7 things I learned in my first month as a drone owner

- Feilidh Dwyer | WeTalkUAV

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It is slightly embarrassing to admit but despite regularly writing articles for WeTalkUAV since January, I only recently got my hands on my first drone.

My very first flight came just last month at the home of DJI, – Shenzhen, China. I was fortunate enough to test out a Mavic 2 Zoom before I got to use my personal Mavic Air. In the five weeks or so since that time, I’ve clocked up several hours of flight time with my Air and realized just how much I didn’t know.

The early days – flying around a Pacific paradise

The acquisition of my drone coincided with a planned holiday to the beautiful Pacific nation of Samoa – a terrific playground to see what the Air was capable of. In my short time mucking around with it, I’ve marveled at the incredible photos and footage I captured. Seeing yourself and the world around through the lens of a drone, high in the sky can truly reshape how you imagine yourself and the world around. As recent as 10 years ago, other than having a super expensive hobby UAV or a helicopter at your disposal, how would one capture images like this?

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While DJI have done a great job of making the controls simple and getting the drone into the air fairly straightforward, there are aspects to drone ownership that hadn’t immediately occurred to me. Naturally, each drone model has unique features such as size, whether it has longer or shorter battery life or particular flight modes but there are some experiences that I think are more or less universal.

Thoughts and impressions of early drone ownership*

* Some of these are super obvious and will resonate more with those new to UAVs

1. They are even louder than I remembered

Anyone who has been in close proximity to a drone can attest to just how friggin loud these things are. I had been around drones before in parks etc but never piloted one myself. Apparently the Mavic Air is one of the quieter models but if you are close to it, it still register around 100 decibels. This is as loud as driving on a motorcycle or being near a power drill. If you’ve ever started one in an enclosed space (generally not a good idea), you’ll find that you have to raise your voice to be heard. I’d liken it to the sound of a weed eater.

Naturally – the sound quickly drops off the higher you fly the drone. At a height of 30 feet, the drone noise kind of fades into the ether and is not particularly bothersome. However, much like when a jet ski zooms noisily around a lake or bay, you can see why some people find the buzz of drones a bit disturbing when they are chilling out on a quiet beach or park somewhere (not to mention the thought they are being spied on).

2. Getting your drone off the ground isn’t always as simple as it seems

There have already been a bunch of times where, for whatever reason, my drone wouldn’t take off. This is a particularly frustrating phenomenon when you have other people standing around expecting to see the drone in action and you can’t get it to work. It totally kills the anticipation of other people when you have to stand around for several minutes, problem shooting as to why exactly it won’t take off.

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Common reasons it didn’t fly

A couple of times I’ve had to calibrate the drone’s compass before it took off. This involves picking it up and rotating it horizontally and vertically as shown in the clip below.

Bent props

Another time, one of the propellers starting hitting into the side of the drone while it rotated, making an unbearably loud buzz and causing superficial scratches to the side of the drone’s body. I assume this happened due to one of the props being slightly bent while the Air was inside its case. I gently bent the propeller back to its proper shape. The problem then was, every time it was about to take off, it would tilt too far backwards, the propellers would hit the ground and the drone would stop. It took a lot of finagling before it finally flew normally. Point is – there are nitpicky things that can go wrong which mean it’s not always as easy as taking the drone out of its case and flying.

3. Basic flight control is fairly easy but there are aspects of flight and filming that require more finesse

Capturing beautifully smooth footage – not always simple!

Although I’m pleased with some of the early footage I’ve got, I’ve checked out some YouTube videos of people doing perfect pull-back shots for a mile or more and thought – ‘Goddamn! Not sure I could do that.’

A lot of my early pan or rotation shots were fairly jerky and the footage captured was kind of choppy. As you get more familiar with the controls, you’ll learn to move the joysticks in a smoother manner to achieve the kind of cinematic pans that drone’s are famed for. As for choppy footage – I learned that if you are viewing the cached footage that records on your mobile, it is subject to any disruption between your controller and drone and generally records at a maximum of 720p rather than 4K which records to the drone’s onboard memory and SD card. I also learned that sometimes choppy footage is sometimes a result of having your drone set on the wrong frame rate.

It is remarkable how generally great 4K footage captured by the drone is, there are things you can do to make your footage look much better such as:

Buying ND filters from your drone

If the light conditions are too bright or too cloudy, your drone footage can end up looking over or under saturated. Applying a filter to the lens gets your footage looking much crisper and more professional.

