It is the dawn of the drone. In August of 2016, the FAA released the first ever rules on commercial drone use. First ever because the technology has only recently gotten to the point that the rules were needed. There is now a clear cut path for people to use a drone for any number of applications and even make money doing it. The FAA expects 600,000 commercial drones to be in the air by next year. Such a market opens up demand for some pretty sweet technology. When you visit a friend’s new house, they usually give you a tour. Now that Clayviation has a drone in the family, I thought I’d give you a tour of my DJI Phantom 4 to answer some of the commonly asked questions and share some insight into what this little piece of magic can do.
The Flight Controller
The feel of the flight controls reminds me a little of a video game controller and makes me appreciate the time I spent on those first person shooter games in my younger years. Each flight axis is controlled by the two sticks, and there are buttons on the top and triggers in the back that control some of the camera functions. By hooking up a tablet or smartphone with a USB cord and using the DJI Go App, much of the flight can be viewed and monitored right on the touch screen. Best of all, you can see what the camera on the drone sees, creating a first person perspective. This really takes the experience from simply looking up at the drone to looking out through the eyes of the drone as if you were up there flying around.
Coming stock with the drone is the attached camera that shoots 12 megapixel photos and 4K video. A little rocker switch on the remote rotates the camera from the roughly straight ahead position to the straight down position. Left and right is achieved by simply yawing the drone. Photos and video come out incredibly stable and clear. While the drone is in a hover, it’s easy to position the camera right where it needs to be, and then either use an auto exposure mode or switch to manual and find the right combination of shutter speed and ISO settings, depending on your photography skills.
Flying many of the entry level hobby drones requires constantly working each axis of the flight controls to keep it in position. With the Phantom 4, a combination of GPS and ground sensors keep the drone right where you put it. If you were to release all the control inputs and go “hands off,” the drone would stop and hover right where it is. That’s a great thing not only for accuracy of flight but also for getting the perfect camera shots. Even with a little wind, the drone works against it to remain stable instead of drifting.
It wouldn’t do the flying experience justice to stop with stable flight and a great camera and not mention some of the features that make this drone feel like it dropped right out of science fiction. By selecting the on-screen takeoff button, it will take off on its own and hover a few feet above the ground. There is then a mode called TapFly where you can simply tap on the live video feed on the screen and the drone flies where you tapped. Waypoints can be mapped out by clicking a trigger when the drone is where you like it. Those waypoints can then be flown automatically. Another feature, called ActiveTrack, allows you to select a person in the camera view by drawing a little box around them. The drone will then automatically follow that person. Take a look at a video of it in action. Finally, before takeoff, you can push a button to mark the location of takeoff, called the home point. The “Return Home” button on the remote can be pressed to bring the drone back to the home point at an altitude you select. Then it lands itself and shuts down. And I thought my GPS talking to me in the car was cool.
The intelligent flight battery that the Phantom 4 uses is rated for a flight time of around 28 minutes before needing to be recharged, and they take about an hour to charge back up. I keep three batteries on hand and use a charging hub that will charge more than one at a time. With this setup, I can theoretically fly continuously, only landing to switch batteries, without needing to stop and wait to charge – kinda like circular breathing. When the battery gets low, a warning cautions you to land. If you don’t heed the warning, it will eventually land itself for you. The same happens if the remote were to lose connection with the drone – the failsafe kicks in and the drone returns home and lands.
Ultrasonic and image sensors on board the drone will detect obstacles in its flight path. If something is in the way, the drone stops and hovers in place. If obstacles are detected during a return to home sequence, the drone will maneuver up and over the obstacle. Alternatively, a little switch on the remote will flip over to Sport Mode, disabling the collision avoidance, but opening up the top speed to 45mph. Wanna race? While this Obstacle Sensing System might make this drone seem uncrashable, keep in mind that automation should be used as an aid, not a crutch. Any automated system must be learned inside and out and monitored constantly for any deviations. Tools to enhance the pilot in command experience don’t change the responsibility of pilot in command. Wait, where’d this little soap box come from anyway? While I’m at it, be sure to eat your vegetables and brush for a full two minutes.
Finding It’s Place
I remember listening to a radio show on my morning drive, probably in the early 2000’s, about what use it was to text. “Why not just call?” The hosts were listing the reasons they could think of that a text could be useful. Texting was new technology and had just recently gotten easier to use (no more pushing a key three times to get a letter). It was still trying to find its place in the everyday world. Today, texting is clearly a huge part of the way we communicate for both business and social reasons alike. There is expected to be a huge surge in the drone industry in the coming years. Drones, like texting, will continue to find their place in everyday life and business. I, for one, plan to be a part of that. And even as amazed as I am with the current technology, I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re looking back on these early drones like we look back at a VHS tape now. Be kind – rewind!
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