Beauty and brains don’t normally mix. But when they do merge occasionally, the results can be quite amazing.
In the case of the Inspire 1 — DJI’s flagship consumer drone for aerial photography — form and function have merged into a near perfect balance of aesthetics and cutting-edge functionality. Beauty is of course a very subjective term but at least from my opinion, the Inspire 1’s semi-naked form is quite a piece of engineering beauty.
No gimmicky grilles, windshields or vents here. Every line, curve and contour is there for a specific purpose. The Inspire 1 is not a toy-grade quadcopter. It is a professional tool and every inch and detail of it says so.
The Inspire 1 is not a toy-grade quadcopter. It is a professional tool and every inch and detail of it says so.
Since it was released, the Inspire 1 quickly became DJI’s gold standard in aerial photography, receiving plenty of rave reviews along the way. Although recently some of its technology have trickled down to the newly-released Phantom 3, the Inspire 1 still remains as DJI’s most advanced all-in-one consumer drone. Its self-transforming air-frame design was so groundbreaking when it was released that it immediately spawned a copycat in the form of Walkera’s Voyager 3 (although Walkera stopped short of copying the Inspire 1’s ingenious retractable boom arms that also double as landing legs).
However, like any other sophisticated piece of technology, the Inspire 1 does suffer from some technical issues. Most of it are firmware in nature although occasionally some pilots have reported mechanical problems such as propellers detaching while flying (this issue was initially addressed with DJI issuing “prop locks” to properly hold the propellers in place and later changing the design of the locking mechanism).
Suffice to say, consumer drones are still in their infancy and although a lot of technological progress have been made in recent years, there is still much to improve when it comes to building drones that are truly reliable. DJI products are not immune to reliability issues but the brand still fares better when compared to some other China-based companies that throw caution to the wind when it comes to releasing products that have not undergone sufficient research and testing.
- Weight (with battery): 2935g
- Max. speed: 22m/s
- Max. flight altitude: 4500m
- Flight time: Approximately 18 minutes
- Diagonal distance: 559 to 581mm
- Dimensions: 438 x 451 x 301mm
- Standard Battery: 22.2V 4500mAh (6S) LiPo
- Standard Battery weight: 570g
- Optional Battery: 22.8V 5700mAh (6S) LiPo
- Motor model: DJI 3510
- Propeller model: DJI 1345
Camera Gimbal System
- Angular Vibration Range: 0.03 degrees
- Controllable range: Pitch: -90° to +30° / Pan: ±320°
- Total pixels: 12.76MP (12.4MP effective pixels)
- Max. image size: 4000 X 3000
- ISO range: 100-3200 (video) / 100-1600 (photo)
- Electronic shutter speed: 8s － 1/8000s
- FOV (Field of View): 94 degrees
- Sensor: Sony EXMOR 1/2.3”
- Still photography modes:
- Single shoot
- Burst shooting: 3/5/7 frames
- Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB): 3/5 bracketed frames at 0.7EV BiasTime-lapse
- Video recording modes:
- UHD (4K): 4096 x 2160 p24/25, 3840 x 2160 p24/25/30
- FHD: 1920 x 1080 p24/25/30/48/50/60
- HD: 1280 x 720 p24/25/30/48/50/60
- Max. bitrate: 60mbps
- Supported file formats:
- Photo: JPEG, DNG
- Video: MP4/MOV (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264)
- Supported SD cards: Micro SD / Max capacity: 64 GB. Class 10 or UHS-1 rating required.
Retractable Boom Arms
The Inspire 1’s carbon fiber arms are one of the most peculiar features that you will notice when you first lay eyes on it and they are truly a groundbreaking feature. Prior to the Inspire 1, manufacturers and DIY drone enthusiasts alike have installed retractable landing legs onto their drones to get the legs out of the way when shooting aerial video.
The Inspire 1 took this concept to a whole new level — by creating boom arms that also double as retractable landing legs. The arms are driven by a worm gear in the fuselage that retract them during takeoff and vice versa. They are also fitted with shock absorbers that do a good job in cushioning the Inspire 1 during hard landings. While flying, the fully retracted arms and landing legs provide an unobstructed near 360 degree view for the Inspire 1’s 4K camera.
This approach saves weight and simplifies the overall design and is an industry first. Raising the boom arms also helps lower the center of gravity, giving the Inspire 1 extra stability in the air since most of its weight stays below the arms and motors.
Like any other GPS-enabled drones, the Inspire 1 has features such as automatic take off and landing and “return to home”. With its GPS-enabled transmitter, the Inspire 1 is also capable of having a Dynamic Home Point — which tells the Inspire 1 where the operator is located. This means you can launch the Inspire 1 at a certain point, walk or drive some distance away and it will still be able to locate where you are via the Dynamic Home Point feature. Invoking this feature will tell the Inspire 1 to return to your current location instead of where you launched it earlier.
One feature that is still conspicuously missing in the Inspire 1 is waypoint navigation which allows for full autonomous flight. There are rumors that this feature may be introduced in future updates.
