Saturday, August 23, 2014

In which I get started with a quadcopter drone

It started with this:

and then this:
and my attention was grabbed.

It was @stammy's seminal write-up on the subject of drone photography, though, which pushed me fully over the edge—and I had to get one. And here's what our new Boulder hood looks like from a drone:

Boulder from a drone
and in motion:

To do this stuff, here's what you'll need:

  • a drone
  • a gimbal (think of this as a stabilizing camera mount)
  • a camera
You can build this all yourself, of course, and many do, but I took the easy way out and bought finished items: as well as a 64Gb microSDXC card for the camera and propeller guards for the drone (you'll want these).

What you have now is an amazing flying machine with a camera. Here's what you need to know:

  • is it hard to fly?
    Surprisingly not. This thing has a built in GPS, compass, gyroscope, inertial sensors, and a sophisticated flight computer which measures these inputs (along with the inputs from the control transmitter) and can quite capably keep itself hovering in place in a 20mph wind.
  • what's the range?
    Radio range is around 3,000 feet radially. You probably want to check your local FAA regulations if you want to fly more than 400 feet above ground level, though.
  • can I see what the drone's seeing?
    Not with this equipment. To do that you'd need to upgrade with parts for "FPV"; it's covered in @stammy's post.
  • how long does the battery last?
    About 25 minutes' flying time. You can buy extra batteries for about $130 each.
  • can I control the camera while flying?
    The gimbal will keep the camera perfectly level with respect to the horizon. Remotely you'll be able to control whether it faces directly forward or straight down, or any point in between.
  • so how can I trigger photos?
    With this equipment you can't; you'll set the GoPro to record before the drone takes off, and it'll do its thing. I use a mode where it takes 1080p video continuously and grabs a high-res photo every five seconds. When the thing lands you can review what it's captured.

Some things which have surprised me:

  • the ease of flying; seriously, the flight computer does most of the work
  • the effectiveness of the gimbal; it's just unreal how smooth the video is, even flying choppily
  • the noise; i can see why people get annoyed by these things flying nearby or overhead. Be considerate!

Number one top tip: don't descend too fast. Vortex ring state, where your drone becomes engulfed in its own downwash, is real—and you will plummet out of the sky like a stone. The worst crashes I've had have been a result of this.


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