Xiaomi Drone Maiden Flight

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I recently picked up a Xiaomi Mi 4k Drone as a bit of an intro to shooting video and photo from the sky – it’s a cheaper option than the market leading DJI alternatives and on paper at least it looks like it should be reasonably competitive. I took it out for its maiden flight on Saturday, and these are my thoughts so far…

First thing is that it’s BIG. Noticeably bigger than a Phantom, and way bigger than a Mavic. So if you’re after something small that you can fold up and tuck into your backpack then this is not the one for you. That said, the props are really easy to remove, the gimbal just clips into place and the landing gear folds flat so it’s actually more packable than you might think. I can fit it into the outer helmet pocket of my Osprey biking pack pretty easily – I can post some pics of this if anyone is interested.

Setup is pretty much standard drone shape, with a ball-shaped gimbal on the bottom and props on top. I think there’s some gubbins in the landing gear as when you calibrate the compass (more on that later) it specifies not to hold it by the gear. The battery slots horizontally in the back and feels pretty sturdy, though I have seen reports of batteries popping out in flight – so far I’m just making very sure it’s fitted properly, and trying to not let it get too hot. It’s not terribly exciting to look at but it does look – and feel – fairly premium, certainly a step up from cheaper toy grade drones.

The remote is probably a bit smaller than the DJI equivalent, and the phone holder (it won’t fit a tablet, though there are aftermarket bodges if you want to use one) slots inside the body, making it pretty nicely packable. It has a nice premium feel to it with a slightly soft rubbery surface and the sticks feel nice in use – there’s just enough resistance that you can feel what you’re doing.

In the middle there’re two round buttons, both of which use a short tap long tap sequence – the power on the left and the auto take off and land on the right. There’s a return to home switch above these, then a dial on the left shoulder to control the gimbal and one on the right that can be set to adjust exposure, switch between GPS and Atti modes or adjust the brightness of the lights. I had it set to exposure initially and accidentally set it to -3 EV which was a bit annoying. It’s easy to catch accidentally.

There’s an internal battery (not sure of the capacity) but apparently it takes an age to charge, but will last a good few flights. At the bottom there’s USB in for charging and USB out to connect to your phone either via a WiFi dongle (which is supplied, I have two!) or with a USB cable. I found running via WiFi killed the battery on my phone and apparently running off USB powers the phone (but shortens the life of the controller slightly) so I’ll be trying that next time I’m out.

It’s a pretty simple controller, given the features the drone has, but it’s intuitive to use and means you’re not scrabbling around trying to find the right button when your drone is disappearing into the distance. Most of the adjustments are made through the app running on your phone. Based on today’s flying I like the controller, though it doesn’t quite sit perfectly in my hands (but no other controller does either).

The app seems good and pretty stable, everything you need is easily accessible with the less used stuff (like setting max altitude / distance, RTH altitude, video / photo quality etc) being no more than a couple of layers into a menu, and more regularly used features being on the front page. I had it set to Beginner Mode (GPS only, max alt. 50m and max dist. 100m, no automated features except RTH and take off / land) so didn’t really need to play with the app much apart from to look at the screen. That’ll come later. I only had one crash, but that was after a bit of on / offing and a full memory card, and the drone actually flies fine without the app anyway – it’ll even keep shooting, you just can’t see what it’s looking at.

There’s a smart charger for the batteries also in the box (though obviously I wouldn’t recommend charging unattended as the battery is around 5,400mAh and pretty hefty, so I imagine it could go with a bit of a bang – not that I’ve seen any reports of batteries going pop, but better safe than sorry. There’s also an instruction manual in Chinese, which is really useful – but the charger does have a UK plug, which on balance is probably more helpful. The QR code to download the app (on Android at least) works fine.

The night before I first took it out I charged everything up and did a test connection to make sure everything was happy. It downloaded a firmware update (it seems to want to do this a lot, but most of them are to do with Chinese NFZs and you can ignore them anyway if you get one in the field) and everything seemed to be talking fine. I didn’t power it up in the living room for obvious reasons but I did have a wander round using it like a handheld gimbal – it actually works pretty well. Bonus.

