REVIEW: DJI Phantom 3 drone

By: Tom Dickson, Photography by: Andrew Britten, Video by: Andrew Britten

Presented by

Flying remote controlled aircrafts used to be confined to an exhilarating hobby, but with the advent of flight recording, GPS and real-time vision, agriculture has gained a valuable tool. TOM DICKSON checks out the latest drone on the market.

Drones are getting used more and more for a number of agricultural uses.

From inspecting fences, dams and troughs in hard to reach paddocks, to scaring birds from crops, to monitoring the health of your fields using infra-red cameras and normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) technology.

You can also use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for mapping and surveying purposes.

Using software you can stitch your images together to create detailed aerial maps, topographic and terrain maps as well as 3D models from which you are able to take accurate volumetrics and measurements.

This allows you to easily and accurately measure parcels of land, so you’ll know exactly the size of the area you intend to sow.

Or the length of the new fence that needs to be erected or the amount of lime or feed or whatever you have left in the stockpile or haystack.

Without leaving the workshop, farmers can quickly check water levels at tanks and dams, monitor stock and make sure gates are shut.

The DJI Phantom 3 Professional Quadcopter and other UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], are certain to be popular among time poor, money conscience, tech savvy farmers now and into the future.

The first time I flew a UAV, it didn’t go quite the way I had planned. I bought my son Nathan a brand new, light weight remote control plane for Christmas but managed to smash it into pieces on first try.

I used so much glue and tape to get it back together it was too heavy and never flew again.

I once again return to the sky, hopefully, in the Phantom 3 Professional Quadcopter and hope it goes better than my last experience.

Ben Grear is operations manager of Rise Above, a company that imports and distributes DJI drones throughout Australia.

Grear says the DJI Phantom 3 is really easy to fly and assures me that anyone can operate it with minimal instruction.

 

The DJI Phantom 3

DJI Phantom 3 Drone _speed _flying _9375

Each of the four propellers is driven by a battery powered brushless motor. Two propellers rotate in a clockwise direction and two rotate anticlockwise.

The Phantom 3 has a flight range from the controller of about 2km and whoever is flying the drone must keep it within vision at all times.

If an obstacle such as the shed, trees or mountain come between the drone and the controller the signal may be lost. For safety reasons, if this occurs, the Phantom 3 will automatically rise to a preset altitude and return to your location or to the point where contact is re-established and you can regain control.

In normal conditions the Phantom 3 can stay in the air with continual flight for about 25 minutes per battery charge. A full battery recharge takes around one hour so I recommend the purchase of a second battery to extend flight time.

The rechargeable lithium polymer, LiPo, battery has built in sensors and bright LEDs that let you know exactly how much charge remains. In the event that you risk running the battery to low the Phantom 3 will automatically bring itself back to your current location or a spot predetermined by you. 

I quickly work out that if your property is free of obstacles like mountains and large hills then the 2km flight range will give you the potential to cover about 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) from a central location.

Obviously to do this you will need to bring it in after 25 minutes of flight and replace a battery to keep it going.

 

Remote control

The Phantom 3’s hand-held remote control unit is a multi-function wireless communication device that controls both the video and camera system and the aircraft remote control system.

Both systems operate at 2.4 GHz. The remote has complete control of the camera while the drone is in flight taking and previewing photos and video, as well as controlling the gimble.

DJI Phantom 3 Professional has a ‘beginner’ mode which helps you learn how to fly in a safe, limited area.

The Phantom 3 can be set to fly only within a given distance and altitude from you, protecting the Phantom and making it automatically stay inside your desired limits.

This invisible, GPS-enabled ‘geofence’ prevents you from accidentally flying into unwanted areas or obstacles and helps you enjoy flying while learning at the same time.

 

Camera

DJI Phantom 3 Drone _Ultra -Stable 3-Axis Gimbal _9170

The camera on the Phantom 3 Professional shoots 4K video at up to 30 frames per second and captures 12 megapixel photos.

The three axis gimble is the apparatus that the camera attaches to. It adjusts automatically, with split second reaction time, to keep the camera perfectly level at all times.

Using the remote controller the operator can adjust the camera angle 30 degrees upwards and 90 degrees down.

