeling I am sure pilots are familiar with, without a continuous point of reference such as the ground or a cloud, it is difficult to determine how fast you are going.

After going nearly a half mile away, the live video feed was still perfect. 1 mile out, still a perfect video feed. I could not believe I was watching a real-time video feed on the screen even though the Phantom 3 was so far way and traveling so fast. At this point I was heavily relying on the blinking lights of the Phantom 3 to see it, so I turned around and came back by hitting the return to home button on the remote control. Even though the beeps while it is returning to home emitted from the controller are slightly annoying, it returned to exactly where it took off, automatically landed, and turned itself off.

Ahhhhh-mazing. I looked at my wife with the biggest grin. A feeling many husbands know, the moment a disputed purchase proves its value without question.

I spent the rest of the battery recording video and snapping pictures that I would be playing with all night as I feverishly recharged the battery for the flight the next day.

First Flight Phantom 3

First “scare”

When I purchased the Phantom 3, I lived in a condo that had a second floor patio with a huge sliding glass door. Straight out from this patio was the pacific ocean one mile away past the suburbs, just behind the tree tops. As I came to find out, this was a perfect setup to fly laying on my bed, in my bedroom. I literally placed the Phantom 3 on the floor of my bedroom, took off, flew out the patio, ascended a couple hundred feet, and then flew out over the pacific ocean sitting on my bed. It was incredible.

One day as I was flying exactly as I have done dozens of times, I was about a mile away directly over the beach, just below the tree tops, checking out a small inlet fed by the ocean that is difficult to reach on foot when the video signal completely dropped without warning. The screen was black and the telemetry data had locked.

For a few minutes I frantically adjusted the antennas while holding the left stick forward to ascend to get better reception.

Nothing. No change to the video feed.

Since I was looking straight down when the live feed was lost, I was not positive what my orientation was. I knew exactly where I was however, so instead of attempting to bring it back, I figured it would be best to let the battery run out and drive to pick it up. Since I wasn’t over water, that seemed like the safest bet.

Then I remembered the highly touted feature of “Return-To-Home”. I pressed and held down the button on the remote control, and it started beeping as usual. I felt a little relief. As the controller was beeping, I was getting myself ready to jump into the car with my wife to hopefully pick it up right where I lost signal.

Then I heard it. The swarm of bees approaching. I looked outside to see the Phantom 3 flying with purpose straight at me, 120 ft. off the ground, exactly the height that I configured if I press that button.

There was still no live video feed on the screen, so when the Phantom 3 was near I pressed the return-to-home button again. The beeping stopped and the Phantom 3 held steady in the air. I was then able to take control of it with the remote control and land it line-of-sight right through the patio door and on my bedroom floor.

The future is bright ladies and gentlemen.

current usage

Now that full autonomous flight is possible, I split my time with using the DJI GO app to fly manually, or use a combination of Litchi, Pix4d, and DroneDeploy to capture imagery automatically.

I fly at least once a week, typically more. It gave me an appreciation of photography and a thirst for more knowledge. While my understanding is limited to the minimum necessary to use the Phantom 3, I appreciate what it takes to capture a single photograph.

Due to the current restrictions on commercial flights with the Phantom 3 which requires certification in an actual manned airplane, I am limited to using it in a hobby form, even though I have been offered work by real estate agents just flying in the neighborhood park. Which is a shame. A few of those would have paid for the Phantom 3 itself.


In addition to an extra battery, I have prop guards, a camera/gimbal protector, a gimbal lock, a sunshade crafted from the Phantom 3 box itself, an Nvidia Shield tablet, and a hiking vest to carry the Phantom 3.


I stopped flying the Phantom 3 for a few months after an altercation with a crazy neighbor I had never met before. They lived a few blocks over and claimed I was flying “right outside their window spying on them”. Unfortunately before any words were even shared, the neighbor pulled out a knife. Fortunately I was with a group of people who were not far away at the time which quickly dissuaded the individual.

Entertaining as the actual details may be, that is the gist of it. A police report was filed, and the district attorney declined to pursue any charges. I am not surprised, a shocking trend is happening where the justice system is refusing to support drone operators, and it will get much worse before it gets better I am afraid.

First Crash

My first crash was rather typical, but where it happened made it more of a pain than it had to be.

I was practicing precise maneuvers around a baseball diamond (circling the bases) when I banked too wide and caught the backstop with one of the propellers. Because I was flying FPV through a sunshade on a tablet, I lost some awareness on what was behind the Phantom 3 and paid the price.

The only damage was two broken props, but I had to take the shell apart to get all of the fine dirt from a baseball diamond out of the motors. Removing the top shell was by far the most difficult part of that adventure (extreme patience is required), but compressed air and proper access to the motors was all that I needed. I did not have to disassemble the actual motors.


At about 15% of battery, I started circling a pylon to practice circling an object while keeping it in view about 20 feet from me, right next to the registered home point. My mistake was doing this with a small tree nearby.

At 10% battery, the return to home was triggered, which with a minimum altitude of 120 ft., that meant going straight up for a while, over 30 feet to the home point, and then down 120 feet to land. This feature should be disabled if the drone is within a short distance of the home point.

