All posts by The Fat with the Drone

14. Finding North, back on track – part II

Previously: losing direction

A week passed quite quickly. After a busy Saturday, I finally got the time to fix my gimbal mounting with the new rubber connectors and finally test that my gimbal survived the crash.

A quick test at home showed that for the most part the gimbal is working, although it seems like it is not going full range facing down relative to how I remember it, and it starts to shake as it gets to about 80º. I’ll need to verify this later on and see if I need to re-calibrate the gimbal’s range….

Happy and confident, I made my traditional cappuccino and off I go on my way, back to where I left off last week.

Just before leaving, something in me felt like it is about time I’ll mark my drone with some “return-if-found” label just in case I lose it, so that maybe someone nice will actually return it to me if they find it. So I quickly printed some labels with my phone number and a Thank You message and I was ready to hit the road.

If you ever rode any motor-bike, big or small, you probably had an accident with it, jus the rule of owning a motor-bike. Although I only drove a 125cc Yamaha bike, I had my share of crashes and falls. Even got my first cast and first ever surgery thanks to that 2-wheels toy in 2005 which was the last time I ever drove one after realizing that 4 accidents are just too much! So, like any biker recovering from an accident, you have to put yourself at the same spot to get over the fear of the accident.

Yes, I was not actually in mid-air during the crash, but it was still shocking enough to feel like I have to “fix” this fearful feeling.

I got back to the crash site at SkySong, parked, set everything up, and just to be on the safe side, I ran another calibration. I decided to take off from the same spot.

While I was setting up, I noticed a couple of ladies that came to take still photos of the SkySong construct which was my target as well.

I did my quick flight check, made sure the GoPro is set to video mode (a new item on my check list since I made that mistake on our last family vacation, where I ended up with short bursts of photos instead of my video…) and off we go.

For a second I felt like I’m in the matrix, although I didn’t see any black cat, I did see my plastic bird acting as strange as last week, I guess I can’t only blame the calibration for what happened last week, the quad started to fly against my will, and almost hit the buildings around us. I managed to stabilized it and push it towards the white domes of the structure.

The little practice from last week did help, but before I knew it, I hit one of the metal wires that holds the structure in place and my drone is performing a familiar rotation in mid-air and throwing its nose down while starting to fall.

[DRAMATIC MUSIC GOES HERE – pause for 3 seconds and then continue reading]

[3 Mississippi]

[2 Mississippi]

[1 Mississippi]

But unlike last week, it stabilized after about 10 feet and adjusted itself to float in mid-air! Probably a black cat is a must for a real déjà vu, lucky me!

Draining one battery pack, I reloaded and went to my next spot, flying in the center of the structure.

Got some, what I hope would end up being nice shots and was able to attract the two ladies why started to shoot the flying object instead of the original target, what can I say, I man with a drone is like a man with a baby… you can’t go unnoticed…

Feeling more confident by the second, I’ve started my 3rd and last juice load, putting everything in, picking up a new takeoff spot and we are off the ground.

I decide to do a quick vertical acceleration to get a nice shot when I hear a loud POP sound and I can see that the drone has decided to puke out the battery. Luckily for its own good, the wires of the battery are strong enough that the battery can’t just detach from the power plug. Now,  I know you wouldn’t believe me when I’m saying that every time I locked that battery door I was thinking how come it never opens? Well now I have my drone in about 40-50 feet off the ground with its electric “fuel door” unlatched and the battery on its way out, hanging by the power cord…


So, how do I bring it down without causing the battery to fall off it and by that kill the power and drop the drone to its “death”???

As much as I tried to keep the drone level, it kept pulling its nose down which means the battery is ready to jump off….

With a  shaky hand and sweat over my forehead, I managed to bring it for a short pit stop to fix the battery door and secure it before this little touch and go is complete and the drone is back in mid-air finishing some nice aerobatics moves before the battery is emptied and I’m landed with no major issues to report.

So boring that even the two ladies decided they can go without even exchanging contact info with me (so we can share photos and videos, what did you think???)

So finally, after a 2nd weekend, a broken gimbal, and a somewhat restored confidence, I’m giving you: the “SkySong of Scottsdale” video…

13. Losing track of North – Part I

After being grounded for almost 5 months since my last flight, thanks to the crazy heat here in the desert, I finally found it reasonable enough to fly my plastic bird on a fun ~85ºF (30ºC) nice Sunday morning.

I already told the wife that I plan to take it for a flight first thing in the morning, but as I started to pack everything up and check my battery levels I remembered that I never fixed the broken landing skid.

broken landing gear

As quickly as I could, I brought my toolkit and the new landing skid kit I ordered 5 months ago and started to work on the fix.

10 minutes later, I’m ready with a new landing skid that is taller and wider than the one I had.

2014-10-19 10.45.39

Just before living I’m talking to my wife about my dilemma of where should I film today. I’m trying to stay true to my intention to cover Scottsdale first before I got to other places.

We are throwing some ideas at each other and I’m ready to go.

Excited, I take my stuff, and my freshly made cappuccino, and I’m ready to hit the road.

2014-10-19 11.01.01

I got to my final destination… The Sky Song campus of ASU just south of old town Scottsdale.

I find myself a nice parking spot, I take a last sip from my coffee, and I’m out to set everything up and start my day.

I turn the chopper on, making sure that all the controls are properly set, I even adjust the camera’s tilt a bit down, to get a nicer picture with less of the prop-guards, and in my mind it feels like the 5 months of no-flight are behind me.

I pull the joysticks down-middle to kick off the motors… I’m pushing the throttle lever and the baby is starting to rattle, gaining power and lifting off the ground in a beautiful take off using its new legs.

So, my drone has air born in this 15 ft wide street next to my shooting target, the interesting white construct of steel and white sheets of something that looks like a sail. And I feel that something is not normal.

