DJI Phantom 2 with H3-2D Gimbal Review

May 12, 2014 22:34 | By | Add a Comment

The Phantom 2 is available as a complete package complete with 2-axis brushless gimbal. The price for this combo started out at over $1000.- but has recently come down to a more manageable $680. Magazine reviews are glowing, but few of them have any comparisons to make. Is the Phantom 2 combo offer worth the price of admission, or should you look elsewhere? Find out in our review!

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Hardware

We reviewed the Phantom 2 + H3-2D Combo which currently retails for $680.- in the US, and a steep EUR 800.- in Austria. Where the price difference comes from nobody can say, but it’s obvious that DJI’s suggested pricing leaves a lot of wiggle room. The set comes with a RTF Phantom 2, “intelligent” battery pack, two sets of props (for a total of 8) and of course the gimbal. It should be noted however that this is not the normal H3-2D Gimbal, but a special version specifically designed for the Phantom 2. If you already have a H3-2D gimbal for a F550 or similar copter, you won’t be able to connect that to the Phantom.

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The gimbal is not preinstalled and can be connected rather easily. What’s more difficult however is any type of FPV installation. There’s a second cable coming out of the bottom of the quadcopter which carries power and video output for a FPV transmitter. If you chose to go for an FPV install, the optional OSD module allows you to complement the video signal with onscreen HUD data showing an artificial horizon, home direction, and battery status. The OSD module plugs into the external CAN-Bus connector and also has to be mounted outside. For our installation this resulted in quite a messy array of external components: The 5.8GHz Transmitter, iOSD module, and of course the Gimbal. It would’ve been preferable if the FPV gear could be mounted inside the body.

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Perhaps the most striking feature of the Phantom 2 is the flight duration: We measured 12 minutes with gimbal and full FPV gear, which pretty damn excellent. The battery comes in the form of a proprietary 5000mAh 3S LiPo pack that includes charge electronics, battery status indicator and power switch in a single unit. It’s actually quite nice to use, though the charger (a repurposed laptop power supply) really doesn’t come across as professional.

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The insides reveal several changes from the rather pedestrian Phantom 1: The entire center board has been redesigned, the video coming from the GoPro is now streamed through and then passed on outside though the AV cable, and the main flight controller is no longer a NAZA M v2 but is really called “Phantom 2”. You can still connect your own receiver, however only S-Bus or D-Bus will work. While you had the option to choose a traditional PPM multichannel setup in the Phantom 1, the Phantom 2 has that option disabled in Software, even though the input pins are there!

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We contacted DJI customer support and were told that this is by design, and that no change to that limitation was planned for the Phantom 2. Now, this is not an issue if you plan to use the supplied transmitter. However, the Phantom 2 comes with a single sleeved dipole aerial which is inferior to a true diversity antenna system. And since it’s quite a lot of money flying in the air, the lack of more robust options is a bit perplexing. Still, there’s S-Bus, so as long as your fly a system that offers that, as well as the possibility to remap channels on your transmitter to make it match with what the Phantom expects, you should be fine. We should also note that DJI is not the only one prefering fewer cables, as the 3DR Pixhawk flight controller also ships with S-Bus only, though they do offer a breakout board for older/other receivers for $20.

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Initial setup can be a bit confusing, for it takes the Phantom 2 an very long time to gain a GPS fix at locations where even the cheap Locust Quadcopter got a lock from cold-start in 2 minutes. And even then flying was impossible for a simple reason: The compass calibration was off. Yes, we did calibrate the compass, but it turns out the problems with the DJI Phantom 2 compass sensor run a little deeper.

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The compass unit is housed in a metal enclosure, fixed to the landing struts by screws that turned out to be magnetizable. Whenever the unit was moved past any kind of magnetic field in one direction, the screws picked up enough magnetization to affect the sensor. The result was unpredictable flight behavior, “toiletbowling”, and generally miserable controllability. Now, DJI does have a solution for this problem, and it requires you to manually de-magnetize the compass sensor assembly as shown in this video:

Hey DJI, how about not using magnetizable materials around the sensor? This is such a basic product flaw, and the solution by DJI basically tells the customer to deal with it. And not only that, but there’s a way simpler solution: Remove the entire metal case with the screws, and stick the compass sensor to the leg with double sided tape. The entire problem will be gone for good. Frankly, it’s amazing to see the alleged market leader commit such a mistake. For reference, this is how Horizon Hobbies did it in their 350QX Quadcopter:

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Just a simple plastic cover and brass screws. And guess what, it works flawlessly and doesn’t require the user to constantly de-magnetize and re-calibrate the compass sensor.

