Waterproof 4K drone full Arctic review

In May 2017, Swellpro launched the “World’s first all weather drone” The Splash Drone 3. Boasting a 4K camera and waterproof functionality, this drone was something we had to try out.

The drone is specifically designed to fly and land on or off the water and film both above and below water. Ocean Imaging were among the first to try out this exciting new design and decided to put this drone to the ultimate test…. and take it to the Arctic.

Greenland is an unforgiving environment , so before sailing out to sea, we first experimented with the drone at a nearby glacier. With strong wind conditions the stability of the drone gave a good first impression, holding a steady hover even in gusts. But with highly sensitive controls, maintaining a straight line and performing steady pans was really challenging.

Upon reviewing the footage we noticed that stability issues didn’t end there – something was wrong with the camera. We were experiencing severe distortions in the footage, which we diagnosed as vibration not being absorbed by the gimbal head.  Swellpro advised us to tighten the gimbal screw.  Unfortunately this didn’t solve any of our problems, and with each flight we kept getting the same issue. Eventually we narrowed it down to the gimbal mount itself, which we stabilised using our old faithful – ‘duct tape’ – to build up some extra layers of support.

This is not something we would expect from a drone at a price tag of $1700USD. After building confidence through a number of flights and making some adjustments, we did manage to get some ok shots but our modification to the gimbal still hadn’t completely eliminated the vibration and distortion on all of the footage.

Finally before setting sail we wanted to test out the drone’s low battery procedure. Strangely in the manual, all that’s written is “Drone will commence landing procedure”. What we discovered was that when the drone reaches 14.4 volts, it will start descending where it is, though you can use restricted sideways movements. The explanation in the manual has now been updated to say that the drone will “proceed to auto land at its current location.” But note that there is no warning on the remote – the drone itself has some flashing LED lights, but they won’t be much use if you’re flying in daylight.

We soon learnt to keep a close eye on the voltmeter on the remote control. The volts dropped rapidly from a full charge around 16.6V to 15V within minutes in these cool conditions. We were averaging just 8 minute flights before being restricted to land the drone.

Swellpro assured us that the drone would work well in Arctic conditions. Whilst we had read about GPS deadzones in arctic latitudes we didn’t experience any issues and usually had around 18 satellites for a good GPS fix. In contrast, we knew that the lack of trees or tall buildings should mean a consistent clear path between the drone and remote, but the screen and signal overall on the remote was very disappointing. Even after experimenting with different channel signals, we found the image quality and reliability of the signal poor, and on a couple of occasions the connection to the remote just completely dropped out.

When this happened we had no way of viewing the drones video and we had to pilot the drone back to the boat with just visual sighting or even the return home function.

Another big problem with this drone is the ‘SwellCam” App. It’s difficult to use and once again unreliable, often crashing or taking a long time to load. From here you can change ISO, video format and resolution but once a setting is selected in the app you can’t always be sure that it has translated to a change in the camera. To complicate the issue further, Wifi functionality must be turned off before flying – this means you must set everything and check it twice. Because the remote screen is not of suitable quality to review exposure settings in realtime – at best it was useful for framing – your flight is likely to be wasted and you’ll only find out once your flight is over.

People specifically interested in buying this camera for filming will also be disappointed to find out the “4K” camera only puts out a maximum of 2880 x 2160 pixels at 24fps, there are no manual controls for changing camera settings, the dynamic range is poor and doesn’t perform well at all in low light conditions.

Not to mention the gimbal tilt is off the charts. Calibrating the gimbal takes a little effort and regardless of what we did, the camera will never stay level during pans!

But the main selling point of this drone is of course the fact that it’s waterproof, right? We did land the drone a few times on the water with success and the camera seemed to do a fairly decent job underwater. But just be aware that unlike the splash drone 2, the Splash Drone 3 model cannot right itself if it flips upside down. 

