Droning in Print: A Man's Toy, How and How Not to Play With It.
June 17, 2020; 4:23 am -- a Wednesday
t is said that beginnings are an important time, a time to get things right. At sixty-two ... you watch and I'll learn.
I've always had this thing about noting the date Euro-style, day first. It comes to me now that I like putting the month first. It is Summer, and early.
Today is Porch Pirate Awareness Day. I have a delivery promised, over four hundred dollars worth and a bargain, by all of my research, at that. This past weekend, I ordered an sUAS, a small Unmanned Aerial System. Yeah, a drone.
DJI, behind that Chinese synergy of top-notch engineering and bottom-rung labor costs, owns the lion's share of the drone market. The Mavic Mini is a strategic design. Just under the FAA weight limit that requires a drone to be registered, the device seems as though it suits the purposes of an amateur at a near-professional standard of reliability and functionality. We'll see.
At first glance, the design compromises are two. One, it doesn't "Follow Me", a common feature in a camera drone. The Mini is not an aerobatic or a racing drone. Those are very different design standards. Keep in mind that weight is the ironclad criterion in the design of any aircraft. Power-versus-weight is the ruling compromise.
About me. I was a crew chief in the US Air Force, April '78 to April '83, off the top of my head. I picked up a lot of factoids at the time, and a kind of mindset. I know that I don't think like a pilot, and I never wanted the seat. My goal is to become a skilled operator, one who can be relied upon to maintain safety, preserve the equipment and get results. While I take the long way around COVID-19, I want one last chance to sock away a little something before I cannot work any more.
Back to the Mini. In a world of 4K, the Mini's camera resolves at 2.7K, a little over thirty percent less intense. Pixel resolution is not the be-all-end-all of photography. The "golden hours" of sunrise and sunset, just might be. I keep catching references to polarized lens filters.
The Mini runs on an app that takes much of the load off of the operator. Opposite view: It doesn't let you do a whole lot, especially with the camera. Those filters are beginning to make sense in the harsh light of the desert. And then, I did some photography in high school. I read that it was common among the pros to protect an expensive lens with an inexpensive filter.
Absent experience (I'm working on it), the Mini's design compromises strike me as ranging from trivial to acceptable. The design adds features that appeal to me. I had to dig a little bit to learn about the built-in Geographic Position Satellite capability. The device will RTH (Return To Home) without a cellular or a wi-fi connection. It might be better to rely on the camera and a clearly marked landing target. I'll get that sorted, as the Brits say, once I get the batteries charged and the bird in the air.
Batteries. I ordered a Fly More kit. It comes with three and a three-slot charger and a handful of items trivial but useful, all in a sturdy case. Ordering their last refurbished kit from a reseller saved me sixty bucks.
I'll cap this off with a few words about the Federal Aviation Administration. The airspace around my city is heavily restricted, especially with respect to drones. It seems there is exactly one place in the local area that allows drones to fly without some sort of a waiver. Even then, there are rules. More about those later.
The crux of the matter is Part 107, a certification required for commercial operators and a necessary asset if you want to fly legally outside of the one drone park.
Sunny today, but breezy. I'm not missing out as I wait on my delivery. I have a lot to learn.
June 25, 2:12 pm
My doctor is ecstatic, and I'm pretty happy. My weight and Type II numbers are way down.
My career counselor, me under a different hat, is less sanguine. Since December, change has been building in the wind like the dust cloud now heading for a big weekend on the Gulf Coast.
Interest in drones is a bandwagon that grows more top-heavy with every mile. It is already piled high with enthusiasts, photographers, bloggers and vloggers. We clutch at the sides and trot to keep pace.
The bandwagon is about to be crushed. The FAA is preparing to implement Universal Traffic Management. The airspace under 400' MSL (that's "feet at Mean Sea Level") is about to be rationalized for enterprise use.
This means two changes to the paradigm for the great crowd of laissez faire users. First, no drone will operate without cellular service. Second, each drone and the controller will have to communicate with an FAA-mandated service that will positively mark and follow the device in flight, and link one or both with its registered owner.
All of these blessings are to be shewn upon us for an anticipated yearly subscription of a hundred bucks or so, or a fee of $2.50 per flight.
The FAA promises to set aside small areas, strictly prescribed, for the sheer race, aerobatic and just-for-fun flyers.
"Enterprise use" means Amazon and this clan; Pizza Hut, KFC and that menage; CBS, CNN, Disney and the other ilk. Just one of the pro teams can muster the clout to backhand the day player out to the sidelines. The Greater Good is of the Necessary Evil.
Nothing in all of this will directly undercut my ambitions, with one exception. A drone that cannot be updated to the triple communications demand will be made obsolete. That's a lot of hardware, especially when your device nudges right up against the 249.48-gram registration limit.
On the other hand, it is rumored that Amazon alone will be hiring as many as ten thousand Part 107 operators. This bodes well for the next five years or so. At that, I will have until the end of the year to build some flying skills and the credentials that will qualify me. The new regs will not go before Congress before 2021.
For the next four days, the local weather will militate against my scarf-and-goggles act. I will be back.
June 21, 4:20 pm
The military does everything by checklists, the working form of a given regulation.
I completed Engine Run School as a crew chief. The checklist was biblical. An engine operator can destroy an aircraft. He can kill himself in the process. It has happened.
