Pilots, Prompton State Park – July 2017
Pilots, Prompton State Park – July 2017
Acronyms are all the rage these days and so it can be tough to keep them all straight. Don’t be ashamed if you have no idea what UAS stands for. I didn’t either.
UAS stands for Unmanned Aerial System. Like an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) an UAS involves more than simply a vehicle and usually also includes camera, or multiple cameras, various sensors and other instruments, etc. Why the need for this other acronym? I’m not really sure but I believe it is to denote that these systems are generally more complicated and nuanced than your typical hobby “drone”.
The “s” in sUAS stands for “surveyors”. I was wrong, it stands for “small”. Thanks Frank.
As I’ve said in the past on my blog… I don’t mind using the generic term “drone” (even when referring to non-autonomous flight vehicles) so I will for this post too. However, I’d like to make one addition my own personal use of this word on my blog. Now when I refer to a drone I may also be referring to a fixed-winged system rather than your typical quadcopter or propeller style.
With that housekeeping out of the way, let me tell you about this expo.
The 2017 Pennsylvania sUAS Expo was in State College, PA at the Penn State campus in the Penn Stater building and was run by the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors. The building was excellent for this type of conference and I really wish we had a facility like it in Scranton.
I felt like I had a pretty good handle on many of the topics, services, and uses of UAS that would be covered at this expo. However, I found that my knowledge had a ton of gaps in it and was out-of-date. So the vendors and experts at the expo ended up filling in those gaps and bringing me up-to-date with what is possible in the industry, what challenges it still has, and also how the applications for this technology is still being explored.
I still feel like we’re in the infancy of how UAS will be used. We’ve all seen Amazon’s drone delivery videos. And land surveyors are already taking full advantage of these affordable and incredibly capable systems to bring down the cost, reduce the time, and enhance the practical applications of their work.
Here are a few things I learned.
I enjoyed attending this expo and look forward to how I’ll use what I learned to help Condron Media to service these industries and the surveyors themselves.
You’ll likely read a headline on your favorite news site today that reads as if the FAA has said drone strikes are up for 2016. And they likely are – as there are a lot, lot more drones in the air this year compared to last.
However, what you won’t read is this bit from the FAA’s report:
Although the data contain several reports of pilots claiming drone strikes on their aircraft, to date the FAA has not verified any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone. Every investigation has found the reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft.
The actual data confirm that “encounters” are up not strikes. But sightings of drones don’t make for good headlines.
Maria Langer, professional helicopter pilot, blogger and Twitter friend, got her DJI Mavic Pro on nearly the same day as I got my DJI Phantom 4 Pro. She’s taken the time to write down her thoughts on the experience and so I thought I’d quote her post since she and I agree on our first few flight missions. We also purchased a professional drone for the same reason:
And that’s a big part of what this drone is to me: it’s a tool for making photos and videos. While some people buy drones for the flying aspect of them and actually race them around obstacles, etc., I have no intention of doing that.
Here is a good tip about landing and taking off from the ground:
And if there’s dust, that dust is going to fly on landing and take off (just like with a helicopter) and possibly get into rotor heads or gimbal parts. I had the foresight to order a foldable landing pad to operate from — this helps ensure a safe, clean environment for operations.
As often as possible I take off and land from a small foldable table that I keep in my Jeep for this very reason. I don’t want to land in snow or in wet grass or, as Maria points out, in a dusty area. And, although I’ve seen others do this, I do not want to (nor should you) catch my drone.
She also notes something I had trouble with too:
The only real complaint I have about the design is related to the plastic clamp that holds the gimbal immobile during transport: I have a heck of a time getting that damn thing on. I assume I’ll better at it one of these days; I sure hope it’s soon.
I agree with her on this. But, gimbals are fussy things. They are free moving and so very hard to get into the right position to get this clamp in place. However, her assumptions are correct, the more I’ve done it the better I’m getting at it.
Maria regarding the app and controller:
There is a lot to learn about the controller and the DJI Go app. Yes, you can pick it up and fly it almost immediately with just a few pointers from a friend or a quick glance through the manual, but you will never master either flying or photography — which really do need to be considered separately — without reading the manual and trying various features until you learn what works for you.
The app is incredible. It has many features for controlling the drone, the camera, for programming the drone to do actions autonomously, and more. I’m super, super impressed with the app and I know it will be months before I feel comfortable with every feature. On the other hand, the app is terrible at transferring files. I recommend getting a card reader as soon as you can for this.
Be sure to read the rest of her post as her experience is based on the Mavic Pro.
I’ll add a few things; first, the speed of the Phantom 4 Pro. Even though I’m using this as a camera it is fun to get some wind under the props now and then. Sport mode is essentially what I was used to with my other, inexpensive, featureless UAV in that it turns off all obstacle avoidance and goes all out. I’ve flown my drone over 50MPH according to the app. At that speed it is really moving. It is impressive.
The engineering that has gone into this device is pretty staggering. The app has features for following objects, orbiting points of interest, you can draw on the screen where you want the drone to fly and it does it. There are also preferences for nearly every single setting. And, I’ve found, for the most part this thing is impossible to crash. I’m afraid to write that sentence but I do believe that if I crash this drone it will be my fault and not the fault of the drone.
