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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

Clinton, PA – July 2017

Electric City Building, Scranton, PA – January 2017

Published: June 17, 2017

Penn Avenue Parking Garage, Scranton, PA – January 2017

Published: June 1, 2017

Aerial photos of a few wineries

In late April Eliza and I took a weekend day drive to visit some wineries in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We wanted to visit a few wineries we had never been to before and the beauty of that region alone is worth the drive.

We both take tons of photos on days like this but for a change I thought I’d take a photo of each winery we visited with my drone. I didn’t know how this would work out logistically – would the wineries let me, would it be a pain to do, would it take too long and put a damper on our day? It turns out none of my fears were founded. It was super easy to do (with some initial set up) and the results came quickly and easily.

Here are the aerial photos along with my personal ratings of the wineries.

Belmarl Winery and Vineyard – ★★★★★

Brotherhood Winery – ★★★★☆

Demarest Hill Winery – ☆☆☆☆☆ (sorry, it was terrible)

Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery – ★★☆☆☆ (region worth visit, spirits are not)

Now that you’ve seen the photos, I’ll give you a quick rundown of how I prepared so that taking these photos wouldn’t ruin our day. Before we left I set up the drone and my small take-off table in the trunk of the car ready to fly. Props attached, batteries in, bag unzipped. The only thing I needed to do at each winery was find a safe place to fly, turn the drone on, take a photo or two, land, and turn the drone off. I focused on only taking two or three photos of each winery. So I chose my angle, flew to a decent height, took my shot and left. These were only for my own personal collection anyway. My guess is that my longest flight was 5 minutes long.

This idea of looking at things slightly differently using the drone fits my principle of having an excuse to explore.

I wouldn’t change much about my technique here. And it likely seems like an odd thing to obsess over. But, I’m satisfied with the shots (they are photos that I never would have if it wasn’t for owning a drone) and my set up. I hope to do this again on similar jaunts.

Attending the 2017 Pennsylvania sUAS Expo

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.

  • The algorithms for stitching together multiple photos to create an accurate 3D spacial platform are getting incredibly good. Following best practices with on-site markers, good optics, and being comprehensive in your coverage of an area, a surveyor can get accuracy levels to be within centimeters.
  • That being said, there is still much room for improvement on the cloud services front. Most of the enterprise level services offered do not yet have a cloud component (though all of them said they were coming soon). This means for every 20 gigapixels of mission photos you’ll need an entire day to process on a typical GPU. And, most of the apps do not support multi-threading so they cannot span that across multiple GPUs on the same system. You can, however, process it on multiple machines paying for a license on each. So processing time could be greatly reduced using the cloud and likely the cost also.
  • Also disappointing was that these cloud services do not take advantage of any advanced machine learning or crowd-sourced mapping to help the client-based algorithms to get better at their edge detection, transparent surfaces, or water detection. When I brought this up it didn’t even seem to be on their roadmap. Which I found odd. These apps need to improve very quickly to stay competitive.
  • The general public is still under-educated as to the deliverables for these missions. What I mean is, it seems the surveyors typically have to show their clients how incredibly useful this data can be for them. An example given was a hospital with a brand new roof had no idea they had been struck by lightning. So public education on these services has much work to be done.
  • On the surface the toolset available to most surveyors seems complex and unaffordable. Currently it can cost a brand-new business nearly $20,000 just to get up and running. I believe we’ll see this cost plummet by nearly half and the capability of the software and services to increase exponentially in the next 5 years. So I believe the real opportunity to get involved in this is over the next 24 months.
  • The people and companies to best bring this new technology to the market are the ones that already serve the customers that use surveying on a regular basis. Most often these industries have rigid requirements, data security policies, and other specific things that – if a company already has these measures in place – can be a real competitive advantage to someone just walking off the street with a UAV under their arm.
  • While the hardware and software are getting better and better it still does not allow the pilots or data crunchers to get complacent in their process. The more serious someone takes each of these steps the better the data will be and the more valuable their services will be as well.

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.

What the FAA really just said about drone encounters

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.

Observations about flying a DJI Phantom 4 Pro

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.

Ditto.

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.

 

My drone pre-flight checklist

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.

