Have Drone, Will Travel. Why the new generation of palm-sized camera drones could become a must-have for epic travellers.
When consumer-level camera drones first came to the market around 5 years ago they were very much the preserve of the “enthusiast”, travel drones were a concept yet to be conceived. Tricky to fly and lacking in automatic functions, the best they could offer the budding travel photographer was some un-stabilised action cam video footage or “shoot-and-hope-for-the-best” stills.
The fact that even the most compact of them needed a travel case bigger than most airline overhead lockers didn’t exactly make them a tourist-friendly photo accessory. And let’s face it, back then the word “drone” had rather more negative, military connotations…
Rise of the Travel Drones
Fast forward a few short years to the present, though, and the technology has improved remarkably. Even the lowliest of camera drones now boast high quality, fully-stabilised HD video – with many offering full-blown 4K. For photography fans, stills functions include full manual control of shutter, ISO, white balance and more, with the option of shooting in RAW as well as JPEG.
Most drones now use your smartphone or tablet as a live viewfinder meaning you see exactly what the drone is seeing, and all are now bristling with smart technology that makes them easy to fly even for complete novices.
The latest trend is to take all of that cutting edge technology and shrink it. Never mind your selfie stick, the age of the “selfie drone” has arrived.
A Whole New Angle
There’s no doubt that seeing the world from above can change your perception about a place. Even your familiar local neighbourhood takes on a whole new fascination when viewed from the air (as anyone who has wasted hours looking at Google Earth can attest). You don’t need access to satellites to get the benefit, though, because the latest generation of small drones promises to deliver these new horizons to everyone.
Bloggers, vloggers and YouTubers have been leading the way in incorporating aerial shots in their work, documenting their travels and adventures with new and exciting angles. But you can have too much of a good thing, and the best of them don’t overuse their drone footage. Less is often more, and blending drone stills and video with traditional footage often makes more a much more interesting final result.
A drone in your backpack allows you get stunning images and videos from angles you just can’t with normal gear – above the tree canopy, down into ravines or up above cliff-tops, for example – and there’s nothing like an aerial shot to give a true sense of scale to a location.
Travelling with your drone
Thanks to their shrinking size, travel drones are now easy to pack and have become true “go anywhere” devices. However, there are a few potential pitfalls you need to watch out for if you’re going to jet off with your selfie drone.
The first is to do with batteries. Almost every drone on the market uses Lithium Polymer (or Lipo) battery technology. This is currently the state-of-the-art when it comes to power density – that means more time in the air for capturing those amazing shots.
The trouble is that if they are badly treated lipo batteries can burst into flames. This is a very rare occurrence, but needless to say, most airlines want to avoid that and all costs and so restrict the number of type of batteries you can travel with. Some may even ban them on board altogether. Check with your airline before you go to avoid having to leave your drone behind at check-in. You can purchase special flame-proof bags to carry your batteries in as an extra precaution.
The next issue is the law. Drones are still so new that most countries around the world have only just started formulating rules and regulations about their use. Some countries have no rules at all, others, like the UK, have legislation that’s pretty clear about what you can and can’t do with a drone and where you can and can’t fly it. Always try and find out what the rules are in the country you’re taking your drone to, and always be very sensitive about flying near cultural or religious sites, and avoid flying in busy cities or near to anywhere sensitive like military bases, prisons and schools. Be sensible!
Two of Our Favourite Travel Drones
So what’s available if you want to add a drone to your packing list? There are drones with HD cameras that weigh a few grams and cost under £100. They’re not much more than toys, though, and tend to be quite difficult to control as they don’t have all the built in automatic features of the more expensive models.
Two of our favourite models are from the largest drone manufacturers in the world, DJI and Yuneec.
The Breeze by Yuneec is aimed squarely at the traveler and selfie market. It’s a cute, all-white palm-sized drone that weighs less than 500g. It has folding legs and folding rotor blades and fits in small bags and even large pockets. It has a digitally stabilised 4K camera on board that can take 13-megapixel stills, it can automatically takeoff and land again where it started, and it has autopilot modes that mean it can fly without you needing to do anything at all thanks to clever GPS receivers and downward-looking sensors.
The Breeze can happily follow you about wherever you go (in front, or behind), and it will hover in one spot automatically even in windy conditions. It even has a dedicated selfie mode and an operating range of several hundred metres. It can stay airborne for about 13 minutes between charges and uses an app on your phone to serve as a remote control, a viewfinder, and to access all the modes and features. All of this comes in at under £400.
At the higher end of the feature set comes the DJI Mavic. DJI has a reputation in the industry for the quality of its in-house cameras, and this has seen the Mavic become very popular, with back-order queues at many sellers. The Mavic can shoot fully gimbal stabilised ultra HD 4K video, take 12-megapixel high-resolution stills (in RAW if you want), fly for over 25 minutes between charges, and fits into a small backpack or a camera bag with ease thanks to its clever folding arms. It can hover on the spot all by itself thanks to GPS and ultrasonic gear built in, and it can automatically track you, keeping you in the centre of the shot no matter what you do. There’s even a dedicated selfie mode – send the Mavic up into the air, put the controller away and then wave at it – now it knows you’re ready for your close up and will take the shots automatically. It comes with a tiny remote controller that uses your smartphone with a dedicated app to access all the modes and to see a live camera view. It’s also got a range of several kilometers, allowing you to get to some really inaccessible places for that perfect shot.Despite the rather hefty price tag of around £1,100 for the base version, it’s been incredibly popular, with long back-order queues forming as the factory struggled to keep up with demand.
An ideal travel companion?
The latest generation of camera drones like the Breeze and Mavic can certainly bring a whole new dimension to your videos and photography, and their ease of use means more and more of us will be tempted to travel with drones. Manufacturers are building safety features into the devices that help prevent them from crashing into objects – or people – even if they’re in the clutches of the most ham-fisted operators, and their benign artistic use has helped reclaimed the word “drone” from the military hardware in public perception.
So maybe it’s time to think about packing a travel drone on your next trip. You might not be the first person ever to visit your next amazing destination, but you might be the first to capture images of it from above – and that would make a shot worthy of anyone’s album.