Flight Performance

After dealing with this problem, flights with the Phantom 2 were extremely uneventful. This is definitely a beginner’s quadcopter, since just about the only thing that can lead to a crash are sudden stick movements. The copter handles quite slowly and doesn’t lend itself to wild aerobatics, certainly much less so than the 350QX. Power was adequade, but the Phantom 2 is certainly not ridiculously overpowered. It’s just about right for long endurance, which was the design goal for this craft. This is particularly true while the gimbal is not installed, which gives the Phantom 2 an extraordinary endurance of well over 20 minutes.

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GPS position hold works fine after an adequate fix has been aquired. We found the 350QX to perform a lot better though, generally staying within a tighter spot on position hold, and landing closer to the starting point when return-to-launch was initiated.

With the gimbal attached flight times are cut to about 12 minutes. The craft does become quite a bit more sluggish due to the added weight, but it’s not to the point where beginners would have to worry about it. We did prefer the locked-in feel and the position/altitude hold precision of the Blade 350 QX, the Phantom 2 allowed itself more leeway in all directions.

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The lever on the bottom of the transmitter controlling the gimbal pitch was working right away without any additional setup, and the two switches controlling general flight mode and GPS functionality was easier to work with than the limited flight modes available on the competitor by Horizon.

Gimbal Stabilization

Gimbal performance was very good, with one big caveat we’ll get into in a moment. Vibration dampening was excellent, the supplied rubber nubs are of good quality. You’d have to do extremely wild maneuvers to throw the gimbal off balance. The integrated GoPro3 interface means no outside cables – though it remains to be seen how rugged the flex pcb connections are, or whether they’ll develop problems after a lot of missions. The one major issue we encountered however was something that all H3-2D gimbals, both the regular version and the Phantom 2 flavor, had to struggle with: Gimbal power off.

Basically this means that whenever the gimbal had to work against any kind of semi-strong force for longer than one second, it would shut off – permanently. That  means if you fly at an extreme bank angle for more than one second and the gimbal is forced against the end stop  you will be forced to land, disconnect the battery, reconnect it, and start from the beginning.

Now before anyone tries to defend that behavior: No, this is not normal, nor is it acceptable. No other gimbal we had the chance to try out does this (and we’re running quite a few brushless gimbals of all sizes), and it’s especially annoying if you’re trying to take off from grass lawn. Even a few grass blades bunched together while the quad is standing on the ground are enough to exert enough force to make the gimbal shut off. We had to rip out grass underneath to make a groove for the gimbal so it wouldn’t be disturbed until we had a chance to arm and take off.

It is really hard to understand why the H3-2D would not even attempt to restart after a few seconds. Once this happens the GoPro flops around uselessly, ruining whatever you tried to film. Considering it’s still one of the most expensive 2-axis GoPro gimbals on the market this drawback is surprising, to put it mildly.

The gimbal does deliver very solid stabilization and is really effective at getting those smooth shots. Smooth pans and tilts are more difficult because both the yaw rate as well as the little lever for looking up and down are very sensitive. Pricy as it may be, the H3-2D delivers a solid performance – too bad you can’t use the Phantom-compatible version on another multirotor however.

 

Conclusion

Since our review Phantom was a loaner, it’s been an interesting experience. Would we pay 800 euros for the Phantom 2? Definitely not. In the US the price is not as painful at a more reasonable $680, which is still quite a lot of money. Any FPV setup results in ugly protrusions underneath the white body. Also, if you ever tire of the Phantom 2 you apparently can’t use the Gimbal anywhere else, not even other DJI gear. That, combined with the compass and gimbal reset issues, is quite a bitter pill to swallow.

On the plus side, the endurance of the Phantom 2 is excellent and once you fix the compass sensor (and not the way DJI recommends it, but by actually fixing the problem and removing the nearby magnetizable metal parts) the quad is very stable and locks into position hold nicely. Not quite as nice as the Blade, but almost.

It’s really just small design issues, and a hefty price tag, that drag this one down. If you have the money to spend, you can certainly do a lot worse than getting a Phantom 2. However, do note that you are forever locked in to the Phantom line of products and expandability is low.  You can get waypoint navigation capabilities by purchasing the iPad Ground Station with the included bluetooth module, though of course DJI does limit the number of waypoints you can set – and you have no way to change those waypoints once the craft is out of Bluetooth range.

Convenience remains the one major selling point of DJI equipment. If you are willing to dive into the matter a little bit more, you can get a much higher level of capabilities for a lower price. As it stands, the Phantom 2 is a competent RTF Quadcopter with issues, some of which are fixable but shouldn’t be there in the first place considering the price tag.

 

 

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