What’s that hovering over the park in Highlands North this morning? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it superman? No, it’s a highly professional and well-equipped unmanned aerial vehicle – a UAV or drone to you and me. And guess who’s behind the controls today? Watch out Joburg, it’s the htxt.africa aeronautical display team. AKA me.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about drones, unmanned aerial vehicles and whether or not they’re legal in South Africa (you can read our dissection of the law over here). In the cases where they aren’t – particularly when used for commercial purposes – there soon will be regulations governing what you can and can’t do with them. That will cause relief across the film and photography industries where drones are widely seen as a cost effective alternative to hiring light aircraft for those sweeping savannah shots and early morning fly-bys of the beach.

So when I was offered a chance to play around with a DJI Phantom 2 aircraft for a morning, I obviously couldn’t resist. It’s an R15 000 flying machine that is to the low cost Parrot AR quadcopters you’ll find in Incredible Connection as a Boeing Dreamliner is to a microlight. We’re talking a slightly different league…

The drone will hover and, if set up correctly, remember where ground level is.
The drone will hover and, if set up correctly, remember where ground level is.

Actually, you can pick up a basic Phantom 2 for less than R9 000, but you’ll want a few of the added extras. I’m by no means an experienced drone pilot, but the fun of the Phantom 2 is how simple it makes flight – so you can focus on playing around with the payloads it carries.

Despite its simplicity, the Phantom 2 is designed for professionals to use. It comes with on-board GPS and a guidance computer, accelerometer and gyroscope for automatically steadying the craft in the air and – most importantly – a gimball mount for GoPro-sized cameras which includes horizontal tilting. With a few optional extras you can also use your phone or a separate screen mounted onto the remote control to get a live feed of the video in front of you and set waypoints for autonomous flying.

According to Juanne Whyte, who handles sales of the DJI Phantom 2 at Orms Direct in Cape Town, it’s popular not just with photographers and film makers, but also farmers who can set up a patrol path for the drone to monitor large sections of fence. The same goes for game parks: with a 20 minute flight time, the Phantom 2 is not much use for detecting and discouraging poachers. But it can save rangers hours of driving through the bush if all they have to do is send it up and set it off to do the perimeter rounds.

The Phantom 2 itself is lightweight and plainly coloured. Whyte says that the most common problem new pilots make is figuring out which way round it’s pointing, and thus whether steering left means strafing left or – if the controls are reversed because the drone is pointing towards you – strafing right. To help you figure it out, green lights run up the rear two motor arms and red lights run up the front. If the green lights flash and go red, it means it’s time to come back and switch the battery.

Before you begin, however, you’ll need to calibrate the compass and GPS. This is done by swinging the drone around in a circle a few times and rocking it around a bit.

And after that, flying the drone itself is fairly simple. One stick controls altitude and rotation while the other is the aeronautical equivalent of WASD – forward, back and strafe. On board electronics keep the whole rig surprisingly steady, and even if it is being buffeted by winds another set of motors will wrestle to keep the camera on a level plane at the very least.

If you let go of the sticks, the automatic controls take over and do their best to keep the drone in exactly the same position as you left it. Unless you’ve entered NAZA mode.

NAZA is the advanced control mode, which must be configured on a PC first, that lets you tweak the control system to your liking and enable alternative models for remote control. For my short time with the Phantom 2, though, I stuck to the basics (which is why this feature is a hands-on and not a review. I didn’t have time to thoroughly assess the Phantom 2, sadly). The most interesting of these is the ‘Course Mode’, which uses the GPS and compass to prevent the controls reversing and always fly ‘forward’ if you push the direction stick away from you.

Other advanced controls include the ability to set a home point which the Phantom 2 will return to if summoned.

According to Whyte, the maximum range of the Phantom 2 is 1.2km from its home point, and it will fly at around 60kmh flat out. It can also fly to 400m but that’s an artificial ceiling set in the firmware. Since the maximum legal altitude for pleasure flyers is 120m, you won’t get close to that anyway.

And then, of course, there’s the video footage. Using the GoPro, this is fairly astonishing. There is a version of Phantom that includes a built-in camera if you want it, but reports are that the picture quality is nowhere near that of a dedicated action cam.

As far as the Phantom 2 is concerned, I really enjoyed flying it but would struggle to justify buying one unless it was for work purposes. For hobbiest pleasure, I’d personally look at saving costs and going the DIY route. Considering all the on-board electronics and the software and hardware extras that are available, however, if you had the money this does feel like a professional piece of kit for a lot less than they used to be available for – especially when you factor in included parts like the GoPro mount and the expandable controller.

Here’s a bit of sample footage from our test.

What of the future of drones? According to the Civil Aviation Authority planning around the new regulations is on track and a new set of presentations will be made later this month with an eye to them being ratified some time in the autumn. Until then, all eyes are on the skies and despite the warnings from SACAA on the issue, as far as we know no-one has yet been prosecuted for using a drone for commercial purposes in South Africa.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.