If I could just warn others that the ease of flight can cause complacence. Flying a drone is a serious responsibility. Not only are you flying a device that likely set you back a few thousand dollars but you’re more than likely flying over some property that may not belong to you. And as Maria has pointed out in the past, you’re also flying in shared airspace. This drone can fly itself but I’d still recommend you create your own pre-flight checklist. Here is mine that I’m continuously adding to.
I’m only a few missions into having this new drone but I can say that I’m very happy with my investment so far. I’ll report back as I learn more.
Since I shared my hiking checklist I thought I’d also share my always-a-work-in-progress drone pre-flight checklist. Not every question on this applies to every single situation and some of these rules you may be willing to bend or break depending on the circumstances. But, having a checklist may help to reduce the number of mistakes you may make.
These simple checks can, perhaps, save you from making a mistake that could cost you a lot of money or battery time or frustration.
Maria Langer, helicopter pilot:
As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.
This is an important post to read if you, like me, fly a drone. Also important if you’re getting one as a gift this weekend. Be mindful that the skies are full of other people not just devices.
Coming in for a landing, Greenfield Township, PA – September 2016
Phantom 3, Promised Land State Park – September 2016
Yesterday Jehu II took quite a tumble.
I’ve been doing a lot of flying. Nearly every day. And though the Syma X8G would be considered by most to be a “toy” (which is a designation I agree with for sure) it has enabled me to get quite good at flying. So much so that two local aero clubs have told me that I’m “far from a novice”. I’ll take it.
The weather lately has been great for flying. Warm, windless evenings make for some of the most picturesque, enjoyable and relaxing flight times. And last evening was no different. So, why the tumble? It was the result of me being a bit careless, of course.
I’ve had a few hairy experiences that I’ve managed to pull out of unscathed, which makes last night’s tumble all the more disappointing. One happened about a week and a half ago. I was flying alone at a local park and there is a wind stream that comes off of the nearby lake that pushes your craft out and away from the landing strip. Just a few days prior someone had told me that a pilot lost a new, fairly expensive, somewhat autonomous UAV, in this same wind stream. That UAV had “return to home” and that didn’t even work. The UAV is lost.
I met this pilot on Wednesday. I felt bad for him. And I told him how I got caught in the same wind stream but managed to get my UAV back. How? Well, for a few moments I too thought my craft was gone for good. Even at full-throttle the UAV simply wasn’t strong enough to fight the wind current. And it was quickly 500′ away and 150′ up. The only way to get the UAV back, I found, was by getting as close to the tops of the trees as possible (probably 60-80′) and zig-zag slowly back and forth towards me. At 500 or so feet away, and using only line-of-sight, it is hard to tell how close you are to the tops of trees. But after several minutes of fighting the wind I was finally able to get in front of the tree line and swoop low enough to come all the way back. It was a nail biting few minutes.
Last night, though, came down to simple distraction. A young boy showed up where I was flying with his – I think – grandmother. The moment he was out of the car he made a B-line directly to me since he saw me flying. His grandmother had absolutely no control over this even though she was trying to get him to come back. He was immediately rifling through my things and asking to fly the UAV. I looked away from where I was flying for just a moment to see what he was doing and came down pretty hard for a tumble.
Here is the result, a cracked body.
The crash was my fault, not the little boy’s. No matter what I should keep my eye on the craft until it is down safely.
Today I’ll spend some time seeing if Jehu II can be repaired enough to squeeze a few more flight hours out of it before I hang it up for good and get something new. The more I hang with the aero clubs the more I’m considering getting a plane. But something is still pulling me towards an upgraded UAV with GPS and a nice camera. I wonder what I’ll end up with.
Update: A bit of glue and some tape and Jehu II is flying just fine.
After a few weeks of trial and error, (lots, and lots of error) video tutorial binging, manual devouring, and literally swimming for and losing my first UAV, I thought it might be good to jot down some tips for new drone owners.
So here they are, in no order, but all worth considering:
I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list over time. If I do, I’ll make a note of the newer tips.
While I have you reading this, here are some general tips for shooting video with your UAV if you’re into that sort of thing.
I had been thinking and talking about buying a UAV, drone, quadcopter* (whatever you personally call them) for a long time now. Many months. When they first hit the scene they were way out of my price range. These days they are not only affordable but incredibly capable and simple to use.
Of course my focus was on a rather expensive kit with all of the bells and whistles; 4K camera, GPS, auto-return, live video feed, etc. So I was never able to justifying the cost of such a toy to myself or my spouse.
A few weeks ago now, I went to a week-long school and upon completing the course Eliza surprised me with my favorite flavor of cake and a UAV. The Syma X8G. An affordable, simple UAV that is great to learn on. She did some research and tried to find a UAV that was inexpensive but also well-reviewed. She knew I’d very likely smash it into many things (and boy have I) but she took the practical, logical approach of — try it first, see how you like it before you invest a lot into it.
