Drone photographer Mike Levin warns about relying on GPS

For a while now, I've been meaning to write about the work of Mike Levin, a 30-year veteran of photojournalism. Fifteen years of that time was spent with the Philadelphia Inquirer, as an imaging specialist, equipment manager, systems editor and more. He was instrumental in transitioning the paper to the digital era.

As a younger man, Levin raced cars and flew model airplanes. In an email, he wrote that he gets a kick out of pushing equipment to its limits. That's exactly what he did with his first multirotor -- an AR Drone 2.0 -- when he overloaded it with a heavier camera, and it wouldn't respond to inputs and drifted off into the woods.

"A deer probably ate it by now," he said.

Currently he's piloting a DJI Phantom, which is equipped with a GoPro 3 HD video camera and the NAZA flight controller. While it's essentially plug-and-play out of the box, Levin noted that there's much more to actually using the tool successfully.

For one, it's essential to know what the LED lights are indicating about a GPS lock at any given time. And pilots shouldn't become too complacent with GPS assist, because the Phantom could loose a satellite fix during flight, especially in urban environments with tall buildings. Learning to fly the quadrotor without the aid of a GPS, in attitude mode, is a must.

"But I can't stress enough," Levin wrote, "You really need to be able to fly with confidence in Attitude mode. This way when something goes crazy with the communication from the transmitter, you can have full control and not crash into something or someone."

Even if the GPS does function as needed, the results can be unexpected. The Phantom, like all GPS-guided drones, will apply small corrections throughout flight to keep the aircraft in a fixed position. Those corrections can make for jittery video. Levin advises that attitude mode must be mastered for the absolute best video and images.

And about that camera -- it could potentially interfere with the GPS signal, the internal magnetometer, or both, which could cause a fly-away. Levin warned that all pilots put contact information inside their drone in case of such an event. When his GoPro 3 HD interfered with the NAZA GPS, his Phantom flew for more than a mile before coming down.

Finally, always pick an open, unpopulated area to earn your drone "wings."

"I try to use my local park that has a mix of open terrain and obstacles to try and navigate around," Levin wrote. "This way I can practice my piloting skills under a variety of conditions. The main thing is to be on the watch for errant people showing up."

"Don't want to really fly over them too closely, and somebody will always try and bother you while you are concentrating on not crashing. And don't get too excited about going really high and/or far. The unit has to get back home."

Above are some sample videos of Levin's experiments with the DJI Phantom.


Posted on May 9, 2013 .