Mountaintop

The van labored as it climbed the steep mountainside. “At least we have a good road.” I said to my wife. She nodded her response. We both looked out the windshield and side windows at the vista created by our altitude. Liberty Lake lay below looking like dull but polished jade. On the other side we could only see rocks and evergreens, the trees thinning as we ascended. Ahead about a mile was a government microwave installation, rumored to be a part of the weather system. There was no reason to disbelieve it. There were a pair of white radomes atop cinderblock buildings there. I’d learned of the location back in the eighties; it was a popular launch spot for hang gliders. The mountain top offered a steep and rounded slope that was clear of trees and it was easy to take a downhill running start to take off with. Of course, it was posted with No Trespassing signs, no one ever bothered the buildings or tried to climb over the cyclone fence surrounding the buildings. We fliers had a good thing going and didn’t want to raise anyone’s ire and lose the launch spot. From it, even if we didn’t catch any lift giving thermals and took a ‘sled ride’ down, it was a good flight and we’d land on the lake’s public beach on the far, west, side of the lake. Times change and the entire shoreline had been privatized, houses ringing the spring and runoff fed lake. With nowhere to land, what with houses and trees, the launch site had been abandoned by hang gliders.

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The quadcopter at dusk after a busy day of flying

It was, though, a good place from which to fly a multirotor drone. There was no wind, not even a breeze as we pulled to a stop next to the fenced buildings. I noticed that time had taken a toll, the radomes were weathered and the paint on the buildings was chipping off, no doubt the effects of sunlight, wind and rains with nothing to impede them. The buildings took the full brunt of whatever nature had to offer. It was evident that birds had been using the structures as resting spots, they’d left smears of their excrement all over the tops of the domes. I pressed the magic button on the van’s dashboard and the passenger side back door slid open and a ramp unfolded. I slipped between the front seats and took my place in my scooter, released the bindings and rolled out onto the packed dirt and flat rock of the mountain top. My wife followed, carrying my new four rotor aircraft along with the hard shell case I used to carry the transmitter and accessories for the craft. There was a large and flat outcropping that made for a perfect helipad and so we set up on it.

I secured the hefty battery in its locker in the drone and snapped the door latch closed. Connecting the battery, I listened to the musical beeps of the electronic speed controls that powered the motors and from the on-board autopilot that stabilized the drone and interpreted the commands from the remote control. I rolled back about 20 feet and waited for the LED indicators to report the craft ready to fly. After a minute it flashed green twenty times. It was warmed up, had established its position in three dimensions using GPS, compass and barometer and so I nodded to my wife. It was her signal to turn on the little GoPro camera mounted on the drone. She stepped away and I pushed the throttle forward. With a sound like a swarm of bees, the quadcopter lifted off and climbed into the sky. I let it climb to about 200 feet above us and then turned it west and sent it off towards the lake. I let it go about 800 feet out and put it into a hover and then slowly rotated it 360 degrees, allowing the camera to get a good look at its surroundings.  I kept up the rotation as it pulled back on the throttle, letting the aircraft settle toward the treetops that we about 500 feet below it on the steep angle of the mountain side. I piloted it around in a big circle and then gave it throttle so that it began to climb again. I let it carve a spiral course upwards, going up and up and up until it was again at the same height we were atop the mountain

I flew it up and over our position and gave it a look at the east side, towards Couer d’Alene lake, but there wasn’t much to see on that side –it was all forest. In the distance, the lake was a marred pewter surface that lay in a cut in the carpet of towering pine and fir trees. Sitting on top of the mountain, we were straddling the state line between Washington and Idaho. My timer alarm on my cellphone sounded, letting me know that ten minutes total had passed since launch. As heavy as the drone was, that was the time limit for flight. I pressed the fail-safe switch on the remote control and then rested the controller on my lap. I could have flown the drone back and landed it, but it was more fun to let the drone find its own way and land itself. The autopilot is set up to fly the aircraft back to fifty feet above its starting point and then land itself automatically. Not only can the feature be engaged with a switch, the drone will do it by itself if it detects a low battery or it loses its radio contact with the controller. Thus the reason it’s called fail-safe.

It landed within millimeters of its launch spot, coming to a gentle rest and shutting off the motors. Once it was inert, I rolled over and disconnected the battery and then shut off the transmitter. If you don’t shut it down in that order and you turn the transmitter off first, it will detect the loss of contact, take off, fly up to fifty feet and then land itself again. This can be a bit startling if it happens unexpectedly, and it’s one of the first things mentioned in the manual and instruction videos offered by the manufacturer. It’s an amazing bit of technology. Or I should say collection of technologies.

We packed up and loaded back into the van and headed off to neighboring Post Falls. As its name implies, it has a pretty water fall and park from which to view the Spokane River as it flows from Lake Couer d’Alene. We hadn’t decided where to go after that; there were still four more fully charged batteries and the one I’d just depleted was now plugged into a charger that was powered from a cigarette lighter socket. We could take quite a few flights through the beautiful summer day, taking advantage of the warm temperatures and clear blue skies.

Which is, of course, what we did.