DJI Tello: A great starter drone, but beware of strong winds


Privacy and safety concerns aside, drones are some of the most exciting consumer gadgets on the market today, and DJI is the best-known name in the game. With each iteration the Chinese company’s consumer drones have gotten incrementally better, and easier to fly. From automated flight paths and object-avoiding sensors to improved portability, recent models like the Spark and Mavic Air are some of the most desirable tech money can buy. But, with even the entry-level Spark costing over R7,000, affordability has remained a challenge. Enter the Tello, a sub-R2,000 mini-drone made in conjunction with Ryze and powered by an Intel processor, that’s aimed at beginners with limited budgets, or those who plan to do most of their flying indoors.Unbox and fly

Getting the Tello up in the air is as simple as charging it up, downloading the app, and connecting your smartphone or tablet to it over Wi-Fi. Charging happens courtesy of a microUSB port (sadly, not the more recent USB-C standard) on the side of the drone and takes about an hour, depending on the throughput of the cable/charger you use. Our test Tello arrived partially charged, so we were good to go in 30 minutes.

The free Tello app is available for Android and iOS devices and guides you through the process of connecting your device to the drone (turn on the drone, look for it in Wi-Fi settings, connect, return to app). Once you’re connected you’re presented with the view from the Tello’s front-facing 5MP/720p camera and a selection of on-screen controls.

Tap the take-off/landing button in the top left of the display, drag the slider that pops up in the centre of the screen, and you’re up and away.

Drag to drop

There’s no dedicated, stand-alone controller for the Tello in the box (though it does support some of DJI’s controllers if you happen to have one, or GameSir’s mobile gaming controlles). That means most users will be limited to a smart device and, with that, the limitations of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But more on that later. Controlling the drone is done via on-screen buttons, and couldn’t really be more intuitive.

In the top left of the screen there’s the take-off/landing button, another that resembles the drone that let’s you perform one-touch flips with it, and the settings menu. In the centre there’s connectivity, altitude and speed info, and on the right the option to open the picture and video gallery, switch between stills and video recording, and a shutter button for capturing stills or beginning or ending video recording. There’s no onboard storage or microSD slot on the drone, so pictures and videos are streamed to and stored on your smart device in the Tello app.

Dominating the on-screen controls are two virtual joysticks. The left-hand one controls altitude and rotation of the Tello, while the right-hand one controls the drone’s movements (forwards, backwards, left and right). The controls are quite forgiving in that tapping and holding with a thumb in the general vicinity of the left- or right-hand sides of the screen is enough to take control of the respective joystick. If you’ve ever flown another DJI drone, the controls will be instantly familiar. A stand-alone controller definitely makes for greater precision, but if the Tello came with one it wouldn’t cost R1,800.

Developer’s dream

One of the Tello’s unique features is its ability to work with drag-and-drop, educational programming tool Scratch. Users can drag and drop commands to make the drone climb or descend, rotate, or anything else you can do with the on-screen controls (yip, including the nifty one-touch flips). This makes the Tello ideal for the coding curious, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for using it as an educational tool. To get started, users simply need to download Scratch for Mac or Windows.

Moody app blues

Thanks to the Tello’s tiny dimensions — it weighs a mere 80g and its body is roughly the size of two matchboxes — it seems ideally suited to indoor flying. We managed to get it aloft in a studio at the office in minutes, and were impressed by its ability to hover in place even when we opened the window and let a breeze in. It would drift a little, but considering its only using its downward-facing sensors for orientation (there’s no GPS here), it’s still impressive. We brought it in to land and figured we’d try it again in the driveway at home where we were less likely to bump into a wall… or a colleague.

Arriving home later the same day we at first tried using a Samsung Galaxy S9+ to control the Tello, but kept losing the Wi-Fi connection to the drone. We also couldn’t save the pics taken with the Tello from the app to our phone’s gallery. We then switched to an iPhone X, which seemed to offer a more stable connection (and let us save pics to our camera roll with ease), but no sooner had we gotten the Tello airborne that we started receiving on-screen warnings about Wi-Fi interference, and the Tello would only intermittently respond to our movements of the on-screen joysticks — a recipe for great anxiety. We landed it and decided to try it again in a different location.

