The Art of Flying Your Very Own Drone
Drones are coming to American skies—not just for surveillance or security work, but also for hobbyists. If you want to pilot your own drone, learn the ABCs of UAVs.
"Over a four-month period I learned how to fly three multicopters: a super-simple $300 Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, a $680 DJI Phantom, and a tricked-out, six-rotor $1300 3D Robotics Y6. Multicopters have anywhere from three to eight rotors, are highly maneuverable, and can hover and fly in virtually any direction. These are good starter drones, because they are generally quite controllable and won't disappear over the horizon in a hurry, the way fixed-wing craft tend to do.
But as I found out, multicopter flying is not without its challenges. Things can sometimes go haywire faster than you can react. Plus, piloting one can be a mind-bending exercise in relative positioning. Multicopters are symmetrical, so it's not always obvious which way your drone is "facing." Remote control usually involves either a radio-control unit with dual analog sticks and a dizzying array of switches and buttons (many of which do nothing), or, in the case of the Parrot AR.Drone, an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet with onscreen virtual controls. Regardless, operation can get a little complicated. When your drone flies behind you and you turn around to face it, the directional controls are now the reverse of what they were when it was in front of you—likewise, if you swivel your drone to face a new direction without reorienting your own body, the drone moves sideways relative to you. For this reason, I suggest keeping your first flights low and close by, and that you find a wide, open area to practice in—I used a local dog park. Also, purchase a few extra propellers, because you're going to crash your drone. And that's okay, because repairing your drone is part of the hobby.
In terms of accessibility, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is the newbie's top choice. It is affordable, durable, comes with a battery and an onboard camera, and is controlled via a smartphone. You can even fly it indoors—it comes with a removable hull that protects the rotors from bumps into walls, pets, and people. Takeoff and landing are accomplished with a single button. The AR.Drone has a sonar sensor that keeps it a fixed distance from the ground, and its 720p camera records a video to your tablet or phone as it flies.
I had fun flying it, and my nerdy little toy impressed my nerdy friends. But the limitations surfaced quickly. The standard battery for the model I tested was rated for 1000 milliampere-hours—good for a paltry 12 minutes of air time. The company now sells a 1500-mAhr battery for longer flight times. Also, since the AR.Drone is controlled via Wi-Fi, it is constrained in its range to about 165 feet from the controller. There's plenty of fun to be had within that range, but more sophisticated choppers put it to shame.
For instance, the Phantom, a ready-to-fly quadrotor from DJI, has a range of almost 1000 feet from the controller. But I wouldn't suggest sending it that far afield—at any distance greater than 500 feet, the drone becomes a coin-size white blob against the clouds. The Phantom is also fast, with a top speed of more than 20 mph—although that kind of hot-dogging will chew through a 2200-mAhr battery (which is not included) in 10 to 15 minutes.
The quadrotor also uses a GPS sensor and digital compass to do away with the orientation problem that plagues most multicopters. Phantom has two Intelligent Orientation Control settings that normalize its forward motion regardless of which way the drone is facing. One IOC setting fixes the Phantom to a grid, which still reverses the controls if you fly it behind you. The other setting fixes the craft to a radius around its launch point; forward motion moves it away from you, reverse brings it back. I found this massively useful once I attached a GoPro to the Phantom's camera mount. I could then steer the camera in any direction yet still fly the aircraft relative to my own postion. It was like having a helicopter cameraman at my disposal for home movies. Now I have tons of aerial footage of my kids playing with the neighborhood dogs in the park, and a few high-altitude pans that give a view of my entire town.
On the upper end of the (or, at least, my) cost-and-complexity curve is the 3D Robotics Y6 hexacopter, using the APM:Copter software platform, which was the last and most ambitious drone I tried. You can build this three-arm, six-rotor craft yourself for $400 to $600 in parts (depending on the options you select), or you can have 3D Robotics build it for you for $700 to $1300. Fully tricked out, a 3D Robotics multicopter can be flown manually with a remote control, or it can do autonomous waypoint navigation. It can be accessorized with a wireless-telemetry kit that communicates with your laptop and a first-person-view camera that broadcasts back to a screen or video goggles. And it can also support a servo-driven tilting gimbal for real-time control of a second video camera. The idea is that you guide the aircraft with the low-res broadcast camera and record with a hi-def camera on the gimbal. Its six motors make the Y6 a strong beast, capable of lifting a heavy payload—some of which is its own large battery (the company suggests at least 4200 mAhr). The drone can also survive one or more motor failures while maintaining flight."