Sunday, July 26, 2015

Product review: GHOST Aerial UAV Drone with Support GoPro camera - assembly instructions, first flight

I own several quad copters so I have some basis for comparison and Ghost is in a totally different class of copters from what I have tried before.  This is a real drone not just a toy.  It is a responsive and easy to control.  With the other drones I did not feel I ever had full control of the flight, and half of the time was spent running to where it fell/landed to do it again.  With Ghost there is a feeling of a full control, it does exactly what you tell it to do. I do not have to chase after it at all, I tell it to come back to me and it does.

The drone came with no documentation on how to complete the assembly.  The manual contained mostly legal disclaimers, not something that helped to get me started.  I had to figure out things on my own which was like putting together a zig saw puzzle.  Even though it was mostly assembled there were still things to do.  Some assembly points were tricky such as freeing and connecting camera cables and  assembling the gimble.  I hope my review and video will save you time.

1. The drones battery is 5400 mAh lithium battery and is recharged by a special charger enclosed in the package. The AC port on the charger is covered up with a black sticker so initially it was not obvious how to plug the charger into the AC.  You need to peel off the sticker on the side opposite from where the battery is plugged in.

There are two bundles of wires that need to be connected to charge the battery. The red and black wires and the white plug on the side. You need to select LIPO as battery type. The charger has options to charge at 1A, 2A, and 3A. All three are ok, the higher the number the faster the charging. The white plug needs to be plugged into the 3S port on the side.  When the light blinks red the battery is charging, when the battery blink green it is fully charged.

When you install the battery into the copter, push it with the leads first.

Note: The drone becomes harder to control when the battery is below 30%.  When I say "harder" I mean that the drone's response to gestures is slower.  I was able to fly the drone for 25 minute on one charge.

Ghost has 4 lights indicating its status. If the Ghost is flashing rapidly in red light it indicates low battery and the drone needs to be landed promptly.

2.  The drone is controlled by an Android app.  The app does not control the drone directly which is a very good thing because bluetooth can only communicate with devices that are fairly close and if it communicate with the drone directly it would limit at what distances the app can control the drone.  The app communicates with a controller box (G-box) that and the controller transmits radio signals to the drone.  I or my able assistant (you need two people to fly the copter and video record it) kept G-box in the pant pocket and had no connectivity issues.  Radio signals can travel a long distance so it can control the drone when it is far away.  Documented limit is 1000 meters.

G-box also needs to be charged. When G-box is charging the LEDs flash in sequence, when it is fully charged the LEDs on the left flash while the LEDs on the right are solid and steady.

3. Installing the gimbal mount is a little tricky as you need to figure out how to push rubber ball dampeners to connect two parts of the gimbal.  You can see the technique we used in the video, the basic idea is squeeze and push... you need to do it 8 times and it gets easier as you get a feel for it.

4. The wires that attach to the camera are tucked away in the body cavity of the copter.  To get the wires out you need to CUT a tie wrap. The tie wrap is very tight and this is a tricky procedure. The tie wrap holds the wires to a tiny hook that is attached with double sticky tape. We managed to pull off the hook with needle nose pliers and then cut the tie wrap when the bundle of wires was outside the body cavity. Once the wires are loose you need to connect two sets of wires.  It is key to line up connectors so that red wire goes to red wire, black wire goes to black, blue wire goes to blue, white wire goes to white.  Red connector is easier because you can only insert it one way, black connector goes in either direction so take extra care to check wire alignment.

5. The camera holder is made specifically for GoPro.  It is not very flexible accommodating other small cameras.  I don't have a GoPro, but I have several small cameras similar to GoPro. One of them is a few milimiters wider than GoPro and I was able to attach it by slightly angling it. It is not ideal, I wish the mount was adjustable to be more versatile.

6. Documentation refers to downloading an app from the company web site. Safe computing rules - only download Apps from trusted web sites (for Android apps Google Play and Amazon App store).  If an app has no violations the company will make it available in Google play store, if the app did not pass Google checks you don't want it on your phone.  And yes, if you search for "eHang Ghost" you will find the app needed to control this drone.  My video include images of the app looks like in the Google store.

