Quadcopter Survey with my DJI Phantom 2/GoPro

I hadn’t been flying my DJI Phantom 2 since last year (before I herniated two disks in my neck) but I’ve been meaning to take it out and get it in the the air. This week, two different things happened which provided some incentives to get it in the air, for reasons which weren’t entirely frivolous:

  • My new next door neighbor mentioned that there was debris in the drainage ditches up on the hill that drain from his yard to my yard. I thought that it had been cleaned out, so I wanted to be sure, but frankly, hiking up there when the ground is wet is asking for a new herniated disk.
  • I had a small roof leak which caused a call to my roofers to come out and have a peek. They mentioned that I had a fair number of busted tiles on my roof (annoying, perhaps broken by our contractors during last years remodel?).

I hadn’t flown in a while, so I decided that rather than flying over my house, I’d begin by just getting the view of the drainage ditches. I got the copter charged up again, reviewed my checklists, and took it out into the backyard.

Oddly, I heard a familiar droning: one of my neighbors had a quadcopter up doing a high pass over the neighborhood. By the time I was ready though, it had sailed back off to the south. I got it up in the air and tried to get my coordination back. It was a beautiful day for flying.

Here’s a nice high view to the north east from my house, fairly high up.


But that wasn’t what I was after: I aimed the GoPro down and flew fairly low over my hill to get these pictures. This is the view of the lower of the two drainage ditches. It’s got a little silt in it, but is pretty clear. It might be worthwhile to do a concrete patch of the seam. You can also see a fair number of gopher holes up on the hill.


The other ditch is at the top of the hill. It actually gets a lot less water, so the silt settles out pretty well up there, and I’ve got some grass growing it. It could definitely use some work to clear it.


Very nice! Perhaps next weekend I’ll do a flight over the house and see if I can identify broken roof tiles. I’m pretty glad I didn’t have to hike up there to check it out. Kind of wish I had an FPV setup. Perhaps I’ll get that going in the not-too-distant future.

On quadcopters…

I’ve been having a bit of fun with my DJI quadcopter lately, but there is something that is annoying me and stressing me in the back of my head, and that’s surrounding the legality of flying quadcopters.

Basically, it’s impossible to determine with any certainty whether flying your quadcopter in any particular place is legal.

Consider my very first time flying with the DJI Phantom 2:

Within minutes of putting birds in the air, the police roll up and inform us that it’s illegal to fly in East Bay Regional Parks. You might imagine that you’d be able to find this rule somewhere: go ahead and read their rules and regulations. This webpage makes the claim that drones are illegal under Ordinance 38, but I was unable to locate any mention of that in the actual ordinance. The term “drone” doesn’t appear in the ordinance. The word video only appears once in section 702, which covers commercial filming, which I was uninterested in. There doesn’t seem to be any regulations covering remote controlled aircraft in Eastbay Parks at all.

Is it illegal? I don’t know. I’m really not interested in engaging in a confrontation with a police officer about it though, so I’m not flying there. Even if it isn’t illegal, you could probably be stupidly cited under some noise ordinance or failing to cooperate with police. Who needs that headache?

So, the question is, where can you actually fly? And where can you be sure that flying is legal?

For those who would argue against spying or presenting a hazard to pedestrians or other park goers, look at the video again. We chose this park and venue precisely because it was far from residential properties, and from other park users. The parking lot was convenient to launch from, but we launched far from other cars, and our flight path was out over unoccupied park land. We want to operate safely and responsibly, and just have some fun snapping some nice pics of the beautiful landscape that surrounds the Bay Area.

Oh, and by the way, what I have isn’t a drone. It’s a model aircraft, in particular, a quadcopter. It is an unmanned aircraft only in the sense that your RC car is a remotely operated motor vehicle. It weighs 2.2 pounds. Call it a toy. Do not call it a drone.

Flying at Lime Ridge Open Space…

It was a warm and reasonably calm day, so Carmen and I decided to take the Phantom 2 out to Lime Ridge Open Space, where many RC enthusiasts fly. Rather than bore you with 18 minutes of video, I thought I might give you two short video highlights… Without further ado:

More flying, with a couple of close mishaps…

I’m getting more confident flying the DJI Phantom 2, which means that I’m closer to having my first crash as I try to do more aggressive things. Mind you, the Phantom 2 pretty much has training wheels on it: no matter how hard you lean the stick to one side or the other, the copter will actually not doing anything blindly stupid. But still, immediately after launch, I flew across our soccer field and came closer to hitting the trees on the other side than I normally would like. After that, I just tried to do a bit of flying, doing overpasses of my head, trying to get used to turning left and right with the copter facing me and away from me… in general, just getting used to flying.

I did a couple of fun things: got a view of the 6′ tall seagull on top of one of our buildings, and a high angle shot of the main building here.

I did have one issue on this flight that’s hard to see: toward the end, I appeared to lose contact, and the copter took off to its “home location”, wherever that may be, but seemed to be toward our parking lot. A few seconds later, I managed to get control again and brought it back and landed without incident. Still, I should RTFM about how to set and recover from such an occurrence.