  • Are batteries in drone fully charged?
  • Are batteries in controller fully charged?
  • Are batteries in phones or tablets fully charged?
  • Are the drone’s props in good repair?
  • Are the drone’s props fully secured?
  • Am I near anything that could cause signal interference; lots of metal, radio towers, buildings?
  • Will I have line-of-sight for my entire flight?
  • Do I have the maps of the area I’ll be flying downloaded to my device?
  • Would it be good to have a spotter keep an eye on my drone while I look at the video output?
  • Are my camera settings set for the video or photos that I’d like to take during this flight?
  • Is the memory card empty?
  • Is the area I am flying legal?
  • Is the wind speed safe?
  • Is there any precipitation expected in the area during your flight time?
  • Check all settings in your app are what you’d prefer for your flight.
  • Have I unfastened the gimbal?
  • How high do I need to fly for my entire flight path in order to be safe?
  • Can I possibly get closer to my target area before taking off?
  • If something goes wrong, do I have a second landing area that I could possibly go to?
  • Is the area between my landing zone and my target an area I can access?
  • Will I be flying over private property or can I avoid that?

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 on drone safety

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.

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Aerial, Lackawanna State Park – July 2016

Published: November 28, 2016

DCIM100GOPRO

Aerial – July 2016

Published: November 25, 2016

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UAV, Lackawanna State Park, PA – October 2016

Published: October 16, 2016

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Phantom 3, Promised Land State Park – September 2016

Published: October 6, 2016

Exploring Conservation Island in Promised Land State Park

It takes just over an hour for me to get to Promised Land State Park. (See also, park map.)

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Because it isn’t too close to home I’ve only been to this park twice. Once two years ago to kayak and again just a few weeks ago with Jonathan Edwards to do a little UAV flying and hiking. We ended up flying and fooling with our photography equipment more than hiking. Which was fine. It was fun just to geek out a bit rather than worrying about step counts. (We did manage to squeeze in about 5 miles somehow though.)

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Jon and I parked our cars just off Pickerel Point Road and walked to Conservation Island. This park is very big and has tons of hiking trails that I hope to someday get back and hike some more. Maybe I’ll hike them like I’m hiking the Lackawanna State Park trails when I find the time. Our first priority was getting our UAVs in the air for a bit.

For those keeping track of my Lackawanna State Park hikes, this exploration of Promised Land State Park happened in-between the Abington Trail and South Branch Trail hikes. I’ve been doing a lot of exploring lately.

We did some flying above the Conservation Island bridge (ended up drawing a crowd too). It was windy and once we had our footage we didn’t take the UAVs back out. From there we walked the loop around the island and toyed with our equipment. There were a few neat spots to check out like some rock outcroppings and a lush area on the eastern side of the island. From what I read the island was created when Lake Wallenpaupak was created.

I was testing out a few lenses for my iPhone (a wide-angle and macro lens) and Jon was toying around with a camera he had borrowed from a friend and a selfie-stick. We managed to get some decent photos. Here are a few of the photos I kept. I’ll be publishing the better ones on the site over the next several months.

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All-in-all it was a good day out.

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.

Hiking the Dunmore Pine Barrens

Dunmore Pine Barrens panorama

Yesterday fellow UAV pilot Jonathan Edwards and I hiked to the “top of the world” at the Dunmore Pine Barrens to get some exercise, see the sights, and fly a little.

I decided to hike this area because of local hiker, writer and blogger Jeff Mitchell’s blog post wherein he details the hike. He provides specific detail for parking and getting to the top which undoubtedly saved us a few minutes of spinning in circles. Here is a snippet of his post:

According to Google Earth, this place is called High Rocks.  Layers of mist and slow moving clouds hung in the valleys below.  The tops of the plateaus rose just above the mist.  The sunrise cast the cliff in hues of amber and orange.  I could see for about 20 miles across the Pocono plateau.

Mitchell hiked in the wee hours of the morning to catch first light or dawn time. Jon and I left the lot at around 4:30pm or so and hung out at the top until just after the sun dipped below the far horizon. My guess is that dawn is a completely difference experience on that ridge so I expect to give it another go in the future.

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sunset from dunmore pine barrens

Yesterday’s weather was perfect for a hike. The round trip was about 6.2 miles (according to my iPhone) and I would say that just about anyone could make the trek. Just be very careful on the cliff.

Walked up to a young skater bro last evening and asked if I could shoot video of him — both in slow-mo and with the UAV — and he immediately thought it was a great idea. Just another “you don’t know unless you ask” lesson.

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!

Add a hobby that forces you to explore

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.

UAV with Nicholson Bridge in the background

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.