I had tough flights before, but nothing like that. The drone is flying smoothly, but is not doing what I want it to do. When I release the controls it keeps drifting… when I pull it in a direction, it kind of doing it, but mostly not… I thought to myself, probably the buildings around me are causing the GPS to get confused so I lift it up higher to not be blocked by the buildings.

But, as you may expect, not to my enjoyment, it decided that it doesn’t care about what I want… it will try to do whatever it wants.

I tried to control it better, and felt like maybe flying it is not like riding a bike and if you don’t practice for 5 months, you will forget how to do it properly, and especially if all you have on your belt are about 8 or 9 flights…

After trying to fight its drift with no success I gave up and decided to land it back so that I can see what is wrong.

As I tried to navigate it back to a safe landing it kept doing its thing, while flying straight into one of the walls, than back to the other side of the street, hitting one of the metal cables that holds the construct in place, a huge bang sound, it flips in air but tries to stabilize itself, hitting the wire once more and then diving down to the ground while staring at me with a feeling of disappointment.

The next second went in front of my eyes in super slow motion. I didn’t even had the time to change my reaction. The drone just rolled down while diving into the concrete floor 5 feet from me (~1.5 meters) and I see it dies and pieces flying all over!!!

Now I panic. Did I lose my drone in its first flight after so long?

I immediately try to assess the damage:

  • Gimbal is disconnected from the drone
  • Only two out of the four rubber connectors are found
  • GoPro is still running…
  • everything else looks surprisingly still in good shape.

I start looking for the missing pieces while I’m trying to think what caused this strange and new behavior. Is it all my fault for not practicing flying it before taking it on a mission?

I keep searching the floor, finding one of the connectors, but can’t find the other one.

After 20 minutes I gave up, but not before it hits me!

I know what happened! Of course….

Stupid me, when I installed the new landing gear, I had to re-attach the electric compass that is hooked to one of the legs.

What I forgot, is that when you do this, you have to re-calibrate the drone to know how to find the north!!!

This explains everything.

Before hitting the road, I went on Amazon to find replacement parts, and was shocked to see it was about to be delivered same day on a Sunday!!!

When I got home, I pulled the instructions on Google and ran the calibration “dance”.

You toggle one of the remote buttons few times for at least 5 seconds until the orange light comes on, now you rotate the drone 360º horizontally and then while facing down to earth you rotate it 360º on its roll axis.

The normal lights blinked again and I was ready to check if my drone can fly again.

Since the spare parts didn’t arrive yet, I decided to do what I should have done this morning at the first place, take it for a quick test flight without the camera to see that everything is fine.

I went to the local green area in my neighborhood and gave it a test run.

All seems perfect and ready for the next flight.

At 7:50 pm the doorbell rang and my pieces arrived.

Now I’ll have to wait until next weekend and then hopefully I’ll find the time to try this again…

But no blog post can be complete without a video, an especially if this is the video of an epic fail. So I’m giving you: My Epic SkySong Failure


Next: Finding North


12. It’s not always flying in Arizona

Previously: last days of spring

Realizing that it is too hot for flying a drone, and going through some renovation at home, I had to fill my “spare time” with other things to do. Since we have been putting hardwood floors in our house, we had to shuffle our entire house’s content between our rooms while the hardwood guy finished the other rooms.

One of the first rooms I had to free up was my living room. In it I have one of the most complex setups you can think of: my entertainment center.

Being the geek I am, I have about any kind of system you can think of hooked up in this little space:

Of course I have the usual suspects:

  • TV
  • TiVo DVR
  • DVD player
  • Amplifier

but add to this:

  • Computer
  • XBox
  • Wii
  • Apple TV
  • Universal remote
  • TiVo’s tuning adapter (I hate this ugly mandatory addition to my TiVo)
  • a satellite DVR
  • MoCa adapter
  • Network switch

Each one connected to a power cable, ohh and speaking of cables, let’s not forget about 1,539 feet of tangled wires and cables running throughout the system:

  • 110V cables
  • Power Supply Cables
  • Coax
  • Speakers
  • Network
  • Digital Audio
  • HDMI
  • VGA
  • IR extenders
  • A few others I can’t even remember anymore…

When I was done un-plugging it all and moving it to the temporary-room, I ended up with a pile of equipment that was about the height of my waist line (I know, given my short height, this might not be too impressive, but trust me, it was a big pile of stuff, mostly cables.)

I knew it is too hot to fly the drone,  so I decided to use my free-time to do something that is at least as nerdy as flying my drone, without leaving my home.

I decided to use this time to pre-wire my entertainment center so that I will not have this pile of cables and wires put back into my living room once the new floor is done.

So, I started planning and  measuring and sketching and diagramming  and researching and Amazoning (yes, you can use it as a verb cause I said so) and counting parts and ordering and verifying orders for 3 weeks  from 15 different Amazon vendors, while my hardwood guy did this:

which at least put my GoPro into use while its flying host was resting for the summer.

Meanwhile, I came up with this plan:


Basically, what I had in mind was to pre-wire all compartments of my unit and place panels with outlet plugs on them in the back of each section,  so that when I put the equipment back in, each shelf will have a set of outlets in the back of it ready to be plugged without the need to run wires from one shelf to the other or up to the TV.

The funny thing is that in any entertainment center few things are guaranteed:

  • The wires will always need to get to another part of the entertainment center
  • The holes for the wires will always be too small
  • All of your units will need power
  • There will never be enough power outlets in your surge protector

Or another way to say it is: entertainment center were never designed to have entertainment equipment really placed in them, only dummy cardboard boxes in display at the store the sell them.

So my plan was to have all the mess to be hidden and pre-wired on the back of the unit so you don’t need to see it, touch it, or worry about it.

This way, next time my annoying tuning adapter from COX dies, I will not need to fish its power plug out of 1,200 other cables, but instead just pull it back, unplug it, and plug it back in to restart it.

The day has come, and I was ready to start my project.