Water drops tended to remain on the lens after the drone had been in the water

As underwater videographers we’re very familiar with the damage that salt water can cause to electrical products and took care to rinse and dry the drone after each flight. But sadly two weeks after returning from filming in the Arctic, the gimbal had seized up and required some force to regain movement.

But strangely enough, the biggest test of my confidence flying this drone didn’t come when I was in the Arctic – but back home.

I wanted to get some more experience landing and taking off from water so I took the drone down to my local flight park which has a small, slowly flowing creek. Moments after rising from the creek, with no apparent warning and without my control, the drone took a sudden dive, crashing into a nearby bush. I initially thought this could be an example of radio interference, but there were no other R/C pilots at the park at that time. I didn’t notice any sign of water inside the drone body after the crash – but as we all know, it takes a surprisingly small amount of liquid to interfere with electronics. Perhaps some of you out there have more experience and could diagnose what happened. Regardless, I couldn’t be confident flying this drone anywhere near people, animals or property, which rules out just about any film job.

We shared all this feedback with Swellpro who offered to repair the drone. After posting the drone for 100 pounds, 2 Weeks later the drone was returned to my address – as it couldn’t be delivered to the address Swellpro gave me.

More emails went back and forth, and a month later we had a new drone from Swellpro. Actually it got delivered to a guy down the road as Swellpro wrote the wrong address, and surprisingly this guy made me go to the local police station to pick it up, The Splash drone saga continues.

This new drone was now equipped with a ‘upgraded’ black version of the camera. With high hopes we continued to test the drone. We wanted this drone to be a success story because it promised everything we wanted in a drone. Stable, 4K filming and waterproof.

While the drone now seemed to fly better than the original version, sadly the camera hadn’t improved. With the orange camera we found that the 2880* resolution produced the best results, Swellpro explained that  “honestly speaking, the current camera performs better at lower resolutions, however, we will release a full 4K camera later”.

I tested the black camera on every video setting possible. The higher frame rates looked average to say the least and sharpness was terrible until I lowered the resolution to 720 pixels which gave the best results.

But before releasing this video, we really wanted to hear what other Swellpro users had to say about their experience with the drone. I mean, maybe it was just us that was having so many problems with the drone?

We surveyed 20 owners of either the Swellpro 3 Auto or Swellpro 3 Fishermen versions. 16 of which were flyers of the Auto with an average of around 15 flights experience with the drone.

Several people’s claimed that people would need extensive experience to properly handle this drone in the air. We found out that we were not the only ones experiencing problems.

Based on our experience and 20 other users, the top 6 reasons not to buy this drone are:

Unreliability. Ultimately the unit is unreliable, regularly dropping signal and connection mid flight. Here’s a some footage of my most recent flight with the drone where it just cut out at 200m away line of sight for about a minute before regaining signal.Poor camera quality. Compared to the Phantom 4 for example, this drone’s camera doesn’t put out high enough quality footage for professional use.

Failsafes. The craft will only return home if the signal goes, not if the battery is at a low level. There is no way for it to return to the controller which is essential for a drone like this that you will most likely would use from a boat and over the sea.

Battery life. Even in warmer conditions, it’s a struggle to get a flight longer than 15 minutes with this drone with most flights being cut closer to ten minutes.

Usability. Changing settings is difficult to say the least. SwellPro app is terrible, unreliable and cumbersome.

Durability. I do credit that we took the drone to Greenland which is a pretty harsh environment, but a seizing up gimbal after just two weeks of use is not a promising sign. Out of the 20 surveyors, people have spent an average of extra ($US) on their drone.

While the thought of a waterproof drone sounds very appealing, this product really performed poorly, especially compared to other similar priced competitors. While being waterproof is a great feature, it’s completely undermined by inconsistent performance and poor image quality. While for now I’d recommend avoiding the Splash Drone 3, rumours are there is a Splash Drone 4 around the corner, or even waterproof models from some of the bigger names – we shall wait and see.

