The DJI FPV Combo rewrites DJI's rules of engagement in the drone world. To the casual observer, DJI seems to rule the drone world – making many of the best drones for every type of pilot. But there is one niche – piloting through First Person View (FPV) goggles (a bit like Virtual Reality) – which they’ve never been quite at home with. When DJI arrived, with the Phantom series, it seemed to be bringing the ease of use associated with phone apps into the drone market and driving a wedge between photographers and traditional drone pilots more interested in acrobatics and racing.
The other side of that divide were more than happy with DIY, and enjoyed swapping frames, motors, propellors and other components on a regular basis. They also understood that analogue video provided the least latency and crackle-free shareable video could easily be captured with a GoPro.
DJI wasn’t completely put off though; in 2017 it produced great Goggles based on their Ocusync system which produced IMAX-like imagery and, at the speeds of the Mavic it was paired with, the latency wasn’t a problem.
In 2019 DJI produced an HD FPV Goggles and camera pair for the self-build racing community who might have sneered at DJI’s automated flight features but could see the sense in much better FPV video on the drones they built themselves.
In fact, in reality, the racing community stated to divide into those who stuck to the established brands of FPV goggles, like FatSharks, (which, coincidentally, they had already got) and those who could afford the DJI Digital FPV system. Since it was packaged with a new remote control, camera/recorder for the drone and goggles that was understandable; not all FPV racers have unlimited budgets.
What does a DJI FPV system look like?
The one thing which is apparent from the start here is that DJI are sticking to the higher end of the FPV market; similar goggles and camera to their previous high-end low-latency system are joined by a new controller (and an optional motion controller). The new drone is being sold as the DJI FPV Combo - which gets you both the headset, standard controller and the drone, for an RRP of $1299 / £1249 / AU$2,099.
The drone definitely looks like an FPV drone, with rigid tri-blade propellers which project far enough forward that they’ll absorb the brunt of any head-on collision, and a very firm frame equipped with cool multi-colored LED lighting.
Closer inspection, however, reveals some divergence from the typical self-constructed device; there are an array of collision sensors (two forward-facing, two downward-facing, and two infra-red altitude sensing). Together with the main camera lens (which can record at 4K/60fps or 1080p/120fps), mounted on a recessed motorized gimbal, there is no doubting that the designer wanted to give the impression of an insectoid alien.
The vast majority of DIY quad designs are for racing and acro (acrobatics), flight styles which eat through batteries quickly hence the common solution of velcro straps and a simple but reliable plug soldered to the board. The DJI FPV quad has instead made the battery the centre of the fuselage, inserted from behind, so it acts as a kind of back-foot (there are no feet on the back legs). Despite that, DJI have stuck with a fairly old-school plug which feels much more robust that on most flying cameras, though is easy to forget to plug in at the same time as the battery.
Different on the inside, too
It’s clear from the front that we’re looking at something different; the DJI FPV has a pretty loud fan, because recording all the high res video (and avoiding all those collisions) is processor intensive. That’s the big difference; by default the DJI FPV has all the same sensors you’d associate with a flying camera style drone turned on – GPS, altitude, attitude, etc – so that when you power up then let go of the controller the drone will just hover.
That might not sound quite ‘real’ enough to committed FPV enthusiasts, but the hover, return-to-home, and all the other features can be disabled. There is a mode switch with ‘N’ (Normal), S (Fast, but still self-levelling) and M (Custom) and – once you’ve enabled ‘M’ in the menu – then all the options (rates) that are available for setting up a properly aggressive flying style.
The only worry is that the gimbal which keeps the camera smooth (and can be tilted to any angle at will using the wheel on the remote) might mean the drone is a little less impact-resistant than other custom setups and the idea of repairing one of these is definitely less palatable than fixing one component or another on a self-build. With that in mind, I kept the collision sensors on and tried diving at the ground and skimming over it as fast as N then S mode would allow and (though it got close) it didn’t crash. Very impressive.
