Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away
Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch
I’ve written on flying a drone before. (internal link) This is a recap and an update.
I bought a drone about two years ago, with the idea of supplementing my magazine articles with photographs taken by it. Everyone likes aerial photos. Several photographs taken by it were used by Outdoor California (internal link) when they published an article of mine last year. They paid well for those photographs. Despite that success, I haven’t flown my drone for months. I keep it charged, but little else.
My drone is a DJI Phantom Standard. It stores pictures and video on an SD card in the drone itself, the part that flies around. I’d prefer that it stores images on my iPhone but it does not do that. Instead, the iPhone is used as a viewing screen. This means to review photographs in the field, I need to land the drone, take out the SD card, and then load the card into my laptop. This is inconvenient and exposes my computer to dust and dirt. I must also be mindful of keeping the laptop charged while I review and possibly edit. Keeping everything charged is a real consideration.
The items to keep charged are the iPhone, the drone controller, the thing with the paddles that moves the drone up and down, the drone battery, a spare battery, and my laptop. To deal with all this, I bought a lithium-ion smart battery that is about the size of a small car battery. It can supply AC or DC current to recharge any devices I take outside. Although it has been renamed, you can still find it at Walmart under the long name of “Suaoki PowerHouse, Compact 400Wh/120000mAh Portable Outlet.” I even bought a 100 watt solar panel to top it off when I go camping.
But, again, reviewing is difficult, since the drone has to be landed before photographs can be offloaded from the device. Photography, therefore, is inexact with my drone and I hope for the best while it is in the air. It cost too much to now replace it with something new or different, instead, I must do the best I can with what I have. Instead, I take lots and lots of photos while in the air, to have at least a few useable shots when I go to review. Video, by the way, is not 4K but good enough for web work. Still images are at a publishable resolution.
It’s a complicated setup. I have the drone controller, which makes the drone move, the iPhone, which sits on the controller to act as a viewing screen, and then the drone itself. As well as the DJI app for the phone. All of this works through a WiFi network generated by the iPhone and the drone. I’ve found I can do testing of the network indoors by taking off the drone propellers. In this way I don’t have it accidentally flying into the ceiling. Indoor testing shows that the wireless network connections are satisfactory to initiate flying.
I have not yet flown the drone out of what is called its safe zone. That’s a cone shaped area preset by the factory. If I get away from this setting I fear my expensive investment will disappear. It is important to orient the drone every time it is flown, a pre-flight dance that involves spinning the drone by hand in different circle directions. I do not fly it over water as I am afraid it will fall in and be unrecoverable. Drone photography in commercials oversells the hobby. The only people flying their drone over water or over canyons are those who are sponsored by drone companies, people who will get a new machine at no cost if their old one is lost.
I am only comfortable flying it over ground where I can get it back in case something goes wrong. Winds are tricky. The wind may be much more powerful just a few dozen feet above ground level, possibly preventing the drone from getting back to its starting point. Glare is a big problem on the iPhone. I would prefer a larger screen or a glare guard. While I should learn to use my drone better, my anxiety over flying it and the many steps involved in flying keeps it grounded most of the time.
Drone shot. Camp Cady Wildlife Area, a property managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. This shot would be better if the drone were higher up. Lesson learned.
Stock photo of the drone. Large, heavy battery contained within.
This battery is extremely useful in the field. Charge at home for best results. Can be charged also through a vehicle’s cigarette lighter, although more slowly. Also chargeable by solar panel, again, much more slowly compared to charging with line power.