First Travel Experience with a Drone

So I recently planned a trip to New Zealand with my old gang from my first graduation trip to Taiwan. I have always been wanting to do something more ambitious with my travel photography and documentary, something more varied than the usual photos and shaky GoPro footage (more about this later).

So a few months back I decided that it’s time to consider getting a drone to bring our travel videography to another level, and these were my considerations:

  1. Which drone below $1000 (SGD) to get?
  2. Can the drone get through customs? Hand-carry or luggage?
  3. How do I bring it around?
  4. Even if I bring it everywhere with me, where can I really fly it?
  5. How do I plan what shots to take so that it will fit in with my other footages?

Which drone should I get?

My budget was downwards of $1000 and I found that my main considerations for an amateur travel drone were that it should be:

  1. Portable enough (light and small)
  2. Capture at least 1080p video OR have a GoPro mount
  3. The controls should be easy enough to use
  4. Set-up should be fuss-free
  5. If possible, video stabilization (at least 2 axis or 3 axis gimbal)
  6. Basic functionalities like orbit mode, follow-me mode
  7. Spare parts should be cheap enough so that when I crash the drone it isn’t too painful to replace them

Alright so that was like my key considerations when I was doing my research into the HUGE variety of drones out there. These considerations actually changed a bit after my first few runs with the drone that I eventually settled on so this is really just to share the whole thought process I went through.

I narrowed my choices down to a few choices based on online reviews and pricing (Disclaimer: This was before DJI Spark was released, but it would have come into consideration)

Brand Price Included in Package: Controlled via Smartphone Controlled via Remote Video Stabilization Portability (1 is best) Video Mode
Yuneec Breeze 369.99 2 Battery with 15mins flytime each Yes Yes No 1 In-built 1080p
3DR Solo 258.79 1 Battery with 25mins flytime No Yes Yes 3 GoPro gimbal mount separately sold
Xiro Xplorer 330 2 Battery with 25mins flytime No Yes Yes 2 In-built 1080p
DJI Phantom 3 445.2 1 Battery with 25mins flytime No Yes Yes 4 In-built 2.7k

This was probably the toughest part of the whole process as everyone has their considerations when getting a drone and there are actually certain things that you just won’t know until you start playing around with it. Reviews are not that useful in this case because there are so many at each end of the spectrum so you wonder if its just a case of luck if you would get a product that happens to work fine for you.

I settled on the Yuneec Breeze after considering the below points:

  • I almost immediately threw the DJI Phantom out of the consideration on the account that it was too unwieldy to carry around my travels
  • The price points were roughly the same for these few choices, except the 3DR solo which doesn’t come with a camera.
  • The 3DR Solo, awesome drone as it was for the hugely discounted price, wasn’t sustainable as the manufacturer has pulled out and the lack of product support was just a huge no-go
  • Between the Yuneec and Xipro, it was down to the fact that the Yuneec was so small (pictured below) and I could really imagine it fitting into my backpack.
  • However, there is the point that the Yuneec does not have video stabilisation

It was a starter drone anyway, so after reviewing online footage of the Yuneec, I decided that for a first drone it should be rather acceptable.

Anyway, just a quick shoutout to RateX for helping to shave off almost 30 bucks on the exchange rate. I would really recommend using their service (its just a Chrome add-on) that helps to secure a cheaper exchange rate instead of using Amazon’s exchange rate and you basically save money doing nothing. Sounds too good to be true? I thought the same till I tried it (3 times so far). Check them out and install the plugin here.

Capture

photo_2017-06-18_13-37-21

Come check out my review of the Yuneec Breeze when its up! (Soon)

How to pack the drone and bring it across Customs?

This part was rather simple. Most online advice and common sense dictated that wherever possible, I would bring along my fragile and precious items on hand-carry. My drone and battery and all got through customs (Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand) without any issues. I can’t speak as much for a larger drone for now.

How do I bring it around?

Now, this is the main reason why I bought the Yuneec Breeze. It was really a breeze (no joke) to bring it around in my backpack and that means a few things:

  • You don’t have to worry about planning your shots, like whether you might have a chance to use the drone or not – just bring it as it’s not too bulky anyway
  • It’s easy to deploy and I trek around a fair bit – hop off the car, bring along the backpack, fly the drone if needed

Where can I really fly it?

Now, this is the trickiest part of traveling around with a drone. On two occasions I brought my drone along to realize that I could not really fly it without any consequences. I was in Hobbiton and there wasn’t really any restrictions up-front regarding drone flying. But as it was a fully-guided tour, we really could not get away to do some drone flying of our own. Upon asking the guide if we could fly a drone (theoretically speaking), her answer was an absolute no. The second occasion was when doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (one of the most awesome treks I have done, do check out my review when its up!) and there was basically a restriction on flying drones that we were informed of only at the start of the trek.

However, there are some places that surprised me such as the Te Puia geothermal national park. We paid for our entry ticket and even though it was a heritage site, we were able to fly the drone and get footage without any issues.

The general consensus I get is to do some prior research to drone photography for the area that I am going to visit. As part of my travels I guess the norm is to stop by some attractions to either do a short walk and take some photos.

  • Some heritage sites might ban drone photography out of respect.
  • Controlled attractions like theme parks etc might also ban the flying of drones for safety
  • The drones do make a bit of sound when flying so be prepared for some attention (esp. from animals)

Planning your shots

This is the part where I feel the least-qualified to talk about as I am just starting off but a few tips in general I guess:

  • Think of the shots you want to capture for the trip in general beforehand. I usually play around with some standard transitions, some panning shots, follow-the-person shots and so on
  • I think in general drone shots are great for introductions and transitions, you get the cinematic feels when you show a pan of the landscape or when it takes off from the ground and shows the background at the back as it rises.
  • Start recording as soon as you take off. Excess shots can always be trimmed off
  • If your drone does not have a video stabiliser (like mine), be sure to account for the jerking effect when you change the direction of flight. For me, I tend to drag the shots longer so that I can cut out the jerk when it stops or changes direction.

Closing Thoughts + What about the DJI Spark?

Well, I definitely did not regret bringing along a drone for this trip, even when it posed a few problems in terms of connectivity and flight stability for me. The footage taken really adds a new dimension to the travel photography that we take and it’s really fun to imagine yourself being a film director, planning the flight paths that the drone will take and so on.

If I could do it all over again, I might really have considered getting a drone with further range and a more stable connection (definitely not standard Wi-fi). The portability of the Yuneec Breeze was a huge huge plus but if I really wanted to go for really dramatic shots, I would consider something on the scale of a Phantom. I would have to think of how to lug it around, that is.

Will buying the DJI Spark solve the problem for me? Based on initial reviews, I am compelled to think yes, but there are a few things:

  • A small drone like the Spark and the Breeze inevitably suffers a bit of jerking when there is strong wind
  • The 2 axis gimbal of the Spark seems to offer video stabilization but I struggle to come to terms with settling for a middle ground if we are going to go ahead with including a gimbal for the design

But seeing that the price point is rather attractive and it promises to deliver more in terms of the maximum range, I would really have considered getting the DJI Spark instead. Heh, maybe its even time to consider an upgrade, who knows 😉

On a closing note, some initial drone footages from the Yuneec Breeze in the opening and closing sequences of my trip video:

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