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Camera options for your average consumer drone are limited to either a mount for a GoPro or similar camera or a built-in camera that is permanently attached to the drone. The former is fine, though it may or may not give you a first-person view (FPV) from the air and it's one more thing to keep charged (and you'll have to figure in the extra cost of the camera). The latter, however, means you've got no upgrade path should a better camera come along, and it can only be used with the drone.
Yuneec's Typhoon Q500 4K is not your average drone. Slung from the belly of the $1,300 quadcopter (£960 AU$2,200) is a 4K-resolution camera combined with a three-axis antivibration gimbal. When not in the air, the camera-and-gimbal system can be quickly removed and attached to the included SteadyGrip, a battery-powered handheld mount that lets you use the Typhoon's camera on the ground. Combined with an iPhone or Android smartphone, you can shoot completely control the camera and see what you're shooting. (Yuneec makes an updated and improved version of the SteadyGrip called ActionCam with a built-in rechargeable battery and the Q500 4K's CGO3 camera.)
The DJI Inspire 1 series takes a similar approach, but it's targeted at professionals and starts at about $2,700 for the drone and the handheld camera mount is an additional $270. The Typhoon Q500 4K is a better option for beginners, giving you an aerial and ground imaging solution that, while maybe not as feature-filled as some competing models, does what it does very well.
The Q500 4K is big. Not like "How does that thing get off the ground?" big, but next to the relatively compact DJI Phantom 3, it's big. (The diagonal motor-to-motor measurement is 390mm for the Phantom compared to the Typhoon's 510mm.) The size does make it easier to spot in the sky from a distance, but you're not sliding the Q500 4K easily into a backpack for a trip to the park.
Instead Yuneec packs everything into a large, sturdy case. Along with the drone and its camera you'll find two batteries and a charger; two sets of propellers; the ST10+ controller, a neck strap and sunshield; a cable to use the charger in a car; and the SteadyGrip handheld mount. Unfortunately, Yuneec used Styrofoam inside the case instead of something a bit more long-lasting.
The Styrofoam is representative of the design and build quality on the whole: it's a good package overall, but lacks some polish. The black-and-gray plastic body looks nice, but pick it up and it feels a little flimsy. It's great that the camera can be removed, but to do it you have to keep plugging and unplugging this small cable and pushing in a plastic tab, both of which I feel might not last with frequent use. Nothing that's a deal breaker, but a little disappointing.
The controller for me is definitely a plus, though. Instead of relying on a tablet or smartphone for a live view from the camera as well as flight information, the ST10+ has a built-in 5.5-inch touchscreen display built right in. There's a bit of lag between the camera and screen, so I wouldn't recommend flying by FPV alone, but for setting up shots and giving you telemetry data at a glance it's great. It also means you only have to worry about having the controller charged, not a second device.
Having the fixed screen does mean you can't go with a larger tablet display, but since the drone doesn't support waypoint navigation -- where a larger screen to set up an autonomous flight path comes in handy -- and FPV flying isn't a great idea, it's not a big loss.
The controller also has buttons for starting and stopping video recording and snapping photos and sliders for setting the camera angle and limiting overall climb/descend and directional speed. A switch lets you move between flight modes: Smart, Angle and Home.
Smart mode is made for beginners. In addition to enabling a virtual barrier called a geofence to prevent it from flying more than 300 feet away from the pilot, the controller will always move the Q500 4K in the direction the right-hand control stick is pushed relative to the pilot and no matter which way the nose is pointed. It's fine if you've never flown before and you use it just to get a feel for how the quadcopter will fly, but I don't recommend using it much beyond that.
However, Smart mode is the only way you can use two of the drone's main attractions: Follow Me and Watch Me modes. With Follow Me, the drone uses a GPS signal from controller to follow whoever or whatever is carrying it. Watch Me mode works similarly, but keeps the controller -- or whoever's holding it -- framed in the camera no matter where and how it moves and the camera can automatically tilt according to the controller.
Carrying around a big controller doesn't make for the best video, though, so Yuneec developed the Wizard remote control. It's about the size of a TV remote, but can completely control the drone with simple gestures and a directional pad. It also has GPS in it, so it can be used with the Q500 4K's Follow Me and Watch Me functions.
If you want to actually pilot the Q500 4K normally, just switch into Angle mode. This will move the drone in the direction the control stick is pushed relative to the nose of the aircraft. As long as you've got a lock on six or more GPS satellites, the Q500 4K will automatically hold its position and hover in place when the right-hand stick is centered.
The Home mode is the drone's return-to-home safety feature. Flip the switch down and as long as the drone has a solid GPS lock and there are no obstacles in the way, it will fly back to within 13 to 26 feet (4-8 meters) of the pilot and automatically land.
Setting up the Typhoon Q500 4K for flight is about as simple as it gets. Spin on the props, charge up the batteries for the drone and controller and you're done. The controller, which is running on Android, takes a minute to boot up and then, once you've turned the drone on, it takes another minute for the two to finish connecting. GPS satellite acquisition -- required for hovering in place and return-to-home among other things -- takes a little more time. All told, it took me about 3 to 5 minutes until it was ready to fly, basically depending on how fast I could lock onto more than six satellites.
There is no automatic takeoff, but the procedure is simple enough: Press and hold a button on the controller to set the motors spinning and press up on the left stick. There is also no automatic landing, though you can just switch to Home mode and it will land for you. Honestly, other than bouncing a bit when it's close to the ground, the Q500 4K is stable enough for beginners to take off and land without issue.
As long as it's locked onto plenty of satellites, flying is easy. It's not particularly zippy, but that's kind of a plus when you're learning to fly for smooth camera movements. It is remarkably quiet, too. Yes, you'll still hear it, but it's more like the sound of a fast-spinning fan than an electric leaf blower.
I occasionally experienced some erratic flight behavior, but calibrating the drone's compass seemed to straighten it out. The procedure isn't difficult, though the drone's size makes it awkward since it involves turning and rotating the copter several times. Also a recent firmware update improved performance all around. (That procedure requires little more than connecting the Q500 4K to a computer via USB.)
All in all, flying the Typhoon is a pleasurable experience. Flight times for me averaged around 20 minutes before the controller started warning me to land, which is typical battery life at the moment for this category. Perhaps because of its larger size, it moved smoothly and while there is some lag between the camera and the what's displayed screen, the controls were responsive.
Yuneec gives you several resolutions to choose from for video, the highest being 4K Ultra HD (3,840x2,160 pixels) at 30 frames per second, but also does high-speed video in full HD (1,920x1,080 pixel) at 120fps for slow-motion. It records at a high bitrate of 50Mbps, and it shows in the details. Subjects look sharp (maybe a little too sharp), though on my camera subjects on the far left side appear softer.
The three-axis gimbal does a fine job of keeping the camera stable, so even if you're not making steady moves with the drone it won't show in your clips. You'll still see some of the effects of rolling shutter, but that's typical for the category. The video is best viewed at small sizes in general, so if your goal is to share your videos online and watch them on a phone or tablet, the Q500 4K's camera will yield some excellent clips.
Thanks to some useful accessories and a solid feature set, the smooth-flying, easy-to-use Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4K quadcopter is a compelling package for video and photos in the sky or on the ground. The design is a little rough around the edges, and if you want autonomous flight features like waypoint navigation, you're out of luck. Otherwise, this is one nice drone for the money.