Buying and Flying a Drone: Part 1

I bought a drone. Two upcoming writing projects could be better with drone-taken photographs so I’ve taken the plunge. I am disgusted and embarrassed by what I’ve paid but I want to be positive and so I am launching into this venture with a constructive and optimistic heart.

I bought a Dji Phantom 3 Standard (external link), “The Drone For Beginners.” It’s a drone with a camera already attached. No need to buy a drone and then a camera and then wonder how they are going to work together. While there are dozens of other drones to choose one, this model was rated highly and was in my budget of  $500 to $600.

The drone was available immediately from my local Best Buy store. I did not want to buy on-line, only to have to box up and mail back a bunch of dismembered parts in case things went wrong. Based on my experience with Best Buy, I knew I could go back to the store and return anything that was defective.

My budget was soon blown. All sorts of tempting accessories were available in a bundled package which I wound up buying. The most important components in that package were a spare battery, which costs over $100 by itself, and a semi-hardshell case to transport the drone and its accessories. Also included was a second battery charger, this one beefier than the one included with the drone, and plenty of spare propellers and propeller guards. A memory card was also included which I have not yet used. With sales tax the total bill came to $879. Sigh.

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Putting it together was physically simple but a slow process to make the drone live to the world. I needed to register the drone with Best Buy, the manufacturer and the FAA. Along the way I bought accident insurance for another $110. It seemed I was entering my credit card information repeatedly over two or three hours. Getting FAA registration (external link) took only fifteen minutes and cost just five dollars. But I hesitated mightily at their site.

The FAA wants to know if you are flying your drone (or Unmanned Aircraft System) for work or for fun. Their words. Flying professionally involves more steps and I wanted to avoid this. Although my drone ambitions are to include photographs in articles or books I sell, it may be months or years before any money comes to me. So I avoided the entanglement of registering for work purposes and went with the fun category. I can always change my status later.

Four parts make the Phantom 3 Standard go:

  • The drone itself, which communicates with WiFi to a handheld controller;
  • The controller, which builds the WiFi network;
  • A smart phone, supplied by the user, which connects to the controller through WiFi;
  • The Dji app, which provides the intelligence to the system and enables the display on the smart phone

Do you get all this? There’s a lot of communicating going on so everything has to be in sync. The smart phone must connect to the controller which in turn connects to the drone. Any drop-out in any part of this chain defeats the system.

Take a look at the photograph below. A claw-like thingy holds your smart phone to the drone controller. The phone becomes your display or dashboard for the drone. Besides being the eyes of the drone, the Dji phone app (external link) shows battery levels and other vital information.

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When I first powered up the drone I could not get the controller to communicate with it, even after I updated the drone’s firmware. After reinstalling the app many times I turned to Dji’s tech support. They instructed me on how to reset the drone. This is good advice for any drone model: learn how to reset your machine. In the case of the Phantom 3 Standard, the method is on page 24 of the instruction manual. Speaking of which, the manual prints out best if you scale it to 130%. The manual’s type is too small to read if you print it at a standard 100%.

Charging the batteries is somewhat mysterious. The batteries in the controller and in the drone must be close to full before flight. The battery in the drone comes out, the battery for the controller does not. The controller is charged by a USB port, the drone battery by the included charger. Flashing lights indicate the batteries are charging, I think, but I am still trying to understand this. The documentation is poor. The Dji app will tell you, however, the status of both batteries. How long will a charged battery keep? I’ve yet to find out but I will report.

Don’t be tempted to fly indoors once you have everything synced up. Dji says it’s doable but not recommended. I was so happy to finally get all of the elements working and talking to each other that I started my drone in the living room. It wanted to dash to the ceiling and I was lucky to catch it before it hit anything. Running at full power I struggled to turn it off, vainly hitting the power button on the drone while trying with my free hand to disengage it through the controller. Not good. Again, first fly outdoors in its safety mode.

Right now I am looking for a desolate and lonely and windless space to go flying. Sun up might be best. And somewhere away from water. If any water gets in the drone then the machine is probably killed and the warranty is voided. You might see people in advertisements flying over water but they didn’t pay for their drone. Nothing is like the commercials. Not only must it be a windless day on the ground, conditions must be right 50 to 100 feet above the ground. Yes, you can fly in windy conditions but you better be a very good pilot. Lots of practice is needed and something I must do next.

I’ll report on my first outdoor flying experience in Part 2.

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About thomasfarley01

Freelance writer who specializes in history, technology, and human interest stories.
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