Wednesday, April 5, 2017

First flights: Xiro Xplorer G for Photography

I had wanted a drone for a couple years, and I had been eyeing the Splash waterproof drone with waterproof gimbal. I waited until the very last minute before we departed for the Bahamas because I had read some horror stories about Bahamian import requirements, duty levied to the tune of 70% (!!) and general other misinformation I found on the web and on forums. I ordered the Splash, waited for a week to get it only to find out that they were backordered. Not wanting to delay my trip any longer, I choose a cheap “starter” drone to play with. It was so much cheaper than the Splash that I immediately realized I could crash or drown 6 Xiros before I even spent the money of 1 Splash. The photographer in me really doesn’t see the difference, since they both fly GoPro cameras and the pictures will be the same! It seemed like the backorder was a blessing in disguise

Shots from my first photo shoot over Key Largo.
As my first drone to play with, I opted for the Xiro Xplorer G. The G model of the Xplorer series comes with a gimbal to hold your GoPro and offers iPhone integration for FPV flying. Other options are the Xplorer (no cameras or gimbals) or the Xplorer V with Xiro’s proprietary camera and gimbal. A 4K video option is coming soon. The Xiro ships boxed very nicely and everything is very well made. Being my first consumer drone I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was impressed with the cleanliness of the design and the ease of use of the controls and setup. Compared to the DJI consumer drones I’ve seen, the Xiro is sexy.

At this point, FAA registration is mandatory prior to the first flight. The process is painless and is all web based. $5 poorer and 15 minutes later, I have a FAA registration number and it is labeled on the Xiro.

I chose to make my first flight in a quiet park, with no camera on board, on a calm day. After having flown RC airplanes and helicopters, I was blown away by the stability of the Xiro. Hands off flying make it a perfect photography platform. If you are uncertain of your flight status, just let go of the controls and the Xiro stops and hovers where it is. Amazing technology!

Getting the Xiro setup and in the air was very painless. The Xiro is fully GPS enabled, meaning that it has auto takeoff and land and auto return home functions. I used these functions the first day, but my goal is to fly this drone from the boat which will require manual control to compensate for the boat’s motions. Even at anchor, the boat is likely to have moved from the position that the drone took off from, therefore the auto return home mode can’t be used.

For my training flights I purchased the Xiro Prop Guards for the drone to protect the propellers. I thought flying it would be a lot trickier than it is. Had I realized how easy it really is, I would not have bothered. The prop guards came off quickly once I began shooting with the drone because it’s nearly impossible to keep them out of the GoPro’s field of view.

The Xiro also includes a 1-2-3 toggle switch which allows the user to choose the sensitivity of the controls. Basically it’s a beginner, intermediate and advanced switch. It really does make a difference, and as your skills grow the drone grows sportier and quicker with you. It’s a very fun feature. 

Attaching the gimbal and GoPro and getting the system paired took a bit of time. It’s obvious that Xiro cut some corners here. The gimbal functions beautifully, but has a lot of exposed circuitry and is very delicate. It feels difficult to get the gimbal on and off the drone without breaking it. It’s also worth mentioning a fact that I really didn’t think through before purchase: you cannot use the Xiro gimbal with the GoPro’s protective cases. When I first purchased the drone with the intent to fly over water I incorrectly thought, “if it goes in the drink, at least the camera will survive.” Not so much. 

One other limitation that becomes obviously quickly but is not made clear in the Xiro documentation: when shooting with a GoPro, the app cannot control shooting from the ground. In order to record video you need to begin the video prior to takeoff and end it manually after landing. If the GoPro dies during flight you will lose everything. To record aerial photos, you will need to set the GoPro in time lapse mode, recording photos every 1 or 2 seconds. I’ve been using every 2 seconds with some success. The app basically functions as a simple mirror of the GoPro’s back screen, which will flash off quickly every time the camera takes an image. In hindsight, if the Xiro is your ultimate goal, I would highly recommend investigating the Xplorer V model with their proprietary camera to fully use all of the drone’s functionality. The cost is very competitive with the cost of an addition GoPro, with the added benefit of not risking your “good” GoPro to possible catastrophic destruction. Despite these limitations, I’m very happy with the drone so far. I’m looking to upgrade to a mirrorless system that I can fly from a hexacopter, so version 2.0 isn’t far off! Still thinking about the original Splash, I’m very happy that I went the route of getting a “starter” drone and growing from there. The goal of my next drone will be to get the highest quality camera and lens aloft I can.
Practicing "carrier landings" while underway...that was a bit tricky, but no damage done!