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Getting Started with the DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter: A Beginner's Guide

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I have spent much of today so far playing with a very cool new toy - the DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter. It's great fun, but a steep learning curve. As a complete beginner with these things myself, I thought it might be useful for other newbies if I write an article looking at the very basics of setting up your quadcopter for the first time and taking it out on its maiden voyage.

The DJI Phantom range are quadcopters aimed primarily at people who are interested in aerial photography. My girlfriend is very into photography at the moment, and so we decided to buy a Phantom and a GoPro Hero 3 camera to take on a Safari trip we are planning to her home country of Uganda later in the year. Since she is a bit of a technophobe we decided that setting up the quadcopter - and flying it - would be left to me while she would be left to purely control the camera from her phone.

Initial Set Up of the Phantom 2 Quadcopter

My initial excitement when our cool new toy arrived through the post quickly turned into confusion - this is not an entirely beginner friendly product (don't worry though, it’s actually not as difficult to get started as you might think when you first open the box). It seems that the Phantom 2 is aimed mostly at serious hobbyists and professional photographers who really know what they are doing; that's why I decided to write this article for other people who may be experiencing the same level of confusion that I did.

The first thing is - don't expect there to be a manual in the box. When I opened up the package and found no instruction manual, I was quite annoyed; I actually spent quite a while examining various parts, trying to work out what they were and how to attach them, before I eventually found myself on the DJI website - where I found the manuals!

If you are completely new to quadcopters and drones then here is my advice to get started:

  • Ignore the full manual to begin with - there is a quick start guide available on the downloads page which is much more suitable for beginners.
  • If you, like me, find yourself sitting in your living room examining little bags of bits and pieces wondering what the hell you are supposed to do with them, then my best advice is just to ignore them for now: you won't need them to get started and take your new toy out on its first flight using purely manual controls. You can play about with the more advanced stuff later, once you have the basic stuff mastered.
  • All you need to do to get started is to screw on the landers and the blades, plug-in the battery and close it into the holding bay, and put AA batteries into the handheld radio controller. You may also like to plug in the compass module (a flat cable which starts next to where you screw in the landers, and plugs into one of the landers - there's only one place it'll fit so just push it in there) just to keep the cable out of the way and not dangling around, but you don't need to go through the compass and GPS calibration for your first flight.
  • The battery charger has 6 different setting - which baffled me for a second as I've never seen a charger with settings options before, but all you need to do is to look on the battery itself to find if it is LIPO or LIFO and what current rating is, and then set the charger accordingly. For example, mine was a LIPO rated at 2200 milliamps, so I chose the LIPO option and then 2A.
  • Don't attach the camera until you've taken it out a few times and started to get the hang of landing it properly - you won't be able to focus on flying and taking pictures to start off with anyway and you are only adding extra things that could get damaged.

If you haven't actually bought your quadcopter yet then I have some extra advice. Firstly, it is better to buy a package with the Zenmuse camera included; I bought it without this and got a separate GoPro camera as my girlfriend had been advised that the GoPro was a good camera for this kind of photography, but now I think that the set-up is easier and the controls better integrated if you buy the package, and the Zenmuse camera looks just as good to me. Secondly - start off with a cheap little radio controlled helicopter or something first and learn to fly that pretty well before getting something more expensive, because they do take a some skill to fly well and crashing a phantom quadcopter is quite likely to end up doing some significant damage. Which brings me to the finals section - actually flying the thing.

Taking the Phantom Quadcopter on Its First Flight

Thankfully I managed to take my Phantom out for the first time with no major crashes and only a minor chip on one of the blades (you do get spare blades) from my less than perfect landings. I am still far from being an expert at flying these things, but I have probably learned most of the stupid mistakes that beginners are likely to make so hopefully I can provide a little bit of useful advice. Here are my top tips for other newbies:

  • When your quadcopter and controller are powered up, just push both joysticks diagonally down and inwards towards the centre of the controller to power up the blades. The two upper metal switches should be pushed upwards - these are for automated pre-programmed functions using the ground control software so you can ignore them for now once they are in the upper position.
  • The flashing light marks the back of the quadcopter - not the front as I first thought for some reason. It is important to focus on the light as you are watching the quadcopter in the air, as it is very easy to get confused over which way is left, right, forward and backwards otherwise. There are also lights underneath to indicate direction when it is over your head - red is the front.
  • Although the Phantom is surprisingly stable in the air, it will be blown in different directions by the wind. Make sure you are aware of the direction the wind is blowing in and don't go close enough to any trees or other obstacles for a sudden gust to make you crash.
  • Landing is by far the most difficult thing to do. When I first started out, every time I tried to land it would simply bounce off the ground and them go tumbling over ground - this did cause some minor damage to one of my propellers as my Phantom tumbled off the grass and into a patch of rocky dirt. All of my difficulties could have been avoided, however, if they had provided some kind of instruction on how to land along with the product. To avoid damage on landing you should first hold the quadcopter in a stable hovering position over your chosen landing point, then start to bring it down; when you get close to the ground you should come down in tiny increments – just flicking the joypad as lightly as possible each time, then once again make sure you are stable before coming down again, and wait till any wind is at a minimum. One of the most important points, which it took me a few bumpy landings to learn, is that you need to cut the propellers the very second it touches the ground – perhaps even a split second before – because if you don’t do that then it is much more likely to either bounce and then tumble along the ground, or just tip over, either of which can damage the propellers.

Now go have fun!

After your first outing, the next stage is to calibrate the compass and start using the ground control software - I haven't even tried these things yet but when I have I will write an article about all the stupid mistakes I make and post a link to it here.

Categories: Recreation | Hobbies | Technology


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