I always wanted to try my hand at flying a drone, and an upcoming
two-week trip to Hawai’i seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The drone of choice: The $1,200
DJI Phantom 4. As a flying machine, it isn’t that much
different to other drones — it goes up, down, sideways, forwards,
and backwards, and a single battery lasts about 25 minutes, which
is unfortunately typical for commercial drones.
What sets the Phantom 4 apart is its incredibly sharp 4K camera.
Indeed, Hawaii’s unreal beauty and landscapes made for the
perfect location to test a drone and its camera. For those
familiar with Hawaii, I was mostly flying outside of Honolulu,
the capital of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.
Here’s a 4K YouTube video of Hawaii taken with the DJI Phantom 4
(not by me):
My first few flights were relatively limited, as I gingerly got
used to the controls and the Phantom 4’s abilities.
At times, it struggled when flying against a 20 mile-an-hour
breeze, but the Phantom 4 seemed to have an indefatigable desire
to please its pilot.
And it can go far, too. At one point, I flew the drone
two miles out to sea before the DJI app on my iPhone, which was
connected to the Phantom 4’s controller, alerted me that it had
only enough battery life to return to the take-off
location. Two miles.
It just does what you want it to do during its 25-minute battery
Until it doesn’t.
On my final flight — which wasn’t meant to be my
final flight — I took the Phantom 4 out to film
along the coast on Oahu’s south shore. Before the battery alert
even popped up, I pressed the “return home” button on the
controller, which puts the Phantom 4 into auto-pilot to make a
bee line to the take-off location.
The moment the drone began making its way home, I lost the video
streaming feed from the drone to my iPhone.
It was odd, as the video feed was fine on its way out, and it
raised my heart-rate a little bit. Yet, I knew that the drone was
at least on its way home regardless, and I thought I’d get the
video feed back as it got closer.
About five minutes went by when the video feed suddenly returned.
My heart skipped a beat and sank when I saw that it was landing
somewhere it shouldn’t. For reasons unknown at the time, the
Phantom 4 was in auto-land mode, and it was descending upon a
cluster of homes in a cul-de-sac about 1,500 feet away from my
I immediately tried to manually control the drone to ascend. The
whole time it felt like a movie scene where alarms are going off
in the cockpit of an aircraft in peril, complete with a voice
telling the pilot to “pull up, pull up” in a disconcertingly calm
But lo, my efforts to “pull up, pull up” were fruitless, as I
lost the video transmission one final time.
I was blind, and the drone continued to auto-land.
According to the DJI iPhone app, the Phantom 4’s last known
location was halfway up a ridge, about 1,000 feet away from my
location. There was no retrieving it, as the ridge side was
sheer, and it was too dangerous to climb up or down.
After checking the flight log on the DJI app, I saw that the
Phantom 4 had apparently entered a “no-fly zone” during its
flight home, which causes the drone to land automatically.
I checked the map on the DJI app (below), and there was a “no-fly
zone” nearby, as marked by the bold yellow line towards the top.
However, the drone was never in the no-fly zone. Had I
had the video feed, I could have seen the alert that the Phantom
4 was getting too close to this supposed no-fly zone, and I could
have flown further around it to prevent the auto-land.
My suspicion is that ex-President Obama’s presence on the island
at the time had something to do with the Phantom 4’s random
behavior. The Secret Service are supposedly very touchy about
drones flying near presidents. Thanks Obama.
So now, the Phantom 4 is stranded halfway up a ridge on Oahu. To
be honest, I’m jealous of the drone, as it’s still in beautiful
Hawaii — enjoying a glorious view, no doubt
— while I’m back here in comparatively miserable
Drones are enormously fun — at first. But soon, the novelty wears
off. Unless you have a reason to film beautiful footage from high
altitudes, there aren’t many reasons why you should buy an
expensive drone like the Phantom 4, or the newer Phantom 4 Pro,
which can record 4K at 60 frames-per-second (the Phantom 4
records 4K at 30 fps).
So, unless you’re a photographer, buying a drone is essentially
buying a very expensive remote-controlled toy that needs a
battery-swap every 25 minutes — and extra batteries can get quite
And if you lose it, there goes your money.
However, there are options to rent drones for much less money
than buying one. For example, this website
lets you rent a Phantom 4 for a week for $250, which is
perfect if you know you’ll only use a drone a few times, and you
can always rent newer models when they come out. Unfortunately,
however, the optional protection plan from the website I
mentioned doesn’t cover lost or damaged drones, so you’ll need to
Take a look at my ultra-amateur Phantom 4 video, and make sure to
select the highest possible setting for video quality in YouTube: