Cinematic first-person view or FPV drones have been a growing trend in the drone industry for a few years. Now the world’s biggest consumer drone maker, DJI, is hopping on that wave with its first FPV drone.
The new FPV (yup, it’s just called the FPV) drone is bundled together with DJI’s goggles and a new controller for the price of $1,299. That price is steep if you’re considering this as your starter FPV drone, but it’s quite comparable with the rest of the drones on the market, which are often sold with controllers, goggles, or cameras.
DJI believes this drone will be suitable for FPV professionals and also newcomers, like myself, who have been flying “standard” drones but are now ready to make that step into the FPV world. I’ve dedicated a large part of my last two weeks to see if it’s able to live up to either of those ambitions.
FPV design and hardware
If this review is your first introduction to FPV drones, here’s how they are different from a typical drone. For starters, an FPV drone requires special goggles for full flight immersion. (That’s what gives you that “first person” view.) The camera is usually locked in one position and unlike standard camera drones, it doesn’t aim to stay stabilized and leveled with the horizon. And most importantly, every FPV pilot will tell you that FPV drones are way more fun to fly. And they’d be right. The drones are more responsive in the air and they move at hair-raising speeds. They can also be much more challenging to fly.
In December 2020, the Trump administration added DJI to a commerce blacklist, citing ties to the Chinese government. The filing accuses the company of enabling “wide-scale human rights abuses within China through abusive genetic collection and analysis or high-technology surveillance.” It has been reported that DJI has provided drones to the Chinese government for use in surveilling brutal prison camps in the Xinjiang province.
There are also potential security concerns with DJI drones. The US Interior Department and the Department of Justice are both reviewing — or have outright banned — the use of foreign-made drones.
DJI disputes the Trump administration’s characterization.
Despite all that, DJI’s products continue to be available in the US as of this writing.
For DJI’s first foray into the FPV world, the company is betting on simplicity. There’s no need to know how to build your own drone, calibrate motors, get the transmitters right, and so forth. It really is as “plug & play” as it gets. The drone establishes connection with the controller and the goggles automatically, and you’re ready to fly.
The drone is slightly heavier than most FPV drones due to its hefty battery. That battery is also a big selling point for DJI as it enables 20-minute flight times. If you’re used to Mavics, Phantoms, or Parrots, this would be considered short. But compared to FPV drones, this is a significant upgrade from typical flight time, which varies from three minutes for miniature drones to around 10 minutes for larger FPVs. It’s also DJI’s “intelligent battery,” meaning it discharges after a few days when not in use to maximize its life span and avoid swelling.
The FPV shares the same 1/2.3-inch sensor as the $450 Mini 2, which is mostly a good thing. It won’t match the capabilities of DJI’s more advanced photo and video-focused drones, however. The FPV’s camera performs well in daylight but starts showing its downsides in darker environments by muddying details with lots of noise. The FPV can film 4K at 60fps instead of the 24fps on the Mini 2 — perfect for slowing down footage for those thrilling close calls. And if you want it even slower, you can also shoot up to 120fps at 1080p.
The camera is mounted on a one-axis gimbal and it has a super-wide view of 150 degrees compared to the 83 degrees you get on a Mini 2. It’s so wide you can see the ends of your propellers in your footage, which is great for gauging how close you are to certain obstacles while flying, but it’s not great for the overall aesthetic in your final clip. You can easily remove it in post or apply lens correction in the menu in the goggles, which will also get rid of heavily distorted edges. Part of me wishes there were a better camera here, especially at this price, but I get it — it’s DJI’s first FPV drone and if it ends up being successful, it’s safe to assume we’ll see a more diverse lineup in the future.
But the biggest difference between DJI’s FPV and most other FPVs is the image transmission. DJI’s FPV drone is relying on digital transmission, which it introduced in the summer of 2019. Most starter FPV drones use analog transmission.
The downside of analog transmission is that it doesn’t allow for long distance flying. But the upside is analog transmission has very low latency, which takes precedence over range. Fortunately, DJI is using its OcuSync technology here, and from my experience over the past few weeks, it’s been great. At a few points, I noticed some sort of interference with the image where I’d have to come to a stop and wait a few beats before I’d continue flying, but for the most part it has been smooth sailing.
The goggles themselves were first introduced in 2020 for use with custom FPV drones along with the DJI Air Unit, a camera for digital transmission. There’s a five-directional joystick on top, a back button, and a record button. The displays have 810p resolution and the preview image in the goggles looks very crisp and detailed, which is important when you need to avoid branches in your flight path. The design gives me a very Christopher Nolan Batman-esque vibe from it. I can’t help feeling like an idiot wearing them, but my colleague Dieter said it looks badass, so I’ll trust him on that one.
Lastly, there’s a new controller that is about half the size of other standard FPV controllers. DJI has also developed an optional $199 motion controller, which I didn’t have time to test for this review. I am more comfortable with a standard controller at this point, but the motion controller could be a great option for beginners. There is one very annoying thing about both controllers and it’s that neither charge with USB-C to USB-C cables, just USB-A to USB-C; it’s infuriating.
