From WTF to RTF

The box left by UPS was big. Not as large as a few they’ve dropped off on the porch, but big enough. It measured two and a half feet on a side and was 20 inches deep. I looked at the container and my smile grew large, not unlike the box. It was here at last; my newest addition to the little family of drones I was building. This one was bigger. The Phantom quadcopters came in boxes the size of a fat business attache case. This was considerably bigger, but then, so was the drone inside it. I dragged it in the door and got it just far enough into the hallway to close the front door. This six foot effort of dragging caused painful spasms in my back and shoulders and leaning against the wall, I sagged down onto my rear end to wait out the pain.

The knife sliced through the packing tape like a knife through butter and I flipped up the cardboard panels and yanked out the packing filler to reveal my prize. There it was, looking much like a wagon wheel with six spokes: two red and four white. The hub was black and had a great big battery velcro attached in its center. I carefully lifted it from the box and set it on the floor. More filler paper flew as, like a child at Christmas, I pawed through the box for the various other components that came along with the drone body. A two axis camera gimbal, landing gear, the remote control radio, boxes of screws and two sets of propellers were soon piled up. Shaking each piece of crumpled filler paper to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I piled the packing back inside the box and stared at my booty. Adrenaline coursing through me literally gave me chills of pleasure.

Without giving away the totality of my addiction to technology, let’s just say that the pile of technology on my floor was worth twice the pair of Phantoms gracing the shelves of my workroom. My wife strolled by on her way to run sprinklers in the yard and stopped to look. “So that’s it, huh? The big one?”

“It is,” I answered, beaming. She shrugged and told me that it looked ‘nice.’ Wives. I swear. Ya can’t live with ‘em, can’t use ‘em for lab experiments.  I growled from the back of my throat and collected up an armful of parts and hobbled to my room. I got in my scooter and rolled back to get the largest piece of the drone to bring it back as well. For the money I spent for a drone advertised as RTF –Ready To Fly, I spent the next couple of hours assembling the aircraft. One would think with a value touching three figures that some documentation would be provided, but no. That was apparently too much to ask of the friendly people at RC-R-US, the vendor I bought it from. I had to go to the Internet and seek out the needed information on my own. But the finished product eventually sat on my floor, fully assembled and (hopefully) ready to go. Since UPS dropped it off at the end of their route day at 7 pm, by the time I had it ready for flight testing the sun had abandoned the sky. So I took pictures of the latest addition to the family and then perched at safely on a shelf to wait for the daylight.

I had a terrible time falling asleep. My mind was ablaze thinking about my new flyer. I built visions of it swooping just above the surface of the rivers and lakes in the area, swooping up hundreds of feet to offer dynamic aerial views of the countryside. In my mind it buzzed dams, flew the concrete canyons of the city, and probed the nests of raptors embedded in cliffs. Of the many and sundry remote controlled devices I’d built or bought, this one excited me the most. With props it was 32 inches side to side, front to back. With its gear in place it stood 19 inches tall. The camera gimbal was large enough to accommodate a full sized camera. The lifting capability of this thing wasn’t grams, it was ounces; perhaps it was pounds.

SAM_0168-aThe morning dawned bright and filled with sunshine. I looked out at the brilliance and then my mood shifted to the grayness of a rainy day. While the sun shone brilliantly in the sky, winds were tossing the trees furiously. There would be no first flight in the blustery and turbulent air. After reciting a long and distinguished list of vulgar expletives, I turned to my Nexus tablet to read and pass the time as I waited for the wind to subside. I ended up waiting three days for the wind to stop and when it finally did, I could hardly believe it. I collected up the big drone and its controller and carried it ten steps out my back door into the yard.

Running through the preflight checklist I took my time. Finally done, I turned on the control transmitter and connected up the battery to the drone. The electronic speed controllers, all six of them, sang their quick musical tones declaring that all was well. I watched the LED status light as it blinked out its diagnostic codes, verifying that the various integrated systems were online and ready to go. I stepped back and picking up the controller, I started the motors and the propellers began to spin. Running, the unit had the hum of a productive beehive. A pleasant and throaty noise in contrast to the whining buzz of the smaller drones. I gave it the chance to fully warm up its electronics and then, with no small trepidation, advanced the throttle. If something could go wrong it would likely be this minute right here. It could leap into the air out of control and fly away never to be seen again. Or it could, as happened to a brand new helicopter I bought a few years ago, immediately slam itself into the house, bursting itself into pieces.