First step was to measure and cut the holes in each part of the backboard to fit the housing of all the electric and low-voltage wires.

Most of it was done with an X-acto knife but some parts had to be drilled out and cut with a power saw.

Next I started pre-wiring all the power outlets before I could mount them into place.

2014-07-15 21.04.29 2014-07-15 21.04.52

Now, I could mount the power outlets into their mounting boxes and run power wires from each of them to a new robust central surge protector.

This was not as much fun as I thought it would be… With my “advance” sense of elastic body, kneeling and standing and laying on the floor, and standing again and again and again was adding incredible amount of pain to my body.

Once done with that phase, I had to take a long night break.

When I came back from work the other day, I started working on the low voltage part:

I started to snap-in all the outlets for the HDMI, Network and Coax, just to learn that although they look symmetric, if you put them up-side-down, you will need to find a way to remove and re-insert them without cutting your fingers, while if you live them to be, they will fall back and flip inside their fitting.

I now had most of the basic plugs attached.

2014-07-15 23.41.47


2014-07-15 23.42.00 2014-07-15 23.42.05 2014-07-15 23.42.49


Next I had to wire all these to each other on the back side of that unit.

After a long evening that turned into a sleepless night I ended up with the following beauty (view from behind):

2014-07-18 00.46.16 2014-07-18 00.45.42

I also plugged a couple of super-quite fans to the back to release the heat out of the unit, and I’ve set up a network switch and MoCa connection to have wired network ready for all these devices…

Next I had to move it into place without scratching the new hardwood floor, and start putting back all my equipment, wire it all in, and test that it works, but not before I had to clean all the mess inside the unit and outside.

To my TOTAL surprise, it all worked on the first attempt! Well, at least I thought it was. Apparently the surround speakers didn’t work.

A few days earlier, I had a professional AV guy come to re-wire my surround speakers and replace my outside backyard speakers that came with the house and were of low quality (cheap car speakers) and had to be replaced. This is because up until now the wires for the speakers where just laying on the floor underneath my carpet floor.

He did a great job and even placed a connection panel on the side of my wall, but he didn’t label the outlets correctly and it took me about 3 hours to re-trace the plugs to their relevant speakers by un-mounting the speakers off the wall and using continuity meter to find each pair of speaker’s plugs on the wall.

Then I set down for 1 hour to prepare patch speaker cables to run from my unit to the wall.

With an aching back, I went to plug them to the wall, just to learn that my cables where too short!!!

Upset, but determined, I prepared a fresh set of 8 cables, this time long enough.

So yes, things always take less time the 2nd time around. I finished it in 30 minutes.

I plugged the longer wires, and I’m ready to test the speakers for the first time, and the surround speakers are not producing any sound.

I went through my entire collection of 5.1 Dolby DVDs to find one I knew for a fact that must have a good rear track. The winner had to be my favorite movie: The Matrix!

So, I put it in, blast the volume, and I can hear Trinity talking from my center speaker, but nothing comes out of the back.

After another hour of troubleshooting I learned that I didn’t wire the plugs well enough and this is why my speakers didn’t make a sound when the police came to arrest Trinity.

After a few more adjustment to the cables (while the test movie is starting again), I was able to plug it in, just in time before the truck hit the pay phone booth!!!!

Both Trinity and my speakers were saved at the same moment!

Finally I could enjoy my living room again.

One unsolved issue I still face: I couldn’t find a way to calibrate the audio delay that is introduced by my 15 year-old Pioneer amplifier… So watching AppleTV movies in 5.1 surround is not an option for movies that has an element of surprise, because I can see the action before I can hear it… You’ll be surprised how much 100ms can ruin a good surprise…

Until summer is over, I’m going to spend more time in front of my entertainment center with the A/C in full throttle and my wife on my side….

Bring these popcorn bags!!!!

11. Into the Bloom – Part II

Previously: Catching a blooming cacti – part I

I knew that skipping a couple of weeks will pose a problem for finding blooming cacti but it was better than nothing. So ,two weeks later, with a fixed gimbal and much more motivation I went on to continue my hunt for last-chance of a blooming cacti.

Riding all the way east on Via Linda I found a trail that I heard of before, The Sunrise Trail but being the lazy fat dude I am, I’ve never got here for the same reasons as some of my healthier friends did. My friends are usually sending slefies from the top of this trail at 5am in the morning, which is about 2 hours after I went to sleep…

But now that I have my flying proxy to do the hard work for me, all I have to do is climb the trail just enough to be able to see where my quad is, so I can get a good idea of how to fly it…

Starting the usual pre-flight checks:

  • Power? On
  • GPS? On
  • Status lights? Blinking Green
  • Camera? Rolling
  • Remote switches? Check
  • Visual examination? … FAIL!

It seems that one of the landing gear legs has a serious dent, nothing too crazy but enough to make a mental note to self: need to order a new landing gear.

We are ready to go…

Starting the engines, pushing the throttle stick up… and off we go…

The heat is even higher this late afternoon, than two weeks ago, and my ability to control the drone is diminished dramatically…

Nevertheless I manage to fly it towards the top of the mountain so that I can also take a selfie of my own…


And off we go to find what I came here for… some blooming cacti….

I spot a couple of them, trying to fly towards them and have some interesting shots, hoping to not lose my drone down the creek that hosts the only two blooming cacti I was able to spot.

I manage to maneuver towards one of them, while hopefully capturing some nice ascending and descending flight shots over the creek.

Despite the hot weather that, as I already mentioned, makes it hard to control the quad, I decide to do something crazy and fly it in between the two “hands” of the cactus. I approach it “smoothly” trying to stay focused on the blooming flowers while flying through the cactus’ structure, and… BOOM, BOOM, BANG!

I hit the cactus. Now, I’m at the grace of the stabilizing software to take me out of this situation without going down the creek to search for my quad. Best acquired instinct at this point is to “let go” of the controls and see if it can adjust itself…

Few more bounces into the cactus and, it flies out of the risky area and is free again.