After my third dive into the Mavic Mini Operator's Manual, I still feel confused and unsure of what to do, not first, but next. In no particular order, these are some entries from my List of Things to Do (Depending) --
-- print from the manual (specifics about the flashing light indications, control operation, modes and limits);
-- do a circle and take in a sunrise (if I can launch in the morning twilight);
-- learn more about the local Class G airspace (boundaries and GPS signal strength; will I have to change carriers?);
-- join up with the local drone club, which makes its home on Facebook (I fear and despise Facebook);
-- flowchart the manual? (I lost track of my old FIPS template, quaint but still mostly valid);
-- develop a pre-flight checklist (calibrate compass, calibrate gimbal, inspect props for damage/warpage, and et cetera)
-- develop a fill-in-the-blanks flightplan/log (time, location, METAR weather, altitude, charge to RTH, maneuvers, photography, duration flown, comments ...);
-- create a comparison table (Mini versus other drones <$1000. The Mini/Fly app lacks lights, collision avoidance sensors, full 4K, LAANCS implementation, strobes ...);
-- FAA Part 107 (ASAP, but not this month).
That about transcribes the D-for-drone partition in the back of my mind. It also gives me a framework for this blog going forward. For the first time in my life, I just might get my money's worth out of my printer.
June 20, 5:02 pm
People lose these things all the time.
The Mavic Mini is a little drone in a great big sea of air. At all of two hundred forty-nine grams, DJI has engineered it to a precise point of utility and performance. But the operator has to put himself into the pilot's seat. There is no pilot's seat. At over one hundred thousand grams, I wouldn't fit anyway.
It's called a "flight envelope". The outermost boundaries are those stipulated by the FAA -- four hundred feet of altitude, naked-eye line of sight range, daylight hours. The actual limits are in the design -- the hardware and the software.
Basic rule of the flight envelope. The drone runs on GPS. When the signal is weak, it falls back on the camera. When contrast or light is too low, you are on your own. Worse the drone cannot stabilize itself in hover. Fly or crash.
That sounds a lot like life.
Next rule, the wind. You can't see it, fighting it burns power, and it gets worse with altitude. Lose the fight and your craft will DCF -- Depart Controlled Flight. That was the sardonic parlance of the military in my time. Drone pilots speak of a "flyaway".
Jets have an edge over drones. As the fuel load drops, from as much as twenty percent of gross weight to perhaps less than five percent, power-to-weight increases. As battery level drops, power decreases. To counter, lose altitude and throttle back. If downwind, tack. Tacking is a technique pioneered in Age of Sail. One angles into the wind, then turns on the opposite angle. It's slow, but it might save you a long hike -- or a long swim.
So, at second glance, the design compromises are many, and many more are consequences of designing for flight. I'm pretty well up to the point where I won't learn much more, or anything that sticks, except by doing.
One more time, back to the book.
June 19, 9:51 pm
The quality of service to the cell you pair with your controller can be an issue.
Signal strength indoors at home is poor. I'm with a second-tier carrier.
The Fly app is now on my home screen. I linked the controller to the drone and started fielding camera and GPS errors. Killing all of the bugs left me with a disclaimer screen. Yes, you can fly. No, you don't want to without GPS. The bird will ascend and maneuver, but it will not hover. Too dim in here for the camera.
The camera? We talked about weight. The Mavic Mini is about a third of an ounce under the mandatory-registration weight limit. No room is left at that for level sensing. It "sees" thru GPS and/or through the camera. Those lost, it's a blind man afflicted with vertigo. I sure-as-hell don't want to fly him off of my desk and through the kitchen.
The camera. Over the span of a human generation and a half, or so, the camera has evolved through several generations. ISO rating is now adjustable along with shutter speed and aperture, the archaic "f-stop". Of course, down to me to to get it right.
Bear with me. The digital imaging surface is an electronic sub-assembly fixed in the camera body and specified to last the life of the device. The analog imaging surface was a roll of celluloid layered with a potentially explosive chemical concoction. It was encased in a cartridge and dimensioned to capture twenty-four to thirty-six images. Its ISO rating was fixed from first image to last.
Once expended, a precise procedure retrieved the images to be processed into single fixed images on card-sized, paper-backed stock layered with the chemical complement of the original imaging compound. Photo editing was performed with a device used these days to apply pinstripes and henna tattoos. Until the imaging surface was replenished, the camera was disabled.
If you are old enough that you ever had to cope with this gimcrackery, you need not admit it.
June 18, 1:49 pm
You know you are on the steep uphill of the learning curve when every fourth thing you read seems to create an exception, or an apparent contradiction, to something you just read.
I tried to be a man about it. I took it out of the box, put it all together and started pressing buttons. A big brother five times over is telling you this. The thing made more nerve-wracking noises than a six-month-old girl. Infants don't have an "off" button, but drones won't be quieted with a cuddle.
I will have to set Part 107 aside until I get through the basics on my new toy-that-is-really-not-a-toy. Since the study guides make more sense than the operator's manual, I can tell myself that I am tackling the uphill straight on while saving the downhill for the home stretch.
Here's nonsense. Because the drone weighs 249 grams at takeoff, the FAA does not require that it be registered. The manual tells us (newbies and in close quarters) to put the guards on over the props. Yeah, but install the guards and the device weighs over 249 grams and is illegal to fly unregistered. That's a variance under the regs.
More nonsense. All drone flights must be line-of-sight, naked eye. Yeah, but the drone is light grey in color. That's not a lot of contrast against the desert blue sky.
You need to hook a cell phone to the controller. No cell, no pictures, and it won't get over the trees or past the far end of the street.
At a hundred-four or above, the batteries will not charge. In this part of the country, even the nights will be over a hundred degrees for about a month.
Peeking ahead, sense is mostly restored on the downslope of learning about sUASes. The FAA treats minor variances as don't-ask-don't-tell. The props are striped. Model paints? Perhaps.
Set the phone to auto-answer, and take your vacation in late July/early August.
Back to the book.