The multirotor lifted off the ground and I commanded it to hover about 8 feet off the ground. It wasn’t very stable. It wandered in an ever widening circle, requiring me to provide controls to keep it more or less in one place. I then tested its flight control, telling it to fly straight ahead. It tittered and wobbled and while pointing forward its course took it to the oblique, reminding me of a drunk staggering down the street. It was controllable, but demanded input that were counter-intuitive. I had to command it to take a diagonal course in order for it to go where I wanted it to go. When I let off of the controls, instead of sitting rock steady in one spot, it persisted in its drunken sailor routine and staggered around in circles. I swore under my breath. Okay, it was louder than that and the next door neighbor gave me a disapproving look. I lowered the drone to the ground and went to it, disconnecting the battery and shutting off the controller. Not a terrible first flight, after all, the unit was still intact. But this was hardly the expected result for an aircraft sold as RTF and claimed to have been flight tested prior to shipping. My back was complaining to me loudly for standing up for more than five minutes as I tested and so I had to rest a bit before I could retrieve the flyer. I sat in my scooter and stared it the multirotor, thinking about what I’d just experienced.

Once the pain receded I went back to the unit and powered it up again. I performed what is called the GPS dance. Using the controller to put the aircraft in calibration mode, I had to hold it out in front of me and turn a slow circle. When I made it a full 360 degrees, the indicator LED blinked and I turned the aircraft nose down, holding it perpendicular to the ground and repeated the circle. The indicator LED shut of, indicating that the calibration was complete. Assuming that the drone had been flight tested, and I believed it had, it would have been calibrated for use in Maryland, almost 3000 miles distant. Time to test the theory, I changed to a newly charged spare battery and repeated the flight test. This time it flew with better stability, although it did ‘toilet bowl,’ which means instead of hovering still, it wandered a circle like the water in a flushing toilet. But this time it stayed within a couple of meters of its home point, the place it had taken off from. Again I commanded it to fly and again it flew in an oblique to the direction I wanted, but it was much improved. Still, it wasn’t good enough to make me confident and willing to let it range very high or very far from me. I landed it again and carried it inside.

All of the activity had my back lodging painful protest and I had to take more pain medication and lay down a while. I lay there and considered the possibilities. DJI Innovations, the company that made the multirotor and its autopilot had a new, updated firmware version. I have a serious distrust of updates; more often than not, the updates I have applied to the various technological devices I have has produced detrimental results. Plus that, in some cases the updates would ‘brick’ my device –turn it into a fancy doorstop –ergo, a brick. I had to think long and hard about applying an update to such an expensive item, one that had a mere ten minutes of total flight time.  As I lay there running the pros and cons through my mind, I fell asleep.

I woke in the late afternoon, feeling better. The previous short night had left me a bit sleep deprived and the nap had done wonders. After making and eating a dinner, I went back to my room and studied the drone. After some soul searching, I decided that I would perform the update. I wasn’t satisfied with the way that the drone was working, and the software tools for programming the autopilot were pretty limited in contrast to the new software that came with my Phantom drones. According to the company, DJI, the latest version of the firmware and the more enhanced version of the programming application was compatible with both the Phantoms and their bigger hexacopter brothers. Sighing and fearing the worst, I powered up the drone and connected to to my PC with a USB cable. Using the automatic update feature, I hit the UPDATE button and held my breath. It took only seconds and to my relief, the words Update Successful appeared on the screen. I was then able to use the software to perform calibration of the transmitter, the inertial management unit of the autopilot, and then I did the GPS dance with the unit one more time.

Feeling unsure, I powered the unit up and let it complete its self-diagnostics. Figuring that there’s no time like the present, I ran the throttle up and the drone jumped up to about ten feet and hovered in place, nearly rock solid. It was not a bright day like I had with the first trial. The sky was gray and threatening thundershowers. It had been calm, but as one might expect (knowing Murphy’s Law), the wind cropped up almost immediately. Not a harsh wind mind you, but more than a breeze. The drone hovered through it like a stalwart soldier. I controlled it to fly a course, and this time it tracked sure and truly where it was directed. I flew it in a slalom course around the trees in the yard and then brought it back to the clear area where I do most of my flying. I played with the various switches, confirming what I believed their functions to be. I was right, up to the point I tried to verify the ‘go home’ switch.

The autopilot has a failsafe mode. When engaged, it will return the drone to its point of origin and hover at fifty feet for fifteen seconds and then land itself –supposedly within a meter or two of its takeoff spot. Pressing the switch as the drone hovered at ten feet produced unexpected results. It immediately ascended to about 100 feet and flew a small circle. I watched the drone in horror, looking at how close it was coming to the tall trees of the yard. It put itself within about 30 feet of its take-off point and dropped down to the advertised fifty feet and hovered. In spite of my trying all of the controls, the unit totally ignored me. In failsafe mode it was in charge and it wasn’t about to let some gimp from Spokane tell it what to do. With my blood pressure off the scale and my pulse rate hammering in my ears, I watched helplessly as it started to descend. It appeared to be trying to go to the house, but I realized with relief that this was an optical illusion. Actually, it was coming pretty much straight down. It descended to the ground and, to my amazement, landed exactly on top of the footprints it left in the grass before takeoff. It wasn’t withing a couple of meters, it was exact, even lining itself up to face in the same orientation I’d set it down with.

I grinned widely and shut the unit down and carried it and the controller back to the house. I had, finally, a Ready to Fly hexacopter.