Mounting a phone or iPad onto the front of the remote control unit allows you to see exactly what the camera on the drone sees in real time.

 

Flying the DJI Phantom 3

DJI Phantom 3 Drone _flying _9272

With Grear by my side I am confidently hoping for a better outcome than my first attempt at aviation glory. After a couple of minutes watching Grear operate it I feel confident enough to take the controls.

Pushing the left stick forward sends the Phantom 3 upwards, pulling it backwards brings it down. Pushing the left-hand stick to the right and left rotates the drone clockwise and anti-clockwise.

Moving the right-hand stick up, down, left and right does exactly as it suggests and directs the Phantom 3 forwards, backwards and sideways left and right.

It is that simple and to start I use the left stick to raise it up to about 20m and point it in the direction I want it to go then let go of the stick.

It is reassuring that as soon as I let go of the controls the Phantom 3 will hover without moving until it receives the next directive.

 A gentle push forward on the right side stick sends my flying eye in the sky gliding away at a gentle rate of knots.

The further and longer I push it forward the faster it gets and as it begins to disappear into the distance, allowing the stick to return to the centre position stopping forward motion, and leaving it hovering waiting for my next directive.

Apparently it is capable of reaching speeds up to about 57km/h, depending on wind direction of course.

Hovering at such a distance highlights how important the mobile phone we’ve mounted on the remote controller really is.

The drone is now too far away to actually see which way it’s pointing so by gently pushing left on the left joystick and watching the image on the phone screen I can see when it’s pointing back at me.

Pushing forward on the right stick again brings it straight home again.

After a while, when the novelty of flying wears off, it is possible to set a predetermined flight path or in aviation language, a mission. The user manual refers to this as ‘setting waypoints’.

Once initiated the drone will go off and fly the route, record the vision then return home. You can watch the vision live or view it at a later time.

 

Return To Home

If for some reason you lose your confidence about getting it back or you aren’t sure where it is because you’ve lost your visual on it there is a very handy ‘Return To Home’ feature, RTH button, to fall back on.

As soon as the RTH button is pressed a LED light ring around it will blink white to indicate that the drone is entering RTH mode. The Phantom 3 will then return back to its launching point and land itself completely on its own.

The Phantom 3 is also capable of launching itself as well. The auto launch feature starts the four motors then increases their revs to raise the craft off the ground to about 2m then hover and wait for further directions from the operator.

 

Agricultural uses

DJI Phantom 3 Drone _monitor Water Tank Levels _9180

Now that my flight training is complete and I’ve been handed my wings I feel ready to take it on a flight around the magnificent cattle station we are on in the mountains north of Goulburn, New South Wales.

It’s now I start to get a good idea of how this technology can help farmers on a daily basis. Flying over a dam that is about a kilometre away I can easily see from the vision on the screen that there is plenty of water, and there aren’t any livestock bogged in the muddy area at the water’s edge.

From here I shoot across to a tank and troughs and again get a good clear visual of the water levels.

The phone we are using as a screen does the job but I would suggest using an iPad or something similar because it would provide a larger viewing screen and therefore a bigger picture to look at.

Maybe purchase the optional screen shade to cut down on glare from the sun as well.

Speaking of sun, it’s an absolutely beautiful day for flying without a breath of wind. Keep in mind that once the wind speed gets over 25-30km/h it is advisable to ground your aircraft.

It is also advisable not to fly in the rain as moisture in the electric motors could cause performance issues. Common sense really.

Checking the water level in the tank provides a good opportunity to test out the point of interest function.

Hovering directly over the tank allows the Phantom 3 to memorise this spot as a central pivot point. Moving back about 5m and initiating the function allows the drone to now fly in a perfect circle around the tank always keeping the camera aimed at it to provide a 360-degree view of the target.

Finally I want to see how effective it will be at checking on stock during lambing or calving. From high above it will be easy to spot a problem cow that might be hanging out on her own, a sign suggesting something may be wrong.

Bringing the Phantom 3 in low allows me great vision of the cow, so I would easily be able to identify if there is a problem and if it warrants me to physically go out and check on her.

