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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

seagull

Seagull, Sandbridge, Virginia – October 2015

Published: October 25, 2016

Taking flight

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.

First photo taken with X8G

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.

drone day 1

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.

corn field

Baseball field

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.

Archbald, PA from the air

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.

Mountain Mud Pond from the air

Honesdale from above Irving Cliff

Mountain Mud pond's lily pads

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.

GoPro edge to edge

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?

 

GoPro open sources Camera Toolkit

GoPro just updated their iOS app. In the release notes I noticed a link to their developer page wherein they’ve open sourced their Camera Toolkit for iOS and Android. Let’s hope a ton of bug fixes result so I can stop hacking mine.

Wirelessly transfer files from a GoPro using any computer without software

(Skip to the bottom of this post if you just want to know how to connect to your GoPro using an internet browser.)

As I mentioned my GoPro Hero3+ Silver Edition has been giving me issues lately.

It started 6 months ago as an iOS app connectivity issue. I would connect to the ad-hoc network that the GoPro Hero3+ creates, open the iOS app, and attempt to transfer the files to my phone but it would only work about 10% of the time.

I figured out how to deal with this issue by first attempting to control the GoPro using the app before attempting to transfer the photos and video off of it. I have no idea why, but this worked for a while. But then even this “hack” stopped working about a month ago.

For these times I would connect my GoPro to my Mac via USB and transfer the files. But recently this has stopped working too. The GoPro doesn’t mount to the Mac. And in Image Capture or Photos for OS X you can only see the GoPro being connected for a few seconds before it disconnects, reconnects, disconnects, repeat repeat repeat. Maddening. It isn’t the cable. Is isn’t the USB port. (I’ve managed to rule these out.)

After searching online for a bit I see a lot of people having similar issues with their GoPro cameras after they’ve had them for a little while. Some ship with these issues.

I do not have a micro USB chip reader so I have no way to get larger files off of the GoPro with all of these crazy issues. Smaller files can still be transferred using the iOS application thankfully.

On Wednesday I attached my GoPro to my kayak and paddled around for a while with the camera pointed under water. Typically I try to stop and start the video recording every few minutes because I know I can only transfer smaller files to my phone. But I just let it run for a while.

Today I cannot transfer that file to my phone (using the app) or computer (using USB). And I don’t have a card reader. So what other option do I have?

It turns out that GoPro Hero 3+ comes with a small web server on it that you can connect to, browse the files, or even see live video from the device. I had no idea this was an option. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a few poorly recorded YouTube videos that I saw it. I’ve read the manual that came with my GoPro at least twice and I don’t think it is mentioned in there either. Just to be sure, I checked the manual again while writing this post. I do not see it mentioned.

Here is how you connect to your GoPro using a web browser.

1. Turn on your GoPro.
2. Turn on Wi-fi into “app” mode. (if you’re unsure how to do this, see your manual)
3. Connect your computer to the ad-hoc wireless network that the GoPro creates.
4. Open your web browser, point it to http://10.5.5.9:8080 (if this IP address does not work, see what the IP address of your “router” or “Gateway” is when connected to the GoPro. On Windows you can run “ipconfig” using CMD.exe and on Mac you can go to System Preferences > Network > Advanced > TCP/IP)
5. If you did it right, you’ll see this.

GoPro web server
It isn’t fancy. But it gets the job done.

I still wasn’t able to download the 2.1GB video file. It halts at around 1.47GB and just sits there. I think my GoPro is telling me it is time to be retired. Sad GoPro. However, I tried transferring a few other smaller files and it worked very smoothly. So perhaps this is easier than using the iOS app or even mounting it via USB. Who needs cables?

I’m really happy I found this feature.

Is GoPro doomed?

Those that follow along here on my blog know that I love my GoPro. And I “only” have the HERO 3. See this, this, this, this, and this for examples of me playing around with my GoPro.

GoPro’s stock price and sales figures are plummeting. And as I sit here, going over everything they have, and comparing their strategy against other companies that had similar products and failed — I don’t know exactly what can save them. In fact, I rewrote this blog post three times as I’ve changed my mind about what might work.

But Matt Hackett of Beme writes that software can save them:

GoPro needs software in spades, far beyond just something to make editing easier. The company that created the first mass-market visceral experience broadcasting device ought to have a hand in every dimension of the current live revolution, not just be one of its few cameras. That requires software.

As my friend Gary Vaynerchuk recently said in Daily Vee #29… just as large broadcasters can turn their companies around by having a hit show, software and hardware companies can turn themselves around with features. It is an over simplification (Gary knows this) but he is right. If GoPro had a hit application (or was integrated fully into one) it would turn everything around for them, especially in the eyes of the public investor.

Obviously, they won’t save anything without selling hardware. Hardware is where they make all of their revenue and it always will be. And, as Matt points out in his piece, they already make great hardware. So perhaps great software would stem the tide for GoPro?

Matt’s proposition that GoPro build the next Periscope is intriguing. It had me thinking all last night of what that could look like and how it would be received. Rather than allowing Periscope or Meerkat to integrate into GoPro (and they already have), Matt proposes that GoPro itself build a platform for live streaming video that would allow input from GoPro cameras and other devices.

This would be a huge gamble for GoPro. Live streaming isn’t easy nor inexpensive. Matt knows this very well so I know he does not make this suggestion lightly. And, GoPro already has experience in live streaming (sort of) with Herocast. So I’m sure the thought of putting a platform behind that has crossed their minds. Perhaps they even built something in a lab. To get live streaming right they’d have to put some major resources behind such an endeavor and the Board would definitely see it as Nick’s (the CEO) last effort to turn it around.

I love GoPro. But I’m not as optimistic as Matt. I fear the Board will call for Nick’s head after another bad quarter. And I believe it will take several quarters, a few acquisitions, and the recruiting of a few key team members (all in design, software and platform) in order to turn GoPro around. If Nick goes the whole thing goes I say because once a founder is kicked out recruiting can be tough.

Will they go the way of Flip? I hope not. Let’s just hope the team at GoPro isn’t sleeping and is way, way smarter than I am and can figure it out.

 

Shooting San Francisco with GoPro

This summer I’ve found myself shooting with my GoPro Hero3 a lot. And not just while kayaking. I really dig the perspective and most of what is captured is fairly Instagrammable. I’ll also mention that the GoPro form factor is less obtrusive than the iPhone in that people hardly notice the GoPro at all.

In late-June Kyle and I made an unexpected and unplanned business trip to San Francisco so I took my GoPro along and shot a few photos along the way. These are unedited (save for size) direct from the camera.

There are several small tweaks that I typically make to the photos coming from my GoPro before posting them to Instagram — such as bumping up the saturation, bring some light to the shadows, sharpening, etc. — but overall I think the GoPro has a just different enough perspective from the iPhone that I’m dig using it.

I will say, however, that when I want to capture something with far better quality than the GoPro provides I still take out my iPhone and shoot.

Since I’ve been shooting with a Hero3 this summer I’m definitely eyeing up the GoPro Session. Based on the comparisons I’ve read it seems a capable little device.