Growing up I really liked remote control vehicles and toys. They’re what I asked for almost every Christmas and I was a regular pest at the local hobby store. As a young adult, I got more serious about the pastime and ended up with several gas-powered and electric models. I’ve always been interested in RC flying too, but the expense and learning curve of scale model planes and helicopters have kept me on the ground until recently.
I realize that gyro helicopters have been on the market for a long time. I’ve had several of them. In my opinion they have a few drawbacks. Chief among them being no good way to change pitch to generate thrust. My dual rotor HC “swims” through the air by wiggling its tail back and forth and barley achieves walking speed. Some models have a tail rotor that can lift the rear to change pitch, but I found them awkward to pilot and only marginally effective. Scale RC helicopters with a full collective and tail-rotor are fairly expensive and have a massive learning curve to fully master. I watched my novice neighbor shatter his bird into a thousand pieces on our street after a botched take-off; even with the safety spokes attached.
Quadcopters and multi-roter drones are the great equalizer amongst flying vehicles. They typically have a gyroscope that keeps them balanced which makes them easier to fly. They change direction by varying the speed of their rotors rather than by changing their wing shape like a traditional plane or helicopter. This results in more precise control and the ability to fly in any direction equally well.
When I started out with quadcopters, I knew that I eventually wanted to do areal photography and videography. I didn’t want to risk crashing an expensive camera drone right out of the gate so, I decided to learn in stages. First I purchased an in-expensive indoor micro drone for less than $15.00 .This little rocket can cover the entire length of my home in just a few seconds. In addition, it can do flips, impossible turns, and other impressive maneuvers that take a lot of practice to get the hang of. They really are quite fun to buzz around the house with, most can stay in the air for five to ten minutes on a charge and include a simple controller.
At first, piloting a quadcopter was difficult. The smallest input on the controls would lead to the little machine bouncing off a wall or careening to the floor at break-neck speed. I learned to hold the sticks between my thumb and index fingers rather than with just my thumbs. I also discovered that throttle control is paramount to keeping your vehicle in the air. In all, it took somewhere around twenty hours of practice before I could fly around my home with confidence.
After forty hours and a bag of replacement props, I could do flips, fly in and out of door-ways at full speed, circle the ceiling fan, and buzz my pets like a fighter pilot on a bombing run. Speaking of pets, if you have any, you’re going to want to keep a pair of tweezers handy. Almost every time that you crash, you’ll need to pull hair or carpet fibers off of the prop shafts before you can fly again.
Once I had mastered the micro-drone, I upgraded to a slighty larger and more powerful indoor/outdoor model that included a camera. At less than $100.00 it wasn’t overly expensive but it was faster and therefore more difficult to control. I could pilot it indoors right out of the box, but the first time I took it out to my backyard the wind blew it over my neighbors fence right after takeoff.
It turns out that balancing against the wind is a skill unto itself. You learn to tilt the drone into the wind and then back off when it lulls. It requires quickly reacting to changes in the machine’s pitch that you know you didn’t initiate. React too harshly on the sticks and the over-correction will cause a crash or mess up your shot. The upside is that I got to know my neighbors better from having to knock on their doors to retrieve my toy from their yards.
After I was comfortable flying in my yard, I began to push the flights higher and faster. It wasn’t long before I could comfortably fly over my whole neighborhood above tree level faster than most kids can ride a bike. The camera worked and it was neat to see the jittering low quality video and grainy pictures. With no gimbal, every twitch in the air resulted in a jerky, out of focus, picture. Still, I could see enough potential to dream of the areal shots I would be getting with my next upgrade.
Eventually, I got too brave and suffered a fly-away. This is when the wind blows your rig so far that you can’t find it. Wind blows different speeds at different altitudes. I was a couple of hundred feet up, trying to get a picture of a small lake, when a gust took hold and carried my baby out of sight. Since it didn’t have a GPS locator I had no chance of finding it. I was ready to upgrade anyway. Or, at least that’s what I told myself. Continue on to part two for the rest of the story.