Droning On

On The Pedals | May 2017
By Jason Giacchino

The latest in a long line of high-priced toy purchases under the disguise of being required for work, this summer I became the proud owner of a drone. I have found that telling people this usually results in one of two immediate associations: That I adopted a pet worker bee or I have the capability of deploying a missile from three-miles up.

It turns out both assumptions are about equally inaccurate. Consumer grade drones are little more than radio controlled quad-bladed Xs made of aluminum and plastic not unlike those RC planes and copters that have existed forever. The difference, it seems, is that the stability of internal gyroscopes and a prop at each corner of the machine allows for some surprisingly solid aerial footage if your drone happens to be camera-equipped. Another difference, I’d discover, is that telling people you’re flying a drone so as to capture footage of mountain biking is infinitely cooler than telling people you are an RC hobbiest.

In effort to thinly disguise this acquisition as a work-related expense (and requisite tax write-off), I selected a unit that came equipped with an internal high-definition camera and spent a solid month playing with, er I mean practicing the art of remote flight.

Knowing virtually nothing about the sport prior to diving in, it didn’t take long before nightly gatherings at the football field of the local town park began to spread. Almost as if the whirling of small plastic blades was a frequency detected only by other like-minded individuals, it didn’t take long before other drone fliers began to show up, remote controls in hand.

Not to brag, but I like to think I took to the unique skill-set required to successfully fly a drone pretty quickly. I could zip through the uprights with the efficiency of an NFL kicker then perform a text-book flip around midfield- sometimes even on purpose.

How does all of this pertain to being able to take solid aerial footage of mountain biking you ask? I have no idea. It turns out that when bashing buttons on the remote, I often inadvertently activate the drone’s camera and begin to capture footage of - what I perceive on the ground anyway - to be quite an impressive display. Of course watching said footage back reveals only a dizzying series of sharp turns, near encounters with the turf and a reminder that I swear an awful lot when I fly drones.

Accepting the possibility that the thin disguise of using the drone as a photography tool wasn’t even working on me anymore, I began to embrace the RC hobbiest side of participation and honed my stunt abilities in the weeks that followed. One of my favorites would become rocketing up to about 200-feet above the ground only to kill the throttle and reproduce the effects of a dead stall. Allowing the drone to plummet, seemingly to its demise, I would then punch the throttle and send it into a last second recovery climb. It was like playing a game of chicken with the ground where only your credit card balance could get hurt if you blinked first.

Like with most things, it’s entirely reasonable to think my ego began writing checks my thumbs couldn’t cash and last Sunday night, the proverbial check finally bounced. My father and I were doing our routine areal patrols of the football field just after dusk when I had the idea that I wanted to explore some of the upper reaches of the drone’s vertical prowess.

I took it up to around 300-feet, a mere speck of red LED against a beautifully starry sky, before easing her back down to within a few feet above me. Completely exhilarated by the experience, I decided it was time to immediately repeat the maneuver only this time, like any true show-off would, I told everyone in attendance to watch as I began to ascend the second time.

Just like the first time, the drone dutifully obeyed my inputs; accelerating until even the whirl of its props was too distant to hear on the night air. The four LED belly-beacons blurred away until merging into a single point of light, one star among the millions. And then I lost all control.

“Maybe you better bring her back down,” my dad warned, unaware that I was frantically trying to do exactly that.

Resorting to my favorite stunt, I killed the throttle in hopes that the stall, with the help of our good friend gravity, would bring it back down enough to where it would regain signal contact. Then it would simply be a matter of me punching it and getting it to level before it hit the ground just as I’d done countless times before.

This time, however, by the time I regained sight of the little copter, it was out beyond the visitor’s end-zone and falling fast. I gave it throttle to no avail and then instinctively, began to run toward it. Hoping to regain critical connection between transmitter and receiver before the heavily overgrown woods below could swallow it up, I had completely forgotten that I was yet constrained by a roped-off football field. I managed to corral myself with the rope in the darkness at full sprint at the crucial instant the drone disappeared into the forest.

Ordinarily drones contain a bunch of search and rescue functions for such situations- in this case brightly flashing LED beacons and a lock indicator on the remote. As fate would have it, the battery pack must have been torn free from the copter upon impact as none of these features kicked in.

The group and I searched for an hour that night and for at least as long every day for the next week straight to no avail. As dense as this patch of woods happens to be, trying to find a needle in a haystack may actually be more feasible by comparison. I suspect it’s probably high atop a tree somewhere, hopelessly entangled.

Frustrated, angered, humbled, I decided to retire from the drone game for a while only my new-found friends wouldn’t hear of it. With the type of peer-pressure usually associated with high school and drug pushers, they convinced me to order another drone so as to return to the skies. It arrived this past Thursday and while I’m glad to be back out there again, I’m in no hurry to challenge NASA anytime soon with my ascending abilities.

In fact, the real trouble will be explaining to the IRS why I’m writing off two of the exact same drone.

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