The flyaway and fresh air: a tale of two drones

I suppose it was inevitable. A couple of weeks ago, on a day which saw me ordering replacement lawnmower and microwave oven, my Parrot Anafi drone flew away and stoofed into the long grass in a remote field. It took me a while scurrying about steep hillsides to locate the damaged drone. Although it had escaped largely unscathed, its camera gimbal wasn’t the same shape as intended, and the Anafi now waits for time to assess it fully and work out how to repair it.

What had happened seems not uncommon. As I’d become increasingly confident flying, my long pauses to work out what to do next had shrunk. It had taken off before it had time to acquire a good GPS fix and flew quickly away descending to the foot of a high chalk escarpment. Its Wi-Fi signal had grown from mediocre to worse, then dropped altogether as it was descending over that remote and deserted field. Instead of it stopping and performing a return-to-home manoeuvre it plunged into the long grass.

With the wisdom of hindsight and reading what had happened to others, I realised that I should have left it longer after powering the drone up to let it acquire a better fix, and flown more slowly down into what I’ve nicknamed Flyaway Alley. Even so, it seems prone to Wi-Fi signal loss in hilly locations.

I had already been looking at buying a second drone, as a result of the fun I’ve been having flying the Anafi. I wasn’t sure whether to add an infra-red camera (I’ve worked with them for the last 35 years), or to jump ship for one of the larger DJI models. With the Anafi grounded for the time being, my wife generously offered me an early birthday present, as long as I chose and paid for it myself.

I added a DJI Air 2S to the terrifying list of purchases. The Air 2 models are in DJI’s highly rated Mavic series, and I’d just read a gushing review of the slightly older and cheaper Air 2; at the time, the 2S was so new that its first reviews had only just started to appear. A glance through them and all willpower and critical thought had gone: I wanted one.

I chose the Fly More Combo to give me a total of three batteries, carrying bag, and all the accessories I’m likely to need for the time being. These include a set of neutral density filters for its camera, demonstrating how thoroughly thought-out this kit is.

The Air 2S is a great contrast to my Anafi. Made predominantly of lightweight metal alloy rather than plastics, it’s far bigger, heavier and even more exhilarating to fly. With a top speed just over 40 miles per hour (nearly 70 kph) and the ability to spin through a 360˚ turn in just a few seconds, it’s not a good choice for the complete novice. Its default 4K Ultra HD video is simply gorgeous, and it can shoot 5.4K when you want on its one inch 20 MP CMOS sensor. I’m hooked.

For its first flight, I went to slightly less-demanding terrain on the Downs near here. It was an extraordinary experience – the Anafi on a whole month’s worth of steroids. Push the right stick forward and the Air 2S shoots across the terrain; anything more than a gentle nudge to the side on the left stick and it has spun full circle before you know it.

Just as the Anafi has a great deal of ease and convenience, the Air 2S has performance and sophistication. I never worked out how to take off and land manually with the Anafi; although DJI provides automatic features if you want them, it’s easier and more fun to do both manually. When nearby, the lights on each of the Air’s propellor arms are excellent visual aids, telling you which way it’s heading in flight. Being that much bigger than the Anafi, it’s easier to see against a background of fields and trees even when too far to distinguish those lights.

To give you an idea of what its camera can achieve, here’s a half-sized image taken from a still of its 4K Ultra HD video (above), and a very short dronie reduced to 1080p. Both are shown without any adjustments, as downloaded from the Air 2S.

My one continuing disappointment is the difficulty in obtaining in-flight data from these drones. To investigate what went wrong with my last Anafi flight, I was reduced to browsing its raw JSON log. Although the Air 2S should deliver log details through its Assistant 2 app, each time I’ve tried to obtain these, the app worryingly tells me that none are available. At least these drones are more reliable than the software which supports them.

I’m now on a final warning. Any more crashes, my wife says, and it’s back to boomerangs.