Xiaomi Drone: Trying out the auto modes

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Another early start this morning to get a bit of flying in before heading to work. The wind was a bit too strong to feel really confident (up to about 35mph gusts!) so I went over to Beverley Westwood which was pretty much deserted bar a few dog walkers, and has plenty of space for emergency landings if needed. 

Take off was much easier again, so I’m guessing the trouble I had before was weather related. It was a lovely clear morning and took off almost immediately on the first battery (at the bottom of a dip) and with no issues at all on the second (on the brow of a rise). Because of the wind I walked with the drone quite a lot to make sure it was never too far away – one thing that this highlighted was that the distance limit (set to 500m) is actually from takeoff point, NOT from the controller. So even with the drone directly overhead I couldn’t fly west as I’d walked 500m! Not a problem (and kinda makes sense) but something worth bearing in mind. 

There was definitely some buffeting from the wind this time around, but given how strong it was I’m not too worried about that. The main thing I wanted to try out today was the automatic flight modes, and in particular the Waypoint mode (or mission, as the app likes to call it). I actually tried to set it up before I took off as I didn’t really want to leave the drone hovering whilst I was peering at my phone screen, but it turns out that you can’t plan a route until you’ve taken off. Again no biggie, but a bit of a pain – I could see that battery indicator ticking down as I faffed around with waypoints. 

I would definitely recommend having satellite maps turned on for waypoint flying, depending on your location. Where I was is basically a bit green chunk of common land, which shows up as pretty much nothing on Google Maps. With satellite on you can see landmarks like the windmill and trees and such, which gives you something to aim for. 

The waypoint system is actually fairly flexible, whilst remaining nice and simple – something of a feature of the Mi. Once you enter Waypoint mode you need to tap the “Start” button at the top right, then ok the pop up you get. You can then tap to add waypoints, and drag the map around as usual. There’s a big red circle around your takeoff point if you have a distance limit set (mine was at 500m) that you can’t set waypoints outside of. Makes sense. I did wonder if I turned off the limit how far I could waypoint to, but I decided finding out was probably a silly idea. 

Once you’ve set a waypoint (or tapped one you’ve already set) you get a couple more settings. You can set the height of the waypoint (within your limit) and you can set the airspeed to get there. I’ve not thought of much use for the variable airspeed though I’m sure I will, but the altitude is pretty cool – I’ve already thought of a couple of shots I’d like to use Waypoints for with the altitude adjust. 

Once you’ve set all the points you want, all you need to do is hit “Start” and off your drone will whizz, joining up the dots in the order you’ve set them. There are a couple of things to note when waypointing. It may sound obvious, but bear in mind that your drone will fly in a straight line between points – you’re not going to get a nice smooth curve. For that you’re probably better off using the orbit mode, even if you only want a few degrees if the circle. Also remember that the maps aren’t perfectly accurate – give yourself plenty of margin for error to avoid flying into things. You’re not going to be swooping through trees in this mode (but flying manually is much more fun for that kind of thing anyway). 

The really cool thing about the Waypoint mode though is the amount of control you still have over the drone whilst it’s flying. It goes without saying that you can yaw the camera gimbal up and down but what I thought was really cool (and this may be completely standard for drones, I dunno, but I was impressed!) is that you can also control the pitch of the camera whilst it’s in flight. So you could in theory have the drone spin its way along the path you’ve set or – perhaps more usefully – have a landmark centre-screen as you approach and keep in there as you orbit around it, then have it receding into the distance as you fly away. 

Editing the video for this blog also threw up a handy tip for those of you that don’t have a superpowered PC that can edit 4K video. The Xiaomi actually records two versions of every clip – the full size version, and a 768 x 432 low quality version with the prefix THM. I guess these are thumbnails perhaps for app playback, but they’re really handy for doing low res editing, then substituting the full quality files for colour correction and rendering. This is dead easy to do in Premiere, and probably pretty straightforward in other software too. 

I also took a couple of images whilst I was out to have a better look at what the still quality is like. To be honest I’m not massively impressed, but then I’m used to DSLRs and a decent mirrorless Panasonic so that’s not really surprising – it’s not a fair comparison. The Xiaomi takes stills more on a par with what I’d expect to get from my phone, which is about right given the size of the sensor. I think I’m either less used to video or the movement hides the lower quality better, but for me that’s the area in which it does best. This was shot in raw (it saves as .DNG files if you’re interested) and edited in Photoshop. 

The next trip I’m planning to fly out to sea and get some footage from there, so keep an eye out for that. 

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