Monday, July 4, 2016

A Drone of Your Own

What with everything that's been going on over the last couple of years; you may not have noticed all the civilian drones buzzing around at a steadily increasing rate.  Last Christmas season they say over two million drones were bought as gifts.  Sure, a few days later the number was dramatically smaller, due to crashes & accidents, but still, that's a lot of drones, or quadcopters as they are more correctly called.

Hardly a day goes by without a news story about drones, in addition to the news using them to film stories.  Drones have become standard equipment for all types of video production and movie making.  Just like the personal computer, drones are here to stay whether we like it or not.  "Drones" have a bad rap going into any discussion due to the familiar military use of armed UAV's; but there are an almost limitless number of peaceful, civilian applications.

Oh they're out there alright, and in a mind-numbing array of sizes and styles; everything from video capable nano drones you can hide in your hand, to the prosumer and professional camera drones used by major news networks, agriculture, private security, photographers, architecture, and engineering just to name a few applications.

Remote controlled aircraft have been around for quite a while; I got my first at about 14 years old, and have kept the interest ever since.  Just in the last few years there have been many improvements and advancements in the industry; resulting in fairly sophisticated flying machines that come RTF, ready to fly right out of the box.  The advancements in such craft are such that anyone can learn how to fly fairly quickly.  Today's consumer drones are way more robust and durable than their predecessors of even five years ago.

By far the biggest market segment is hobby drones which range from the very small and relatively inexpensive Nano drones all the way up to Prosumer drones costing hundreds of dollars.  After the Nano drones are the Mini-quadcopters (and Hexacopters) which are more or less palm sized.  Then there are mid-range drones which are much larger than minis, yet smaller & lighter than the more expensive types.

 Nano drones are very small but packed with some nice features, including wi-fi and FPV capable.  (FPV is First Person View and indicates that the drone is controlled by smart phone or tablet which lets the pilot see thru the drones camera to fly & navigate, in addition to visually.)  These little drones have a micro SD card slot to store videos which can then be transferred to computer.  Primarily for indoor use; these little drones tend to not fare too well in windy outdoor conditions.  Easy to loose something so small in a gust of wind.  They all come with red & blue LED running lights which are helpful when searching for a downed drone. 

Nano drones have small permanent  LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries which cannot be swapped out.  Average flight time is about five minutes tops, and recharging the battery takes 20 to 40 minutes depending on make & model.  The software for small hobby drones is open source which means most of them are using the same exact software regardless of company or brand.  Almost all of these nano and mini drones are made in China, and customer service can be hit or miss, which is why the smaller, cheaper drones are considered by many as disposable

As for the mini-drones they are basically a step up in size and performance.  Most all drones in this class have replaceable batteries and the majority have cameras.  There are also some models built specifically for speed & stunts, and without a camera adding weight, they fly longer and are more agile as a rule.

Unlike hobby helicopters of the past, today's drones are rugged and durable little flyers that bounce back time and again from hard impact crashes.  They are fairly sophisticated, featuring novice, normal & advanced flight modes.  In the advanced mode you get some aggressive flight capabilities and acrobatic tricks such as flips & rolls. Some of the smaller drones are now equipped with FPV but the thing is they rely on using a smart phone as the controller; and regardless the app used, phones do not give you the degree of control and response that you get from a transmitter controller. 

While it is generally true that learning to fly small drones well builds skill sets that will help when flying larger drones; the reverse is not so true.  You want to start small and work your way up to the bigger, more serious drones.

LiPo batteries need to cool down once drained, and should not be recharged for 15 to 20 minutes after use.  Not observing this cool down period will soon fry the battery & possibly even the circuit board.  The Chinese who make these by the thousands for sale on Amazon & other sites use angel hair wires which being so thin can both melt from over heating, and break upon repeated severe crash impact.... and accordingly if you want your drone to continue working properly it's wise to not overheat the motors & motherboard by using several batteries in one flying session.  Because they generate heat; LiPo batteries should always be charged safely on a non-conducting surface; and never left unattended as they can cause fires if basic precautions are not followed.  Many of the serious users are using inexpensive asbestos battery bags for charging & storage; a wise precaution.

 First Person View (FPV) is easily the most popular feature on consumer and prosumer drones; which is why it is now being incorporated in even the smallest units available.  Being able to see thru the camera adds a new dimension to flying with confidence and is really a lot of fun. (see videos below)  As mentioned, many of the less expensive hobby drones now come FPV capable & most of them use you smart phone as the controller.  While this may be easy and convenient, cell phone apps do not give the degree of adjustment or control you need for flying, and there is usually a small lag time in streaming the video - which can cause crashes.  A radio controller gives you the ability to fully adjust the drones flight trimming etc, quicker response to controls, and a faster video feed.  For these capabilities you'll want a dedicated controller with the view screen built in; and possibly even a FPV headset.

 Invariably when humans get ahold of something new, before long they'll find a way to have races, and drones are certainly no exception.  In fact, drone racing has become so popular that starting this summer cable sports networks are covering major drone races; so consult your local listings.  Empty sports arenas and underground parking structures have been favorite racing locations in the past few years; and as drone popularity increases, more professional and challenging venues are being designed for drone racing.  They do a lot of drone racing in Dubai, and it's coming soon to a city near you!

 The fastest growing segment of the drone market is for units in the $500.00 to $1200.00 dollar and up range, generally used for extreme sports, travel, professional photography and network newscasts.   These higher end drones boast features such as GPS, one button launch, auto-hover, "follow me mode", headless flying mode, and one button return home function.  Some of the more sophisticated units can use two controllers, two people: one flies the quadcopter while the other operates the camera, with everything wi-fi to phone, tablet or FPV headset.

