Drones aren’t cool. You know what is cool? Virtual Reality Drones.
That appears to be the sentiment at least behind the latest drone from Chinese company Ehang, which has combined two cutting edge technologies into a rather cool package: the GhostDrone VR 2.0. So when they offered me a unit to review, I jumped at the chance.
I should add that while I’m not a drone expert, I’ve flown the likes of the DJI Phantom II before, and am essentially an enthusiastic amateur. But then, this is a consumer drone, albeit a rather impressive one. So how did I find it?
Setting Things Up
Getting started was a remarkably painless experience. Simply lift the body of the drone out of the box, crack open the propellers and screw them on, and you’re basically there as long as the battery in the drone and the VR goggles is charged up (you should get around 25 minutes flight time).
Then all you have to do is download the Ehang app to your phone and connect to the wifi network to control it.
Even if you don’t want to use the goggles, and instead control the camera through your phone, you still need the goggles as they contain the wireless transmitter to maintain communications with the drone. The Wi-Fi network actually comes from these, and it relays the signal over a much longer range to the drone.
Flying The Drone
So how does it fly? To find out, I took the drone to the town of Harlech in North Wales and took it out for a spin on the sand dunes. It perhaps wasn’t the optimal environment, as it was by a windy Irish sea. But it did have the one thing I wanted: a lack of people and buildings to smash into.
I fired up the drone, it made some beeping noises as it locked on to GPS signal and connected to my phone, and then it simply said “ready to fly”. On the screen of the app it shows a satellite view of the area from Google Maps, and had a button marked “take off”.
Nervously, I hit the take-off button and to confirm that I wanted to send this lump of plastic and metal high into the air I had to run my thumb across an on-screen slider. I did this, and a second later the rotors started spinning, and the GhostDrone floated up into the air and remained stationary, waiting for the next instructions.
And it turns out that, basically, it is quite hard to go wrong. The drone has a bunch of standard safety features: if it loses signal with you, it will fly back to where it took off. If the battery gets precariously low, it will land itself. If you get a call or leave the app, the drone will float in the air awaiting your return. According to the official information it has a range of around 1000m – but needless to say, I was not nearly that ambitious.
The Ghost has a number of different control options can can fly at up to 70km/h in manual mode. You can choose to use your phone’s accelerometers to fly, or you can use the on-screen joystick controls. I mostly preferred the latter, as they were surprisingly intuitive – push up, and the drone flies away from you, pull back and the drone flies back. Easy. In fact, I’d perhaps even argue that this is preferable to the full-sized joypad controls that come with the DJI’s Phantoms, as there’s no need to awkwardly balance your phone while also holding an unwieldy controller.
There’s also a very clever mode which makes navigating even easier. All you have to do is tap on the map where you want the drone to go and it will immediately zip over to that point at up to 40km/h. This mode only works when the drone is high in the air, which is probably a good idea for safety reasons. Just make sure that there’s nothing in the way between points A and B, and the drone lacks presence sensors.
At one point, I perhaps ill-advisedly set the drone flying out towards the sea – and as I quickly corrected and instructed it to return you could see it struggle a little bit (albeit while set to the slowest speed setting) against the wind (hey, it only weighs 1150g). But then, this was a windy day in North Wales.
What would be really cool with this mode – which I hope that Ehang adds with a future software update – would be the ability to pre-programme multiple way points where you can specify the location and height at which point, which the drone could then execute. This would mean, for example, complex aerial shots could be set up with ease.
I took the drone out again when I got back to London - where I had a slightly trickier time. London has a complex patch-work of areas where drones are banned for fairly obvious reasons (airports, government buildings), and given how built up it is finding places in the capital where you can fly safely and obey the Civil Aviation Authority’s drone code, which states that you must be 50m from built up areas is difficult.
Finally though, I found a spot in the park close to Alexandra Palace that seemed to fit the bill. In fact, I was pretty sure it was safe to fly a drone, given that it was close to where large “H” had been cut into the grass to signal that it would be a good place to land an Air Ambulance helicopter.
