ENTER THE DRONE

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Paul Pan navigates a DJI Phantom 4 over the water at Conrad Sanya.

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The DJI Phantom 4 kit.

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View of the leafy, palm-shaded resort, captured in mid-May, 2016.

Welcome to the world’s most technologically sophisticated, photography-oriented and user-friendly drones, designed to transform the way we see the world through their staggering aerial viewpoints and sweeping video vistas.
Paul Pan is on a mission to empower you. As he sits, wearing shades, overlooking the lush palm-tree painted horizon beyond the powdery-white beach skirting Conrad Sanya Haitang Bay in China, he recalls a recent expedition that left him inspired by what people can do when they’re given the right tools. Researchers at conservation group Ocean Alliance used DJI’s Phantom 4 drone, its most recent model, to gather information about whales off the coast of Mexico, hovering just above so as to not disturb them. “There’s no other way they would have been able to do that,” says Paul. “It was something we didn’t think of using our drones for.” Yet it’s just one of a myriad of ways that drones are proving to be much more than just expensive toys; they’re tools that are helping us change the world, and changing the way we see it.

DJI is the world’s biggest and best-known commercial drone maker. These lightweight unmanned vehicles (quadcopters or UAVs for short), are incredibly popular with filmmakers for their smooth and seemingly magical aerial footage capture. They can slalom through the air, swooping incredibly close to buildings and nature with minimum potential for causing damage—or disruption to the air around them—all controlled by a pilot on the ground. Hollywood’s directors have found that the agility and grace of the results often wipes the floor with that which a helicopter pilot and cameraman could achieve. Paul doesn’t actually like to describe his latest product, the Phantom 4, as a drone. “It’s a flying camera”, he says.

PAUL PAN IS A VIRTUOSO PHOTOGRAPHER HIMSELF — A SKILL HE DEMONSTRATES AT CONRAD SANYA BY CAPTURING EPIC SWEEPING FOOTAGE OF THE RESORT IN DAZZLING AFTERNOON SUN.
The amateur flying of drones—for capturing still photography or film—has also become increasingly popular over the last few years, moving from a niche hobbyist activity to something anyone can pick up, and with their user-friendly consumer technology, DJI has led the charge. “DJI made something that was more accessible for the standard consumer,” explains Paul, DJI’s senior product manager. “It wasn’t a case of you sawing boards together, soldering motor wires to a board and then trying to program a radio – it was ready to go.”
drone3UAV-captured view of the Pool Suites.
For this reason, it makes sense to put commercial drone companies like DJI in the same bag as action camera revolutionary GoPro. Both are making expert creative tools accessible, placing them in the hands of the masses and saying “Okay, guys. Show us what you’ve got”. You could lose weeks trawling through the reels and reels of amateur YouTube videos captured by drones, including one particularly stunning shot of a volcano erupting on Reunion Island. In another, more chilling example, a drone glides through the ghost town of Pripyat, Ukraine, which was evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster. And then there’s a video of a drone flying through the middle of a firework display, because why not?

A virtuoso pilot himself—a skill he demonstrates (still wearing shades) at Conrad Sanya by capturing epic sweeping footage of the resort and shimmering seascapes beyond in the dazzling light of the afternoon sun—Paul’s crowning technical achievement has been the development of the three-axis gimbal system, which lets the Phantom 4 capture silky-smooth, 4K video as it moves through the air. As Paul describes it, it’s like placing a marble on a board and working to keep it central at all times. “We apply that same technology to camera stabilisation. It’s very fast, very precise. It’s down to 0.02 degrees of accuracy. Before the camera is able to record a pixel movement the gimbal has already recorded.”

DRONE5Paul Pan reviewing footage in the lounge at Conrad Sanya.
That, combined with 12 megapixel photo capture, means the Phantom 4 is capable of shooting incredibly crisp footage. And its quest to turn amateur drone pilots into Pulitzer Prize-worthy photographers doesn’t stop there. The Phantom 4 comes with a TapFly function, where you simply tap a point on the map and the drone will fly to it of its own accord, using the Object Avoidance system to dodge tree branches and rooftops along the way. Paul describes a time when he put this feature into practice: he’d spotted a potentially scenic shot of a hut nestled in a forested area, but manually navigating in and out could end in disaster. “I flew in there and I shot the hut, and then I was like ‘Okay, now how am I going to get back out?’. And so all I did was turn the Phantom around and tapped and it found its way out through the trees without me having to walk over there, or have someone check that I’m not going to hit something as I fly back out”.

Like Ocean Alliance’s expedition, drones can offer simple solutions to complex problems. Search and rescue operations have found life-saving uses for drones. In 2014, a three-day search for a missing person in Wisconsin, USA, ended when an amateur drone pilot managed to spot the 82-year-old man — after just 20 minutes of looking. “Using a thermal camera for seeing hot spots for firefighting,” is another suggestion Paul throws out. UAVs are being used by all sorts of marketeers for better, more creative and inspiring photography, especially as film and animations for advertising online truly takes off.

DRONE4Elements of the DJI Phantom 4 kit.
Circling back to the amateur appeal of DJI’s drones, positive comparisons are often drawn between DJI and Apple: both companies have risen to the top of their game with a lean range of premium products designed with ease of use and a sleek, desirable look in mind, with a strong focus on research and development. In fact, this year, Apple made the unprecedented move of allocating DJI a large area of its retail stores to sell and demo its drones – a ringing endorsement.

So where do drones go next? That’s for us—the consumer, traveler and lover of photography—to figure out. DJI will continue to hone its technology, but the real blue-sky thinkers are you and I. Time and time again Paul says he is blown away by people’s inventive ideas — and things are only just getting started. He does have one interesting idea for the future, however: “There has to be a point at which drones are also recognising each other in the air,” he says. “There is probably going to be a system like that in the future where it’s not one person flying one drone—they could be flying multiple drones—and where they’re aware of each other and working together.”

Drones can change the way we work and play. They can transform the way we see the world. They solve problems. They have the potential to save lives. DJI and others have given us the tools — now it’s up to us to show them what we’ve got.

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