7. Under settings we used this configuration: no protector (even though we are using guard protectors), Gimbal, 3-bladed.

8. Before each flight Ghost compass needs to be calibrated.  This is done by performing figure 8 movement as indicated on the app's screen. You need to make sure that the goes is oriented as shown on the image on the screen. When the calibration is done the text turns green.  How to tell which side of the drone is forward? The head of the drone has "Ghost" text on it.

9.  To fly the drone it should acquire at least 6 satellites.

10.  I like the app that controls the drone.  It  has an intuitive interface and does everything I want.  The main difficulty?  Seeing the screen of the phone in the sun. Of course, this a problem with the phone rather than the drone.

11. The bottom of the screen has 6 icons:
- unlock
- takeoff
- return
- land
- follow
- hover

To start the flight you need to hit "Unlock" and "Takeoff".  In case of emergency hitting "Hover" makes the copter stop moving and hover.  The drone responds to each command precisely.  It begins responding slower as the battery gets close to 30% and we don't fly it on low battery to avoid losing control.  When the drone does a take off it lifts and hovers at 10 meters height.  Return button makes the drone fly back and hover at 10 meters above take off point.

12. The white dotted line in the app shows the flight path taken by Ghosts and a blue line shows directional heading.  The voice prompt announces the battery level, this is very useful to know when to stop flying before the battery gets too low.  We were able to fly the drone for 25 minutes on a single charge before getting close to 30% and noticing slower response to commands.

13. The drone does not have obstacle avoidance built-in. It is up to me, the pilot, to make sure it does not run into trees and other obstacles. Hitting Hover button helps to stop forward progress and gives me time to figure out what to do next.

14. There are several manual controls that can be used only in Hover mode. Micro control (a circle looking control on the bottom right) it allows manual control over the direction of the drone (but not its height).  The front of the Ghost is indicated by red lights, and the rear by blue lights. In the sun, however, the small LED lights are hard to see.  Another way to control the direction is "Yaw" slide bar.  The height can be controlled by the "Elevation" slide bar.

15. "Follow" mode is really fun and it works really well. It is like having a pet bird flying about 10 meters above and slightly behind.

16. Return mode is great! With the other drones we spent half of the time running to pick them up where they landed/fell. Ghost comes back on command.  It comes back on a straight line from where it is to where its original take off point.  If there is a tree on the way it will hit it, so the human pilot has to put the drone into a safe position to execute a return.

17. The drone landings are soft.  Since the camera is the first thing near the ground (after the landing gear) I was a bit worried about it, but so far the worry has been unfounded.

18. What happens if the battery runs out of power? What happens if GPS signal is lost?  What happens of it loses contact with the phone but still has GPS signal?
In the first two cases the Ghost will land automatically.  This is the best it can do in these two situation however if you are flying over water or some location which you cannot reach it could be bad.  If it has GPS but cannot communicate with the app for 5 seconds it will automatically return to the take off point. Very good!

19. Is there anything that I would like to be different? Yes...
- Ghost does not have an on/off button. If you want to stop you need to disconnect the battery.  This puts unnecessary stress on the door (which does not close really well) and the battery connector (relatively delicate wire and connector).
- With our old drones we would recharge them in the car so we can have many flights on the same day.  Ghost drone requires a special charger with AC plug.  To allow recharging in the car we purchased a car plug with AC outlet. It would be nice if that was part of the package.
- As mentioned earlier, the drone came with out documentation.  The package contained a one page flyer with warning which I found more confusing than helpful.
The warning flyer says to assemble propellers and remove propeller guards for some models.   Other parts of the warning flyer said to remove landing gear if you are using propeller guards.  I am flying the drone with propeller guards, landing gear, and a gimbel with a camera. The drone responds well.  Overall, the documentation enclosed in the package definitely needs to be improved.

Bottom line:  Ghost is incredibly responsive and well designed. Perfect? No. But very good and a lot of fun.

Update October 25, 2015

Interesting article on requirements for hobbyist drone owner to register with the Department of Transportation and the FAA. 

You can find it on Amazon by following this link.

Ali Julia review ★★★★★

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