So I unloaded the drone, screwed in the propellers, fired up the app and… Damnit! The app informed me that software updates were necessary – and it wouldn’t let me fly until the updates had been downloaded and installed. So I had to spend around ten minutes watching my 4G data allowance rapidly decrease; when I thought it was done it told me that a totally different update was needed for the gimbal software. So I had to do the same again. While I understand why software updates are necessary, it would have been preferable to get a push notification when the update was released so that I could have downloaded and installed the update before going out.
After this and a reboot though, flying was just as straightforward as before. And it turns out that having a drone in a park is a lot like having a dog, as numerous people approached me to talk about it.
So how about the camera and the VR headset? The drone is superbly spec’d, boasting a built-in 4K camera, which records to a Micro-SD card. Recording can be stopped and started using the app, and you can even take still photos if you like.
What’s really cool though is the VR: if you want the camera to point down, simply look down. If you want it to look up, move your head upwards. It’s as easy as that. The real-time video you get through the glasses isn’t particularly high resolution, but is good enough to see what shots you’re getting.
It’s hard to say having only spent a limited amount of time whether the goggles are genuinely useful or are a gimmick – but they certainly add an extra wow-factor.
And the results are pretty stunning. It can shoot in 4K at 24fps, 2.K at 30fps, or if you want silky smooth shots you can shoot in 1080p at 60fps. If you’re into your slow-motion, you'll be pleased to hear that the camera can handle 720p at 120fps.
Move over, Spielberg.
When I plugged in the Micro-SD card to my computer and it was possible to see individual blades leaves rustling in the wind and the shots were lovely and stable; the only shakiness came from my rather haphazard use of the VR headset. With some practice, it would be lovely and stable. To my untrained eyes, the colours looked fairly vibrant and you really got a sense of depth looking at the sand dunes rolling into the distance. Top marks.
There are some minor niggles with the camera, perhaps: it hangs rather low on the ground, which makes you worry that the rather delicate camera could be scraping along the ground if the surface is uneven. And position-wise, if you try to look too far forward the spinning blades come into view. Perhaps for the next version Ehang should take inspiration from the recently released GoPro Karma drone, and mount the camera so that it pokes out of the front, thus making shots a little cleaner?
The only other slightly annoying thing was accessing the images on the camera. Obviously once the drone is packed away and you’re back home, you can pull images from the memory card, but if you want to watch back your footage on your phone it is more of a headache. For some reason, the camera on the GhostDrone has its own Wi-Fi hotspot – meaning that you have to switch your phone over to that in order to access them.
When connected, you can browse through the photos and download them locally to your device, though when I tried some of the videos appear to have not transferred 100% correctly, with video playback crashing out until I skipped ahead a few seconds. While this, in theory, does the job, the annoying thing is the sharing options in the app.
Sadly, it’s not possible to simply copy photos and videos to your camera roll so that you can share them into whatever apps you like; instead, you’re only given the options of either Facebook or the Chinese messaging platform WeChat. While that might suit some users, it’s annoying if you want to tweak them before you post them, or even if you just want to tweet or privately message them to someone.
Finally if you want to shoot video, I’d recommend that you bring a friend rather than attempt to fly solo, with the goggles. Simply because then you can have one person fly the drone, and the other concentrate on looking from the drone’s point of view, working out what shots to get.
So how does it rate? It is definitely enormous fun, and super easy to fly. And it certainly captures some beautiful video – which is sure to enliven anything you might want to shoot. Yes, the app has a few annoyances, but these could easily be fixed with software updates. In short, a GhostDrone would definitely be a very cool thing to own.
But then there is the small matter of price. The asking price is £829. At that price, I’m not so sure.
Though this said, Ehang is actually selling two different models: The VR version, which is the one I’ve been playing with, and a non-VR version for just £449, saving £380.
Given the specs are identical, save for the VR goggles, I’d be tempted to say go for the non-VR version. Yes, VR adds to the wow factor, but not an extra £380 worth a wow. By contrast, the non-VR version is only £449, and for such an accomplished 4K drone it feels like a steal.