Getting in the air with DJI FPV
If you’re new to the world of FPV, DJI seem to have gone for an approach which is similar enough to the DIY construction to be familiar without sharing any components. In the pack (with DJI Goggles, the drone and the remote) you also find a charger and batteries for the drone (a whopping 6S, 22V, 2000mAh) and goggles (2S, 9V, 1800Ah). The remote has its own built in. The charger can handle only one 6S battery at a time, with no queuing, though there are two USB-A that link to the USB-C charging sockets for the goggle battery and the controller. Neither should be used while charging.
The goggles’ battery then plugs into the goggles themselves via the same USB-C connector at its end, but a different socket on the goggles themselves; the cable is supplied but it feels an untidy approach. There was nowhere on the head-strap to tuck the battery and while I understand keeping the weight outside the goggles themselves simply letting the cable dangle to my trouser pocket seemed a bit odd.
That said the goggles themselves, though perhaps a bit aggressive looking for my taste, were fantastic offering stunning image quality. The eyepieces can be adjusted horizontally, which was enough for me (though I remember the original DJI Goggles for Mavic Pro could also be adjusted for distance). Using a menu via a screen you’ve just pulled over your eyes takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s made as easy as it can be by the simple combination of a 4-way button and nearby back button. This is only slightly spoiled by the addition of a record button next to them which seems to only add confusion (there is a record button on the controller, or the option to begin recording on both the drone and the goggles automatically at take off).
In terms of picture quality, in my tests, I didn’t see the image drop out once; this was nothing like my previous experience with analogue FPV cameras which are prone to static. Admittedly I didn’t stray too far – UK limits – but then I’m sure no one will be testing the 6km or 10km range and taking advantage of the safety limits which can be set in the menus!
The controller, too, feels perfect in the hand; it’s styling is certainly reminiscent of the PS5 one, though the high grade metal which screws in obviously feels more appropriate than a joypad would! The fold up antenna reveals a good set of shoulder controls; perhaps more than I was able to get used to in a couple of flights worth of testing, but I don’t doubt that in the longer run any options that can be switched here will be seen as a plus.
At first the three different approaches to powering these components seems untidy, but after a while you start to realize that the controller should see you through for your whole time out flying, so an internal battery is both the tidiest solution (it probably helps the weight feels reminiscent of a game controller). The goggles, on the other hand, are powering a screen with a fan (which either coincidentally or by design seems to prevent steaming up), and while it definitely seems to have at least 5 flights of power to hand, could conceivably need replacing during a single outing if you’ve really invested in flight batteries because they, well, they don’t last so long.
DJI Motion Controller
The Motion Controller, an optional extra, allows you to control the drone with a detached joystick which seems like the offspring of a Wii-mote and a flight-sim joystick. The principle is you fly toward a point on your FPV screen (you’re wearing goggles, remember) at a speed determined by the accelerator (front ‘trigger’, gripped by the index finger). If you panic, tap the the big brake button on the top, where your thumb sits, and the drone will stop and hover as fast as it can).
I was initially sceptical, and getting in the air proved surprisingly fiddly (an in-the-field software update was needed), but it is pretty fun and the collision sensors combined with the enforced forward flight mean that it feels sensible and safe. In terms of precision, I didn’t feel it quite matched the sticks, but it’s definitely the best implementation of a wand-like controller I’ve used (sorry PowerEgg 1). It’s great to have the mode switch right there (effect displayed on screen) so you can speed up as you improve, and the tactile design is thoughtful (perhaps better than the goggles!). At $199 / £139 / AU$229 it’s a difficult alternative to an additional battery – which gives you more fun times in the air – and it’s really not one for “traditional” FPV pilots – but it’s certainly enjoyable.
