Kevin’s “Drone-ography” FAQ

Many people have asked me similar questions about getting into aerial imaging.  I’ll update this list every time I get asked the same question more than ten times, so bring it on!  It’s a great hobby.  I hope it one day becomes a great profession.  But it’s confusing, tough to get started, and generally overwhelming.  None of my answers are “perfect” so let me know if you have something to add/improve.

How should I get started?

Easy: join the DC Drone User Group (or another DUGN if you live elsewhere).  Start going to all the events and [politely] asking lots of questions.

I’m just a beginner but I want to take great pictures/video, so what multirotor should I buy?

This question is usually accompanied by “I want something easy to fly” and “not too expensive” and “but that takes great pictures” and “cause I have a trip this weekend” and “I need something made out of unicorn dreams”.  None of this is simplistic.  If you buy an expensive craft without learning the ropes, your experience will be expensive and short-lived.

Blade Nano QX

Blade Nano QX

Therefore, the first thing you should buy is a Blade nanoQX.  I recommend that because it’s under $100 with a transmitter, and it has a couple different flight modes so you can start in the ‘easy’ mode and then challenge yourself a bit more.  The good news is: the controls match bigger craft, and smaller craft are always more challenging to fly because they’re so twitchy, susceptible to wind gusts, and hard to see.  If you can keep this little bugger under control, you’ll have no problem with something bigger.  Fly it for a couple weeks, get good.  If you’re not sick of it yet, step it up.

Step-Up Option 1: For the person that wants to fly with the least hassle is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision + v2.0.  This is about the simplest platform you can get and still get great imagery.  The Naza flight controller is one of the most stable, and it integrates with your smartphone to give you a real-time video feed off the craft. However, it is still reasonably expensive; it can still put an eye out, cut you bad, do some damage; it still has some whacky procedures to stay on top of to avoid mishaps, like the compass calibration; it is not a toy.

Step-Up Option 2: For the person who wants to save money, learn more, and build their own “drone” with more autonomous capability, is the DC Drone User Group “Kit Build”.  This is a curated list of parts and build instructions put together by roboticist Chris Vo.  Chris has made more multirotors than anyone I know, and really knows his stuff.  Building your own drone is a far more complicated route to go, it’s not for the faint of heart (or short on time).  But you’ll really start to understand the systems involved, how to troubleshoot, and oh-so-importantly how to fix one after a crash.

See, sometimes I can be a bigger dork than you.  Photo by John Pellett.

See, sometimes I can be a bigger dork than you. Photo by John Pellett.

I heard using drones/UAVs for commercial purposes (like professional photography) is illegal, but then someone else said it’s legal, who’s right?

Neither of them.  Anyone telling you emphatically that this is legal or illegal is probably a bit too fond of their own opinions.  Here’s the short short version:

The FAA says you’re not allowed to use any drone/UAV/UAS/RC aircraft for commercial purposes.  There are strong arguments to be made that they are incorrect, and haven’t gone through the proper rule-making process required by federal agencies to make enforceable law.  Both parties can’t be right, and the legal-truth is currently being decided in the Pirker vs. FAA case, which will provide clarity and a precedent going forward.

The case is still up in the air (get it?), but in any case it will only clarify the legality in the near future.  In the longer term, as the FAA finally gets around to following through with their full-blown UAV-integration plan, all of this is subject to change completely.

What about this [insert random idea here] mod?  Will it fly?  Will it be safe?

This question comes in a variety of flavors.  Generally someone wants to add a larger camera and gimbal, or triple their battery, or strap their child to it.  Two things to keep in mind:

  1. The people engineering the well-known ready-to-fly (RTF) copters like the Phantom are pretty smart and hard-working engineers, and they have targeted a certain payload and configuration.  If you strap an enormous camera to your Phantom, instead of the GoPro that it’s advertised to work with, things probably won’t go your way (get it?). Likewise there are no uber-props out there that cost nothing, are indestructible, and would double your flight time.  If that mod existed the engineers would’ve done it in the first place.
  2. These systems are complicated, and changing one component (e.g. battery capacity) ripples through everything else: the frame, the load the motors can handle, the tuning in the software, etc.  If you want to figure out how to carry XYZ and you’re not already an expert, the very best thing you can do is find someone else who has already tested a platform that is effectively carrying XYZ, and copy their configuration.  Otherwise, crack open the engineering textbook and get comfy with eCalc.  You’re going to have to crawl before you will be able to fly.  Watts are amps x volts.  Good luck.

