Even that micro quadcopter that fits in the palm of your hand is an impressive mix of technologies working together to make your flying experience sensational. From six-axis stabilization to help ensure smooth, crash-free flights, GPS navigation to tell you where it’s at, how fast and how high it’s flying, to a quality wide-angle camera that can be paired with a smart phone so you can fly FPV (first-person view) as if you are aboard your drone—these are little engineering marvels that you’re piloting!
Drones are also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, meaning they are either piloted remotely by a person or by an onboard computer. A drone can be an unmanned airplane, helicopter or other aircraft and ranges in size from a full-size plane down to a nano or micro quadcopter.
Quadcopters, or “quads,” are drones that use four propellers to fly, and they’re being sold pretty much everywhere! Relatives are hexacopters and octocopters.
Drones Do Many Jobs!
Although most people will use them recreationally, it’ll help if you don’t think of drones as toys. In fact, drones are incredibly VERSATILE and can be configured to do all sorts of jobs.
The military uses drones in all shapes and sizes for surveillance and reconnaissance, and some medium sized ones are even armed. Their ability to stay flying for up to 17 hours before refueling or recharging make them a very useful eye in the sky. Some military drones can even be flown remotely from oceans away!
Drones are being used to fly over remote or even hazardous areas. They can be used by the Forest Service to ASSESS wildfire conditions, terrain and even to dump water where it’s needed. They can fly to inspect dangerous high tension electrical towers, to help manage large areas of land like our National Parks and Monuments, to deliver important supplies, to assist in search and rescue, to survey construction sites, to help farmers grow their crops more efficiently, and to help restore communications after a natural disaster strikes.
Drones are even being raced, where pilots wear FPV goggles to race through difficult courses at over 100 mph.
Now’s the Time!
Technology has really made flying remote control (RC) aircraft a lot simpler and more fun, and drones are leading the way! Most come with their own DEDICATED controller with either joysticks or buttons, and some have downloadable apps so you can use a smart phone to fly FPV or as a controller.
Some drones use your phone’s gyroscope and accelerometers so you can hold your phone flat and tilt it in the direction you want to fly your drone!
Mark Berry is with Catalina Remote Control Modelers, a club which has a Marana airfield where you can visit on the weekend and fly any RC airplane or drone you have. Plus there are lots of knowledgeable hobbyists around to help beginners.
“I’ve been flying about five years. I started with helicopters,” Berry says. “(RC) helicopters are much more difficult to fly. They don’t have stabilization like the quads do, so I crashed a lot of them. I got frustrated and gave up on helicopters and went to (RC) planes. Then just last year, I got my first drone!”
“The technology is far beyond what it was 10 years ago,” he points out. The controllers are either 2.4Ghz or 5.8Ghz, and to get started, you bind (pair) the transmitter of the controller with the receiver inside your drone. That way, you can fly right next to other RC pilots without getting your signals crossed.
Berry flies a Phantom IV by DJI, one of the top makers of drones. “It has all the bells and whistles, including an incredible camera. I have a set of (FPV) goggles. It’s just like being in a helicopter or a quad yourself because you’re flying by looking out the camera. Just watching the trees going by, and the ground, and seeing all the different things in front of you, and being able to swoop around and look at stuff—it is just a great feeling! The really cool thing about it is you can fly it by actually looking out the camera that’s on the bottom of the quad (FPV), or you can look up and see what it’s doing,” he explains.
Phantoms are high-end drones, with cameras mounted on a vibration-reducing mount called a gimbal. Paired with its stabilization, you get picture-perfect, steady videos!
But to get started, Berry says to do your research. “The kids are so much faster at picking up this technology than us older people,” he says. “It really depends on what you want. There are so many varieties.” Micro quads can be flown indoors and some come with cameras. And a lot of micros (or nanos) are pretty affordable, with some starting at $25. “You just want something that’s stabilized and that has a few features you like, like a decent camera,” Berry suggests.
Once you master your first quadcopter, you can look into fancier, more capable ones that can handle breezes outdoors.
Know Where & How to Fly
As with any flying, it’s always safety first.
“We’re an AMA-sanctioned club—that’s the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a group that sets guidelines and rules for the model aircraft industry, including drones, RC helicopters and planes,” explains Marty Bristow with the Catalina Remote Control Modelers.
“There are rules and guidelines for drones that the AMA has, along with the FAA (the Federal Aviation Administration).
“The drones where you just fly them and look at them are fairly safe. The biggest thing is you want to keep them away from people with their high-spinning blades—they will cause damage if you hit someone,” he warns. “But these new drones are so well computer-controlled, they’re easy to fly, especially for kids!”
The FAA requires that you always keep the drone that you’re flying in your line of sight. “You don’t want to go behind a tree or a building where (your drone) could get in trouble,” Bristow explains.
There are many places where you aren’t allowed to fly a drone. City and county parks often do not allow drones! National Parks and military bases do not allow drones. So check online to find out if drones are permitted where you want to fly. And to avoid drones running into planes with people on board, the FAA doesn’t want drones flying within 5 miles of an airport.
And it also expects drones to stay below an altitude of 400 feet above ground level.
Drones that weigh a little over half a pound (.55 lbs.) or more need to be registered with the FAA by someone 13 years old or older: Register My UAS. Registration costs $5 and they’ll issue a number you need to put on your drone.
Also, never fly over people or near emergency response efforts.
That’s what makes flying at a designated RC airfield so nice! “We don’t have a huge club here (at Catalina). We let everybody fly whatever they want as long as you’re careful and courteous of the other flyers,” Berry points out.
The FAA offers the downloadable app “B4UFLY” for your smartphone to help you figure out where you can safely fly your drone! HAPPY FLYING!!!
Enjoy some drone photography from our friend Sean Parker below.
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