All Things UAV & Drone Blog

This blog is dedicated to the review of various photographic products within the UAV market including on-board cameras with the various UAV products as well as third-party cameras that can be carried on any given UAV. In particular, with a glut of information out there on video-related reviews, I will be focusing on the still-photography related features 

Looking Back on 2017 Droning

My frozen neighborhood for the last flight of 2017.

My frozen neighborhood for the last flight of 2017.

Another year of flying drones, but it’s not like I started flying drones on the first day of year back in… oh I don’t know, 2012? Does anyone really know when they officially started flying drones?

Mine started with the little Syma helicopter my father purchased for himself, but he never flew it for fear he would crash it. So, he just put it up on the shelf like any other aviation model he collected. But on those occasions I was home, one particular time I inquired about its ability to actually fly. He gave me permission to give it a try, and during that two-week visit of flying the little helicopter, I embarked on my “career” as a drone pilot.

I never flew again until the next year I was home, but after that second visit, I realized I needed to get my own. That’s when I was really hooked. Looking back at my Amazon orders, one could say I was officially on board on the 31st of March 2014 when I ordered, not one, but two Syma helicopters.

But, back to another young year behind me when it comes to flying drones, and the highlights of that year.

On Super Bowl Sunday (February 5,) I took out my XK Detect X380 for a neighborhood flight knowing everyone was indoors watching the game. In what I thought would be a casual and innocuous flight, I watched in horror as the X380 suddenly started drifting and unresponsive to my efforts of correcting the drift. Before I knew it, it was making like a Japanese dive-bomber at Pearl Harbor heading for the deck. As it dove toward a hard and frozen field (instead of a house or someone’s car luckily), it suddenly made a hard turn and flew through the leafless branches of a deciduous tree and then tumbled across the snow-packed road—finally coming to rest by the barely visible curb. Like a runaway truck ramp, the tree branches slowed the quadcopter down enough before hitting the frozen earth to keep the damage to a minimal. Oh sure, three of the four props were lost including all four legs of the landing gear and the gimbal holding the sports camera, but miraculously, every prop arm was only scratched up a bit, while the shell and camera remained intact. Walking home with the wrecked craft, I felt lucky on two accounts: first, I still had a quadcopter that would fly another day, and second, few people (if any) saw the horrible crash. I have yet to confirm what caused this incident, only theories.

On another instance, during a very short test flight (straight up and down) from the backyard after upgrading the firmware of my Phantom 3, a policeman knocked on my door about 30 minutes after the flight to ask if I had been flying a drone. He informed me that although I had not broken the law, a neighbor had reported the flight and was concerned.

One summer morning, I flew out of the front yard and as my Syma X8C was coming in to land, the guy across the street looked up and impersonated the action of someone firing a shotgun at the drone (sound effects included) as he was working about his yard. The drone was never above or near his property. Considering we’ve never visited, I reckoned his conduct as more adversarial than comical.

As a result of these incidents, I’ll probably be much more reserved about flying in the neighborhood in 2018, and limit such flights to only those circumstances that are far beyond the norm.

One other notable item: two of my drone images have hit the printing presses. One image was published in the October issue of The Sun Magazine, while another was used in a promotional piece for the college (where I teach).

As I head into the new year, I can report that I’ve formally logged well over 400 flights (on at least 8 different aircraft over the years) that produced still photography or video. This does not count the many test or pure recreational flights.

Travails of the Hubsan X4

Higher than any X4 should be—over Northwest College's Simpson Hall.

Higher than any X4 should be—over Northwest College's Simpson Hall.

This is the third installment of the series "Hard Landings & Flyaways."

If the DJI Phantom or Inspire series are the F-18s of the drone world, than the Hubsan X4 is the trainer for aspiring pilots of this blossoming industry. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Hubsan X4 has probably broken in a respectable number of drone pilots over the years, including this pilot.

Admittedly, my first RC experience was with my dad’s Syma (S-109?) army Blackhawk-like helicopter that he just kept up on the shelf with all his other non-flying model aircraft. He never flew it for fear of crashing it as he didn’t believe enough in his hand-eye coordination.

It was when I was visiting that I enquired about his helicopter and he gave me permission to give it a try. It had sat around for so long, he wasn’t even sure if it would power up. But power up it did, and indeed I flew it and crashed it all over the house that summer.

But it would be two years before that little taste of flying a drone would spread into a passion. I came back the next summer and flew it some more—having never flown anything else in between those two times.

But sometime after that second visit, I started googling drones and watching YouTube videos of anything to do with drone, leading to my discovery of what a huge world it already was. Once again, I was late for the party. 

Once the dust settled, it seemed the X4 was the trainer of choice based on my brief, but intense research. At the time, I didn’t know what a great choice it really was because not only did it lack “headless” mode, but it was very nimble and responsive—requiring me to really pay attention to every little movement.

The big mistake I made in those early days was I was too lazy to take it to a big open field when I first started flying outdoors. Rather, I just stepped outside the front or back door of my house and started flying. And, having a small city-lot-sized yard turned out to be a curse.

Sure, I lost control of it a number of times and occasionally it ended up in a neighbor’s yard. I would sneak over, jump a fence, open a gate or do whatever to quickly grab the X4 and be on my way. I was lucky in that I never encountered anyone—let alone resistance to being in their yard for a moment. There were a number of crashes in these early days too—and motors to replace, a camera would stopped working, etc. I even learned how to solder. A couple X4s just wore out from multiple crashes and became too damaged to repair.

In all, I ended up losing two X4s around the neighborhood—one of them I never recovered, while the other I inadvertently found hours after giving up on it.

My first X4 to vanish was one that had just been resurrected from a crash, and I was pretty proud to have it flying again. As these things go, I was probably a little too excited to get it outdoors and into the air—never mind that it was pretty windy that day. So, up it went to an altitude beyond any recognition of its orientation—where a moderate gust of wind grabbed it and carried it over a block or two of houses.

The Alley X4 after stumbling upon its remains.

The Alley X4 after stumbling upon its remains.

I ended up walking the streets where I thought it might be (trying to look as casual as possible), looking over fences and into yards, on rooftops, hoping to see its flashing LEDs indicating that the battery was getting low. But, it wasn’t to be, and suddenly I was the owner of another orphaned controller.

The second X4 to disappear during a flight happened in the same way except it was carried off by the wind in another direction—toward Powell’s little downtown district. I was certain that it ended up in the cover of a big pine tree near the Catholic Church which was why I never spied it. To be sure, I also combed the area around that tree to be sure. Eventually I gave up and chalked it up to another loss.

That afternoon I was walking home from the local coffee house and decided to walk up one of the alleys along the way. The morning drone loss hadn’t crossed my mind when I spied its crushed remains by the alley mailboxes behind the post office—a good 100 yards farther than the pine tree that I assumed had snagged the drone. To my surprise, the tiny X4 had flown over the church, across the street and into the alley where its unsuspecting size resting in the alley probably resembled a discarded candy wrapper to the day’s drivers with their utility bills to mail off.

Today, I still have two other X4s. One can barely fly, while the other is still in decent shape. Both are now resigned to house-flights only—which usually involves the cats. However, because of these losses, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t study the wind and consider whether it’s a good day to fly a drone.