When we arrive at deadmau5’s place, he’s jacked into an Oculus Rift, a cigarette dangling from his lip, both hands on the wheel of a virtual race car skidding around a track at 200 miles per hour. The performer and producer is a man who likes his toys high-tech and top of the line, especially drones. When he saw our first video on the new DJI Inspire One, he asked if we could help him get hold of a unit. What better place to test one out, we thought, than his expansive Toronto estate?
Spread out across several tables of gear next to his bed, deadmau5 had a number of different UAVs, including a couple of the ubiquitous DJI Phantoms and the high-end S-1000. One of the Phantoms was a little scuffed from crashing. “I’m thinking maybe we’ll take the beater out tomorrow and try and shoot it down,” he told me. I naively assumed he was joking.
Drones were a popular gift this holiday season, and in my overview of the market back in July, I called them the coolest toys a gadget lover could own. But as I took the controls of the Inspire One for the first time, blasting it a couple hundred feet into the air over a tree line, so that my co-pilot manning the camera could grab a shot of deadmau5 bouncing around his property on an ATV, I realized that the word toy doesn’t come close to encompassing the danger, power, and potential of these machines.
Maybe I should stop calling these things "toys"
Deadmau5 has only been living in his place for short while, and his neighbors aren’t totally sure what to make of him. They slowed their cars to a crawl as they passed by our afternoon shoot: a McLaren 650S doing drag runs with two drones in hot pursuit. I was piloting one, which I opened up to full throttle along a narrow dirt road, doing 50 miles per hour with trees hanging down from both sides. It never drifted, and it came slamming to a halt the second I let my thumb off the throttle.
Before the advent of the Inspire One, we would have needed something like the S-1000 for this shot: a powerful craft with dual operator mode for one pilot and one cameraman. But as deadmau5 pointed out, flying the S-1000, even in a wide open rural setting like his estate, feels a little nerve-racking. At times, with its bulk, eight blades, and short battery life, it can be too much machine for a civilian, even one like deadmau5, whose idea of a good time is the Gumball 3000. The Inspire One never gave me that kind of hesitation. It was like an automatic handgun: smooth and satisfying, a little alarming when you realize what you’re capable of doing with it.
I previously called the Inspire One the coolest drone I have ever seen, and I can now definitively call it the best drone I’ve ever flown. I've tested dozens of units from different companies and put in probably 100 hours of flight time, so my perspective is that of a reasonably experienced drone enthusiast. But for this trip I also brought along two people — Sam Sheffer of The Verge and our friend Marques Brownlee — who were piloting for the first time in their lives.
"Flying the Inspire One for the first time was surprisingly easy," Marques told me. Despite being more powerful than the Phantom, the Inspire maintains DJI's trademark simplicity for beginners. "Everything stayed super intuitive. I ended up navigating around at the same altitude a lot before I got used to being able to change altitude and create some more interesting flights."
The Inspire One outperforms any drone I’ve flown, but of course, it’s also considerably more expensive. At $3,000, it’s roughly double what you would pay for a high-end DJI Phantom and more than three times the cost of the newest units from 3D Robotics and Parrot. In that sense, arguably, you get what you pay for. And most people don't really need an aircraft capable of carrying Prof. Meowingtons (or at least his stunt double).
But there is also a number of new features on the Inspire that distinguish it from the Phantom. The one that really stood out on this trip was the dual operator mode. The Inspire can transform to lift its legs during flight, giving you a full 360 degrees of unimpeded vision for your camera. As fairly novice operators, Sam and Marques were able to get great shots — that they never could have captured solo — of deadmau5 riding an ATV ride around his property.
Another new feature is something DJI calls optical flow. It’s a downward-facing camera that helps to stabilize the unit by tracking the terrain below. A number of my crashes during my time learning with the Phantom happened during landing, when the little jumps and wobbles you don't notice in the air can become a big problem. With the Inspire, bringing the unit close ground causes the legs to return to landing position and the optical flow to kick in. We made several dozen flights on this trip, and there wasn’t a single crash during landing.
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There are definitely some things about the Inspire One that I don't love. The 4K footage it captures with its stock camera is decent, but not nearly as sharp as what you can get on a new GoPro. It's not powerful enough to carry end-up cameras like the REDs that deadmau5 uses on his S-1000, but it could easily handle many of the smaller action cameras on the market. Unfortunately, the Inspire has a proprietary camera mount that makes it tough to simply swap in your own gear.
While I was impressed with the dual operator mode, it would be great to have autonomous waypoint navigation for times when you're flying alone, so that the unit could fly itself while you control the camera. DJI has pushed this capability to the Phantom and says it will be coming to the Inspire as well. But right now the lack of this ability means the Inspire trails competitors like the Iris+ from 3D Robotics, which can fly autonomously and even follow a user by locking onto the GPS in their smartphone.
Is the Inspire the best drone you can own? That really comes down to budget and experience. If money is no object, than I think the answer is yes. It flies like a superior version of the Phantom, with nearly equal battery life, despite the extra weight, and several extra features that add new video capabilities.
But if you're just starting out and an extra $2,000 will hurt your pocket, the Inspire is probably more power than you'll need. A $500 Phantom or Bebop will be more than enough to learn on and not break the bank if you crash it to smithereens. If you decide that you want more power and flexibility while filming, the Inspire feels like the perfect second unit, a step function that will open up new horizons. Just don't fly it over deadmau5's house uninvited. He's a very good shot.
Directed / Edited by Jordan Oplinger
Produced by Tre Shallowhorn
Audio Mixing by John Lagomarsino