They’re the hot, new topics in aviation and business. Their applications have been disrupting and controversial, and their implementation into policy has been stangnant and disappointing. Regardless, technology and innovation keeps charging toward progress at the rapid rate.
After flying drones for about a year, it is about time I start writing and sharing some of the experiences. The initial curiosity about drones sparked because of the general trending buzz about drones and their growing appeal, capabilities, and innovation. Drones on the market are easily accessible. For example, on amazon.com, the search “drone” results in hundreds of options with prices ranging between $18 and $4,600. The most well known consumer drone manufacturer is DJI. Their strong footprint in the consumer market is undisputable, however there are other quality manufacturers ready to compete and several “copy cat” drones for consumers that prefer a lower price point.
With a general curiousity, I decided to search amazon.com for a drone. I wanted something with a camera, small, and cheap. To my surprise, there were dozens of options. After browsing various drones under $50, I decided to buy a $35 mini RC drone made by KingPow. (At the time I bought it, it had good reviews, but when I looked it up today, it is no longer available and has very low reviews. I do not recommend that anyone buys this drone.) I really just wanted to fly it around the apartment, test out the camera, controllability, and see if I would enjoy flying it. What was this trending drone buzz about anyway?
Almost immediately, I started to feel buyers remorse. It felt as though I was buying a toy, and for a 29 year old person, it seemed a little ridiculous. Even my spouse laughed at me and called me a 12 year old. What I didn’t know then was that flying this little drone was the beginning of a new, exciting, nerdy, tech hobby.
Once I knew that the drone was on its way, I started questioning where I could fly it. What were the rules for flying little drones? Like I said before, policy implementation has been disappointing, and the only good source to find the answers to those questions is on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) site
The FAA has made it easy for drone hobbyists and professionals to register drones online at the FAA Drone Zone. The registration process is quick and costs $5. I have a lot of thoughts on the FAA’s requirement to register drones, but I’ll save them for another time.
When the little drone arrived, I was excited. It nearly felt like I was a kid again. The packaging box was small and inside was the drone and a handheld controller which was three-times bigger than the drone itself. I had to download an app to use the drone camera, and there was even an option to control the drone with the app instead of using the handheld controller. The drone was so tiny, I could hold it in the palm of my hand. It was so light and seemed so fragile. I was certain it would break if it crashed.
Take-off was always the easiest segment of flight. Start the motors, push the correct stick forward, and the quadcopter will generate enough lifting force for it to take-off. Maneuvering an landing the mini drone was a challenge. It would never maintain altitude after take-off, so I would have to constantly be adjusting the thumbstick. The plan was to practice take-off and hover in one spot, but the mini drone lacked the technology to keep stablility.
It took a handful of practice flights to get used to adjusting the drone height and keep it in one spot. The short battery life also prolonged the process since the battery lasted about six minutes and took about 30 minutes to recharge.
After getting used to take-off and hover, I focused on practicing directional control. Gently, I would adjust the controller to command the drone forward, back, left, right, spin left, and spin right. The most difficult part of controlling the drone in flight was constantly adjusting the height above ground. Any time I would command the drone into another direction, the height would significantly change, and I would have to focus on both correcting the height and direction of flight at the same time.
Gentle landings were difficult to accomplish with this mini drone. The instability made it a challenge, but after practicing a handful of times, I was able to land it gently about 80 percent of the time. The 20 percent “hard landing rate” was due to last second fluctuations in the height above the ground or directional control.
For the drone’s size, the mini HD camera was actually pretty impressive. The handheld controller had an option to turn the camera on, and the camera feed would display on the smartphone app. I practiced taking some photos and video but never recorded anything worth sharing. Focusing on the camera feed along with constantly adjusting the controls was nearly impossible to achieve.
I decided to focus solely on flying and directional control. I made obstacles around the apartment and would fly just for six minutes of fun. My beagle and yorkie poodle found the mini drone amusing and would follow it around the apartment as it was flying. Honestly, this was the most amusing part of flying a drone. I’m pretty sure my dogs thought it was a creature or bug of some type, and when I landed or accidentally crashed, they would go sniff it with curiosity.
For a fragile, mini drone, I was surprised that it never broke when it crashed. A couple of times, a propeller came off, but that was an easy fix. I’m sure if I would have flown it more, it would have eventually crashed and broke. There is only so much fun in flying a mini drone indoors, and because I was eventually bored, I started to look for a bigger and better option. Time to shop for a DJI drone.