With budget options for aerial video becoming more affordable, while the quality and abilities of the cameras they host getting better, I knew it was only a matter or time until I got my hands on such a system. Even though I was a little skeptical from the onset, I’m pleased to say that the DJI Inspire is a phenomenal drone/quadcopter unit for adding dramatic footage to video or still projects, even for first time users.
I will openly admit that prior to flying the Inspire, I had NEVER used an aerial camera system. Sure, I’d used some toy RC helicopters but this is totally different. So, now that you know that I had ZERO experience going in to this, believe me when I say that just about anyone can fly the Inspire as long as they are a responsible pilot and take the time to read the manual and practice flying to get a feel for how the Inspire responds to the controller.
I’ll start with the footage. A fixed 20mm (FFE) f/2.8lens on the Inspire captures video in a plethora of resolutions and frame rates, from 4k/24p to 1080/60p. It can take 12MP stills in a RAW/DNG format, and you have the option to let the camera run in auto exposure or to manually control parameters like the ISO and shutter speed. The image is not a fisheye, like what you get with the Phantom-mounted GoPros, so that a major plus in my book.
With a steady operator, overhead flyovers and reveals are easy to pull off. You can’t get too close for the obvious safety concern, so understandably you shouldn’t expect to get any closeup or medium shots. Saying that, if your final output is 1080p, you can scale your image up to get a tighter frame if you need to. Another benefit to outputting to 1080p is that with 4k source material, you can stabilize or re-align the footage in post without much loss of quality. In the example clips in the article NONE of them have had any stabilization or color correction done, these are as they were straight out of the Inspire– pretty smooth if you ask me.
The Inspire can really move, reaching a maximum speed of around 25mph, so if you wanted to shoot a chase scene, it is absolutely possible. One of my favorite shots was to do a pullback-reveal, where I would ease into an upward and backward move to go from the subject to reveal the entire landscape or cityscape. In a large open area, there are lots of opportunities.
In the edit, 4k is great but bear in mind that it won’t perfectly match footage from other cameras– I found it to be a little too punchy– plus if you are shooting with a higher shutter speed, the motion rendering will look quite different. Saying that, if you plan to slow down the footage a little bit, this might smooth it out. With some finessing in a color correction app, you can get your A-camera material close enough to the Inspire footage to make it passable.
The camera can be controlled independently of the quadcopter, so if you get a second controller and have another person to operate it, one person can fly while one person controls the camera functions. Very cool to have this option, but if you’re a one-person pilot/camera op, like I was, there is a mode to marry the pan of the camera to the orientation of the Inspire, with a roller on the controller that adjusts the camera tilt.
Controlling the Inspire and the App
The controller comes with a mount for the iPad, which allows the pilot to control and set up the flight and camera operations. There is even a simulation mode for practicing using the controls.
The DJI Pilot App allows you to have a live video preview of what you are shooting, and provides the pilot with information on battery life, satellite signal, recording format, and all kinds of other data. You can even pull up a map and draw a boundary zone so that the Inpsire doesn’t fly outside of it. Cool in theory but in practice I was unable to use that feature when I didn’t have a data/wifi connection to the iPad.
There are advanced controls for tweaking how the Inspire responds, which I did end up manipulating so that I could make it start/stop a bit smoother. This ultimately meant it didn’t stop on a dime for me, which led to my first and only crash into the side of a garage.
On a sunny day, it’s damn hard to see the iPad, so having some sort of hood would have been helpful. With two operators, the HDMI out on the controller can send the video signal to a reference monitor (which could have a hood) for the camera operator. As the pilot, I found myself looking at the Inspire in the air more often than the iPad, making sure I was keeping it in a safe position and monitoring how it responded to my controls vs. the wind.
My Experiences, and a Word About Safety
There were several times during my two major projects with the Inspire where I was asked to fly, and I said “No.” Being responsible for a $2,000 rig that is essentially a flying a death machine tends to make me pretty nervous. While the Inspire is a robust unit that can fly against 10-20mph winds, I found that even a slight breeze impaired my ability to fly with absolute precision. Maybe I’m being too nitpicky, but I would try to execute highly controlled shots along a specific flight path, and light winds would make it difficult to do that. The footage was still usable, but being a one-person pilot/camera op often meant my framing and shot composition would suffer a little as I would be making course corrections on the fly to keep a safe trajectory.
Power lines, cars, pedestrains, horses, and all sort of private property could be severly damaged as a result of the Inspire going out of control or crashing. I don’t want to be that guy who ends up on all of the blogs as the dude who got drones banned.
When satellite signal was strong and we were shooting in remote wilderness areas, I attempted to fly, and when there was zero wind, the Inspire flew like a dream. Even with a canopy of trees just begging to get caught in the props, the quadcopter operated flawlessly and responded perfectly.
In another wilderness area, far away from anything besides our crew and models, stronger winds existed. I carefully took off from a vantage point high above and away from everyone, and the wind immediately carried it south. The Inspire is supposed to hold its position, but was unable to in these winds. It was interesting to see it fly high and enter a windy area, then come lower and get out of the wind and start responding much more to my control. Even with strong satellite signal, a 20-25mph wind carried the Inspire away if I didn’t fly into it manually.
There was a moment during that flight where I did lose connection through the iPad and I think satellite signal to the Inspire. Here's footage of what happened. You can see that I was lining up a flyover when all of sudden it jerks left and starts drifting in the wrong direction.
In another area that had live power lines nearby, I declined to fly. Wind conditions were calm around the ground level, but about 30 feet up I could see the trees swaying. If I had flown it below the winds, I probably could have gotten the shot, but ultimately I felt it was not worth the risk, as a crew of around 15-20 people were scattered around the area with the power lines directly above them.
There was one time I actually flew the Inspire indoors. When inside, the Inspire can use a camera/sensor on the bottom to read where the ground is and keep itself under control. Very cool.
The battery only lasts about 15-20 minutes, which is plenty for one or two shots, but if you have plans of multiple takes, get a second battery to have at the ready.
My Conclusion on Operating the DJI Inspire
With only a handful of flights under my belt, I was asked to fly the Inspire in tight quarters, operating in a zone about the width of a city street, with buildings nearby. With no pedestrains, power lines, or other dangerous objects in the area I had a successful flight, albeit shaking the whole time. From there, I went on to fly it almost every day in a new place, each time getting more comfortable. The wind and satellite signal play a HUGE role in how well it can be flown- the tighter the area you try to fly, the lower the winds must be, otherwise you simply will not be able to keep control over it.
I flew the Inspire in a couple areas that were similar in that it was a tight space down a river, with little room for error. With only about a 15-20 foot horizontal and vertical tunnel of space to fly through, the difference was the wind and satellite signal. The first time I had both, and the second time I had neither. Keeping a smooth shot and flying safely was extremely difficult with the latter, and a piece of cake with the former.
There are many more features that this has, like home point functions, auto takeoff, moving the props up and out of the frame, power management, etc. This article is already long so take a gander at the manual if these really interest you.
If you are thinking about adding aerial video to your productions, and want to go a step higher than using GoPros, you should seriously consider the DJI Inspire. With some practice and a cautious approach, even the most inexperienced pilot could learn to use one of these in a short time. Just don’t end up being that guy who ruins it for the rest of us by doing something stupid with it. With great power comes great responsibility.
Thanks to Jaron Schneider, Tomás Arthuzzi, and RGG EDU for the stills and video of me running the DJI Inspire.