 

Ocean technology for communication

As marine biologists, we love being underwater. But as much as we don’t like to admit it, there are some limitations associated with being underwater. People will often ask me, “How long does a tank last”. A simple answer is “about an hour” but in reality there are many factors will determine how long your standard single scuba tank will last. Two of the biggest aspects determining air consumption are how relaxed you are and how deep you are. However the reality is, eventually you need to come up and change your tank.

Full Face Mask Technology Communication Ocean Imaging

Another limitation underwater is communication. First up you need to be able to get your buddy’s attention. There are various methods for divers to do so such as like tapping a metal object on your tank and once you have their attention, communication is generally limited do a few basic signals. Some experienced dive guides may have a large vocabulary of underwater signals for an impressive range of animals. However, simplicity always works best and nothing beats a simple index finger point in the direction of something of interest. Nevertheless, messages anything more complicated than the basic ‘are you okay?’ hand signal are often misunderstood.

Full Face Mask Technology Communication Ocean Imaging

When it comes to recording data underwater, most scientists will simply use the old fashioned pencil and (waterproof) paper combination. To record detailed information such as fish or coral diversity and abundance, many scientific divers will have a short-hand code as an efficient language for recording of their data. In recent years, photo and video surveying has also been a popular method for recording underwater information. Of course, all of this data still needs to be processed and interpreted. Indeed this is yet another factor limiting the amount of time us scientists are able to spend underwater.

Full Face Mask Technology Communication Ocean Imaging

To assist scientists in recording information and communicating underwater, divers can using Ocean Technology System (OTS) full faced masks. With this setup, the diving regulator is built into the mask which enables divers to talk. Audio is instantly transmitted using an OTS underwater BuddyPhone. Using this setup, divers can communicate seamlessly, even if they are out of sight which increases the safety of the dive. Scientists can record observations and listen back for a detailed analysis of their findings during each dive. Other advantages of this mask for scientific divers is the elimination of jaw fatigue issues and when entering the water while holding camera, transect tape and other scientific equipment, the full face mask is less likely to dislodge from the divers face than a regular mask.

One of the biggest advantages of this system, is the ability to record audio for videos and present findings in real time underwater situations. As an underwater videographer for Ocean Imaging, I have been working with scientists to present research findings in an engaging and digestible format. When a diver speaks to you through your device screen from underwater, there is an instant level of ‘wow value’. This attention grabbing format of delivering messages has proven to be a powerful way to communicate scientific findings. Below is an example of Coral Reef CPR Scientist Georgia Coward using OTS Full Facemark and buddy phone technology to explain the situation of a recent mass bleaching event in The Maldives.

The communication of research is one of the most important components to the the work of scientists. In today’s modern age of global change and global networking, all individuals have a vested interest in keeping in touch with the latest scientific research. Thanks to advances in technology and the internet, people from around the world can also be on the front-line of discovery. Scientists never been so equipped to share their latest findings and reach large audiences right the world.

Recording underwater voice-overs made easy

OTS Mask with Sony Recorder

> Back in 2013 I experimented recording audio transmitted through the OTS Guardian mask + BuddyPhone, directly plugged into a Sony audio recorder.

OTS Mask

The recorder had a lot of controls and settings. Using a trial and error technique, I recorded audio over about 15 individual dives but never managed to come up with audio I quality was happy with. I played around with my audio through some post processing software but after a while the inhale *screech* was just too much to handle and I moved on to other projects.

OTS Mask

>On my latest expedition with The Khaled Bin Sultan’s Living Oceans Foundation
>I decided to search for an easier solution.

>Strapping a BuddyPhone reciever to a GoPro Hero3+ with a few cable ties has given me the simplest and highest quality audio for underwater communications yet.

I took a bunch of cable ties and strapped a GoPro to a Buddy Phone Receiver. Straight away the results were great. In this video the audio is straight off the GoPro with no editing just a bit of music faded underneath. I can highly recommend this method for an easy way to record audio using the OTS mask and BuddyPhone.