This happened on February 14th 2014 off the coast of Maui near Kihei. I love filming from my drone and I am always looking for things to film so whales seemed like a great subject. I also wanted to show my two young boys what a whale was like because they would normally only see them blowing air from a long way away - Now they know how big and majestic these creatures are! This shoot would not have been possible without Marty and Ian for providing the boat and drone support. I would also like to give credit to my wife and my two boys Dylan and Hudson for helping us spot the whales and guide the drone.
I filmed this using a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter with a gimbal called the Zenmuse. This little camera drone is very tiny and quiet and the whales obviously did not even notice or care it was there. Using an aerial photography platform like the Phantom is a great way to raise awareness about whales and encourage people to operate motor vehicles safely in the warm waters around Maui because there are baby whales out there frolicking with their mothers!
Taking off from the boat was a bit challenging, but I never had any problems. I just rapidly blasted up into the air. There was a very tiny launch spot on the boat, so you had to get up into the air quickly. I made sure I did not have the Phantom in GPS mode because the boat was rocking in the waves and it might try and stabilize itself right into the side of the boat while taking off.
Ian and I are getting some awesome footage! Ian is very into RC and FPV and I expect to see some great things from him soon.
Marty executes a perfect drone catch! This was the best way to retrieve the drone because the boat was moving around in the waves. This might look easy, but it was tricky because the phantom is so stable and the boat was moving around underneath it.
I tried to go get some underwater footage, but they were faster than me. I also get a little spooked about big fish when I cant see the bottom (it was about 250 feet here). We also did some swimming around - it was incredible to hear the whale songs underwater. Kihei is such a cool place because the ocean is so calm and clear off the coast there.
Team Drone & Whale Nerds.
Someone recently contacted me about the laws and regulations around whales and figured I would post this response:
I have become aware of the MMPA recently because of this video and I want to stress my intentions were to observe with zero impact. I think the big question is if the little Phantom 2 is considered an aircraft or not. We certainly kept the boat far away from the whales! The whole point was to not disturb them. In my opinion, this is an excellent way to observe whales up close because there is practically no impact or chance of doing damage. The whales did not notice, or care, about this tiny thing hovering above them. Even if the drone crashed or malfunctioned, it is hard to imagine this hurting the whales or even disturbing them because it is so small relative to the whale. If someone contacts me about this, I will certainly stress that this is way safer for the whales than a boat. This is a very useful tool to whale research as well.
I would absolutly love to volunteer my time and drones to help with whale research or whale non-profits! Please contact me here to set something up. I am based in Maui.
If you want to get a video downlink or use video goggles like the FatSharks for some immersive FPV flying, you will need to make some simple modifications to your Phantom 2. It is much simpler to do than on the original Phantom and has obviously been built with us FPV guys in mind. There are a number of awesome changes and updates in this version of the Phantom that you can read about in this blog post about my first impressions and flight testing.
I have seen other people selling ready made cords that plug directly into the board of the phantom, but I didn't want to go that way because it is so easy to just solder a few wires and be ready to go!
The first thing I did was to confirm the wire layout of the FPV cable that sticks out of the bottom. The yellow video wire and the VCC/GND are the ones you need.
Splice the wires and pre solder them.
I am pretty sure you only need to do the yellow wire because I noticed that I actually soldered the video ground to the audio input on my immersion video tx.
Next step is to solder on a male JST connector or the immersion RC power plug. The red wire is positive while the brown is ground.
Dont forget to put your heat shrink tubing on before you solder everything together - electrical tape makes your install look pretty crappy and is not as reliable
Now plug everything in before you heat shrink your tubing and do a test to make sure everything is working. This is my 100mw Immersion TX I am going to use until my new one gets here.
My installs are never super clean or neat, you could easily clean this up. I like to get flying as fast as possible. I plugged it in, tested it, and was flying in no time. The total time to install the gimbal and convert to an FPV rig is easily under 2 hours if you take your time. There are also other even simpler ways to install an FPV video transmitter, but this is the way I did it. If you have any questions, please post in the comments below. If you are considering purchasing a Phantom 2 with the Zenmuse gimbal, you can buy one here from Amazon for $869 with free shipping. I also like UAVProducts.com.
The Phantom 2 comes in its own box with a smaller box that the Zenmuse comes in. They ship in a larger brown box - made me wonder why they didn't just put the gimbal into the white box.