I resume control over the drone, take some additional shots and bringing it back for landing just before it runs out of juice.

Second round  of juice is loaded and I’m trying to take off again…

And then this happens

I have no idea why but a quick look at it shows that the only damage is that same broken landing leg which got a bit loser, but still  attached “enough” to the quad, so I give it a thumbs-up to keep flying.

Set it for a second take off and this time we are good.

I empty the battery and drive up to the other side of the road to take my final set of shots down in the bigger creek on the southern side of the access road.

While I was prepping the drone for take off, I was proud of myself for the amount of walking I did to get to the bottom of the creek. With a huge smile on my face and even huger sweat spot on my shirt, I’m starting the motors and bring the quad to mid-air.

I capture some nice shots flying up the side walls of the creek, and then I decide to try something a bit different and fly inside the creek’s path in higher speed than usual.

I start accelerating and the creek is turning left, but not surprising, I can’t keep up with my drone, by means of running, so I just trust my instincts and send it left while I’m chasing it to be able to see where it is.

Before I know it, it runs into a crowded pile of dead trees and dry bushes and makes a grand flip and crashes into the floor.

My first real crash since I started flying this toy.

I find my way through the dry shrubs hoping to not make this my first official meeting with one of the local residents of the desert, the rattle snake…

I’m making sure my phone is within reach, just in case I need to make an emergency call… and I’m digging in to grab my quad, which is laying on its back with the gimbal helplessly attempting to stabilize the camera, which makes it look like as if the quad is gasping for air and the camera is its pounding heart…

I pick it up,  while cursing a bit, quick inspection, the battery door is open and the dented leg looks even worse than before… no doubt I’ll need a new landing gear. I walk it back to a safer place, put it back on its 3.5 legs and try to fly it for the last time, before I’m out of juice.

I get some last shots of a couple of other cacti that had some final touches of blooming flowers, and we are out of juice…

By the time I got home the landing gear was barely attached to the drone.

2014-10-19 10.17.37

Ok, Amazon, here I come: A new Landing Skid is on its way…

So here is the last take of blooming cacti I could get before it was too late…




10. Into the Bloom – Part I

Previously: Dealing with the fear of water

Ever since my last fly over the water of lake Margruite in Scottsdale, I was looking for my next opportunity to fly.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do that for four weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have the intention and made the necessary plans, but ‘reality’ was not on my side (no, ‘reality’ is not how I call my wife and daughter…).

I even brought my drone with me to our short trip to LA hoping to catch some nice views…

My drone stayed put the entire round trip until we got back from LA. Well, almost in the same position. 5 minutes into the ride my daughter informed me that if this “thing” in the back seat will not stop “clicking”, she will teach it how to fly out the window, so I had to stop and rearrange the bungee cords to hold the gimbal in place so its metal parts stop hitting each other in loud metallic sound.

During the visit, every time I dared to think: “This is the perfect time to fly it”, either my wife or my daughter (I guess I do call them ‘reality’) had a convincing reason for why I shouldn’t stop the car to fly it at that specific moment.

I really wanted to fly it next to the power windmills in Palm Springs but,  “surprisingly”, the winds in the area were too strong (now I know why they chose this area to install them) and it was too cloudy to get a good picture anyhow.


Of course this is when my wife and daughter said it would be ok if I’ll fly it now… twisted reality…

When we got back home, I had to crawl into the back of the car to detach the poor plastic bird off the back seat and bring it home, without giving it a chance to fly during the entire trip.

I felt like I have to correct this, so the following Sunday, I cleared my schedule to find the time to fly it.

By the time I got things going it was close to noon. In the desert, ‘close to noon’ during summer can mean 3 digits temperatures of about ~104ºF (~ 40ºC for my metric friends), but this mid-May  Sunday noon was already showing these high temperatures earlier than expected.

The good news about this time of year in the desert is that you get to watch the blooming of the cacti. If you never seen a blooming cactus, you better not say you lived in the desert. This is one of the most beautiful phenomenons of the desert view. Seeing these tall Sonora Saguaro cacti rising to an impressive 40-60 feet (12-18m), with a bright cluster of flowers at the top, is one surprise  that is waiting for any new desert resident (sorry for ruining the surprise to any future desert residents…)

So I decided to dedicate my next shooting to this beautiful act of nature.

Finding cacti in the desert is quite easy, you just need to walk in any direction for 5 minutes and you’ll hit one. But finding a blooming one can be quite tricky if you missed the peak of the season which last only a few weeks, which of course is what happened to me.

So I’m in my car, scouting for blooming cacti and as I drive I notice a few on side of Frank Lloyd Wright road just a few miles before it ends.

I stopped my car in one of the first exits, and got ready to fly.

Quick pre-flight check:

  • RC On: Check
  • GPS ON: Check
  • IOC Off: Check
  • GoPro On: Check
  • GoPro Recording: Check
  • Battery plugged: Check
  • 6-tone sound effect: Check
  • Gimbal stabilized: Check …. Uncheck…. FAIL!

I scratch my head, why is my camera pointing to the floor? oh… maybe the tilt control is down…

  • Tilt Control up: Check
  • Gimbal Stabilized: FAIL!

$H1T! what do I do? Like any good software engineer, I look for the quickest way to: “restart”… Now I understand why they have this little plug between the gimbal and the quad, so I can reset it by quickly unplugging and plugging it back in.

I unplug, count to 5 (like in any troubleshooting guide) and plug it back in.

A second later the gimbal does its initialization and the camera is …. stable… well sort of…. but stable enough for me to fly it…. I know that something is wrong but I don’t know what yet…

I run a quick pre-flight-check again, all seems good, except for the crooked camera, but hey, these flowers will not wait for ever….

