I have a confession: I've been having out-of-body experiences. They feel like a video game. I'm a spirit in the sky, watching my flesh-and-bone self shamble about as I float on the breeze. How? Because I've been testing one of the coolest toys ever made: a tiny drone with a pair of wireless video goggles that let you see the world from high above.
What Is It?
A special version of the tiny Blade Nano QX quadcopter that comes with a built-in first-person view (FPV) camera module and video goggles so you can see the world from up above. The $US480 kit comes with everything you need, including all the batteries.
This isn't a new idea. Hobbyists have been building so-called FPV (first-person view) aircraft for years. You can buy all the little cameras and radios and goggles you need to equip a quadcopter with the exact same technology. But Horizon Hobby, the company that built one of our favourite beginner drones, is making it easier than ever before: The new $US480 Blade Nano QX FPV comes ready to fly. No assembly required.
I opened up the cardboard box, with its convenient carrying handle. I charged up two batteries with two included chargers. I shoved four AA cells (also included) into the gamepad-like controller. I slotted the tiny little LiPo battery into the back of the tiny drone, the big LiPo into the fabric band of the headset, and screwed on the goggles' flexible antenna. I plugged everything in and turned everything on in the right order. I removed the tiny lens cap from the tiny camera on the front of the tiny drone and set it on the ground. I pulled down the goggles over my eyes. And then!
I was looking at the world through the eye of a creature with four propellers, standing a mere inch off the ground. A creature that was suddenly lifting straight up into the air like a rocket as I pulled up the left analogue stick. The parking lot and apartment buildings fell away to reveal sky, the horizon, cars zooming along the nearby freeway. Then, remembering myself and realising how scared I was that I might lose this awesome toy if it went out of range, I eased off on the throttle and spun around. I fell a bit, in my haste to come back down. Suddenly, in front of me, there was my house. And another me, my corporeal form, sitting on the ground, head bowed. It was weird as hell.
That was around the time my battery died. But I wanted more.
The experience I just described comes with an awful lot of caveats. For starters, the bundled FatShark Teleporter V4 goggles have a pretty narrow 25-degree field of view. The 320 x 240 microdisplays are fairly low-resolution too. Remember that 32" old-school CRT you used to watch television on in the 90s? It's like looking at the world through one of those, from across a dark room. There's remarkably little lag in the video stream, so the craft feels responsive to control, but there can be a bunch of interference in the 5.8GHz band that manifests itself as static, and if you fly too far away or behind objects, you'll get static that way too.
And though the Nano QX drone is equipped with a decent little camera, it's probably nowhere near as good as you're imagining. It doesn't have a lot of dynamic range, so the sky either gets totally washed out or the ground gets super dim. And it's not wide-angle enough for you to see the arms of the drone itself. That definitely contributes to the out-of-body-experience factor, but makes it a bit difficult to tell how close you are to objects.
One of the coolest things about quadcopters is that you can fly in any direction, not just the direction you're pointing. But the tunnel vision you get with this setup makes me paranoid about strafing around. And in close quarters, just flying around inside my small townhouse, I misgauge the distance to walls and objects all the time. You'd think it'd be easier to fly from a first-person perspective, but I actually crash an awful lot more.
See how effortlessly the Horizon Hobby guys fly around indoors:
I'd need months of practice to do that myself.
Then there's the range issue. Unless you're planning to buy an aftermarket transmitter (which is totally a thing you can do!) you shouldn't expect to fly high in the sky unless you're doing so straight over your head. Or at all, if you're scared. Unlike big, expensive drones like the DJI Phantom, there's no built-in GPS and automatic return-home features on the Nano QX. If it gets out of transmitter range, it will fall right out of the sky and good luck finding it again.
It's also worth noting that the motors and propellers on this craft aren't really designed for altitude or gusts of wind. While it does an admirable job staying steady in a light breeze — way more so than other mini drones — it just doesn't have the oomph to not get blown off course. I nearly lost it twice when using the goggles because I didn't know where it landed, having only my first-person recollections of the landmarks I saw as it fell.
Have I scared you away yet? No? Good, because flying this little drone is an absolute blast. It just makes me want to buy or build an even better one to get past some of these limitations.
Super responsive, surprisingly stable little quadcopter, just like the original Blade Nano QX.
I love walking around while flying the drone behind me. It's like I'm starring in a video game!
Extra batteries are cheap and easy to get. Just $5 a pop.
Doubles as a normal Nano QX: you can remove the entire camera and radio assembly and get your 7-8 minute battery life back if you want.
Expert mode lets you have direct control over the pitch of the craft. Just press in the analogue stick. But be careful!
Super short flight times. Every 3 to 5 minutes, you'll need to swap the battery out. Sure, they're cheap, but you'll want a bunch of them.
Between the battery life and the transmitter range, I get pretty paranoid about flying it more than a couple hundred feet away.
No video recording! I can fly high above the world, but I can't capture any footage? Feels like a missed opportunity.
The camera only faces directly forward. I wish I could aim it down a bit so I could get a better angle on the ground.
You've got to set up the drone just so if you want it to work. It's picky about the order. First turn on the transmitter, then plug in the goggles, then the drone's battery, and finally set the craft on a flat level surface so it can calibrate. If you don't do it in that order, you can get worse range, instability, and/or waste some of that precious battery life before you get into the air.
You can switch to a different radio channel if you're not getting a clear picture right away, but you've got to press a tiny button underneath the drone's canopy. The instructions don't even mention how to do such a thing.
While the video goggles technically do head-tracking (hold down the centre button), the drone's camera doesn't actually move. All you get is a totally useless zoomed-in view that pans around.
It's a little fragile. I broke the tiny little plastic cage that holds the camera in place, and now the view isn't quite centred. I've also broken entire arms off my original Nano QX. It's easy to get replacement parts, though.
Gosh, I just wish it had a wider field of view.
Should You Buy It?
Do you have $US500 burning a hole in your pocket to spend on the coolest tech toy you can find? Then yes. Do it. You'll thank me later. It's the perfect gadget for impressing friends and relatives and strangers and little kids running around the park. I love putting the goggles on their face and flying it around myself while they experience the world from above.
But if you've never flown a drone before, this one isn't any easier just because you can see through its eyes. It's actually a bit harder! So I'd probably recommend you pick one of the way cheaper, easier drones we recommend for beginners before you risk throwing your $US500 into the waiting arms of a tree. (The tree won't thank you for the meal.) Or at the very least, I'd recommend you fly it for a while without goggles so you can get the hang of things.
And if if you're truly serious about first-person flying, you could always build your own. The Nano QX FPV might seem pretty compelling for being something you can just go out there and buy and fly and enjoy the out-of-body-experience without a lot of work, and I'm hoping other manufacturers follow Horizon Hobby's lead there. But now I'm pretty tempted to see what I can build with my own two hands.