Another day of flying… this time with the working gimbal…

At lunch today, I managed to get a quick flight in before the field was taken over by soccer players. Unlike my early attempt, this time the gimbal was working. The footage is not all that interesting, since I don’t have FPV setup, I can’t see what the camera is aimed at, which makes the framing hit and miss, but it is at least reasonably stable. I might try to tweak some of the settings for the gimbal, it moves very quickly when you try to tilt the camera up/down.

But I’ve completed five flights, still no crashes!

Phantom Bad Boys…

I mentioned that during yesterday’s aborted attempt to fly quadcopters from a regional park resulted in a visit from the “Can’t Possibly Have Fun Police”, informing us that short sighted regulations against flying had been enacted in Eastbay Regional Parks. The entire incident was recorded remotely from Joachim’s Phantom 2. With soundtrack! (This is what footage from my copter should look like when the gimbal is working properly).

First (and second) flight with the DJI Phantom 2…

Carmen bought a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter for my birthday, which I’ve been a little too chicken to put into the air so far. But John and Joachim were interested in flying theirs today, so I decided to give it a whirl. Initially, we headed out to Miller/Knox park, out near the old location of Pixar in Point Richmond. Despite some fairly hefty wind, I got enough courage to put mine into the air. Sadly, within a few minutes of launch, the No-Fun Police showed up and informed us that it was illegal to fly quadcopters in Eastbay Regional Parks. Sigh. We did some quick googling on our phone, and at the very end of the park regulations in very small print it was said that quadcopters equipped with video (specifically) were not allowed. Grumble. Anyway, in my excitement of getting the quadcopter in the air, I forgot to start video recording. Carmen did record me operating the quad from the ground: perhaps I’ll put some of that video up later.

We debated going to Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, where model rocketry, kites and RC airplanes of all kind seem to be common place, but we were frankly annoyed, and wondered if that park too was at least technically illegal. In the end, we ended up going to a place where were haven’t had any problem: the soccer field at work.

This time, I did remember to turn on the camera, but it appears that my gimbal controller may have some sort of loose connection: it was essentially deactivated for this flight. Thus, the footage is considerably less steady
than it really should be. Nonetheless, we have to document these milestones, even if the result is less than 100% successful. The sound is nothing but motor whine and wind noise, so you might want to turn it down.

When I got home, I tried hooking up the copter to my laptop. Initially, it didn’t see the IMU unit on the gimbal. I powered it down, pulled all the cables and reseated them, and when I powered it back up, it seemed to work okay. I did it a few more times, and did have one situation where it seemed glitchy. Not sure if the issue is really the connection or something else, but I’ll have to try it again in the future.

Thanks a lot for the spiffy birthday present, Carmen! The DJI is really easy to fly: in part because the throttle isn’t actually a throttle: it’s a relative altitude command. When you push the left stick forward, the quad copter goes up. When you pull it back, it does down. If you let go of the stick, it stabilizes at the current attitude. When you push the right stick forward to go forward, you don’t have to increase the throttle to maintain altitude. It’s all designed to stay in the air in the most stable way. When you gain experience, you can switch it to a more complex mode that allows for greater control and riskier maneuvering.

I think I’ll try to send it up (hopefully with a working gimbal) later this week. Stay tuned for more footage.

DIY FPV Micro Quad…

Building my full sized quadcopter is going rather slowly (sigh) but in the mean time I picked up a little Hubsan X4 to play with. It’s cheap, and because it has a very low mass, it’s pretty hard to destroy. After more crashes than I can count, I’ve only managed to ding up one propeller (and replacements are pretty cheap and easy to get). But I must admit that one of the reasons I’m interested in quads and RC vehicles is to shoot video from them. While it is possible to get microquads that carry cameras, or even allow FPV, I kind of like the idea of home brewing something. Often, such projects are aided by following in the footsteps of giants, looking at how others have solved problems helps a bunch. It’s also inspiring. That’s why I was particularly enthused to find this article:

Build a micro-sized first-person-view quadcopter

A couple of things I like about the article:

  • It suggested the Vitality H36 quadcopter. It has one really interesting feature: it’s compatible with the Flyky/Turnigy radio transmitters. It would be cool to use my big transmitter with the tiny quad.
  • Provides good hints on the video camera, transmitter and receiver module that you might want to use.
  • Good links to circularly polarized antenna construction details.
  • It’s an existence proof that it can be done! Awesome!

It looks like a complete hoot!

Drone Lunch…

At work, we have an informal group that is interested in drones and quadcopters. Every third Thursday, we get together and fly. Today we went over to Cesar Chavez Park for a bit of flying. I was hoping that I’d have more of my own quadcopter completed, but instead I just observed Mark fly his Bixler and his One Piece Quad, while John flew his Phantom 2 around. They should have some footage up in the next few days. To tide you all over, here is some footage that Jeremy shot on two previous drone lunches, one filmed at work, and the other at the top of Mount Diablo. Enjoy.

Pixar Drone Meet from Jeremy Vickery on Vimeo.