I take off, flying over FLW trying to get to the cacti on the other side of the road, having the worst angle to do any decent guessing on the actual position of the camera relative to the one cacti that is blooming, but hey, I’m thinking of all the poor people who are actually hiking in this weather, and I’m immediately appreciative of the easy hobby I chose.

The entire flight the drone is “fighting” my attempts to control it, although the wind is very light, and it reminds me of the times when my children were 3 yrs old and I was trying to convince them that it is time to go back home from the park, while they keep running through my fingers and returning to the swings…

Without any other option I force the drone to land next to me, and we are off. I could swear that the flight time was shorter than usual but I’m not sure. I get to the drone, picking it up from one of its arms, turn the GoPro off, and I realized an overwhelming sharp burn in my arm. I almost dropped my baby before I realized my arm touched one of the motors. It took me less than 1 second to realize what happened. The motors had their first ‘welcome to Arizona’ flight ever, and they didn’t like the heat, so they were fighting back by producing counter heat! That was HOT!

I kept looking for more cacti to shoot, found a couple of other locations and since one of them was next to a nice green area, I decided to use it to practice some flight maneuvers in that area.

I realized that shooting without watching what you shoot, brings us back to the old film days where you had to wait for your film to be developed before you could watch it. So, when I got back home and went through the ‘digital development process’ (copying the files to my computer) I could finally review my footage.

The good news, no “burnt-film on my memory card”, but the bad news were that there was a reason to my bird’s madness. It seems that my gimbal over-rotated and got its wires tangled which caused its motors to over-fight gravity.


This explains it all… The Gimbal’s brain was trying endlessly to adjust the camera, but the motors got blocked by the wires and therefore the camera kept rattling and the footage came out fuzzy and jumpy.

I managed to get only a few seconds of stable video… nothing close to what I wanted… but here you go…

Luckily I had about one more week before it is too late to find the blooming cacti… maybe next week would be more successful?


Continue to part 2


9. Brave over water

Previously: the boulders of north-north Scottsdale

After a very busy week, where I couldn’t find the time to take my drone to breath some air, I finally was able to find some time this nice Saturday to enjoy a fun shot.

Realizing that covering too many spots in a single fly is not my thing, I’ve decided to return to my usual style of longer shots in fewer places.

As usual I got into my car before I even know where I’m heading.

I had some time to think about it as I headed for my monthly haircut at my favorite European Barbershop. I was excited as I parked my car sneaking a pick into the shop as I saw no line. By the time I got to the door, a quicker dude beat me to it, so I had even more time to think.

I kept reading about the external battery mounts to see if I can extend the flying time. All of my reading convinced me that the extra weight will not give me much more flying time per run, will overheat my motors and will increase my chances of crashing my drone…

I decided to give up on this for now. Maybe I should just get more batteries so I have more than 3 rotations.

I also noticed that flying time is almost identical with the 2200 mAh and the 2700 mAh batteries I have, while theoriginal  2200 mAh are better fitted into the battery housing… so probably I should stick to the original battery packs when I decided to buy additional juice power.

With my new haircut, I was ready to hit the road but with all the reading and the NBA playoff tip-off in front of me at the barbershop, I did not make up my mind yet .

As I backed out of my parking lot, my mind was set… the Margruite Lake in Scottsdale, not far from the crossing of Via de Ventura and Hayden road, and no, I didn’t know this is how it is called until I started writing this post, so don’t worry if you didn’t know the name.

This is also where my favorite coffee shop is, Altitude Coffee Lab, where I buy my coffee beans to make my favorite drink before I leave home every morning.

Since I started shooting video with the drone, I realized that every time I’m driving my car, I’m constantly in “recce” mode, trying to figure out if I want to film here and how will this shot will look from my flying camera.

This lake was on my mental list for quite some time now. It is located on the nice greenbelt,  11 miles of continuous biking pathway starting at Shea & 101 hwy all the way down to Tempe lake, and has some nice visual features.

This specific point on the path has a very nice view, a water fountain and a wide lake. In addition it has a lot of activity which I wanted to capture in my video, such as bikers, joggers and sometime even some in-lake activity…

As with any busy spot, people were drawn to my drone like flies to a purple light. The moment I placed it on the ground to run through my  pre-flight checks and plugging the batteries, people gathered around starting to ask questions.

I was mostly concerned with all the dogs around, after my bad experience in my 2nd flight at the McDowell mountain area…

My mental shot plan was, to break my 21 minutes of shots into three styles:

One would be along the bike path with some slides away to the sides or vertically. The other would be over the water and around the water fountain and the 3rd would be a high altitude set of shots to capture the beauty of the entire lake.

With the excitement of the people around me, and with all the Q&A sessions I ran through, I didn’t get to capture all that I wanted, but I did have a few breakthroughs today.

I was able to perform much more complicated flight maneuvers while staying under 5 feet from the ground, and I was able to control the camera’s tilt in a smoother way than usual (I learned how to hold the tilt control at the back of my RC more firmly and slide it slowly while keeping the grip of it as strong as I could).

The attention of the people was amazing, they were all waving at the camera, even the dogs didn’t freak out, which is good because I didn’t want to see anyone being dragged into the lake by their dog because of me…

As always I was looking for extending my trust in myself and my flying skills. I decided to fly the drone relatively low over the water, close to the fountain, and also try to cover the entire lake distance.

This is one of these moments where you have to train your brain to stop thinking on the “what if” and trust that the drone will come back to you in one piece, although every time you read the stories of experienced drone owners, they have their fair share of stories of drones that decide to go on their own, crashing into water and other kinds of drone-takes-control-of-its-own-destiny situations, occasionally  ending up with a lost or damaged-beyond-repair equipment…

The thing that works for me in these situations is to forget how much it cost me to build this flying toy, and to get in-the-zone and focus on enjoying the act of flying and doing my best guessing what does my drone see, vs what I think it captures and how to avoid basic mistakes of running into trees or buildings…

As always, my eyes were deceiving me and fooling my judgment. I was attempting to do a full lake flight and shoot it from its north side, but was barely two thirds of the way over the lake before I turned it back, thinking it is already beyond the water line. Despite this repeating mistake, it was still the farthest I have ever flown my mechanical bird, and the views ended up quite amazing.

