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Drone Diary: The DJI Mavic Pro flies autonomously using the Litchi app
Flying a drone manually is fun, but there are some manoeuvres that are virtually impossible to fly smoothly. Circling an object or person, for example. You'd need to constantly change the balance of forward/backward and left/right inputs to fly the circle in the first place, then simultaneously keep rotating the camera by just the right amount to keep it pointed at the centre of the circle. Anyone who can do that perfectly is either a drone genius or has way more than the usual number of hands.
The DJI Go app offers a range of intelligent flight modes – aka autonomous flying. But a third-party app, Litchi, goes even further: it allows you to program your flight path in Google Earth before you even leave home. As soon as you arrive on site, just load the pre-programmed flight and hit Start.
I decided to give it a go with my ultraportable done, the DJI Mavic Pro …
The Litchi app offers five autonomous flying modes, four of which are aimed at video, so let's start with a quick summary of each.
Orbit is the first one you see in the video below. You define a point (by default, the take-off point), and the drone will automatically fly in a circle around it, keeping the camera pointed towards the centre at all times. You can set the altitude, radius, speed, direction (clockwise or anti-clockwise) and a few other variables, and the app does the rest.
Track is also seen in the video. You draw a rectangle around a person or vehicle, and the drone will then follow the subject around, keeping the camera pointing toward them.
Focus is similar, but this time the drone lets you fly it manually while the app keeps the camera pointed at the subject. If you leave the drone hovering, Litchi will simply turn it to keep the camera on the subject.
Waypoint is the most sophisticated mode of all. Here, you can program the drone to fly a complete ‘mission' – flying to a series of pre-selected points, and carrying out pre-programmed actions at each one. For example, you could tell it to fly around the irregular-shaped perimeter of your land, keeping the camera pointed at your house, starting video recording at the first point and stopping it at the last. Or you could instruct it to fly to say six different places, to point the camera at a different thing at each one, and take a photo of each.
There's also a Pano mode to automatically take panoramic photos. Finally, if you use a virtual reality headset, there's an FPV mode to provide you with a mock 3D first-person view.
One mode Litchi doesn't offer in the iOS version is Follow-me – which follows the GPS location of a smartphone or tablet. This doesn't need to be the one controlling the app, you can instead use a separate Litchi Magic Leash app and it will then follow someone else's phone. This is currently an Android-only feature, but will hopefully come to the iOS version soon.