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 

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.

MIAs of the JJRC H-12

The JJRC H-12 comes in three colors: this Texas orange, white and black.

The JJRC H-12 comes in three colors: this Texas orange, white and black.

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

The JJRC H-12 has been one of my favorite drones despite its toy-grade classification. The H-12 is a quadcopter that will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 to $75. In my mind, the best thing about this particular drone is that you can purchase it with either a 2.0 or 5.0 megapixel camera. Mind you, it’s not a high-quality camera, but considering the price, you could do far worse.

So, I’ll just get right to the painful part about this model: I’m on my fifth H-12 as of this writing. And because I’ve purchased it five different instances, it goes without saying that I’ve learned a lot about flying drones via the H-12.

When it comes to “disasters,” I’ve had two accounts that are memorable—both resulting in 100% losses.

My first JJRC H-12 served me well and it flew many, many missions. Once I lost it temporarily to the roof of Ellet High School (my brother’s alma mater) in Akron, Ohio when I was visiting my mom for several weeks. It was a flight around sunset and I was alone. And as these things go, one thing led to another along with an extra gust of wind and the next thing I know, it’s sitting on the roof.

Although I considered pulling off a cat-burglar like stunt that involved finding some way of climbing up to the roof. Then I considered by 50-plus years of age and I conceded to waiting it out until the next day. When I entered the building the next morning in search of a custodian who would assist me in the recovery, I was pondering the story I would offer up in explaining the drone’s location. Because it was the summer and school was not in session, it took me awhile to find the right person, allowing me more time to come up with something where I didn’t look (or feel) so stupid. Finally locating a custodian, I explained to him how my “non-existent son” lost his toy drone on the roof the night before. With little fanfare, he escorted me to a door with roof access and it was back in my possession after only spending one night alone under the Ohio sky.

It would be another five months or so before the H-12 flew its final mission—in Portland, Oregon this time. While visiting my gal Marsha, I stepped out of the back door of her apartment building for a quick flight of the downtown Portland skyline not far away. The wind appeared to be calm at the time, but the sky was dramatic. And as these things typically go, in what should be an easy and quick flight, turned into a confusing and painful experience. At some point while it was at its apex, it must have lost contact with the controller and at about the same time, it was high enough to catch a good gust of wind that sent it over some nearby trees and towards the I-405 and U.S 26 exchange. 

I never saw it again. Perhaps it was hung up high in the branches of the many trees that overlooked and lined the expressway, or it found its way to the ground somewhere and was picked up by some homeless/transient person. I’ll never know. Nevertheless, I listened to the local news the following day just to make sure no one reported a drone hitting a car on the busy highway. I was prepared to turn myself in had there been any injuries or damages from the ill-fated flight.

Relative to the lost-in-Portland H-12, the H-12 that replaced it had a very short life—no more than three flights. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and I decided to go down to Coulter Avenue (the major thoroughfare of Powell) and get an aerial image with the drone’s 5MP camera of the various grain elevators in that area.

Looking down on one of the neighborhood houses with the H-12 during a snow storm.

Looking down on one of the neighborhood houses with the H-12 during a snow storm.

Coulter Avenue is a four-lane highway that runs parallel to train tracks that lead to Cody and an irrigation canal. I decided to take off from the vacant parking lot of the Skyline Restaurant on the other side of Coulter from the elevators. It couldn’t be more than 100 yards from the car park to the elevators which is a typical range for toy-grades like the H-12.

As the quadcopter crossed over Coulter Avenue with about 75 feet of altitude, it suddenly dropped about 20 feet. This was likely a drop of signal from the controller, but then the drone came back up as I gunned the throttle. At that point, I should have brought it back, but thinking it was just some one-time glitch or anomaly, I pushed it forward. Within seconds of that decision, it dropped again, but this time it never recovered. Reminiscent of a last-second, half-court shot that wins a basketball game, the drone disappeared, but once out of sight, a splash of water appeared meaning only one thing—it was in the canal.

I froze for several seconds as the unexpected splash of water was finding a place to register in my mind. I crossed over the semi-busy highway—even having to wait for a couple cars to pass—and set a course for where the little drone might be in the swift-moving current of the irrigation canal. Looking over the canal once I arrived, I was awarded a quick glimpse of the submerged drone disappearing into the dark and dangerous waters of the canal.

I almost threw the controller in after it.

Sitting at home that evening with the repeating image of the sinking drone in my mind, I concluded that one of two things happened: the antenna on the drone or the controller wasn’t up to the usual standards, or there was some kind of radio interference in that part of town. But, as these things go, I’ll never know.

Hard Landings & Fly-Aways

Final Image.

Final Image.

This is the first installment of the series “Hard Landings & Fly-aways”

Not long ago someone reminded me that I should write about the soul-crushing experience of losing or crashing a drone. Like anyone who has been flying them for several years, I too have a rich history in this area. Nevertheless, I thanked them for the reminder, but I tabled the writing for another day given everything else on my plate.

Ironically, not long after that correspondence and contemplating how long it had been since I had an “incident,” I experienced another.

In that “hard landing,” I was reminded of all the emotions that flood one’s soul when such events unfold. The surprise, the confusion, the helplessness, the sense of loss, and ultimately the feeling of failure—whether it was operator error or not. 

Obviously these emotions/feelings are more profound when it comes to larger or more expensive aircraft. Yet, even when it’s a $30 aircraft, losing it or damaging it beyond repair pretty much consumes your thoughts the remainder of the day (and some of the next day). And there you are, walking back home with another orphaned controller. Needless to say, I’m sure there are several of us out there with an embarrassing collection of orphaned controllers.

For me, YouTube is typically the first therapy I seek out following a drone loss. Just type “drone crash” into the search window and behold the cornucopia of idiots that are in the same camp. You think you feel bad after destroying a $70 drone, go to YouTube and watch two guys drop two grand into the drink along the coast of Iceland—talk about “walking home with an orphaned controller.”

In light of any given drone loss, hope eventually shows up not far behind all of those initial post-crash bad feelings—well, that’s assuming that following a disaster you haven’t become of the mind, “That’s it, I quit… I’m never doing this again!”

Upon entering this realm of hope, it materializes in the form of looking for a replacement on Amazon, Banggood, Gear Best, or wherever else you acquire these small unmanned aircraft. Before you know it, that hope quickly becomes excitement as you consider not only replacing the aircraft you lost, but replacing it with a better aircraft since they are rapidly evolving like a strain of mutant organisms. And soon after, the new-found excitement transforms into an almost intoxicating energy which ultimately leads to another loss.

Such is… the drone pilot’s circle of life.

Next: actual accounts of my drone disasters.