I was mostly impressed with the beauty of the reflection of the skies and clouds over the lake as I was speeding over it.

The light wind was not too helpful, but at the same time was not enough to cause any problems except for some shakiness at times, mostly during the fast high altitude fights…

Editing this video was the hardest one so far just because of my attempt to keep the video at the 2 minutes mark, while I had good material for at least 8 minutes of video out of the 21 minutes of footage… but let these be my problems…

Enjoy the “viewdeo”


8. Behind the Boulder

Previously: Flying old-town Scottsdale

I woke up Sunday morning ready for my upcoming flight. I was not 100% sure where will it be, but I started to form a general idea and guideline for my upcoming videos: I want to stay within Scottsdale for now, challenging myself to make the most out of my city.

This time I made sure, during the night before, that everything is ready so I’m not getting nervous early morning before I got my coffee shot.

I prepared my cappuccino in a to-go cup  and was ready to hit the road… going someplace… where? I don’t know yet, but it will be in Scottsdale, that’s for sure.

Trunk Ready to go
My trunk ready to go (I found out that putting the drone on its back is the safest way to travel with it)

I loaded my stuff to the car, after I took the picture the coffee called “shotgun” so I took it with me to the front.

As I started the car, my gut decided for me on where to drive to.

I’ve been directed to go to the most north point of Scottsdale I know of, “The Boulders” at the edge of Scottsdale road.

As I was driving over, my mind was picturing the shots I wanted to take of the big boulders there.

As usual, plans are nice, but reality changes them every moment. It seems that the starting point I had in mind was not possible as it was just next to the security gate of the boulder’s resort.

Going back I found a good alternative starting point. Early on a Sunday morning, the little shopping area south of the boulder was deserted and was a perfect second option.

I parked my car, took a quick sip from my cappuccino and within less than 2 minutes my flying camera/toy was in mid air, fighting some unexpected wind. It was way more windy than I had hoped for, and my drone was jumpy, to say the least.

7 minutes later it landed safely and I continued thinking of my next point of view for the next battery run. I decided to go to the north side of the boulder and get a nice shot from that side.

I found a small road that goes behind the boulder with a good parking area next to the road.

This ended up being my best guess/decision of the day.

My starting point had a small boulder of its own and some typical desert habitat with a tall cacti and various other common desert plants.

In my mind I saw how I take a shot of flying really close to the small boulder, rapidly elevating to reveal the huge boulder a bit south of my current point.  My surprise was much bigger when I got home and reviewed my footage. Actually I had three surprises, two bad and one good. On the bad side, the sun decided to kill my shots with these annoying dark scanning lines over my footage, and my drone was not pointing at the right direction to reveal the big boulder. But on the positive side, to my surprise I discovered an amazing golf course that was laying just behind the small boulder.

The view that I saw from the ground
The view from the drone behind the boulder
The view revealed by the drone after flying above the small boulder

Since I had no idea what is the actual bird’s-eye view, while shooting, but as  I knew of some golf courses of the resort in the area, I’ve decided to be brave and fly it far from me, the farthest I have ever allowed myself, where I could barely see the drone, and fly it around the entire area.

I covered some nice air-ground and as I felt the battery was nearing its end, I pulled it closer and decided to drain the battery closer to me and low enough so in case it dies, it doesn’t fall from too high. This led to one beautiful, and lucky, shot as I was flying just above the road at 15′ when a convertible with an open top drove just under my drone and the passengers were so excited, waving at it.

I  did some additional flying over the local habitat and drained the battery completely into a safe and nice landing.

Next I looked for some long shots of the boulder, and yet again, parked at the side of the road, this time the Carefree hwy road, to get my desired view, not even close to be able to guess what will my camera catch once in higher altitude.

Although the angles of all my shots ended up amazing, and I got some great shots flying over the cars on the hwy just under the camera, the one thing that killed them all was these annoying lines over the picture, as most of these shots were facing the sun.

I need to figure out if there is a camera setting that will do a better job against these annoying lines. The main problem with them is not their existence as much the fact they are running over the picture in steady direction and therefore can’t be ignored when it is a video, although you can barely see them in a single frame snapshot…

Example of lines artifact against the sun (notice also a fly caught on tape as well)
Example of lines artifact against the sun (notice also a fly caught on tape as well)

Enjoy the short outcome…

Lessons learned

  • What you can’t see, can still hurt you, like wind, picture was really shaky
  • Always expect surprises when shooting without a FPV feed
  • Flying against the sun will produce annoying scan lines artifacts on the video

7. Hitting Down Town

Previously: Meeting Frank Lloyd Wright up close

My next flight was on an early and cloudy Sunday morning. I set my clock to wake me up early, and at 9-ish in the morning, which is unheard of for a lazy dude like me on a weekend morning, at least since my youngest turned 10.

Ready to go to my location of the day, Old-Town Scottsdale, with my homemade extra-strong cappuccino in a to-go cup I was ready to attempt this early morning ride…

I noticed that the earlier these trips starts and the farther the locations are, the more I’m starting to copy one of my wife’s habits: being worried I forgot something at home! The last thing you want is to get to the location and realize you forgot the camera, the batteries, the SD card in the computer or to turn off the oven…  I think the oven is the most common reason we are finding ourselves driving back home to check that it is shut. It used to be the garage door, but thanks to smart homes, I can now check this remotely and even shut it from my smart phone using the cool MyQ remote from Chamberlain, recommended!

As I’m driving, I’m replaying in my head my entire packing routine, trying to think if I forgot anything. Before I know it, I find myself in downtown Scottsdale, so at this point it doesn’t matter, I can just check it. Quick check, and everything is here!

