Apologies to anyone who considers this phrase “cultural appropriation” or otherwise offensive, but I really do feel almost like I’m coming out of the closet by announcing that I’ve become a drone pilot.
Like many of my other hobbies or interests, flying quadcopters has a stigma among much of the general public because they don’t understand it and many of them have heard enough nonsense from the media to have made up their minds in advance of facts. People think they know what “drones” are, but the word is about 100 years old and up till quite recently simply meant unmanned aircraft (and sometimes boats) that were being used as military targets.
Around 25 years ago, the USAF introduced Predator drones, which immediately captured the world’s attention and horror, because what could be more frightening than a robot aircraft that could fly around where you couldn’t see it, but as soon as you stepped out of your house, it could kill you with a missile? Perhaps camera drones, because those are the kinds that get people shaking their fist at the sky because they’re afraid that some kid with a drone is going to see their wife naked in the upstairs window. However, virtually every civilian/hobby drone with a camera also has a wide-angle lens, which means it would have to be pretty much right outside your window to get a pixel’s worth of nipple…and then you could hit it with a broom handle.
So if you associate the word “drone” with either death from above or peeping Toms, that’s where you got those memes from. “Drone” really implies something with a certain degree of autonomy, as with most of the larger DJI camera drones that can be programmed to fly a course via GPS waypoints or just literally drawing a line on a map. Those are the kind that people are concerned about terrorists using, for just that reason (and because they can lift a decent amount of weight). At the same time, those are the kind that are also factory-locked from flying near airports and other sensitive areas (they don’t often mention that in lurid newspaper articles).
The things I fly (more properly called sporting quadcopters, I suppose) have zero autonomy; they won’t even hover by themselves. The whole art and challenge is hand-flying them in the first place, and believe me it takes both hands and sometimes even body English. If the FAA really wanted to treat drones like airplanes, they’d have their hands full because the NTSB would be at my house six times a day to investigate every time I crash!
Anyway, past the enjoyment of flying one of these things and having it actually go where you intended it to (which took me over 3 months to learn decently), there’s also the fact that I do it all while wearing goggles that let me see from the drone itself. It’s as if I was a very tiny pilot in there! But it also means that I feel like I’m actually up there, so I get the best of both worlds: experiencing flight maneuvers that rival (and in some cases beat the pants off) jet fighters, while staying firmly on the ground. This method of flying is called FPV (for First-Person View).
Art and Science
There’s a lot of art to flying quads. Some people show off their aerobatic skills, some their daring (flying low over water, down a chimney, through the Alps), and so on. Personally I prefer videos that don’t make me dizzy (the absolute best pilots can fly straight down a building and I still don’t get dizzy, and I’m a guy who can’t even look at pictures that look straight down).
People have been strapping GoPros to racing quads for awhile, but this immensely talented fellow took apart his GoPro and put the pieces on a very small handbuilt drone (he also wrote the stabilization software, damn he’s good) and then he changed everything with this one jaw-dropping video:
He showed the world that you could get excellent quality HD video from a unique and tiny platform, and pretty soon you could buy a pre-taken-apart GoPro clone and put it on smaller quads…not for “spying on people” but for cinematic purposes. I’m currently building a specialized quad myself (from scratch, basically) that will have all the safety and protection of a Tiny Whoop but should fly much more smoothly for nice video.
Tiny Whoops are amazing. They’re about the size and weight of a sparrow (around an ounce), made mostly of flexible plastic, and have guards around the propellers, so they are absolutely no danger if they should happen to fall on you or even hit you at full speed. The biggest danger is long hair getting caught in the props (happened to both me and Susan once). These aren’t the kind of things people fly high in the air, allegedly endangering airplanes, either: they’re mostly used for things like whooping it up in your house or flying through playground equipment when the kiddies aren’t there.
I actually went back almost a year in my YouTube history just to find out, but the first time I heard the word “whoop” to refer to a drone was in a “cat vs. whoop” video. But it didn’t make an impression on me because you couldn’t really see what the cats were swatting at. It wasn’t until I happened on the video below that I suddenly understood that whoops were entirely different from camera drones, racing drones, or in fact anything I had ever seen. Once I saw this crazy Aussie flying that tiny thing through chair legs, I was HOOKED! Just check out 30 seconds of this:
Here’s my current fleet of Tiny Whoops. None of them have the original props. Or frame. Or in some cases, everything else (the Drone of Theseus)! But I haven’t seriously broken one of these in awhile:
Here’s the biggest quad I have, a factory-built Armattan Gecko (with HD camera):
And here’s how small it actually is:
Oh, and here’s my smallest (9 grams):
In fact, even though my fleet is rapidly approaching double digits in number, every one of them weighs less than 250 grams, which means that according to the FAA and the laws of most countries, they are considered “toys” and not even worth registering as UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) because they pose no real threat to anyone (and yes, I still obey the law and certainly don’t fly near airports or anywhere I might alarm someone, and I even got a ham license (KM6ZIF) so I can legally use higher-powered transmitters).
I’m quite interested in the Slo Flo freestyle movement, which represents a shift away from traditional wild aerobatic videos and a deliberate move towards more smooth, cinematic presentations. This is perfect for my two main goals: showing flight from a dragon’s perspective, and illustrating a series of repeating dreams I had a few years ago for around six months where I was wearing a magic hat and flying over streets and so on.
Things To Watch On Your Biggest Screen
- A cinematic video from one of my favorite pilots.
- This pilot does the most amazing sweeping landscapes.
- This fellow specializes in aerobatic freestyle, but when he does Slo Flo, it’s just so good.
- Harold is flying around the Philippines with a slightly different version of the HD camera quad I’m building.
The kind of flying I want to do is kind of a mix between the last two…few aerial tricks, just the feeling of floating through the air in different environments. This is the best HD video I was able to make before my Gecko crashed…still getting the hang of flying that one.
Perhaps most important, doing all this flying, repairing, and video production has helped my mood immensely over the past year when I was dealing with all kinds of stressful stuff…ignoring the stress involved in tree retrieval, crashing, and soldering on an almost microscopic level. As (meta!) proof: I’m writing long-form articles again!