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.
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.