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For most DJI drone pilots, the standard app for flight control and mission planning is the DJI GO 4 app. But many, like me until recently, don’t even know there are other options out there when it comes to apps that will help you get the best flight and photography results out of their DJI drone.
**Best Value for Money: DJI GO 4 is free, and can do all the basic things you need it to do. **
Most Popular: Litchi is fairly easy to learn, and offers more features and control.
Best Flexibility: Autopilot offers the most room for customization and creativity in camera shots.
If you want to venture past fairly basic autonomous flight control settings, you definitely need to go for one of the third party apps like Litchi or Autopilot. Even though they come at a (relatively modest) cost, their capacity for advanced flight and mission planning functions will get you far superior results. For Litchi and especially for Autopilot there’s a learning curve to make full use of their functionality, but well worth the time it takes to learn how to use them.
Which App is Best for You? #
When it comes to flying your DJI drone, you may not have known there was any other option for flight controls than the standard DJI GO 4 flight app (or the DJI FLY app for the Mavic Mini, the Mini 2 or the Mavic Air 2). Why in the world would you need to have another app to be able to fly your drone? If you want smoother video shots, or more advanced autonomous flight planning, for one thing.
DJI FLY is basically a simplified version of the DJI GO 4 app, aimed at beginning users. Some good functionality, but more limited in what you can do. The DJI GO 4 is a really good place to start, with some nice intelligent flight modes that can get you some good basic angles and shots. But pretty soon you start to hit the ceiling in terms of the quality of shots you can get.
That’s where a more advanced autonomous flight control app comes in. Some purists will insist that as a drone photographer you absolutely need to master the flight controls and get all the shots smooth and flawless by manual control. But in reality, no human hand is going to be able to have the steadiness and precision that an algorithm can produce. That’s why we invented these machines in the first place.
There are actually quite a number of apps that can be used to control your drone in flight, but this time around we’re just going to compare three: DJI GO 4, Litchi and Autopilot. Perhaps we’ll get to more next time around. An overview is always a good place to start, so here’s a side-by-side comparison of some of the aspects of each of these autonomous flight apps, then we’ll get into more specifics.
Flight App Score Card
Ease of Use
DJI GO 4
$22.99 (iOS)$24.99 (Android)
Let’s break it down a bit and look at each one of these in depth. Each has its pros and cons, so in all fairness we need to consider each app and who it might be the best fit for, and which scenarios it will be most useful for.
DJI GO 4 App #
The DJI GO 4 app wins out on the best value for money consideration, because who doesn’t love free? In most cases, the DJI GO 4 app will be your default app for drone flight controls, but even if you end up using another app for planning and controlling your flights, the DJI GO 4 app will in all likelihood still be your home base for adjusting default settings.
In order to have a baseline for comparison between the function of the three flight control apps in question, I’m going to look at the use of a similar feature available with each of the three apps – a waypoint flight mission going around a point of interest. For each app we’ll consider how well they do at getting a smooth, stable video, and how easy it is to set up the mission. Then I’ll also compare some of the other features each app offers.
In this scenario of getting video imagery of a scene using waypoints, the DJI GO 4 app is able to perform relatively well in following the set points along the path, but the camera control is left to manual, which makes it hard to achieve a smooth yaw and gimbal tip while passing a point of interest.
The GO 4 app also has a Point of Interest feature that does a much better job at getting smooth footage while orbiting a defined center point, but lacks the ability to travel around a more complex predetermined course. Overall, the GO 4 app provides some options to give you fairly smooth, stable video shots, but they’re not going to be overly complex or customizable.
Ease of Use #
Designed to be user friendly, and made with relative beginners in mind, the DJI GO 4 app is also a category winner in ease of use. The first login even with this app can be initially daunting with lots of labels and buttons to sort through, but it’s intuitive enough that just clicking around on all the tabs and exploring for a bit will give you a fair level of confidence to be able to use the app quite effectively in short order.
The intelligent flight modes especially make it pretty easy to get some good quality, smooth shots without a whole lot of hassle. Camera settings and default settings are easy to adjust here as well.
The features of the DJI GO 4 app as a flight control app are really pretty limited to the intelligent flight modes, which, handy as they are, don’t go very far toward getting really advanced flight features. The flight features include: Hyperlapse, Quickshot, Active Track, Point of Interest, Waypoints, Tapfly, and Cinematic Mode. If what you want to achieve fits into one of these features, great, but for more sophisticated maneuvers, you’re left wanting more from your flight control app.
Who is it best for? #
The DJI GO app is a perfect fit for relative beginners, or for recreational drone pilots that want to get some decent aerial photo and video without having to put in much time and effort to learn a more complicated system for flight controls. It’s also perfect for those who don’t want to have to put up any more money to buy one more thing for this hobby that can be a bit of a cash drain.
If you’re looking for a flight control app that provides a little bit more customizability and advanced control options, Litchi is one of the most popular options available. It functions much like the DJI GO 4 app, but with some key upgraded features – more on those in a minute.
In a side-by-side comparison test of the image stability of a waypoint mission, Litchi performs a bit better. For one thing, it has the ability to automatically calculate and adjust the gimbal pitch for a point of interest along the path of the waypoint mission, which achieves a much smoother end result. Previous versions seemed to have more of an issue with producing a reliably stable flight and image quality, but the most recent version seems to have mostly resolved the issue.