Play around with the settings

There are oodles of modes to play around with. I haven’t tested even half of mine but I did play with chase mode and ran up and down the beach – was more frightening to imagine the same tracking technology being used by military or police.

4. Losing control of your drone induces panic attacks, heart palpitations

When you’re flying around and the battery gets down to 30 percent, the Mavic remote starts making a high pitched squealing noise, notifying you of low battery. You can change these settings so it kicks in at a lower battery percentage but 30 is about right to ensure the drone has enough juice to get back to you without falling out of the sky.

At 25 percent, the ‘return to home’ function is triggered. It may also kick in whenever the connection between the drone and the controller is severed. When RTH is underway, you have no control whatsoever. It simply follows a set route and lands back where it took off from. The first time this happened, I was hovering high above a large lake in a mountainous region of Samoa (pictured below).

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Not pictured: several moments later when the return to home feature was triggered and I panicked.

It is very disconcerting, seeing your expensive toy hovering above a body of water of unknown depth and not responding to your commands. As I feebly jiggled the joysticks, nothing happened. I broke out in a sweat and pictured the drone disappearing into the lake’s watery depths. Fortunately, that didn’t happen at the Air came back to me and began to land. Problem was, I was standing on a small jetty and the landing point was (for some reason) about 3 feet to the left of the jetty. As it started to lower, it looked like it would set down in the water. I had to reach my arm out, avoid falling into the lake and catch the drone. With the props going crazy, I managed to catch the drone in midair. It buzzed and I shut it off, avoided slicing my fingers (although I did cut myself another time – see lesson on second page). This time – crisis was averted. Anyone who experiences this loss of control will know what I’m talking about. No matter how much your trust the awesome technology, it’s still a freaky experience when it acts unexpectedly.

5. Multiple apps exist to make for a better drone flying a better experience

There are a bunch of factors that should be considered for anyone before taking off. The two most important are A: that you know the local drone regulations to avoid falling foul of the law. B: that you’re aware of the weather conditions so your drone doesn’t end up smashed.

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Fortunately, you don’t have to do extensive reading to figure out the local drone laws. I downloaded Airmap and it seems like its a must-have for drone owners. It can tell you what your local UAV laws are as well as which zones you can and can’t fly in. If you’re within 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of an airport or a helicopter pad, it’s pretty much a no-go without permission from your local civil aviation authority.

Similarly with weather – you don’t wanna take your drone out when the winds are too strong. This isn’t always as obvious as feeling how strong the breeze is. Air flows vary significantly depending on how high up you fly. UAV Forecast can quickly tell you a bunch of useful weather information and tell you whether its a good idea to fly or not.

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There are plenty of cool lists of apps to download online such as this.

6. People are still intrigued / scared by drone technology

It’s easy to forget that although drones are getting more common, they are still a niche technology and many people haven’t had close up experience with one (including yours truly until a month ago).

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Drones are still a novel technology and people’s reactions to them are sometimes pretty funny.

Nearly everyone I’ve flown the drone near is transfixed. They find UAVs a novelty and probably think, as many of us do: “Is that drone spying on me?” Nobody stops and stares when someone pulls out their smartphone because by now, they are so ubiquitous, they are about as unusual as a pair of sneakers. Drones are far from that point and although more people than ever before have drones, you have to realise – as an owner, you’re very much in a minority. Which is why – you should be a courteous and responsible drone owner. I’ve said it many times – it only takes one idiot doing stupid stuff to ruin a party for everyone.

7. Drones can be dangerous – cuts hurt!

It’s extremely ironic that just a few months ago, I looked at other pictures online of people being injured by their drone and thought: “Pff, that’ll never happen to me.” I also wrote this article called Common drone injuries and how to avoid them. Skip a few months later and this happened:

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How did you manage that?

When you first start to fly, you gradual get the feel for your UAV in the air and how to handle situations when things go wrong.

I had cranked up my drone in my lounge (a generally terrible idea) but merely wished to show my flatmate what it looked like in action. For unexplained reasons, the props started spinning at full speed while it was sitting on the ground but it didn’t take off. Not wanting it to hit the roof, I reached down to delicately grab it. This was, to put things mildly, extremely foolish. I could have simply pushed the lever down on the controller and stopped the propellers but no, I picked the thing up and badly cut two of my fingers. It’s surprising that plastic can cut so deep but it was a reminder for me not to be so stupid next time.

Going forward

There’s still much left for me to learn but my early experiences have helped me appreciate the drone flying is not as simple as picking it up and flying. Have fun and be safe out there!

What did you learn as a new drone owner?

Original article at WeTalkUAV, here.

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