Monday, January 16, 2017

First Flight

I crashed in the first 30 seconds.

My drone didn't cost me much. It retails for $200, but it was on sale, at 20 percent off, and I received a $100 gift card at my office holiday party, in December. For $60, plus tax, it was worth trying. I couldn't otherwise justify spending a lot of money on a drone: if I had that kind of disposable income, I'd much rather spend it on another lens for my camera.

The weather, since Christmas, hasn't been that great for flying a drone. We've experienced both freezing rain and snow, and when the skies have been clear, it's either been exceedingly windy or cold.

And so, I've done my test flights indoors, in the living room. I practiced lifting off from the floor and landing on the dining-room table or the coffee table. With an inexpensive drone, I learned that it won't simply hover in place, that I had to constantly keep my fingers on the joystick to keep it from drifting, constantly feather the throttle to maintain altitude.

A couple of times, I lost control, would have the drone falter as it attempted to land on the table, only to move, just as I dropped the throttle, and it would tumble of the table surface. Another time, it hit a chair. Once, it flew into me, a spinning propeller hitting me in the chest.

It stung, but I was more concerned with the condition of the drone.

It's a tough little flying machine, and always started up again after a collision.

But these tests were indoors, and I was itching to get the drone outside.

Yesterday, I couldn't wait. It was sunny and the winds were low. It was cold, but certainly not so cold that I couldn't step out into my driveway and try my drone in the circle in which I lived. I charged up the battery, inserted a new, fast SD card into the camera, and headed out.

I set the drone on the roof of our SUV, from which it would lift off. My plan was to have the drone fly out towards the circle, pivot toward me, and to survey the neighbourhood. Just some simple maneuvers to start: I needed to get used to moving the machine in a larger, open space, but with the snow and houses, I didn't want to try too much. For more complex moves, I'm going to have to wait until all the snow is gone and I have a large field.

Lifting off was easy. The drone left the SUV and gained height as it moved down the driveway and over the street. It climbed over the circle and went above the houses. All systems were running.

I moved the rotation lever to the right and the drone pivoted to turn around. That's when the trouble started. The rotation control and the throttle are the same stick, and in pivoting, the drone started losing power, began to drop. I tried to compensate by giving it more power, but the drone had picked up acceleration in its descent, and as I tried to regain control, the drone headed swiftly toward our neighbour's tree. I feared losing further control, maybe having the drone fly behind a house, where I would lose sight of it, so I did the only thing I could think of to stop it.

I shut off the power.

It was only a couple of feet from the neighbour's tree. My second fear was that I would get caught up in the tree, but with no leaves to get tangled in, and at the speed in which it was moving, it did exactly what I hoped it would do. The branches slowed it down and broke its fall.

I lost sight of it as it dropped behind a snowbank. I knew it had come to rest in my neighbour's driveway, but I didn't know if it was upside-down, whether any of the propellers had broken off, or it was damaged in any other way.

It was sitting, right-side up, looking none the worse for wear. I throttled up, to see if any of the props would turn, and all of them did. It lifted off and moved down the driveway, and onto the street. I set it down in the middle of the road and walked behind it, and started again.

Easy moves. Nothing too fast. Constantly aware of the controls, making sure that I kept the throttle in control.

It moved up, it moved down. It pivoted, slowly, until I had it looking at my house from high above, with nothing but a sea of suburbia as far as the eye could see.

The cold was getting to the battery. I could see the white and orange lights, blinking steadily, telling me that the drone would soon head back to earth, its propellers would come to rest, and the flight would be over.

It was my first official flight and I had crashed in only 30 seconds. But the drone is tough and it flew again.

It's not the most interesting video, but it gives a good bird's-eye view of my neighbourhood. It runs for less than five minutes and the most action-packed part is between the 20 and 30-second mark.

My first flight will not be my last. Next time, I try the still-camera button. If all goes well, it could be my Photo of the Day image.

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