Most of the higher end prosumer and professional drones are automatically prevented from operating in FAA restricted airspace such as airports, etc.  There is a 500 foot altitude limit set by the FAA, but most higher end drones can go much, much higher after switching off the restrictive setting.  California and a few other states already have laws which prohibit the flying of drones in places where privacy is expected and around schoolyards.  The higher end drones usually have a feature which establishes flight boundaries, which should keep good relations with the neighbors.  Good time to mention that there is a $25,000 dollar fine for flying an unregistered drone in public spaces; so be legal, be safe!

Click Image to Enlarge

 Just recently the FAA announced new drone regulations taking effect this year.  A lot of folks were concerned that they would even further limit the use of drones, and a lot of folks were surprised because essentially the FAA opened the whole thing up for expansive growth.  Now, those who wish to use a drone for personal or commercial purposes have only to complete some basic requirements to become legal & licensed; exactly like operating a car or any other vehicle.  The FAA even came up with a new acronym for use across the 'drone' landscape.  They didn't want to use "UAV" as that's a military designation, so UAS is the new designation: Unmanned Aircraft Systems, for drones and all multi-rotor radio controlled aircraft.

Drones are being used for an ever widening field of applications these days as people are seeing the advantages of having a bird's eye view of things.  There is an entire classification of security drones as that is a fast growing market in and of itself; including a set & forget  autonomous patrol drone system with HD video.  Developers are using drones to monitor construction site progress, Ranchers use them to monitor livestock and the "south 40".  Drones are also put to work monitoring large estates, vineyards, and farms.  The police use them, and so does the forestry service; for search & rescue, and fire watch. 

"Drones aren't going anywhere - in fact they're going everywhere"
                                                                              ~Good Kill~

A while back my brother and I were flying a drone on my property, and before long the nearby trees were full of squawking blue jays; a group protest to defend their air space from a strange and noisy intruder.  Then last week we had our drones at a friends ranch 30 miles away out in the country.  After we'd been flying and doing stunt flips & rolls for a while we noticed a canyon hawk cruising above the drone.  He was definitely checking the drone out, as a few minutes later he drifted by again, so we landed the drone.  About a minute later the canyon hawk cruised by just above roof level, looking below him for the drone.  When we sent the Traxxas Aton drone aloft again, the bird returned; and again was showing interest in the drone, so we just kept avoiding it.  Within just a few minutes four more canyon hawks joined the first, and wherever the drone flew, they were loitering above in a huge circle formation.

A good point to bring up responsible drone operation.  Various wildlife laws insist upon us humans staying 500 feet from any endangered or protected birds or animals.  In my mind this applies even if the bird or other animal comes close for a better look.  Always do your aerial photography from a safe distance.  An interesting side note; in Germany and Holland police are using trained eagles and hawks to bring down drones operating outside the law.

 Whenever human desire gets ahold of technology it's usually a recipe for breaking bad.   A good example are the drone operators who recently flew drones over several of the California wildfires.  On at least four different fires; desire to get great footage put drones right in the path of the aircraft fighting the fire from the air; causing them to abort their chemical runs.  Pilots like that are going to make it hard for the rest of us, and create bad press against civilian drone flyers.  This civilian drone market is still young and many of these quadcopters are openly designated as experimental.  Yes they're packed with a lot of we consumers are paying to beta test because few of them are letter perfect.  One of the most popular high end camera drones has a reputation for loosing link and falling from the sky, and for horrible customer service.  It's logical that with so many of one model sold you're going to see a lot of accidents etc, but customer service should always be five star, and it sometimes isn't.  Then there are companies whose customer service is so good, they actually call you (from China) to make sure you are satisfied.

What this means is they are going to malfunction now and then; some models more than others, and when they malfunction, guess who is held responsible for damages?  A five pound chainsaw flying at 50 mph is something you don't want to loose control of in a crowded area.  Just last week a woman was hit in the head by a falling drone, so there is always that aspect to consider.   It's worth noting that one should avoid flying drones equipped with GPS near sunrise or sunset, as at those times the earth's electromagnetic field is in flux.  Flying in the gloaming hour can cause your drone to behave in an erratic manner, go crazy, or just fly away at top speed.  Fly safely!

Due diligence is the key to happy flying.  Before you plunk your money down for a high end drone in the $500.00 to $3,000.00 range be sure to do your homework first.  Do some in depth Google searches on the make & model of drone you're interested in; especially reviews from other consumers like yourself.  Beware though, of the "hired gun" reviewers who were compensated in some way for their "unbiased" review.  Just recently Amazon has cracked down on such endorsements by going after companies engaged in said practice.  Also be cautious getting involved in any drones being sold via one of the crowd funding offers.  One should absolutely also investigate the customer support for the purchase you're considering. 

The flying gene is alive and well throughout human society, maybe we all have a little bit of Icarus in our blood, the way we sometimes wish we could fly like the birds do.  For a while we may be satisfied with Flight Simulators on our computers; but if the flying gene runs strong in your blood you'll eventually upgrade to flying 3D in the real world and there has never been a better time than now to do so.

Some universities and academies are even adding "Drone Classes" to their curriculum.

Once you see your videos taken from a few hundred feet in the air, you'll be hooked, and your brain will start identifying all the very cool things a drone can do for you. Someday in the not too distant future; drones will be as commonplace in the American home as computers are now. ~ "Land of the free - Home of the drone."
© 2016 full re-post with permission only 

Other Voices

Recommended Viewing 
"Rise of the Drones"
"Good Kill"
"Eye in the Sky"
"Eagle Eye"

1 comment:

  1. It was a gift for my dad who is in love with little gadgets like this. It turned out to be quite the sturdy into drone for him. He and my nephew (His grandson) are having a great time flying it over the nearby lake and taking video.