Palpitations of the Heart

My new DJI Phantom quadcopter has perhaps the MOST convoluted status readout I’ve ever encountered. Understand, for its tiny size, there is some serious sensing and computing going on in its little brain. It has a barometer, and a compass as well as GPS to let it know where it is and where its going, and its general position in three dimensions over the earth’s surface –and relative to where the pilot is standing. It’s really quite amazing. It’s sole drawback, and in my book a big one, is its status reporting system. It tells you everything about itself through a single, ultra-bright tri-colored LED mounted on its fanny. 

Now, understand, that with GPS mode engaged, this little rascal is able to detect that it has lost its link to the radio controller, and it is aware of how much battery charge remains. It employs a fail safe that, if the link is lost or the battery gets too low, the little guy will fly back to the point it took off and safely land itself. Not only that, but you can use it in Intelligent Orientation Mode, which simplifies control. Relative to your own position, pushing the stick forward makes the aircraft move away from you, pulling it back moves it towards you. Pushing the stick left or right will send the aircraft left or right, relative to you, the pilot. It does this regardless of which way its nose is pointing. This makes it very easy to control when it is but a tiny dot in the sky and you have no idea which way it’s facing. The maker, DJI Innovations, really went beyond the pale with this autopilot/auto-stabilization device. It’s about 100 times smarter than the space shuttle (RIP) at its highest development. 

And then they screwed the pooch severely with this dumbass status LED. From powerup, it emits a long series of flashes of red, yellow and green, signifying that it is ready to fly, whether it has the six or more satellites it needs locked in, and a variety of other handy-to-know details. The problem is, there is no way to tell which set of flashes of color relate to which function it’s reporting on. As such, I launch my aircraft with almost religious faith that everything is working. This has made for some pleasurable flights and also nearly given me a stroke as the drone failed to do what I asked of it in the way I was expecting. I have had near miss collision situations with buildings and trees, and there is at least one neighborhood dog that now suffers PTSD because a giant wasp descended out of nowhere and and chased it while it ran, yelping in terror, as some crazy man sat in his yard screaming profanity.

The drone is a $700 device carrying a $400 camera. It’s not something you want to see smash into things or vanish beneath the watery surface of a river or lake. And one kinda doesn’t want it to hurt or kill someone in the process of self-destruction and inflicting personal bankruptcy.The drone is able to lift a 1000 gram payload. I think I’d much rather it lift 950 grams and display a tiny LCD that would provide the preflight status so necessary to successful flight. Even if DJI didn’t want to go that far, it should at least use a multi-color LED that would flash specific patterns (morese code like) in colors specific to the functions. Say, if it blinks purple 7 times, it is telling you it found more than the six needed satellites needed for GPS functions to work. Fewer blinks would reveal the actual number of satellites if six or fewer. ANYTHING would be better than the relatively indistinguishable psychedelic display it offers. From various reviews about the LED system I have seen, I am a part of a majority who feel this way. I can say with reasonable surety, that if the drone wasn’t so darned cool and capable, that the company would suffer more returns than Kmart on the day after Christmas.

Of course, the thing is made in China, and the instructions tend to be both minimal and loaded with non-sequitors.  (If light on more for enjoyable flight result) Cripes, I spent $1100 on this, use Google Translater for God’s sake. Hire an english speaking technical writer who has actually seen the drone. Something. Sheesh. The company offers a series of instructional videos, hosted by the company’s American CEO, Colin Guinn. Without those, I doubt that many would have any hope of figuring out how to use the aircraft. Then again, their support page shows you five of the eight or so instructional video, leaving it up to purchasers to accidentally stumble over the VERY important missing videos buried in the web pages of their support wiki. (That’s a Wikipedia-like website dedicated to the diverse product line of the company.) These missing videos reveal the secrets of turning on the Intelligent Orientation Control capability and how to calibrate the on-board computer so that the drone works at all. 

I have learned to turn the drone on, let it sit for a few moments, then start the motors and let it sit for another minute before I launch it. Then I hold it about 10 feet off the ground and maneuver it about 50 feet away from the starting point and testing that it will hold position while hovering, that it will respond properly to Intelligent Orientation Control, and only when satisfied will I climb it out to do some serious flying and video/photo collection. 

I have yet to test its fail-safe technology. Supposedly I can just shut off the power to my remote control and wait for the drone to come on back to its launch point. I strongly fear that on loss of signal, it will seek out the closest police car traveling faster than 50 mph and fly into its windshield. 

I think what I like best about hobbies is the way they provide so much stress relief.