Built for Maximum Propulsion
The Inspire 1 is propelled by massive 13-inch carbon fiber reinforced propellers which are paired to powerful 3510 350kV motors that offer plenty of torque. This propeller-motor combination coupled with a 6-cell 4500mAh battery means the Inspire 1 has plenty of propulsion to play around with.
The Inspire 1 is propelled by massive 13-inch carbon fiber reinforced propellers which are paired to powerful 3510 350kV motors.
The Inspire 1 is propelled by massive 13-inch carbon fiber reinforced propellers which are paired to powerful 3510 350kV motors.
With that much propeller thrust yielding a top speed of 22m/s or about 80km/h, the Inspire 1 can feel like a cross between a 250-class racer and an aerial photography platform. While most aerial photography drones fly around like lumbering giants in the air, this is one quadcopter that can perform amazingly fast and tight maneuvers as well as it does slow and steady flyovers.
…this is one quadcopter that can perform amazingly fast and tight maneuvers as well as it does slow and steady flyovers.
Such a high top-end speed also makes the Inspire 1 suited for filming high speed car chase scenes along winding roads — something that less powerful entry-level aerial photography drones such as the Phantom 3 would struggle in. The powerful propulsion also means the Inspire 1 holds its position very well even in strong gusts of wind.
Camera Gimbal System
The Zenmuse X3 camera gimbal system is probably the main star attraction in the Inspire 1. When it was released, the Inspire 1 became the world’s first consumer drone to feature a 4K camera. The X3 camera is equipped with a 20mm f2.8 rectilinear lens consisting of 9 elements with a field of view of 94 degrees. Having a rectilinear lens means the camera does not suffer from any fisheye effect that is commonly found in consumer drones such as the Phantom 2.
Having a narrower field of view also means the X3 is more prone to the jello effect when compared to other cameras that have wider angles. To solve this issue, the camera comes with a filter thread and a neutral density filter which you can screw onto the camera to eliminate jello. The filter thread can also be used to attach other filters such as UV filters or polarizers.
The X3 is capable of recording 4K video at 30fps. It can also do 60fps video at 1080P and shoot 12MP still photos in RAW and DNG formats. Having 4K video is great if you’re the type who does a lot of post processing to your videos. If you’re outputting in 1080P, the extra resolution gives plenty of room for cropping and editing. Users also have the option of manually setting the camera’s ISO and shutter speed — a feature not commonly found in cheaper consumer drones where all these settings are done automatically. This ability to manually control the camera’s settings is a must-have if you intend to have full creative control of your shots.
Image stabilization is handled by a 3-axis detachable gimbal which has a sensitivity of 0.03 degrees. This high level of sensitivity allows the Zenmuse X3 to produce buttery smooth aerial videos even in windy conditions. DJI’s range of Zenmuse gimbals are known to produce impressive aerial videos and the X3 is no exception to this.
The Inspire 1 also comes in a dual transmitter kit which allows 1 person to focus on the piloting while another handles the camera and gimbal controls. This is a great feature to have if you’re doing slightly more complicated aerial photography where the drone is headed in one direction while the camera faces another.
To get better value out of the Zenmuse X3 system, DJI has recently released a hand grip that allows you to use the Zenmuse X3 as a handheld device for taking videos on the ground — a feature that was clearly inspired by the Yuneec Q500. To transform the Zenmuse X3 into a handheld system, simply detach it from the Inspire 1 and reattach it onto the hand grip and you’re ready to shoot.
The Zenmuse X3 is also modular and can be upgraded in the future. It is also important to note that the Inspire 1 will not work with any other camera or gimbal other than the Zenmuse X3. If you have a GoPro or some mirrorless camera that you want to use for aerial photography, you will not be able to attach them to an Inspire 1.
Intelligent Power Management System
Smart batteries are all the rage these days, especially with consumer drones. The Inspire 1 features a 6-cell 22.2V 4500mAh LiPo smart battery that gives a flight time of approximately 18 minutes. Thanks to the battery’s smart features, the pilot is able to monitor its status live via the DJI Pilot App. Live data include remaining power, voltage of each cell, total lifetime charges and discharges and remaining flight time so you’ll know when to safely land your drone.
However, such smart features come at a high price. Each 4500mAh battery costs about $165 with the optional 5700mAh version costing about $199.
DJI Pilot App
The DJI Pilot App which is available for free in both Android and IOS versions, is a must-have component when flying the Inspire 1. Once you have Pilot App installed on your tablet or smartphone, you can then place it at the top of your transmitter’s built-in smartphone/tablet holder.
Pilot App allows the user to control flight and camera operations and serves as a kind of heads-up display. It also provides a live video feed as well as other telemetry information such as battery status, GPS status, map view, etc. Live video feed is handled by DJI’s excellent Lightbridge transmitter which can broadcast 720P HD video up to 2km away.