Needless to say, on its way up, it clipped the tree branch less than 2 seconds after return to home was triggered. Even with prop guards on, since it was coming from below straight up towards the branch, they were useless. Fortunately it did not fall far, but enough to cause damage to the gimbal.

One of the gimbal motors was on the opposite side it should have been. One of the cables connecting the gimbal to the aircraft had been pulled completely out of its connector, leaving exposed wires. The small gimbal plate on the aircraft had also cracked where the anti-vibration rubber dampeners connect. I had the UAVBits gimbal protector installed at the time, but the bird landed on its head, so there is nothing that could have been done.

After some superglue for the cracked plastic, needle nose pliers painstakingly re-inserting each individual wire into the incredibly small connector, flipping the gimbal back over to its normal position, and putting everything back together, the default position of the gimbal when the Phantom 3 was turned on was tilted 45 degrees, facing straight forward. Similar to tilting your own head to the right.

Ugh. After calibrating the IMU, and using the auto calibration for the gimbal (which was not available in Android oddly enough, only iOS), I was able to get the gimbal back to normal. However, after turning off the Phantom 3 and then turning it back on, it went back to the way it was. Every time I fixed it, and then turned it off, it “forgot” the settings. I was not going to calibrate the gimbal before every flight, so I started Googling!

Fortunately I found someone that had the exact same issue. There is a shaft on the yaw gimbal motor (5 screw plate accessible from the back when the camera is facing forwards). Inside of that was a circuit board, and under that circuit board after disconnecting two ribbons on the under side, is a notched shaft. The notch should point down, and be parallel with the edge of the actual camera if it is being held straight and level. You can spin the shaft by holding the camera and using pliers to gently spin it. After doing this, the gimbal returned to its normal position after startup and no calibration was needed before each flight.

After all of those minor fixes, the Phantom 3 was back to normal for a day, and then is now tilting again, but not as much. I suspect something is loose on that shaft. Re-calibrating fixes it, but that is a slight annoyance when you have to do it every time the Phantom 3 is turned on.

A few days later I tightened the shaft and centered it again, so far so good!

Next steps

The Phantom 3 is so impressive it has caused me to start doing a lot of research on the current state of all remote control industries. Which led me to drone racing, an exciting new sport of racing quadcopters.

Much like flying the Phantom 3, drone racing involves smaller airframes that are much cheaper to repair and a closed course. As a pilot in the race, it feels like you are sitting inside of the quadcopter, especially if you have a pair of Fat Shark goggles for better immersion.

Due to the size and cost of the Phantom 3, it makes me nervous flying in close quarters regardless of where I am. But with these easily repairable quadcopters, slamming into a wall gets reduced to a slight annoyance instead of big dollars and waiting a week for parts.

After seeing some pretty amazing 3D models created by Pix4D and a Phantom 3, I had to give it a try.

I did a little more research and found Drone Deploy as an alternative. Pix3D is local software and Drone Deploy is in the cloud. Both offer an iOS and Android app to capture images. I downloaded both to my Android device in preparation.

The pix4d app worked well while my drone was using an older version of firmware, but as soon as I upgraded to the most recent version 1.7.0060, the app crashes as soon as I went into the Grid Mission area. It also stopped prompting for permission on the USB connection, which I think is related. The thing I liked about this app was the ability to set the camera angle. This helped fly missions to obtain oblique images for 3D models.

After the pix4d android app stopped working, I started using the Drone Deploy app. Both apps are extremely simple to use. Drone Deploy does a bit more of the work for you, but currently does not allow you to set the camera angle. It will automatically point straight down when the mission starts. After setting the height and image overlap, the app automatically calculates the speed and grid. After a few checks, the mission was ready to execute.

I didn’t have a single issue with either app while they were connected to the drone.

Once I had captured all of my images, I used the Mac version of Pix4D’s software to process the images locally on my Macbook Pro. Uploading 500 images at 5mb a pop is not feasible for how often I want to generate 3D models, so a cloud option is out of the question. My ISP would probably cancel my internet subscription.

With zero experience with Pix4D free software version, I was able to generate a pretty amazing 3D model of a local park nearby. They even allow you to export a preview that you can share online. I did not do that with my first model because it was too small and boring, but I have attached an image to see what it looks like after initial processing in the application. This screen grab was taken straight from Pix4D’s free version.

Baseball Park 3D Model

And here is the same rendering with a “mesh” layer added to it. I had to free up almost 2.5 GB of memory to process 200 images without an error from Pix4D.

Baseball Park 3D Model

The ease of which you can take to the skies is getting absurdly simple. Flight controllers these days are doing everything for the pilot. Processors and sensors are creating their own environment around the aircraft much in the same way we do so ourselves.

The biggest upgrade? Obstacle Avoidance towards the front of the aircraft. While it isn’t a protective bubble around the drone, it represents a huge and important step forward.

I have the Phantom 3, and while I do not think it warrants upgrading to the Phantom 4, the future is bright.

Give me the protective bubble and 2+ hours of flight time and I will be one happy camper!

Posted in DJI

I was shocked at how cool this track is. All the subtle visual cues seem like they would really help the pilots as well.

In addition to that, the pilots in this video are pretty amazing. I found it fascinating how they would correct errors such as coming in too hot into a turn and managing an abrupt increase in altitude between gates.

All in all, if this is the future of drone racing, watch out.