    My latest work-in-progress

    My latest work-in-progress

How far/high can it go?

Really, really far.

Where are you allowed to fly?

As per the above question about legality, there is some grey area here as to the FAA’s authority.  If you want to stay out of trouble, you should follow the advice of the FAA’s Advisory Circular 91-57.  In summary: under 400 feet so you’re out of “navigable airspace” where manned aircraft are most likely, away from people, at least 3 miles from any airport, don’t do anything stupid and stay away from all manned-aircraft.  The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has some more elaborate guidelines and best-practices and membership gets you some insurance.  It’s generally accepted that you need the landowners permission to fly over their land, and if you’re as unfortunate as I am, you live in the Washington, DC Flight-Restricted Zone, and you are not allowed to fly at all.

The answer to this question actually relates to the above about commercial use, in that there’s no clear answer.  Stay on private property, be safe, don’t be a nuisance, follow all the AC 91-57 rules, and you’ll be fine.  Going above and beyond (get it?) those rigid restrictions puts you in a grey zone.  As not-your-attorney: I don’t have answers for you there.

No matter what: keep it safe and stay far far away from manned aircraft.

These things are easy to fly, right? If I screw up they’ll just return home and land themselves?

If everything is going right modern multirotors are much easier to fly than traditional RC helicopters. I do not think that means they’re “easy”, they still require practice. Even the mass-produced and popular craft are really basically cheaply-made experimental aircraft. If you haven’t configured everything right, or the GPS hasn’t taken the exorbitant amount of time necessary for it to find enough satellite data, or your compass calibration is screwed up, your drone that’s supposed to “return to home” might “return to somewhere else” (I’m convinced they’re divining rods, they like to go towards water).

So how can you avoid something going wrong and a dreaded “fly-away”?  I do two things:

  1. Know your craft inside out.  Know what all the modes do.  Know how to calibrate compasses and accelerometers and gyros and whatever else may need calibrating on your craft.  Know what all the blinky lights mean.  It’s in the manual and it’s a code to give you important information.  You don’t want to have to find out what four fast red blinkies followed by a yellow means while you’re in the air. That’s the wrong time to troubleshoot. Practice practice on a toy (Blade Nano QX) before taking something bigger out. This all feels a bit like work and it is, there’s a lot to learn. If you don’t like it maybe flying robots isn’t quite the hobby for you!
  2. Avoid flying in highly autonomous modes (like auto return-to-home) when possible. These craft have different modes.  For example, in one of the simpler modes the computer-brain of the craft will just try and keep itself level, but it might drift away with the wind. That’s called “stabilize” or “attitude” depending on which brain your drone has. Then in a more sophisticated mode, called “loiter” or “GPS hold” the craft will try to keep itself level and in one physical location by monitoring its own GPS position and making corrections. While the latter sounds preferable (don’t we want predictable craft that stay under control and won’t fly into a tree if there’s a wind gust?) I nearly always fly in the former. The less sophisticated the flight mode, the less we’re asking of the drone, and the less can go wrong with it. Granted more can go wrong with me, I have to be a capable pilot that can handle the craft even in less-assisted modes.  But if the GPS fails, the compass is off, and the brain would otherwise send me careening towards the ocean, it doesn’t matter.  The GPS isn’t in control; I am. Sometimes those fancier modes are really useful, e.g. “parking” it in the sky to get a panoramic photograph without drift. So use them when you have to. Otherwise, fly it yo’ damn self.