Ease of Use #
While Litchi has a little bit more of a learning curve than the DJI GO 4 app, it’s really fairly straightforward and easy to navigate once you get into it. One really nice aspect of the Litchi app is that they have a desktop program where you can go in and plan your mission, save it, and then access it from your mobile app. If you’re frustrated or befuddled by trying to fiddle with little buttons on a screen, this is a really nice alternative. On the desktop software, you can also view and use the details of saved missions from other users, along with flight videos that have been uploaded.
As far as the app itself goes, it’s fairly intuitive to plan a mission, but there is a little bit more complexity in function, making it slightly less user friendly, at least for a novice. But what you are able to achieve is also more complex and sophisticated, so that makes it worth the extra effort in my opinion. Helpful though, is the ability to record your screen during mission planning and flights, and I find this helpful to learn from your mistakes as you go along.
Litchi offers five intelligent flight modes. The most essential one for video missions is Waypoints, which allows you to set an irregular flight path, and select various points of interest along the way. The best gimbal angle for each point of interest along the way is interpolated automatically, or you can have the option to manually override controls during the flight. Other intelligent flight modes for video shots include Orbit, Track, and Focus. One mode for still photos, Pano, delivers excellent results for panoramas.
One thing that’s a bit different about Litchi is that the pre-planned missions are saved to the system memory and run from memory, rather than through a real time communication from the controller. One major implication of this is that if you’re running a Litchi waypoints mission and lose connectivity with your controller, the mission will continue on to its conclusion, which if your final waypoint was near the starting point, will hopefully bring it back in range of the controller.
Who is it best for? #
Litchi is a great option for serious amateurs or professional photographers who want to be able to have an added level of control in planning flights. The cost is not bank-breaking at $22.99 for iOS or $24.99 for Android devices, but high enough to make you think twice if it’s not something you’re going to be using regularly. If you just want some cool aerial shots once in a while, the DJI GO 4 app is probably sufficient, but if this is what you do for a living, taking to the next level with Litchi is a no-brainer.
Autopilot is another popular alternative to DJI GO 4 for those who want an added level of control in their flight planning and ability to get smooth video imagery. It doesn’t have quite as much market share as Litchi, probably due to its relative complexity, but it offers an even greater level of customizable control and advanced functionality.
Compared to either DJI GO 4 or Litchi, Autopilot offers greater stability and reliability, both in the performance of the app, and the video and photo that you are able to capture. In a waypoints mission, the smoothness of the camera shot is unbeatable, with a ton of adjustable features to achieve exactly what you want from the shot.
Ease of Use #
One of the apparent disadvantages of Autopilot is its complexity – jumping in to it can be a bit overwhelming to be honest. But you get out what you put in. And there are plenty of ways to get a jumpstart on learning how to use the advanced features available in Autopilot. One is right within the app itself. You can see a flight school tab in the app with videos and tutorials to help you figure out how to do various things. You can also find plenty of YouTube videos that will walk you through setup steps for different types of flight planning.
If you do plan to get started with Autopilot, don’t be put off by the ton of features available. Just start with a few, and leave the rest for another day. You don’t need to learn how to use all of the features at once, you can take it a step at a time.
Similar to Litchi, Autopilot also allows you to record your screen while you are working on your flight plan, and while you’re flying, so you can see what you did during setup, and see how it played out in flight. This is hugely helpful to the learning process. Or if you just can’t remember how you did something before that worked really well, you can go check out your recording.
Autopilot doesn’t offer a desktop program for mission planning like Litchi does, so you’re definitely going to want to have a tablet for setting up missions at least, which can then be saved and accessed from your phone, if you prefer the smaller device for the actual flight control. Trying to do all the advanced mission planning, especially in the learning stages, on a smaller phone screen can be a bit of a challenge.
Autopilot can do everything that DJI GO 4 and Litchi can do, and then some. One really cool feature that is unique to Autopilot is that it utilizes the built in barometer to recognize when you’re going up a hill in follow mode, and will adjust the height of the drone accordingly, so you stay in the shot. Autopilot also has an Apple Watch app, which you can use to direct a follow mode mission. A great scenario for this would be a skiing shot, or mountain biking shot, where you can stash the controller and phone in a backpack, and still direct the drone from your Apple Watch.
Another unique feature of Autopilot is the Airspace feature which allows the controller to “see” another drone from your app. For example this would give your drone the ability to follow a friend’s drone for some really cool shots of a drone in flight. You can leave Autopilot in control of the entire flight, or take over manual control of certain points if desired.
Flight video options are endless really. Instead of using waypoints from a saved mission, Autopilot uses your planned mission to fly the drone in real time. This means that it’s critical that it stays within range of the controller at all times, but it also means that you can use trigger points for the video that are independent of the flight path route. This allows for an incredibly richer creative aspect in building your drone video than either DJI GO 4, or even Litchi will get you.
Who is it best for? #
Autopilot is the best flight control app for professional drone photographers, or the truly dedicated amateur who needs complete creative freedom to get the perfect composition, angle, and highest quality stability and smoothness in their drone videos. If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn the complexities of Autopilot, Litchi is a good alternative. It’s a similar price, at $29.99, and many pilots actually utilize both, making the most of the best features of each.
Check out this video showing a flight comparison of these apps.
Final Thoughts #
For pilots flying consumer/prosumer level DJI drones, the standard app is the DJI GO 4, but it’s by no means the only, or even the best option. If you’re just out for the easiest way to get some fun aerial videos, DJI GO 4 is probably the way to go. But if you find it just can’t get you the type of shots, or the stability and quality that you want, give Litchi or Autopilot a try. Litchi is easier to use than Autopilot and can get you farther than DJI GO 4. And Autopilot, while a bit more of a challenge to learn how to use, can really take you places with your video quality and creativity.