Vision Positioning System
One of the coolest features the Inspire 1 has to offer is its Vision Positioning System — a system of sonar sensors and optical flow camera that help the Inspire 1 figure out its position relative to the ground when there is no GPS signal available for positioning itself.
This feature allows the Inspire 1 to stay put at a fixed position and altitude while flying indoors. By relying on its sonar sensors when flying indoors, the Inspire 1 is capable of knowing its exact altitude from ground level while its down-facing camera allows it to know where it is on the XY plane.
However, the Vision Positioning System only works properly when conditions are ideal for it to function. Some users have reported that the Inspire 1 fails to hold its position properly indoors when flying above surfaces such as grass or thick carpets that do not reflect sonar very well or highly reflective surfaces that tend to confuse its optical flow camera such as marble and glass floors.
Firmware Issues and Customer Service
The Inspire 1 was primarily designed to be a turnkey aerial photography platform. Like the smaller Phantoms, it comes with plenty of intelligent features that help make piloting it easier. With that said, intelligent and sophisticated features often entail complicated firmware with a lot of bugs and issues.
With companies such as DJI rushing to release every product they develop to stay ahead of the competition, many firmware issues in drones often go undetected until users themselves discover them. Almost from the day the first batch of Inspire 1 started flying, users have reported a long list of firmware issues that have caused fly-aways and crashes. These problems, coupled with lackluster customer service by DJI, made for some really frustrating ownership experiences for early Inspire 1 owners.
To counter the problem, DJI responded by releasing regular updates. This led to a wider issue which still remains a highly debated topic among Inspire 1 owners today — the Inspire 1 will not fly until you update it with the latest firmware. And to make matters worse, DJI has programmed no-fly zones into the Inspire 1 which cannot be disabled or altered by the user. In theory, DJI dictates when and where an Inspire 1 can fly and since it uses proprietary firmware that cannot be altered, there is no easy way for users to gain complete control of their quadcopters.
In theory, DJI dictates when and where an Inspire 1 can fly…
Although features such as the “no-fly zones” and mandatory firmware updates are there for the greater good, some have argued that DJI has no right to force such policies onto users. Imagine owning a car that you have paid for with your own hard-earned money, only to find out that it wouldn’t start if you had missed a scheduled oil change, forgotten to balance the tires … you get the idea.
Firmware issues aside, a good drone pilot must have some basic grasp of how to fly a multirotor manually and know exactly what to do when things go wrong. Although the Inspire 1 comes with plenty of smart features that take much of the thinking out of flying a drone, being too dependent on technology can have its drawbacks. No matter how convincing those slick marketing ads tell you about how cutting-edge these drones are, failure is something that can never be discounted from any man-made device.
With that said, owning an Inspire 1 can be a pleasant experience if you are already well aware of the challenges you’ll face when flying a multirotor and are fully prepared when things go wrong. For a quadcopter, the Inspire 1 has plenty of smart features but when these features fail to work, having a good technical understanding of drones can really save you expensive repair bills.
If you have decided to purchase an Inspire 1, you’re in for a less painful experience since much of the problems plaguing it in its early days have been resolved. Still there may be some that have yet to be discovered, just waiting to pop up when the time is right. Despite the ever present prospect of failures, the Inspire 1 is a far more stable product now than it was just 7 months ago.
Despite the ever present prospect of failures, the Inspire 1 is a far more stable product now than it was just 7 months ago.
The Inspire 1 may be a bit pricey, but its superb flight performance, ergonomics and excellent Zenmuse X3 camera gimbal system all but make up for it. This is a drone that was designed to be an all-in-one aerial photography platform and is aimed at aerial photographers who want something better and more robust than a Phantom minus the excessive bulk and complexity of larger 800 to 1000-size multirotors.
With a diagonal motor size of 550mm, the Inspire 1 is reasonably more portable than its larger professional brethren and can be transported fairly easily. It takes only a few minutes of setting up before it is flying in the air. Portability, a highly stable camera gimbal system that takes impressive images and video and dual transmitter ability make the Inspire 1 an attractive option for aerial photography crews.
The Inspire 1’s smart batteries can be a bit of a pain, though, with each standard 4500mAh battery costing at least $165 a pop and yielding a flight time of approximately 18 minutes only. For a typical day at work, you’d probably need at least 3 batteries which means spending about $330 just to purchase those two extra batteries.
Another thing I would like to point out is DJI’s insistance on grounding any Inspire 1 from flying without the latest updates. That, along with other restrictions such as built-in “no fly zones” have long been a thorn in ownership experience for many Inspire 1 owners. So before splashing your money on one, consider this carefully — your Inspire 1 will not fly until DJI feels it is safe to do so.
To wrap things up, the Inspire 1 is an amazing piece of equipment to fly despite its drawbacks. If you have already set your mind on purchasing one, be on the lookout for firmware issues whenever you fly and the Inspire 1 will reward you with some really fascinating aerial images and videos. Do your research, fly safe, be prepared for any in-flight problems and the Inspire 1 won’t disappoint.