Next up we tried flying the Tello in a parking lot, far from any interfering Wi-Fi routers. Here we had none of the problems with interference warnings we’d had at home, but we started getting warning about losing connectivity once the Tello was about 30m from us. According to the box, the Tello should have a range of up to 100m on Wi-Fi in ideal, interference-free locales… so yeah, your mileage may vary — ours certainly did.

We managed around 11 minutes of flight time in our parking lot test, which isn’t too far off the 13 minutes DJI claims, and the downward-facing sensors on the Tello made landing it on our out-stretched hand as easy as the promo materials suggest.

Strike a pose

Unlike higher-end offerings from DJI, there’s no gimbal on the Tello, so its 5MP/720p camera is always looking forward. And the low-res means you’re not going to be shooting any award-winning clips or like-winning Instagram pics with it. The couple of test videos we shot were jerky, soundless affairs that failed to impress, and the lack of dynamic range and poor colour rendition meant stills looked dull and somewhat pixelated. Nonetheless, the camera is good enough for some novelty pics and — assuming you don’t lose connectivity — more than sufficient to see where it is pointing when you’re flying it.

Plus, with a Google Cardboard or similar phone-driven VR headset you can even use it for a first-person view, which is hugely impressive for a drone this small… and this cheap.

DJI claims electronic image stabilisation and a range of built-in, one-touch video-recording modes. We didn’t see any signs of the former in our tests, and we didn’t get to try out the latter because, well, mother nature had other ideas.

Beach, please

Having taken the Tello down to KwaZulu-Natal for a long weekend, it seemed the beach would be a perfectly good place to put it through its paces due to the low likelihood of interference and good visibility. The first day out we headed to Anstey’s Beach near The Bluff in the late afternoon, got the Tello up in the air, and were impressed by its stability given the gentle breeze coming off the water. So far, so not bad.

The next day we flew it around the garden at the AirBnB we’d rented and used it to confuse a couple of curious simian visitors lurking in the trees. After a recuperative charge, we headed back to the beach later the same day. We got the Tello aloft and used it to snap a few stills of the beach. In an attempt to capture a better shot of the sun setting behind us we sent is climbing… and then disaster struck.

The last pic we managed from the Tello

First we lost visuals from the onboard camera, then the controls stopped responding all together. Next we got an on-screen warning telling us connectivity has been lost (no duh), and finally all we could do was watch and weep as a gust of wind carried the Tello out to sea. We kept dragging the onscreen joysticks around hopelessly and tapping the shutter release optimistically, but being so compact it wasn’t long before we lost sight of the Tello completely — we didn’t even get to see it crash into the waves.

Lessons learned

Should we have been flying the Tello on a slightly windy beach just before sunset? Probably not. Should we have expected it to return to the point from which it took off when we lost connectivity? Definitely not. That sort of functionality is — tragically but understandably — limited to DJI’s fancier kit. Do we wish we’d tried the automated video modes and other built-in smarts before we sent the Tello to an untimely burial at sea? You betcha.

Don’t make the same mistakes we did, dear reader. If you do get a Tello, stick to daytime flying in parks, sports fields or the comfort of your own home/garage/office. Do start small and gradually test the range of your Tello based on the specifics of your environment. And don’t expect too much from its dinky camera. In other words, don’t go all Icarus on it like we did.

So long, farewell

If you’re looking to get started in the world of drone flying and don’t want to drop thousands of rand doing so, the Tello is a solid place to start, but be aware of its limitations. At a mere R1,800 it’s incredibly affordable by DJI’s standards, while still managing to pack in some impressive features (though not all of them work quite as well as advertised). Just watch out for those ocean breezes, ‘ya hear? And be warned, it’s gong to make you want something fancier.

Thanks to Navworld for lending us a DJI Tello to review. And apologies to Navworld for losing it to the ocean.

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