On this occasion the unfamiliar sound and sight of this strange flying creature did unsettle the poor unsuspecting cow, but I’m confident it wouldn’t take long before stock got used to it.

On my own property I spend up to three to four hours daily checking stock during the calving and lambing season and a similar time checking water points during summer.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that I could quickly recoup the outlay cost of the phantom 3 through the fuel saving of not having to drive my Ute around. I would only go into the paddock if the visual inspection from the sky warranted it.

The Phantom 3 Advanced costs around $1,500 while the Professional, which has the 4K camera, will set you back about $2,100.

 

The Verdict

Drones can already be a great time and money saver and as technology improves batteries to provide longer airtime and remote control signals improve to prevent signal failure behind obstacles, their value to agriculture will improve enormously.

We are at the doorstep of a farming environment that will be able to benefit enormously in ways we cannot even imagine yet, so either get on board or get left behind.

From my short experience with the Phantom 3, I think it will make a terrific starting point for farmers wanting to dip their toe into the technology pool.

As you get familiar with this model, which focuses mainly on video and photos you can step up into the more advanced versions that use infrared technology for measuring crop health and nutrition as well as mapping.

Hits:

  • RTH feature
  • Preset flight path
  • Low battery return feature
  • High quality vision
  • Automatic take-off and landing
  • Easy to fly/difficult to crash
  • Great fun

Misses:

  • Line of site flying
  • Only 25 minute flights per battery

 

Specifications

Make/model: Rise Above Phantom 3

Weight (with battery): 1,280 grams

Speed (maximum): 16m/sec (57km/h)

Rotors (no.): 4

Motor type: Electric brushless

Operating frequency: 2.4 GHz

Transmitting distance: 2,000m (unobstructed)

Maximum altitude: 6,000m

Battery type: LiPo 2S

Flight time: 20-25 minutes

Camera: 4K/12.4 megapixel

 

Don’t miss the detailed review also in New Farm Machinery magazine issue 27, on-sale October 12. 

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DJI Phantom 3 drone speed flying 9375 The Phantom 3 is capable of reaching speeds of up to 57km/h. DJI Phantom 3 drone speed flying 9375
DJI Phantom 3 drone Ben Grear 9119 Operations manager, Ben Grear, for Rise Above Custom Drone Solutions predicts an increase in the demand for drones in the agricultural industry. DJI Phantom 3 drone Ben Grear 9119
DJI Phantom 3 drone check electric fence 9203 The Phantom 3 is a great way to check the performance of remote electric fence units. DJI Phantom 3 drone check electric fence 9203
DJI Phantom 3 drone drone imagery DJI 04 1 The high resolution 4K camera delivers exceptional quality video and stills on the farm from previously impossible angles. DJI Phantom 3 drone drone imagery DJI 04 1
DJI Phantom 3 drone extras 9425 Some recommended optional extras include a protective carry case and spare batteries to provide extended flight time. DJI Phantom 3 drone extras 9425
DJI Phantom 3 drone flying 9272 Tom Dickson experiences first-hand just how easy the Phantom 3 is to operate. DJI Phantom 3 drone flying 9272
DJI Phantom 3 drone LiPo S4 9439 Each LiPo S4 provides approximately 25 minutes of continual flight time. DJI Phantom 3 drone LiPo S4 9439
DJI Phantom 3 drone mobile video feed 9124 Use your smartphone or tablet to get HD video feeds with 1km range. DJI Phantom 3 drone mobile video feed 9124
DJI Phantom 3 drone monitor water tank levels 9180 The Phantom 3 is a great tool to aid in the monitoring of water levels in tanks around the property. DJI Phantom 3 drone monitor water tank levels 9180
DJI Phantom 3 drone Ultra Stable 3 Axis Gimbal 9170 Ultra-Stable 3-Axis Gimbal delivers pixel-grade stability, no matter how shaky the drone is, the camera remains stable. DJI Phantom 3 drone Ultra Stable 3 Axis Gimbal 9170
DJI Phantom 3 drone vision positioning sensor 9452 Underneath the drone is the vision positioning sensor, it constantly monitors the ground to assist the operator during low altitude flying, it works very well indoors. DJI Phantom 3 drone vision positioning sensor 9452

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