I have opened lots of RC stuff over the years and I am always just a little bit impressed with the packaging when I open DJI stuff. It makes you think, "if they put this much thought into the packaging..."
I laid everything out just to give a shot at all the different stuff. The battery and battery charger are much different than anything else I have seen in any other RC equipment. I was puzzling over the strange battery connector on the new battery and wondering if they just switched everything to this new connector to keep the margins up (New batteries are EXPENSIVE for this bird).
After plugging in the battery and marveling at actually having an on / off button that is part of the battery, I noticed the crude 4 bar battery guage built into the back. This allows you to get a reading of capacity remaining during flight and see charge status while charging. These batteries are pretty cool and I am curious to see if we are going to start seeing copy cats of this because it works well and locks out other manufacturers from selling Phantom batteries. Maybe someone over at DJI just finished the Steve Jobs biography and learned how powerful closed systems can be to a business.
The Zenmuse cable and prewired FPV connector sticking out of the bottom. I immediately noticed the flat underbelly which makes it so much easier to attach your video transmitter. This little drone is obviously designed for FPV - Awesome. Make sure you read my post about how to FPV your Phantom 2 if you want to see how I did it or need some help.
On the original phantom with gimbal installed and the s800, backing up your gimbal by using zip ties was ugly and crude but very necessary to prevent the loss of the gimbal if one of those rubber vibration dampers failed. For the phantom 2, they designed some very slick "zip tie bolts." This was already the 2nd amazing fix from the original phantom, things are looking good!
I did not at first like the centered throttle stick and immediately opened it up to look for the springs to remove. Here they are and at this point I just decided to try it how it was designed in case they had a reason for this change because putting those little springs back on did not look fun.
Turns out this centered throttle stick is an amazing feature for an aerial photography rig and doesn't just floor the motors when the stick returns to the center after arming your motors.
The Zenmuse is shifted forward to counterbalance the weight of the bigger battery - excellent. Balance is an important thing on quadcopters and they have you covered here.
Here my co-pilot tries to decide if he likes the centered throttle stick.
Next I wired up my FPV transmitter to make this an official FPV camera drone. You can read this post I wrote about How to Fpv your phantom 2 if you want to see how I did this.
Time to test out those claims of 20-25 minutes. I flew very aggressively, fast forward flight, figure 8's, rapid ascents and descents, and general flight abuse tests in some very windy conditions.
I was very impressed with the sound of the motors and the new propellers (that counter rotate from the direction of the spin to lock into place). There was a very smooth sounding spool up when arming the motors - certainly not the rapid acceleration to mid point that I was expecting. They have obviously thought this process out and written code in the flight controller to do this, another excellent sign of ingenuity and design.
It didn't really take any time to get used to the centered throttle stick, it felt really intuitive and didn't feel like it flew any different. I loved that I always knew where mid stick was, a feature I always thought would be great (however, I envisioned a beep every time it crossed midpoint instead of the spring, but this works really well too). Another HUGE benefit to anyone shooting aerial photography in general, the focus on mid stick means that it is now very easy to keep the same altitude. When I am in the goggles doing an FPV flight, I always tend to just creep higher than I want too because I can't get a sense for where the middle is. This centered point is also really good for people who will be flying line of site because you now don't have to manage the altitude at all, you just send it up or down and then it centers and just hovers. What an awesome way to shoot aerial photography, its like a flying crane!
This is the timer when it finally forcibly made me land. It made it through the first voltage warning and flew for another 4 minutes or so. I sometimes like to fly over the ocean so I want to make sure im heading back in about 13 minutes. Leaves plently of time to find my way home, even if I get lost like I did during my fpv adventure at Jaws. If I was flying gently in a safe area, I would feel safe keeping this in the air for 15 minutes before a must land. This very well might approach 20 mintutes of flight time without the gimbal and FPV transmitter. A simple GPS hover probably will do 25 minutes with no wind under perfect conditions.
This battery boost essentially doubles the flight times I have become accustomed to on my old phantom, QAV400, QAV500 and even the S800.
All around a very impressive update. This makes the original phantom feel like a beta version because there are so many thoughtful additions and features that could only come about through tons of testing and thought. If you enjoyed this post, you should check out the DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse for sale at Amazon.
As always, if you have questions or comments, please comment below!