Now I had to decide how am I going to use my ~21 minutes of flight in this interesting location. The filming style that I’ve developed over the years is such that I plan ahead just enough of what I want to achieve but I like to get to the location and make the final decision on the spot as I start filming and letting my creative juices make the decisions on the spot. Today my juices decided to start with the eastern part of this area, knowing that Old Town Scottsdale deserves more than a single “battery-drain-run”.

The other thing I noticed about my filming style is that as an editor-then-photographer, my motto is: “Let It Run”. You never know what your lens will capture and you can always cut out extras during the editing, but you can’t re-shoot footage you never shot. I found it to be true both for documentary style as well as scripted and planned style of shooting.

But, when you have limited juice power that can only run for 7 minutes at most… this causes a serious conflict in my brain. The left side wants me to be pragmatic and count every second of flying time, while my right side wants to “Let It Run”…

After watching my footage of the previous flights, I set a goal for today’s shooting: try to have more than one spot being shot per battery-drain.

This was much harder than I thought it would be. After a few minutes of me listening to my left and right side argue (they both had really good points, surprisingly), they cut a deal that instead of having many short shots, we will attempt to have a “let-it-run” continuous shot but cover as much ground as possible instead of spending too much time in each location, stopping only to reload juice…

With a growing confidence in my ability to control the drone… I’ve decided to start at the horses fountain and end at the 3 mirror-doors statue on the corner of Camelback Rd. and Scottsdale Rd. going through the art market that was open along that path.

With two juicing stops (well, all I have are 3 batteries…), I was able to cover that whole distance with no accidents, no hurt people, no broken wings and no freaked-out dogs

One ambitious maneuver I attempted and failed was to fly through the 3-door statue… it was just too hard to control the drone in that level of accuracy even with the GPS turned off…

Back at home I also made a decision to remove the camera lowering kit to see if the footage will be more stable without it.

After draining my batteries through this path, I went home quickly to  take my daughter to a basketball tournament of her team, so I will not get to watch this footage until late that evening.

Once I finally got to watch the raw footage I was quite happy. Much fewer cases where the camera didn’t shoot what I was hoping it was shooting, the point-of-view was really close to what I had in mind and the visual look of the framing was satisfying.

Removing the lowering kit really paid back and the picture was much more stable. I guess I will give up on the lowering kit and will do more cropping/zooming to get rid of the propellers, all in the name of high quality videos.

Alas, I give you my first drone visit to Old-Town Scottsdale (and I promise more will come in the future):

Lessons learned:

  • Filming in crowded places turn people’s heads
  • Getting a realistic continuous shot over a long distance is quite unrealistic without FPV because you can’t chase your drone fast enough on the ground to see where it is
  • The accuracy of the drone’s control is not exact enough to go through 2′ cracks, and good thing I kept my props guards
  • Filming on a cloudy day produced very nice picture, surprisingly

6. Flying the Wright Way

Previously: crashing in tight spaces…

The new landing gear with the extended legs and the camera lowering kit arrived, which provided me with plenty of screws to play with. Between the eight screws of the landing gear and the two of the camera’s mount, plus the four rubber shock observers that are like screws, I got my daily screwing fix covered.
Now my camera got a new vertical position far enough from the ground yet low enough to capture more of the view and less of the propellers… (except for the very fast forward moves where the drone is tilted at about 30 degrees forward and the props are unavoidable).
After my last practice in tight spaces I was ready for a challenge!
I’ve decided to fly my drone in circles and above the famous Frank Lloyd Wright statue in Scottsdale.
I’v never been that close to it before. The closest I’ve got to it was on my way to/from Maggiano’s which means I was either too hungry to notice it, or in a food coma after eating too much of these bottomless family style Italian dishes…
It appears that this amazing statue has a very nice garden around it with beautiful statues and water fountains… who knew.
So, I setup my drone on its new and taller landing gear on one of the nice concrete benches around the statue. This is going to feed my daily dose of mistakes…
I plugged the power on, listen to the lovely and loud 6 tones sound, doing my pre-flight check of RC’s controls, the camera and the drone and I’m ready to take off.
I turn on the engines by pulling the sticks to my favorite starting position, bottom centered, and the rotors starts roaring.
As I push the throttle stick up, the drone moves a bit forward, and before I understand what happens, it dives nose forward from about 2′ to the concrete ground, on its side, in such grace and strength that the entire camera gimbal is disconnecting from the mount and all four rubber connectors are off.
It looks so sad, like a baby bird falling of a tree after its first attempt to fly. I pick it up carefully like it was a bird with a broken wing, slowly and carefully bringing it to my starting position to assess the damage.

After 5 minutes of mechanical CPR I confirm no fatal damage to my 4-props mechanical bird, except for the detached gimbal. I reconnected the 4 shock observers of the gimbal and everything seems fine and ready for a second try.
All this was not for nothing, as I learned later in when I was back at home, it seems that the failed attempt was done without me starting the camera! So maybe this is why my drone chose to crash! It was actually trying to communicate with me, or was it afraid to fly without seeing what’s going on???
This time the camera was running, and, learning from the last mistake, I placed it on the GROUND level and started it all over again.

