Play Day

The sun was shining brightly and the air had a moist texture to it from the thunderstorms that passed through Spokane in the night. The temperature went from 55 degrees just before dawn right up to 80 degrees before the clock hit noon. “I think the turn is just ahead.” I told my wife. She was driving my Honda van and I was riding shotgun. It’s a nice van and the VA helped me buy it, paying the lion’s share of the vehicle cost. It had automatic everything and included an electric ramp that extended out of the side door so I could roll my power chair in. It was locked down by cargo straps to keep it from rolling around. I found out the first time I used the van that the straps were necessary. I’d thought that locking up the brakes would hold it in place, but no, the chair acted more like a bowling ball crashing into one side and then the other before we’d gone a block. Ever since then, the chair gets tied down. The chair was a gift from the VA as well. Since I am 100% disabled and my disability is 100% service connected, I fall into a magical class. While it can take ages to process applications and actually get my hands on mobility assistance items the VA approves, eventually they will come through. The van and chair are physical proof of this. Considering the many complaints against the VA, I have been pretty lucky on the whole. My health care has been spectacular and the majority of people providing my care are stellar folks who genuinely care about their patients and go the extra mile to keep us as healthy and comfortable as our situations permit.  The quality of care in the VA changes from facility to facility, and the Spokane VA sits squarely in the gold star list. My wife made the turn and we drove up the incline of a hill, the coverage of evergreens thinning to open fields of wild grasses, yellowed and desiccated by the run of heat we’ve had for the last month or so. Temperatures have been flirting with a hundred degrees, hitting 95 to 105. The sporadic rains have been welcome. We came upon a gravel turnaround off to the side of the road and pulled into it. I pressed the buttons to open both side doors so that the van wouldn’t greenhouse and build up heat. The ramp whined and clanked down into place and I unstrapped my chair and drove it out. My wife opened the rear door and pulled out three metal suitcases. Two of them contained Phantom quadcopters and their controllers and the third carried my little collection of GoPro cameras and accessories.

Phantom Quadcopter with GoPro Camera

I attached a Hero 3+ to the gimbal bolted to the underside of the aircraft. The gimbal compensated for the pitch and roll axis as the aircraft maneuvered. As a result, what might otherwise be shaky, jerky video would be smooth and stable. I affixed a polarizing filter and sun shield to the lens as well and then inserted the battery into the Phantom. Turning on the controller radio and then the electronics in the Phantom, I waited a while as things “warmed up” and initialized, and the GPS system found and locked onto a few satellites.  The status LEDs blinked rapidly ten times indicating that it had locked its starting coordinates into memory and was ready to go. I turned on the camera and pressed the button to start the video recorder and pushed the throttle up to maximum. The Phantom hesitated as if having a final argument with gravity and then jumped into the air. I kept the throttle up and watched my aircraft claw its way into the sky. As it ascended I put on my trusty baseball cap marked Northern Telecom, a company I never had any connection to and cannot recall how I got a hat from them. But it’s been my lucky hat for years and I won’t fly without it. Even on overcast days the sky is filled with glare, glare that can cause you to lose sight of your quad and its precious camera cargo. Not good. However, if you do lose track of it you can simply turn off the radio and upon loss of signal, the aircraft will fly right back to its launch point and land itself. But there was no losing sight today, the quad stood out against the heartbreaking blue of the sky and I relaxed the throttle and put it into hover some 400 feet off the ground. I did an ultra slow 360 degree rotation to pan the camera and record a panoramic view of the countryside. That completed, I reduced the throttle and and flew the Phantom out to 800 feet away from where I sat in my chair with the controller, and then flew it in a full circle holding that 800 foot radius. Selection_004The camera flew over the Dishman Wildlife Area and passed over the new construction of some upper scale homes. Houses and properties that would wear million dollar plus price tags on completion. I overflew a ranch, its cattle grazing lazily in the heat of the day. None of them paid any mind to what they probably thought was an insect. My circle didn’t overfly but did catch the traffic moving along Sprague Avenue, the main roadway of the west to east stretching Spokane Valley.  My Nexus tablet buzzed my timer alarm, warning me that I was nearing the beginning of battery depletion, so I navigated the little Phantom through a descending inward spiral that brought it back over the van at about fifty feet. Stopping it to hover a moment, I brought it down to land in front of me. I switched everything off and unmounted the camera, placing both the aircraft and camera in their foam cut outs in their cases. Smiling at a successful flight, I looked forward to viewing the video I’d captured later as I processed it with Sony Video Studio. From there, I could make versions to keep on my hard disk or upload to Facebook or YouTube to share with others. We loaded the van back up and drove back down the hill and crossed over to I-90, following it over to Sullivan road and north to Euclid. There were processing plants there, surrounded by what looked like desert sands with water filled quarries. The waters were a milky blue color because of the minerals leeched from the ground. We spent the next half hour flying my other Phantom around the vast and empty property, skimming at low levels and flying the nap of the land. I toured the area for about ten minutes when my phone rang. I set the quad to hover and pulled out my phone. It was a robo call whose message informed me that my business was prequalified for a quarter million dollar small business loan. I groused at the robot and hung up. Not only was I not interested in a business loan, I had no business to need funding for. I stuffed the phone back into my pocket and then looked out to my Phantom –which was gone.

A quarry with gravel and sand faciliies

I had been misdirected for under a minute, but that was long enough for the light wind to play some havoc with my aircraft. I was in a nasty position. The property owners had given me permission to fly over their land on weekends when no employees were around to be distracted. It’s true that when people see remote controlled aircraft they will stop what they’re doing to watch. My problem was that the property was surrounded by a 12 foot tall cyclone fence and all of the gates were locked for the weekend. Fetching a downed aircraft would entail calling an emergency number and asking one of the on-site security people to let me in to retrieve the quadcopter. I gave more throttle, hoping to see the quad rise up above the big sand berms that were bulldozed all around the property. But now my backdrop was not clear sky, but the mountains -which could do a great job camouflaging  a tiny aircraft. I’d set my flight computer’s maximum limits to 400 feet of elevation, so I just held full throttle for ten or so seconds, long enough for the quad to reach that altitude and then hover, refusing to climb further. Then I sighed deeply and shut off the radio so that the Phantom would hopefully engage its Return to Launch failsafe. With the radio in my lap, I scanned the skies scrutinizing for any sight of my aircraft. I was heartened by the fact that I could hear it, but totally surprised to realize that the loud and unmistakable sound was coming from behind me. Sure enough, gliding at 60 feet of altitude, the failsafe cruising altitude, my drone was making its way to land back at its point of take off.  I held my breath when I realized that it was going to fly between the high tension electrical lines strung from towers that ran parallel to the street we were parked beside. There was no way that my little aircraft posed any threat whatsoever to the lines, but the reverse could not be said. I expected to see an arc of electricity reach out and turn my aircraft into cinders floating on the breeze any minute now. But with some inherent sense of self preservation, the aircraft dropped to twenty feet, crossed the road and landed about ten feet from where I sat in my power chair. I breathed a sigh of relief and rolled over to power it down and pack the Phantom and its camera in their cases. I still had a few batteries and hours before darkness would approach but decided to call it a day.