The plan was to fly on Saturday, but 35mph winds put a stop to that. I was keen to test it out but not that keen! Sunday was a bit better, with gusts up to the high 20s so I thought I’d risk it. Xiaomi recommend not flying in winds above 10m/s (about 22mph) but I’m a rebel and I like to dice with danger. Unfortunately there was a little bit of rain on and off which meant I had to keep running for shelter but it wasn’t too horrible.

The first thing the drone wants to do when you power it all up is calibrate the compass. This took a few tries (and some funny looks from some dog walkers as I held it above my head spinning round on the spot) but I got there in the end. I’m not sure why – it was quite a high pressure day which may not have helped – but it did keep warning me about compass accuracy, meaning that I had to hold it in the air then take off really quickly. Once it was in the air though, it was fine with between 18 and 19 satellites locked the whole time.

The first thing I noticed was how stable it was. You could see it was really getting buffeted by the gusty wind, but it never got knocked more than a couple of feet / 20 degrees or so out of place and it returned to where it was immediately. The gimbal stabilisation was brilliant – maybe not quite as good as the Inspire I’ve camera operated a couple of times, but for the price pretty incredible. I flew it around a bit getting a feel for the controls, getting a little bit further and higher until I hit about about 30m altitude and 50m distance. In Beginner Mode it’s really responsive but not twitchy (or super quick) and super easy to fly. I suspect in normal flight it’ll be a bit more exciting, but with the weather being a bit crappy I left it on. When I set off 50m / 100m sounded like a lot, after playing for a bit I’m itching to go higher, faster and further. You can set your own limits in the app, which is handy. I’ve seen reports of folk flying to over 2km (which would be very naughty in the UK) but the allowed 120m altiitude / line of sight distance should give plenty of potential for fun.

Once I’d got comfortable with flying it around and having it at a decent height I tried the Return to Home function, just to see if it worked. On the Xiaomi it’s a slider switch so (in theory) it’s easy to set a RTH then turn it off again if it’s not behaving as expected. It worked flawlessly – rose to 30m (you can set the height as required in the app to make sure it’ll clear any obstacles) and landed within I reckon a couple of feet (if that) of the takeoff. I didn’t use RTH again as I was walking around with the drone and it was really easy to land anyway, but it was good to know it was working properly. I wasn’t quite brave enough to turn off the controller and see if it would RTH!

I then took off again and pushed out to the limits of altitude and distance – when you hit the edge of the envelope it just stops, and gives you a polite little warning on the screen. It was a bit like flying in a bubble. I’m not sure whether the distance limit is purely horizontal or whether it takes into account altitude to – I would guess the latter, but couldn’t be sure.

Next I got a little bit brave in the opposite way, and flew it in really close to where I was stood. It was easy to hover within a few feet (though best to keep upwind) and also to hover directly over my head. I had a go at doing some manual orbits around myself (tricky, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang with practice) and some ‘dronie’ type pull out shots.

After spending probably 30 minutes total in flight I’m really impressed with the Xiaomi. It’s great to fly and control (in beginner mode at least, I’ll try some of the other stuff next time I’m out) and the camera and gimbal combo seems pretty impressive. I didn’t really get much footage to look at due to a full memory card, rain spots on the lens and accidentally setting the EV to -3 but you can see a couple of clips of what I did get. The main aim for this flight was just to get a feel for the drone and its capabilities, which I reckon I’m starting to do.

The main downsides I noticed were the faff of getting the compass to let me take off (which was easily overcome) and the occasional wonky horizon, which I’ll do a bit more digging into but hopefully should be easy enough to work around. The camera only records video in MP4 which is a shame but not really an issue for me at this point, and the footage seems pretty neutral. It does shoot stills in DNG format but Lightroom doesn’t like them – Photoshop is fine though, so it’s easy enough to convert to TIFF and back to Lightroom. Manual controls on the camera would be nice though not the end of the world (and could maybe be partially introduced in a future firmware update). ND filters would also be nice but I can’t see anyway they’d be practical with the current camera, as there are no threads.

Hopefully I’ll get some more flying done this weekend and I’ll update then with more video and images. Any questions feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer!

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