Quick pre-flight checks again, after I learned that my belly likes to push the switches of the RC every time while I’m connecting the camera and battery, so I learned to always ensure my RC is configured as it should: GPS: on, IOC: default!.
My plan was to circle the long statue while rising up and then fly from above and film downwards while spinning slowly in place.
As usual perspective screwed my plans and what I got was close but far from being what I really wanted. (I already see a FPV addition in my drone’s future…)
After it landed safely I was smart enough to review my footage to ensure my GoPro captured what I wanted before leaving the location.
This is when I learned that the GoPro will not stream recorded video to the iPhone App!!! :-/ so, I had to trust myself and go to my next location, the nearby CrackerJax, to get some medium length shots of the statue.
I ended up shooting from the empty DMV parking, and got about 0% usable footage. The shots were too far, pointing at the wrong targets, and all in all just boring and bad (movement was too quick, bad parallax effect and too much sun glare. )
Next location was at the soccer fields near the famous TPC Golf Course, home of the annual West Management Open golf tournaments.
The place was packed because of a lacrosse tournament that took place there.
I was setting my drone to fly over the overpass between the two parts of the park, and over the playing teams, hoping to get some nice shots of the players from above as well as some long shots of the FLW statue.
Guess what went wrong? Well nothing bad, but, damn that perspective illusion. I could swear I was flying above the center of the soccer field, while in reality I didn’t even rich the baseline… 🙂

Soccer Field Persptive

Still got some nice shots, and this time I needed almost no cropping because the propellers almost never got into my shot…
The picture did turn out a bit more shaky when I flew quickly in any of the 3 dimensions, but I don’t know if it was due to the wind, or because of the new camera lowering kit. I will run tests in the future with and without it to be able to tell.
Enough talking … Now lets enjoy some video…

5. Going Pro (or in short GoPro)

Previously: How I learned yet again that too cheap has its price…

So, I decided to go pro and buy a GoPro with a motorized gimbal so I can get the resolution I wanted and the stability I needed.

I love my Amazon mobile app… between the app and the amazing “Amazon Prime” I can review and order things in the best price through my phone and get it at my door within 24-48 hours with free shipping… I LOVE IT!

So, less than 48 hours later I got my new GoPro HERO+ Black edition, which, lucky me, is using the same SD micro card as the Vivitar (I guess there is at least one good thing about Vivitar copying the GoPro so well… actually, not so well… but you get my point…)

A day later the gimbal arrived  (it did all the way from Hong Kong!!!)

I installed it and did a quick test

Although I have both programming and electronics background, still to this day, when I plug something for the first time and it works, I’m always amazed, surprised and excited! I can’t believe how it all integrate so nicely the first time you try it…

This was no exception, but wait… there’s more…

The Phantom comes with an additional lever on the RC’s back that allows sending tilt level signal to the camera. But in order to enable it, I had to disassemble the drone, run wires through the tiny holes, plug it into the “brain” of my Phantom in order to program the tilt channel to properly control the camera so that it can be set to view forward or downwards.

Another thing I learned about myself, I’m getting so excited when I see screws especially when I need to unscrew them… I can’t explain why, but it probably explains why I ended up as an engineer, I just can’t resist unscrewing screws, just so I can screw them back in later on… I should probably see a Dr. about this… but… I won’t let any Dr. screw with my head… 😉

With the new gimbal mounted (which came with shock observers as well to reduce the jello/”moving shutter” effect), I was ready to take it on its next air-trip.

Just like a little boy I counted the hours left until the weekend starts, so I can go fly my more-expensive-by-the-day toy.

Going forward, every time I launch my drone I must forget how much money I’m throwing to the air and hope it will land in one piece…

Saturday morning finally came, and I was ready… so ready…

I quickly decided on my next location for shooting, which was the starting point of another trail in the area. I plugged the battery to the drone (it makes a load 70s video-game sound every time you do this, as if I won the last level of Pacman), and was getting ready to take-off, as a couple with a dog went by me, ready to start their morning walk.

As soon as my drone took off and hovered at about 5′ above the ground their dog freaked out and start barking like crazy! I was apologizing while pushing the throttle’s stick up to make the drone go high enough so the dog could cool down.

It didn’t help, the dog just went crazy and kept barking at my drone. They tried to calm it down for a few moments and realized their morning walk is over. They gave me one of these polite yet discussed angry looks, and went back home with their freaked-out barking dog. I felt bad, but hey, my drone has its need as well…

As always, a video worth a million words… so I give you my first GoPro + motorized gimbal flight results:

As you can tell by the fact I added some music, this time I was much happier with the results.

First, I didn’t need to apply any filters to compensate for the vibrations of the drone, or add any color corrections.

Second, the quality of the video was so high that I could actually crop and zoom the video without losing much of the quality (except for the bird’s shot where I really got into the “digital zoom” range for a short while in the editing).

In addition, I started to feel much more comfortable controlling my drone in the air, and was able to run much more complicated moves like flying through the soccer-goal while flying 2 feet off the ground, or tracking the baseball field while turning the drone and flying sideways…

I came home, reviewed the footage and felt the need to have another run. I decided to practice my maneuvering skills and did two more flights.

The first was an outdoor flight but back in my backyard, trying to control it in a tight space… with and without GPS:

The second was an attempt to fly the drone indoors and see how well can I (not) control it:

I was so excited with the results (relatively speaking…)  but my expenses needed one additional Amazon visit … With the Gimbal, the camera was so close to the edge of the landing gear that the camera would hit the floor on each landing and even during takeoff (which explains the camera jumpy movement you see at some of my bad landings). This camera and the gimbal are too expensive to let them break on each tight landding attempt… so an extended set of landing gears was due to be purchased, with additional camera mounting spacer that will lower the camera ~ 1 inch from the drone to help capture less of the propellers in my view.

I can’t wait for next weekend when I’ll get to play with it again…

Lessons Learned

  • With or without GPS, flying in closed or narrow areas will cause your drone to go crazy, no matter how good you can control it, unless you can fly fully manual (which I’m far from ready to…)
  • ALWAYS assume that the drone is closer than where you think it is… perspective is so confusing… like this feeling that two planes are about to crash although they are so far from each other…
  • Dogs don’t like drones… Just live with it…
  • Flight time with the gimbal went down from about 10 minutes to 6.5-7 minutes
  • GoPro at 2.7k gives amazing results and allows to crop and “zoom” in editing down to 1080p without losing anything, which allows to hide the propellers
  • The original landing gear is too short for the GoPro with a motorized gimbal…