After much thought and deliberation, driven by failure with alternative ideas, I finally succumbed to buying a drone (something I had been thinking about for a while). With the recent release of the DJI Mavic Air drone, which has received many accolades, I was about to put down some hard cash ($1300 worth) on one of these drones, when I had a return to sensibility. Not having ever owned a drone, I realised that spending that much on my first drone was kind of silly given the chances of crashes and the like. Even though the Mavic Air has all manner of built-in crash avoidance technology, nothing is infallible, least of all me. So I opted for something cheaper, ten times cheaper, and bought an MJX Bugs 3 drone for $130.
The MJX is certainly not comparable to the DJI, other than that both are drones. But after reviewing a number of YouTube videos on the former, it came across as a very good drone for someone starting out. It’s not as small as the DJI, it doesn’t fold into a small package like the DJI, it doesn’t have all the technology of the DJI, it doesn’t have mobile phone connectivity like the DJI, nor does it have a built in camera on a gimbal like the DJI. But it does come with a static action cam mount (not a gimbal) and, as I have an action cam, I could put that to good use with the drone. That doesn’t mean that the MJX is just a toy, the MJX is what is called a ‘hobby’ drone, much like the DJI, and overall it’s much better than one would expect. I have to say that I’m amazed at what you can now get for $130. Not so many years ago, $130 would have bought you a crappy little toy that would fall apart in no time at all and not do much of anything but fly short distances.
Now I’m not going to go into all the specifications and details of this drone, as there are any number of videos and written reviews available that go into the specs in far better detail and quality than I can do or can be bothered to do. What I am going to do is provide more of a newbie’s point of view of drone operation and also how I find it working for its intended purpose. I bought it mainly to produce video on our Cruises so that I can provide a slightly different perspective to ground based video. Eventually, if I really do find the drone useful and it becomes a practical tool, then I’ll consider a better drone. Also, getting a simple drone like this should train me to be a much better drone operator if/when I consider something more sophisticated.
The first task with any new electronic product is charging the battery and the battery charger that comes with the MJX is the smallest one that I’ve ever seen and operates via USB. I wanted full charge with the battery before I did anything and the instruction manual said that the drone battery would take around five hours to charge, however, it took only about an hour given what I suppose was an initial charge provided in the battery. But after some use, it subsequently took much longer to charge. One good thing about the battery for MJX is that these are readily available on eBay for around $20 (I ordered a spare), much cheaper than any battery for one of my cameras and also far cheaper than ones for say the Mavic Air, which costs in the order of $139 each. I also ordered a SkyRC iMax B6 charger (a genuine one after much searching) for proper charging/discharging of the batteries, as well as a Li-Po battery safety charging/storage bag, given the potential issues with Li-Po batteries.
So once everything was put together and batteries charged, it was time to test things out. Sadly, if there’s one thing common to just about every Chinese product it’s the woeful instruction manual. The MJX manual wasn’t too bad but had a couple of glaring deficiencies. After following the instructions on how to tun on the remote controller and then sync the controller to the drone, I was left hanging as to how to turn on the drone and get the propellers working. The manual instructed you to ‘turn on the aircraft’ and to then ‘unlock the aircraft’? But nothing worked. So I turned to Google and found a forum where lay the simple answer. Once the first part was done, simply hold the left joystick (throttle) fully down and press the red button. Voila! Holding the throttle down is a safety factor when starting the rotors.
The first thing I obviously had to do was learn how to control the drone. Supposedly quadcopters are easier to learn and operate than say a model plane and especially a model helicopter, which is apparently as difficult, if not more so, than an actual helicopter. After a brief test confirming that everything worked, it was obvious that the MJX wanted to veer off when in hover mode, so fine tuning was in order. Luckily, we have a few places nearby where there’s ample open space to fly a drone and which are away from the general public most of the time. The first is Mossvale Park and the second is an open logging area that I featured in the video below, which is just around the corner from home and is slightly safer, as it’s less likely that there would be anyone around most times.
However, on my first foray to the logging area to learn how to operate and tune the controls of the drone, it turned out to be a very windy day and that ensured many crashes as the drone went off on its merry way, refusing to obey my confused control signals. So I packed up to wait for a more settled day. Though one thing that I did find out was that the MJX was very tough, as after numerous crashes and even when upside down with propellers whirring away, no damage was done. The drone lived to fly another day. Back home I decided to calibrate the controller in case it was out of whack and, once again, found the manual to be severely wanting. Thankfully, Google came up with an easy to understand guide as to how the controller is calibrated (one of the most sensibly presented guides).
The next day I tried again and this time the weather was much more forgiving, being quite still. On my second try I managed to have far more control over the drone, though at first I crashed it and flew it into trees and bushes several times (I really need a tree free area). I thought at one point I’d wrecked one of the motors as three were spinning and one was not. After I stopped the engines and restarted, all worked perfectly and so I’m completely gobsmacked at the robustness of the MJX. A couple of times the blades were tangled in branches and long grass while still trying to turn, yet they came out fighting. I think I managed to get the drone out of sports mode (though not sure), which may have helped immensely, such that I was able to have reasonable control over the MJX (a simple sports/granny mode switch would have been a lot better).
On day three, things went a lot smoother. After watching some videos, I discovered that the best way to learn drone control was to face the drone away from you, I guess a bit like operating a remote controlled car, so that the flight direction of the drone was less confusing. After just three days, or more accurately about 20 or so minutes, I was getting a much better handle on the MJX. It still wasn’t smooth and under precise control, but at least on day three I didn’t crash for once. I suspect that anyone who has spent a long time playing computer games like on an X Box would take to drone control a lot more intuitively. This bit of video shows that my control of the MJX is still quite jerky as I’m trying to get used to the very sensitive controls. In a way I’m glad that I don’t have direct video feedback to the controller as that would just add a distraction and I need to keep my eyes on the MJX every second.
So things were looking good and in Part 2 I’ll go into some more trials and tribulations that I’ve encountered during my learning curve. Finally, I urge all drone operators to become familiar with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulations regarding the use and operation of drones. The rules might seem somewhat restrictive to many users, but rules are rules and if people don’t follow them, it’s likely that things could become even more restrictive for drone ownership and for flying to become even more problematic.