Impressions from building and flying the F550 for the first time

Ted Pretty Drone SM.jpg

From member Ted Pretty: 

I’m not sure what sparked my interest in drones & aerial photography but I certainly remember when it happened. I was just getting to work just like any morning and stumbled upon an article on the Drudgereport that mentioned the potential use of drones by newsrooms.  Maybe it was the fact that out of the five television stations I have worked for, not one had a helicopter.  Aerial video was something competitors used for everyday traffic reports & breaking news.  My station(s) just didn’t have that option.

The article I read featured an electric helicopter with six-figure price tag. This was certainly not the millions stations spent for a full-size helicopter, but still a hefty price tag for many newsrooms..and certainly mine. Some quick research found that newsgathering with the use of drones, or more commonly now called Unmanned Aerial Systems or UASs, can be done even cheaper than that. Even though legality of UASs for commercial use is not here yet, the technology to make it happen is already here. I wanted to jump right in to see where it took me.

I decided to buy a kit rather than a system that was already assembled. This way I could build the UAS from the ground up and this would certainly help with trouble-shooting and any repair that would need to be done in the future. I bought an F550 from the company DJI out of China. It is a fairly popular company with four models of UASs for sale. This was their second from-the-top model. It’s a hexcopter (6-rotors) with the capability of eventually carrying a camera for video and still shots. Construction from start to finish took about a week, working a couple hours a day.

There was some soldering involved and just a basic knowledge of electricity to power the UAS with the powerful lithium polymer batteries. YouTube & Google searches really helped along the way if there was any question on how to proceed. The only area where I ran into trouble was calibration between the transmitter & the “brains” of the drone itself.  In most cases, your transmitter (controller) is not the same brand as the UAS and has to be “bound” or “synched” together. Again, YouTube videos of those who were constructing the same UAS & pairing it with the same transmitter answered any questions I had.

The first time I tried to fly the UAS was literally a flop. I was so eager to get this thing in the air, I failed to really take my time and learn the proper steps to launch and eventually fly. But this turned out to be a good thing. I was in my backyard which is fairly large for Las Vegas-area standards, but certainly not the size of a park where most drone owners plan their maiden flight. Every time I tried to take off the drone would popup one food and flop to the right as it flipped upside down.

After about five tries I had to give up.  As it turns out, my commands on the transmitter to pop this thing in the air were also combined with the “pitch” or “roll” control. I was simply launching this thing and asking it to roll to the right with every attempt. Further, I was trying to take off in “manual” mode.

If I would’ve gotten this thing in the air, I would’ve been flying this thing with no stabilization or calibrated GPS to hold it in position. It was an accident waiting to happen. After extensively trouble-shooting the next day, I was ready to try again.

The next day I was ready to go. I researched how to pop this thing up in the air. I learned I was to launch this in “attitude” mode that was simply the mode that would stabilize this vertically while it was free to move along a horizontal plane if I steered it. Also, I had calibrated the GPS and that was a very important move. The GPS mode allows the drone to simply “float” in mid-air. If I let go of the controller, the drone would simply stay in the same location, horizontally & vertically. Further, if I got ran into trouble with an anticipated crash, I could just hit the “return to home” feature. This was a feature that uses the GPS to automatically land the drone in the exact spot on the ground from which I launched.

I turned on the props, the drone then slowly rose into the air maybe 20 feet up. I tried to work the controls to fly it around the yard. I quickly ran into trouble with the drone flying close to a brick wall..I immediately hit “return to home”. The UAS shot straight up into the air about 60 feet, hovered for what seemed like an eternity…my heart was almost pounding out of my chest. The drone then moved over the area from which it was launched and slowly descended to a perfect landing. The GPS feature worked perfectly and I had completed my first flight, albeit short!

Since then my flights have moved to a nearby park. I wouldn't say I'm comfortable flying just yet. The plan for the next few months is to learn to fly proficiently.

Just like anything new, practice time is the best way to learn…it just takes time. I already have landing gear and a camera gimbal on the way for this to be able to get some video and pictures.  I’m hoping by the end of the year to have some of both to show off.

When I get to that point, the video probably won’t be ready for any newsgathering use. However, I’ll be much closer to that point…stay tuned!


Posted on November 5, 2012 .