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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

The UAV took a bad tumble

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.

Jehu II cracked

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.

Tips for new drone owners

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.

Drone on ground

So here they are, in no order, but all worth considering:

  • Fly over shallow water – If you are going to fly over water, fly over shallow enough water that you’ll be able to rescue your UAV should it take a dip. I was able to rescue my drone in 8 feet of water, but I wasn’t able to rescue it in 30 feet of water. Or, buy something like this.
  • Keep and read the manual that comes with your craft – You may not understand the lingo the first time you read it. But after a few weeks you’ll know what yaw, headless mode, pitch, m/s, and many other terms mean and this way you’ll understand the manual more each time you review it.
  • Search for your model on YouTube and watch other people fly – Some people have taken the time to record great tutorials on flying your particular model and you’ll be very glad they did. You’ll learn a lot by watching other people fly.
  • Fly in a huge, huge open area if you can find it – The bigger and flatter the area the more you can safely explore and make mistakes. You can make two, three, four or more flight corrections in a large area and you won’t hurt yourself, your craft, or any property.
  • Practice, practice, practice – Do the same exact maneuver over and over and over. When it comes time to use that skill your brain will just do it. Here is an example… watch this video. It is boring. Practice can be boring.¬† It is OK. It is worth the effort.
  • Immediately buy more flight time – If you’ve recently purchased a craft and only have access to the battery that comes with it… find some batteries for your craft on Amazon or eBay and buy them right now.
  • Buy replacement parts before you need them – If your craft didn’t come with replacement blades, legs, etc. just go on eBay right now and buy some. You may never need them but they are so inexpensive it is worth having them around. And you’ll want them to be handy when you need them.
  • Controllers need power too – Don’t forget to keep back up controller batteries with you at all times. Nothing worse than a full craft battery and drained controller batteries.
  • Flying in the morning is easier – Wind is generally down in the early morning hours. So if you want to fly over a body of water for the first time, morning is the best time to do it.
  • If there is a steady wind, fly into it, not with it – By flying into the wind you can safely return your craft by simply guiding it rather than fighting it. Also good when your battery is getting low.

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.

  • High flying videos are cool, but so are low flying ones – Don’t concentrate solely on getting the highest footage that you can. Low and slow can be just as dramatic.
  • Use the sun to your advantage – Magic hour is great for video too. Face away from the sun to have the best naturally lit subjects… face into the sun to get that JJ Abrams lens flare.
  • Fly the same route more than once – Trying to capture a scene? Do the same route more than once to ensure you got the shot you want.
  • Record a bit more than you need – Don’t try to “edit in the camera”. You can edit the footage later. Bookend what you think you need with 10 seconds of padding.
  • Slow, smooth – It is very rare that you need really fast video. Slow and smooth wins the day. So keep the corrections to a minimum.
  • It isn’t just about the gear – Photography has a saying “the best camera is the one you have with you”. Same goes for video. Gear is important, but it isn’t as important as your creativity and diligence to get what you want.

Happy flying!

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?