As mentioned, this whole kit will cost you $1,299. Compared to some other options, you can definitely get away with spending a lot less until you feel more comfortable flying FPV. Emax makes some of the best Tinyhawk beginner FPVs, and its kits start at $99. But if you’re at a level where you already feel comfortable flying, I think this price is comparable to what’s out there.
Flying the FPV drone
There are three modes you can fly this drone in: normal, sport, and manual.
Normal is similar to how you’d fly any other drone. It has auto-leveling and will maintain its altitude by itself. The speed is capped at 31 mph and it’s suitable for beginners. Sport mode is a simplified FPV mode and a lot faster than normal mode with speeds up to 60 mph. The drone will still auto-level itself and hold its altitude in the sport mode.
AGREE TO CONTINUE: DJI FPV
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.
That’s at least two agreements. There may be more, but in trying to factory reset our review unit to double check the count, we discovered that DJI doesn’t actually offer that feature. It’s something to consider if you expect to ever sell the drone.
Then there is the manual mode, which allows you to do the fun FPV things, like flips and rolls. It can reach speeds up to 97 mph and it accelerates from 0–60 mph in two seconds. In this mode, you have to take control of your throttle and maintain the drone’s positioning at all times. In the FPV world, this mode is called “Acro” and it really takes hundreds and thousands of hours to get comfortable with it.
I want to stress this again: this was my first time flying an FPV drone. I always had an interest in it, especially when I saw what FPV racers transitioning into the cinematic FPV world can do with these drones. DJI isn’t aiming this drone at racers but for people either comfortable with FPVs or trying to make that step into the FPV world but are discouraged by the DIY aspect of it all. That’s not to say you can’t have fun with other modes. In my two weeks with it, I’ve been making baby steps getting more comfortable with manual mode, but I’m fully aware of how much more time I need to invest practicing first.
Instead of showing you my amateurish skills, I decided to hand this drone to Reza Kurniawan, an actual professional FPV pilot, so be sure to watch the video review above to see what professionals are capable of doing with the DJI FPV.
The FPV has obstacle avoidance sensors at the front, but they only work in normal mode. Once the drone senses an obstacle nearby, it will gradually slow down so you have time to react to it. The sensors are a lot less sensitive than what you might be used to if you’re coming from the Mavic series. And they won’t engage in the other two modes, which leads to how I crashed this drone.
In case you lose control or need to come to a full stop, there is an emergency button on the controller, but I didn’t have time to press it, unfortunately. I went around a tree without knowing what was on the other side and clipped one of the branches which sent the drone into a spiraling free fall. I expected the motors to turn themselves off after impact, as a standard drone’s auto shutoff feature would do, but instead the FPV kept “ramming” itself into the ground. DJI tells me that shouldn’t be the case. Hopefully it’s just an early software bug, but it’s a pretty serious one nonetheless.
If you’re like me and wreck this drone, you can replace the following items yourself: the top housing shell, propellers, the gimbal / camera module, and the arms. I had to replace most things myself, except the gimbal and the arm. All of the replaceable parts can be ordered from DJI directly. The FPV kit comes with an extra top housing and extra propellers, which you should definitely keep around. But if you need even more spares, propellers cost $15 each, while the top runs $15. Each arm costs $19 and the camera module costs $129.
Overall, the drone feels extremely responsive. For someone who loves the Mini 2 because of its size and how it feels in the air especially in sport mode, the transition to FPV wasn’t actually that daunting. I’m nowhere near the level I want to be, but my initial anxiousness disappeared rather quickly. Too quickly, actually. Switching to fully manual mode brought that anxiety right back.
Despite all that, I have to admit, I’m completely hooked. Every time I walk around the city or go anywhere now, all I can think about is where I can fly this drone and which little nooks I can try to squeeze it through and so on. But I’m hooked more into the idea of flying any FPV, not specifically this model.
The DJI FPV works well but is expensive for a starter first-person drone
The FPV is too pricey for it to be a starter first-person drone. But DJI included some of its best tech in it, which makes it perform very well. It is such a simple system to use and for a newcomer, it is much more approachable than some of the other options out there. DJI is also introducing a flight simulator built into the app (accessible through the goggles), but it wasn’t available during my testing. I strongly recommend any newcomers to spend more time practicing in simulators. There are many available on Mac, Windows, and Steam.
Then there are the standard issues when it comes to any drone: laws in your country; the area you live in and how much use you’ll get out of it; the need for a few more batteries (each battery is $149), which pushes the total price up. This also isn’t really a portable system: it’s big and bulky and oddly doesn’t come with a carrying case, so you’ll want to buy something like a Pelican case for it.
If you have a familiarity with FPV drones, I think you can’t go wrong with the DJI FPV. Whether you like it or not it will largely depend on your preference — do you like mounting a GoPro instead of the built-in DJI camera, or you just enjoy the DIY aspect of it all and want to customize your quads to your liking? For me, it has been an absolute blast to fly this around and, yes, sometimes it’s been sort of stressful. But for many of you, myself included, it might be worth spending a bit more time in FPV simulators before spending too much on the whole kit. Once I feel ready, DJI FPV will be on the top of my list.
Photography and video by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge