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This Drone-On-a-Leash Looks Perfect for First-Time Flyers

3 minute read

Camera-carrying drones are among this year’s hottest holiday gifts, with models like DJI’s Phantom series flying off store shelves. But drones can be expensive, cumbersome and tough to learn to fly. A Swiss company called Fotokite aims to address those concerns with its new Fotokite Phi, a $249 foldable drone with a unique twist: Instead of flying freely, it stays tethered to a handheld controller.

Launching the drone involves taking it out of a Pringles can-like case, unfolding the wings, syncing the controller and giving the Phi a twist. After a few seconds of orienting itself, the Phi revs up to takeoff speed, at which point you release your grip on the drone as it takes to the sky.

Similar to flying a kite, the Phi’s altitude depends on how much line you give it. Should the Phi’s battery run low or the tether be somehow cut, it will smoothly auto-descend for a landing—though you’re out of luck if you were flying over water or off a cliff’s edge.

The Phi’s controller is unlike any input mechanism you’ve likely used before. It resembles and works like a contractor’s measuring tape. You press and hold a lever to give and retract the line. Holding one of two buttons, yaw or “orbit,” while turning your wrist commands the drone into various maneuvers. Getting used to the controller took me about five minutes, though it’s nowhere near as precise as, say, a DJI controller. A second flight mode, “follow me,” is meant to keep the Phi’s gaze on users as they hike up a mountain or ski down a slope, but this was tough to properly test inside the office where I took it for a spin.

These Are Some of the Best Drone Photos in the World

"...after the drone came out from the clouds the view was spectacular and got me completely astonished and, without breathing, I had the time to take some shots before the sun went down and the cloud got higher hiding everything."Francesco Cattuto. Courtesy of Dronestagram
Beach Camel Caravan
2nd Place—Travel "This image was captured while honeymooning at Cable Beach, Western Australia. We rented a 4WD and drove 8,000 klms around outback Australia. I like the 100% vertical downward point of view that is so well captured by camera equipped quadcopters."Todd Kennedy. Courtesy of Dronestagram
3rd Place—Travel "I was on a road trip in Gran Canaria Island in Spain where I captured some aerial shots of one of the most amazing beaches in the world - Playa de Amadores."Karolis Janulis. Courtesy of Dronestagram
Pine tres
1st Place—Nature "I had been spending hours on Google maps, in satellite mode, trying to locate interesting patterns and places. I all ready had a pretty good idea about what I should expect when I arrived at the location. To my luck it had snowed all day so that the pine wood really stood out."Michael B. Rasmussen. Courtesy of Dronestagram
2nd Place—Nature "We wanted to present the traditional Romania in its full beauty. We were travelling by car and suddenly along the road from the distance I've spotted the sheep herd. 99% of the time I'm travelling with my drone."Szabolcs Ignacz. Courtesy of Dronestagram
3rd Place—Nature "This picture was very difficult to catch because off ascending hot-air and 50Km/h wind. There was also sulfur next to the volcano so I need to have a mask while piloting."Jonathan Payet. Courtesy of Dronestagram
1st Place—Sports "We hiked for miles looking for the perfect line, and then spotting this amazing crack that was about 400 feet off the ground. Using the drone, I was able to capture images that would have never been possible before!"Max Seigal. Courtesy of Dronestagram
2nd Place—Sports "I work as a photojournalist in the local newspaper, La Opinión, and I was assigned the task of taking a picture of the swimming competitions , which were held in the city , but instead of taking the same photo as always, it occurred to me to fly my drone to try to achieve something different, the result, an overhead photo of athletes warming up to begin the competitions."Juan Pablo Bayona. Courtesy of Dronestagram
3rd Place—Sports "picture was taken in the Chugach Mountain Range outside of Cordova Alaska. Its subject is my friend and guide Jason Bilek Opening up some turns on a giant mountain face we called Buzzy's. Its about 45-50 degrees and a very fun run. My fingers always get cold while I fly up there but the results are ALWAYS worth it."Tj Balon. Courtesy of Dronestagram

The Phi appears a steal at $249, though any first version of a product is bound to have its kinks. And unlike more expensive drones, it doesn’t include an onboard camera, instead relying on a GoPro for recording photos and videos—so if you don’t have one, you’ll need to factor one into your buying decision. It’s currently compatible with the GoPro Hero3, 3+ and 4, with promised future support for the new diminutive Hero5 Session, my favorite action camera on the market today.

Hardcore drone enthusiasts might scoff at the Fotokite Phi, which is the aerial photography equivalent of bowling with the bumpers up. But the lightweight (14 ounces), portable and easy-to-fly Phi looks to be a solid choice for anybody who wants to get started with aerial photography and videography without sinking hundreds of dollars into a full-size drone. (The best entry-level, full-blown drone currently available, the DJI Phantom 3 Standard, can be had for around $400 with holiday discounts.) If you’ve already got a GoPro compatible with the Fotokite Phi, it could be a great way to get that camera into the skies for shots that even the best selfie stick can’t manage. Look for our full hands-on in the future.

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