Aerial video and photography is growing ever more popular as UAVs -- Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, better known as "drones" -- become easier to control and fly. These days, drone come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations, with most designs falling under the quad-copter format.
Most UAVs worth their money pretty much fly themselves, unlike radio-controlled aircraft and helicopters -- both of which actually require a lot of practice and skill to fly. That's because the latest drones are armed with gyroscopes, barometers, GPS systems and other hardware that work together to keep them in the air, balanced and stable.
The Chinese company DJI currently sells some of the best drones available under the Phantom brand, including last year's top model, the Phantom 2 Vision+ (version 3), which sells for around $650, and the newer Phantom 3 Professional, which goes for about $1,250. I've owned both, and both are top-notch flyers.
The Phantom line-up uses GPS signals for position stabilization, even in breezy conditions. And since each of these GPS-assisted drones records the coordinates of the location where it begins flying, it "knows" to return to that spot if the remote control signal is lost.
The Phantom 3 takes position stabilization to another level with Vision Positioning, which uses visual and ultrasonic sensors to identify its position relative to the ground and keep it from drifting. The result: more stable flights, even when GPS signals aren't the strongest, such as indoors.
The Phantom 2 Vision+ and the newer Phantom 3 both ship with high-definition cameras (for still images and video) mounted to a 3-axis gimbal for stabilizing footage. The Phantom 3 shoots Ultra High Definition (UHD) video at 4096-x-2160 pixels at 24 or 25 frames per second and at 3840-x-2160 pixels at 24, 25 or 30 frames per second at its best setting; the Vision 2+ captures 1080p video at 30 frames per second and 720p at 60 frames per second. Both models stream live video and flight data to connected smartphones or tablets, and the Phantom 3 can stream live 720p video from up to 1.2 miles away using DJI's Lightbridge tech.
The Phantom drones are easy to fly out of the box, and the onboard sensors make maneuvering simple -- but you still have to pay attention to what you're doing. Each Phantom comes with detailed a manual that, among other things, spells out what the lights they emit mean; you'll definitely want to familiarize yourself with those meanings before flying since they can tell you when the drone's battery is low or when a calibration is needed.
Also note: While the Phantoms contain software with built-in Do Not Fly zones (such as near airports), UAVs may be in a legal gray area -- or outright banned -- in some areas. Do your homework before purchasing to avoid breaking the law.
While we don't have flying cars (yet), we do have flying cameras on drones. If you're in the market for one, the Phantom lineup from DJI should be on your shopping list.