DJI FPV flight characteristics
Actually DJI’s 6S battery lasts over 15 minutes of fairly sedate flight (up to 20 according to DJI); the problem is that the second you floor it the power is available immediately. Just like an electric car, because you can get all the power instantly if you want, you can empty the battery rather fast. Thats where DJI’s modes come in handy; switching down to ‘N’ even if you’ve got used to ‘S’ isn’t the worst idea at times and the drone isn’t slow at the best of times.
If you understand manual rates and PID adjustments then you’ll understand the risks of disabling the automated features, but you might not appreciate how useful they can be. Even the ‘H’ which is reliably automatically projected over your home-site in the goggles can make the world easier to perceive at speed. If the battery is depleted, this is the spot the drone will head back to.
The other thing which can have an impact on your flying experience is what options you choose to view on your head up display, or if you choose to crop or remove lens distortions on your view. Flying forward slowly at the widest view will reveal the tips of the props. When you suddenly speed forward, the powered gimbal (a relatively unusual feature) may tip them out of shot. In either case it’s nice to know these options are available.
DJI FPV camera
Sample footage shot with the DJI FPV Combo
The quality of the piloting camera wasn’t really the main concern for DIY FPV pilots, but here the main 150˚ field of view lens is also serving to capture the footage recorded to the on-board A2 MicroSD Card (an ordinary A1 Class 10 card won’t be considered fast enough by the system). On the plus side you can opt for H.265 so you’re only using a bit over a GB per minute.
This is well worth remembering if you’re delving deep into FPV for the first time since you’ll need to budget for two of these super-fast cards (e.g. this one); one for the aircraft and another for the goggles; only by having both will you be sure to record both the flight as you piloted it and the flight as the drone saw it.
Given the speeds involved, the drone does seem to prefer good light; the 1 / 2.3’ CMOS sensor (1/60-1/8000 equivalent electronic shutter) is adequate for the job but even in daylight when the sun dipped behind a cloud I was aware of noise. The ISO can be pushed up to 12,800 when necessary - but this is a drone that works best in good light.
As mentioned, the front props can make an appearance in the forward view depending on your settings and flying style; the camera is capable of compensating (with reasonable success) for any flicker this causes. In fact the Camera section of the Settings menu area is generously equipped with features like EIS but not overloaded – navigating these menus is not as slick as swiping on a phone, so DJI’s sensible editing is appreciated.
Who is the DJI FPV for?
Probably the most obviously question when you see this device is who is it for? It’s definitely not for anyone under 16 – it’s pretty firm about not being a toy on the box and at 795g it’s well over the 249g threshold even if it didn’t feature a camera. Similarly it can’t really compete on price with other FPV drones, implying that it isn’t for that world – though we shouldn't rule out DJI sponsoring a race and insisting everyone uses their craft. That hasn’t been necessary yet though.
The thing is, a lot of people have either seen or tried FPV through friends, at a meet, or even watched it on TV. There are plenty – with and without prior camera drone experience – who would love to have a go in which they could feel that they weren’t going to crash straight away. There are also probably some specialist videographers looking for something to capture some beautiful slow-mo shots for action sequences which this might manage handily in certain circumstances.
DJI has produced the drone for them and while there are some elements which might be a little more refined about the design for the most part the advantages of ‘big tech’ like collision sensors, intelligent batteries, and relatively straightforward software updates are all arriving in a space which was a little too intimidating for many before.
DJI FPV verdict: The good, the bad, and the ugly?
There are a few quirks about this machine but overall it seems to very successfully bridge a complex electronics hobby arena and the polish expected of consumer electronics. Having failed to crash it during testing (don’t worry, I’ll try again before I send it back) I can only say it feels robust and the design seems to protect the more expensive components behind the more easily replaced ones.
The styling isn’t for everyone, and little things (like connecting the battery) can feel like hard work compared to DJI’s photo drones, but when compared to ‘real’ FPV there are so many more aspects which are easier (push-and-turn props, click-in-place battery) that should be the ground for comparison. Similarly the styling looks good in that context – so long as you keep moving forward!
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