I took the Xiaomi Mi drone out round the Westwood again for a couple of reasons – firstly it’s a big open space where I can try stuff out without having to worry about losing it out to sea or hitting some poor unsuspecting soul, and secondly because I wanted to meet up with my dad so he could have a bit of a play.
I recorded quite a lot of video whilst we were out but – to be brutally honest – it’s not terribly exciting. And if it’s not exciting me, I can’t imagine it’s terribly interesting to anybody else. So after a quick play at editing some bits together just for practice I decided that actually my time could be spent on other things. That’s not to say the footage won’t come in useful for something down the line, it’s not bad in itself; just there’s nothing in there to excite. I think that self editing is actually a useful skill in life, and sometimes just throwing out everything you make and hoping something sticks isn’t the best approach.
Having said that I spent a little bit more time playing with framing and shooting stills rather than just playing with video moves (although there was plenty of that too). At the moment I’m just happy to capture a still that’s aesthetically pleasing and I think I’m starting to get the hang of that. The images I’m creating at the moment are still what I think of as “snapshots” – capturing a particular view at a particular time without a great deal of planning or thought – but the skills I’m learning will doubtlessly be invaluable when I come to constructing more complex, considered images as I try to do with my ground based photography. I’m still learning how to see from such a different perspective, and trying to integrate that with my own style and vision.
Apart from general playing and learning the one thing I particularly wanted to try today was the Orbit function, in which the Mi drone will fly a perfect circle around a location or object of your choosing. The old mill on the Westwood was the perfect testing point for this as it sits more or less alone on top of the hill with only a couple of trees for company, meaning that I could try some orbits whilst keeping the drone well in sight and under manual control if required.
The orbit is pretty easy to set up in the app – I can add a video if anyone would like to see the process, but it goes something like this. First you fly the drone to a point directly above the Point of Interest (POI) you want to orbit. I flew manually but I guess in theory you could use Tap-to-Fly (more on that later) to get there though I’m not sure how accurate that would be. It’s reasonably easy to get positioned with the camera pointing directly at the ground, though the gusty wind did make it a little challenging. You then switch to the map view in the app, and tap on the Automated Flight Modes button. This will give you a list of modes, from which you want to select Orbit.
You’ll then be presented with a few options. You can set the radius of the orbit, the altitude and the speed – all limited by your preset parameters (so if you’ve limited your speed to 9m/s you won’t be able to go any faster than that). You can also tell it whether you want to point inwards towards to POI, outwards away from it or to point along the path. The app will then tell you how long the orbit flight will take, and all that’s left is to hit Start. The drone will fly out to the path you’ve set (I’m not sure exactly how it decides at what point of the circle to start) then perform laps until you tell it to stop.
Whilst it’s flying the orbit you have control over the tilt of the gimbal and nothing else. I found that the best thing to do was to set the gimbal angle once the drone had flown out to the path then leave it be for at least one rotation, meaning that you should have plenty of pre – and post – roll if you need it. The orbit itself wasn’t too bad – I tried flying a few at different altitudes and every time the mill ended up a little off centre, but it never left the screen. I guess that not using a cunning tracking algorithm like some of the more expensive drones is a bit of a limitation as it relies on you getting set up *perfectly* above your POI. That’s not to say it’s not a useful feature but there are definitely limitations.
Once you’re happy with your orbit (or orbits, as it’ll go on until it runs out of battery if you let it) you can tap to finish. You might also just be able to take manual control, but I didn’t try that.
I also tried out the Tap-to-Fly mode whilst I was out. This is essentially a simplified version of the Waypoint mode, where instead of setting multiple points on a path you set one and the drone flies there. Simple, and effective though I can’t really see many advantages over the Waypoint mode. Perhaps if you need to get to a particular spot for a specific shot, but then that relies on the mapping being inch perfect which it probably isn’t.
In amongst the video playing I managed to frame up some stills I was quite pleased with, making the most of the low winter sun. Certainly nothing groundbreaking and they won’t be winning any competitions but I rather like some of the birds-eye shots of the mill. Something I look for in my photographs is elements of geometry and pattern and I’m seeing lines and shapes that I didn’t even know where there by flying over them.
After playing around zooming around my dad and I at low altitude for a while (racing drones must be so much fun to fly, there’s something very satisfying about whizzing around obstacles but it’s not really what the Mi drone is designed for) I called it a day and headed home. Having compared the footage to earlier stuff I’ve shot at the Westwood I’m definitely improving, it’s comfortably better than the earlier shots I just feel a little like I’m repeating myself. Good for practice but I need to push myself a little more. Those woods look intriguing…