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Review: Is this quadcopter a drone for the masses?

Friday - 8/16/2013, 9:50am  ET

In this July 8, 2013 photo, Peter Svensson, lower left, flies a DJI Phantom Drone above a family home in Simrishamn, Sweden. The $700 Phantom, made by Chinese company DJI, is at the forefront of bringing drone technology to the masses. The roughly foot-square, four-propeller craft is sold as a complete unit with only minimal assembly required. (AP Photo/Peter Svensson)

PETER SVENSSON
AP Technology Writer

SIMRISHAMN, Sweden (AP) -- Unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, are revolutionizing warfare. Now, some of that technology is coming home from the war, to amuse us and give us an aerial perspective on our surroundings.

I've been trying out a helicopter-type drone called the Phantom this summer. It's been an eye-opener in many ways. It's easy to see these agile, relatively stable aircraft being put to a number of uses, from aerial photography to package delivery -- at least once the dangers can be managed and the legal issues worked through.

The video camera on the phantom also lets me see in a new way a patch of Swedish countryside that I've been to every year since I was a child. It wasn't a huge epiphany, but it was interesting to see a well-known place from a completely new angle.

The $700 Phantom, made by a Chinese company called DJI, is at the forefront of bringing drone technology to the masses.

Roughly a foot in diameter, the four-propeller craft is sold as a complete unit with only minimal assembly required. This hasn't been the norm in the industry. The Phantom could be to drones what the Apple II was to computing more than three decades ago -- offering one of the first complete, integrated PCs. In any case, some drone enthusiasts consider the Phantom a major milestone.

The Phantom doesn't come with a built-in camera, but it does have a holder for a GoPro action camcorder, which is what I used. These cameras cost about $200.

Remote-control aircraft have been around for decades. What's different this time around?

First, the aircraft are much easier to fly, thanks to battery technology, electronics and GPS. The Phantom uses a GPS chip to stay steady in the air, even in a wind, and can stay up for nearly ten minutes on a single charge of its battery, which uses the same energy-dense technology as smartphones.

The second revolution is "first-person view," or FPV. That's when the user can see out of the drone's camera as it's flying, freeing the user to send the aircraft out of eyesight and making it easier to capture good video. The military uses advanced FPV to keep drones on patrol over Afghanistan for hours, thousands of miles away from their "pilots." It vastly expands the range and usefulness of remote-controlled aircraft. It also expands the amount of mischief you can cause with them, from spying to egg-dropping.

The Phantom is not equipped for FPV out of the box, and I didn't try any of the $200-plus kits that are available. I had to keep my eyes on the drone and could examine the captured video only after the aircraft was safely back on the ground. This was the drone experience "lite," but it was an intriguing introduction.

So where to try this thing? In New York City, where I live, that's a tough question. The city parks don't allow flying machines of any kind without permits, and that's probably a good thing. The Phantom would hurt if it crashed into you, and the spinning propeller blades could cause real damage to your eyes.

Outside major cities, the Federal Aviation Administration allows remote-control aircraft as long as they're flown for non-commercial purposes, stay below 400 feet and away from "real" aircraft. A new law passed last year will make it easier to get a license for commercial and government drone use by 2015.

In any case, I happened to be heading on vacation to the Swedish countryside, so that's where I flew it.

On my first try, the four propellers spun up, and the Phantom jumped into the air in a stiff breeze, which it seemed unable or unwilling to counteract. To prevent it from flying away, I brought it down quickly -- too quickly. It lost a propeller, never to be found again, as it cartwheeled over the turf. Luckily, it ships with replacements.

The second flight went much better. The drone hovered nicely, and I got the hang of the controls -- up, down, left, right, spin around.

The drone worked well for most the following 20-odd flights, but it would still occasionally dart off in a random direction right from the take-off, just as it did the first time, forcing an emergency "landing."

The airframe proved very sturdy, but the propellers were getting scrubbed pretty hard in these crashes. I had to install a set of plastic propeller guards, costing $15. I consider this a must-have accessory, one I would have liked to see in the original package.

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