Drones and my Dad. The blind leading the blind!

By Steve Turner – Senior Writer


In a time long ago when I was growing up I flew radio controlled planes inspired by my father’s love of flying machines and his lifelong building, flying, repairing and building again and again.

Fast forward forty years and I had left flying long behind but I started again as something to do with Dad. We were both getting older…

By then I had been avoiding proper work by being in television and running my film making business.  So of course the first thing I do is look at how I can attach a camera to my model aircraft.

Flying over the Grand Prix track… not without risk (legal though)

The answer was the first generation GoPro.  Mounted in the cockpit of the Trojan, test flights, such as they were, lifted off from the Grand Prix track in the Adelaide’s parklands. The drag was awful so the Trojan was very hard to fly!

As for the results….well it was all a bit primitive but pictures were recorded. Of course there was no such thing as live feeds to your smart phone.  This was over ten years ago smart phones were yet to come.

At the same time I tried attaching the GoPro to remote control helicopters. With errr… not that much success.  One refused to fly forward at all and was very attracted to the trees in the court where we lived.

And then the first affordable drones arrived and I went straight into it. And this is it.  The DualSky Hornet.  What a beast.  Now remember this is the beginning of quadcopters.

The early flying machines were very hairy!

All those fancy pants features you take for granted now had not yet been made available on domestic drones. No stability control, GPS, return home or automated shooting. No live feed either – point and guess!

It was an absolute cow to fly.  If you can call it flying.  Faling time after time to even get airborne.  More like falling forward over and over.  Eventually I got it up and it sort of staggered away.

This is when you learn that it’s hard to tell which way it’s going.  And you can’t let go of the sticks and work it out later.  Well you can but it ends badly and end badly it did.  A lot.

But with a dose of persistence I managed not only to get short flights to happen but actually managed to attach the GoPro to it. No gimbals yet of course so the video is well….rubbish. And here’s where we discover the rolling shutter effect… A blight to this day!

The “blinds” are actually the propeller of the powered glider – rolling shutter arrives!

I then eagerly bought the next generation quad copter and happily by then stabilisers had arrived.  So now you could let go and it would hover and wait for you. This is so normal now it’s hard to express how brilliant this development was for us at the time.

                     The QX350…. Great until the battery went and so did the 350!

I also discovered, the hard way, what happened when the battery went flat.  None of your warning and time to get home.  No sir…the lights went out and it fell from the sky, bounced, rolled over and broke its brains.

Turns out the thing had been programmed with the brain of a car rather than an aircraft.  Cars can stop without crashing.  Drones, oddly,  don’t do so well.

Around this time, seven years ago, my father’s eyesight was rapidly getting worse.  He had Macular degeneration which takes away the detail in the middle of your vision leaving a fog where it used to be. He could no longer fly his much loved fixed wing planes so I tried the very early versions of FPV.

The early days of live video feeds for FPV

The transmissions were ok but prone to breakup and very short range.  At least you couldn’t go out of sight!

Again, like drones, things have come a very long way in FPV.  I attached a small camera to a glider thinking it would be slow enough for Dad’s remaining peripheral vision to deal with.  It didn’t sadly.

Dad watching vis FPV while my brother has the controls.

Then along came the Blade Chroma. A nice step forward.  Easy to fly and equipped with a good gimbal designed to take the GoPro 3.  Of course I had one of those!

The Blade Chroma.  I had two and they did a lot of shoots over five years.

 Return to home now worked and for a few short more years I took Dad to the field every Monday and he really enjoyed what little flying time he had left. So the quad copter did more than just be a camera mount. 

It was certainly a life saver for my Dad.  If he had totally lost the ability to fly I’m sure he would have deteriorated much more quickly.

Helping Dad know where the Chroma was!

By then I was using the Blades for landscape video shoots.  This was without limitations. This predates “smart” drones.  No height limits and no geo fencing had arrived yet.  Thankfully…

The magnificent Flinders Ranges – the video capture not doing it justice!

So to the latest generation.  For me the Mavic Pro and the fabulous Mavic Mini.  The Mini is great in calm conditions but its real ability is flying indoors.  Mind you I was very nervous flying over millions of dollars worth of cars!

The Mavic Mini. Great for indoor work…if a little scary! 

 

 The ability to follow a target automatically is truly amazing. Breakneck and dangerous speeds and FPV racing with millisecond reaction times needed.

Amazing ranges and live video in HD from kilometres away with programmable way points from your mobile.

Dad didn’t live to see what can be done and his 13 year old self, starting out on 73 years of flying, would have thought it all the realm of science fiction.  Fiction that has become fact. 

 

 

 

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