It turns out she chose really well. The reviews on the X8G are very good on Amazon but also the video reviews on YouTube are surprisingly good. People with far more capable crafts say very nice things about the X8G and what you get for the investment. Good job Eliza.
Here is what my experience has been and some of my observations after just a short period of time learning to fly a quadcopter.
The first day was crash, crash, crash, crash. I was timid, trying to fly in the wrong surroundings, and hadn’t yet fully read the instruction manual. So I wasn’t able to get more than a few feet off the ground and for only a few brief moments.
Likely my best shot from day 1. Pitiful.
The second day was much better. I had read the manual, watched some YouTube videos, and learned about headless mode that makes it much easier to fly. Being able to get off the ground and control the UAV gave me a confidence boost. But, then, just as my confidence afforded me an incredible view of the sunrise… I misjudged how high the UAV was on the return flight and clipped a 100′ tall tree on my property.
I own 3 acres of property, much of which is covered in very, very tall trees. When the UAV is a fair distance from you depth-perception begins to wane. I thought I would clear the trees easily but ended up getting caught at the highest point in the tree. At this point I still had the blade guards on, which act as a hook in branches, and so there was really no way to get the UAV back without taking the tree down. Fortunately, it was a tree I could do without. (Thanks to Ryan for helping me.) It was a long, grueling, tiresome day. But I learned a very valuable lesson… regardless of how good you think you’re getting trees are the mortal enemy of UAV. Stay as far away from trees as possible.
By day three I was flying pretty high and pretty far. Most of my movements were reactionary rather than purposeful. Seeing how the UAV did in certain situations and trying to compensate. This stage of my learning curve can be likened to a plane pilot simply trying to stay off the ground compared to one that can bring people safely around the globe. No purpose, just survival.
Day three photos. Not on purpose, just happened.
My goal with the UAV has always been about photography. Some race them. Some want to perform tricks. I want to shoot photos and video. So by day four I had decided to try to learn how to get the best results with the kit I currently have. How should I fly? Where should I fly? How should I mount the camera(s)? How can I create the best opportunity to capture good footage?
It was on that day I began to fly with some purpose. Following lines. Beginning to cut down on corrections. Picking targets. By doing this I began to improve much more quickly.
Finally, purposeful photo.
Also on day four I flew with someone else. Just being next to someone else that is flying you learn a lot. “Oh, you do that? Like this?” Subtle, simple lessons that prove invaluable. This same person created a Google+ Community for a few local fliers which has also proved useful for learning and sharing our journeys. Thanks to Justin for that.
For the next few days I began experimenting with my kit. I finally took the blade guards off which reduces wind friction and weight. This changes the way the UAV performs. It wasn’t long after that I had the courage to replace the X8G’s camera with my own few-year-old GoPro Hero 3+ Silver Edition. Dramatically improving the picture and video quality.
GoPro, mounted on bottom.
I then tried several different ways of mounting my camera to the X8G. First, I had it on bottom where the camera typically sits. Then, I mounted it on top to see if I could remove the legs from view (the GoPro’s focal length is much wider than the camera that comes with the X8G so it sees more). After a bit I got sick of the props in the videos (though, they do provide some nice context) and decided to remove the legs altogether and return the camera to the bottom.
Finally, last night, I was able to capture a full edge-to-edge video without legs or props. I still have a few small adjustments to make to this kit to get the image I really want but I’m really, really happy with the results. Also, as of last night, I took off my training wheels by switching out of headless mode and flying manual. This should provide more maneuverability and better footage once I really get the hang of it.
Screenshot from first GoPro video edge-to-edge.
I have a long way to go. My goal is to confidently capture scenes, objects, and vistas without ending up in the water (again) or up in a tree (again). Once I’ve done that and can consistently get a good result perhaps then I’ll invest in upgrading my kit. Until then, I’m flying this kit until it gives up on me. I highly recommend the X8G.
* The correct term, I believe, is UAV. The word “drone” suggests some form of autonomy. Even with a craft like the Phantom 4 that can nearly fly itself, it cannot give itself commands. So, the real pilots out there tend to shy away from calling their crafts drones unless they can fly themselves. However, the general population (myself included) has lumped all of these types of flying machines together as “drones” because it is easy to say and everyone knows what you mean. Why did I write this footnote? Why did you read it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about a quote Matt Mullenweg wrote about earlier this year. It reads:
Find three hobbies you love: one to make you money, one to keep you in shape, and one to be creative.
I’m going to drop in my own personal suggestion that we add a hobby that also forces us to explore.
I’ve noticed something in myself, and perhaps this fits your make-up as well — I enjoy having a reason to do something or to be some place different.
Photo: Flying a drone in a thunderstorm over a river.
My photography has always forced me to find a new perspective. It has forced me to explore new places and to find new ways to look at places I’ve already been. Though I’ve picked up kayaking I consider it a facet of my photography. It affords me an entirely new perspective to areas I have already been and to explore new areas I couldn’t otherwise access. And now with Eliza’s gift of a UAV I find myself adding on a new facet of my photography hobby that does both of these things yet again; I’m able to get a new perspective on places I’ve already been and also access areas I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
So my creative hobby also forces me to explore new places and try new things. I hope yours does too.