It was inevitable. I was going to do something stupid and lose my new DJI Avata drone. And I did, but there is some redemption in this story. Let me explain and give you a link to my first ever drone video:
The wonders of piloting a drone first hit me when seeing Parrot’s first consumer-oriented AR.Drone in 2011 at a tech conference. It was being skillfully flown around the inside of a large auditorium. I ordered one on the spot. Its revolutionary approach used Wi-Fi to connect through a mobile app and you flew it by tilting your phone and using on-screen virtual joysticks. It looked so simple. I was smitten.
It arrived and I soon took my first flight – in the house. It worked okay indoors, this one time, but not so much outside where the wind bounced it around and you suspected it would fly off into the wild blue yonder at any minute. Realizing flying it outdoors was too risky, it went into a closet. A year later I passed it on to my nephew, Isaac, in Austin, TX. On his first flight, it left the park where he’d launched it, crossed over a nearby wall into a gated neighborhood and he was unable to recover it. I’ll never forget his phone call to me: “Uncle Steve….did you want that drone back?”
I watched drone videos on YouTube, but until June of this year, had not found much that was super compelling – until I saw the DJI Avata. Three things made it impossible for me to resist: First Person View (FPV), camera quality, and a new flight controller.
FPV: Flying from the perspective of the drone — feeling as if I was in the air — was most important to me. When younger, I jumped out of airplanes and flew hang-gliders, fixed-wing gliders, and paragliders. Flying like a bird was what I wanted to do. I watched with growing fascination the evolution of flying a drone with goggles. In ten short years, the quality of the goggles improved dramatically, ever increasing speeds of data packets between the drone and goggles. It was indoor drone racing through aerial obstacle courses that drove much of the innovation. Gone were clunky and slow refresh rates and lost connections. Resolution increased and cameras and lenses got smaller, lighter, and faster, as did the drones themselves. And best of all, they got cheaper.
Coming into the kitchen after my first flight with the Avata I was giddy with excitement, telling Maggie how it felt so much like my first fixed-wing glider flights. Slipping the goggles onto my head, this little drone puts me into the air, hundreds of feet above the ground with unparalleled views from those altitudes. I just love this!
Drone controller: DJI pioneered a new flight controller with the Avata, a simple hand-held stick which, surprisingly, works the same way the control stick operated on not only the fixed-wing gliders I flew but also the tail-dragger airplane we used to tow the gliders to the drop zone. While hard-core, experienced drone pilots initially scuffed at this control stick’s simplicity, some have gradually begun to praise it for its far faster learning curve and ease of use.
High-Quality Video: Getting superb, high-resolution videos is cool, although less of an important benefit for me than it is to the thousands of drone pilots who only fly them to get the videos. How good is the quality? The drone photographs in 4K, a resolution of 3,840 X 2,160 pixels, four times the resolution of Full HD. And it takes 60 frames like this per second, in the default mode. Should you desire, you can change it to 120 FPS (Frames Per Second). When taking still photos, they’re captured in JPEG format with 3,000 X 4,000 resolution. With this much resolution, the resulting video files recorded by the drone are huge, averaging just short of 4 GB per file. Each flight, depending on length, averages 2-3 files of this size. Within a few weeks of transferring these videos to my computer, I found out my 1TB drive, never even close to full, was now almost there.
The next “rule-of-thumb” I learned from drone pilot friends was that editing videos from these drones required special software and learning the software would take time. Daniel Michael put it this way, “Plan to spend one-hour editing for every one minute of final footage.” Well, eventually. When you first start it will be more like 3 hours of editing work for every minute.” His estimate was far more accurate than I’d at first thought.
The Crash: Here is what happened earlier this week when I lost my drone. I came up with the idea of “hiking,” one of our favorite paths not far from our home on Lookout Mountain. But, given the heat, I would “hike” our normal mountain path, with the drone, and me sitting in the trunk of my car. Also, I might be able to investigate the narrow trail to the summit I’d only tried once, ten years ago, and given up due to its very narrow path with a steep drops. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong?: #1. It was too hot. Not for the drone, but for the iPhone which the drone goggles plug into, especially if said iPhone is sitting in the trunk in direct sun. Within minutes of launch, it shut down. #2. Flying up the mountain trail was easy, but as soon as I got to the saddle, the venturi effect caused wind speed to increase to over 12 mph while the speed on the ground was about 7 mph. #3. As I flew the drone to the other side of the mountain, I lost signal and visibility from the drone. Within a minute, there was no signal. I accurately assumed it had crashed. With the idea of retrieving the drone, I started to hike up the mountain trail. It was 2:30 PM and 110 degrees. I had no water. As I walked, a variety of headlines began filling my head:
- “Tragic End on Treacherous Trail: Brave 70-Year-Old Perishes While Retrieving Drone from Lookout Mountain”
- “Desert Drama: Elderly Adventurer’s Final Quest for Lost Drone Ends in Tragedy”
- “Lost on Lookout Mountain: Daring Mission to Reclaim Drone Costs 70-Year-Old Hiker His Life”
- “Drone’s Call of the Wild: 70-Year-Old Hiker’s Fateful Journey to Rescue High-Tech Companion Takes a Fatal Turn”
- “Trapped by Technology: Devastating Twist as Senior Hiker Succumbs During Drone Recovery”
- “Final Climb: 70-Year-Old’s Heroic Bid to Save Stranded Drone Ends in Tragedy”
Halfway to the saddle, I turned around, suspecting one of these headlines was slowing becoming an actual possibility. My next step was to drive to the other side of the mountain and check for signal there. Maybe it could be activated from that side. No luck!
Discounting the idea of asking Maggie for help, my thoughts turned to finding younger legs. I called my friend, Brian Barnett, and asked him if his son, Andrew (a recent Thunderbird HS graduate and soccer player) was available. He was and they were soon in the car with me to the trails staging areas. Brian and Andrew headed up the trail, carrying plenty of water. Within a ten minutes, Brian came back, saying it was too hot. But not for Andrew. Andrew was carrying my cell phone (which had recovered after a stint in the AC-conditioned car). He also had the drone goggles. At a spot near where I’d indicated I suspected the drone to be, he put on the goggles, only to see a view of himself – wearing goggles – staring directly at something. He took the goggles off and looked toward the ground – there was the drone. He picked it up and within 15 minutes was back at the car.
It turns out the DJI Avata records the GPS coordinates of the drone when it crashes and saves it to the goggles and phone. Selecting “Find my Drone,” under the profile section of the App, had allowed Andrew to walk to a pinpoint on the map which was just a few feet from where the drone landed. Good for DJI – they were thinking ahead and motivated to do more than just sell more drones.
I’m having way a great deal of fun with my new toy. It came with me on a recent trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin, returning to Phoenix with over a few hours of videos. They’ve now been cut to just the best 17-minute clip which you can access here: https://tinyurl.com/mr3vj9jm It’s called MN Vacation.mp4. And no, you don’t need to sign up to see it, just ignore that.
Please be kind in your comments. It was my first effort at flying the drone and using the Adobe program to trim the clips down and add titles and music. That said, tell me what you think.