I know professional drone pilots have one or more “spotters” when they’re flying, but it hadn’t occurred to me that everyone should. The thing is, strange things can happen. And do.
When you’re flying, you’re concentrating hard. Your attention switches between the drone, the controller’s screen, and when possible, your immediate surroundings. But to be honest, it’s hard to focus on anything that’s going on around you. I’ve already had a couple of occasions where I’ve glanced down at the screen, and when I’ve looked back at the sky, I wasn’t able to spot the drone. That’s scary enough, but also having to take the time to look around, means you can even forget what part of the sky you should look at. It’s a bit like driving, glancing down at the speedometer periodically – and then turning around to look behind you, left and right, before returning your attention to the road. Not recommended.
Part of my problem is that there’s not many drones in my area of Thailand. This means people take an interest. They come and stand next to me. They try to look at the screen. In one way I’m happy about that. It’s nice that I can provide a little entertainment. But at the same time, it creates a dangerous situation.
I’m not supposed to fly, for obvious reasons, within thirty meters of anyone. But, I usually have the drone take off roughly three meters away, so if, after I’ve taken off, I’m then surrounded by people, how can I land? The answer is, I have to find somewhere else … perhaps not thirty meters away, but at least a safe distance. That’s not always easy. Until last week I’d been lucky. If my brain is switched on, I try to be like a commercial airline pilot and have an alternate landing place figured out in advance. But if I’m in a remote location, I don’t always do that.
One day last week that oversight caught me out. I thought I was completely alone on a beach. No one within three hundred meters let alone thirty. I’d finished flying and filming, and was bringing the drone back close to me, so I could land on some flat land next to the beach. And then I looked down to find a little fella, maybe five years old, out of breath because he’d been running like crazy to get near the drone. I tried to communicate, but it was clear he didn’t understand English.
That’s when I decided I had to land somewhere else. Somewhere he couldn’t reach before the motors had powered down. Wherever I did land, I was sure he was going to run like crazy to get at the drone, and I had visions of tiny fingers flying into the air! I knew I couldn’t fly and grab him at the same time. Not enough hands.
So I turned the drone towards the flat land – much further down the beach. But the land was tree lined, and so I had to fly between two. I think I’ve mentioned before that trees have some magical power that attracts drones, and so of course, that’s what happened. In reality, I failed to judge the distance of the drone relative to the trees.
It’s not easy. Imagine a line of trees running away from you and then trying to figure where the gaps are relative to this small white thing that you are guiding through the air. It’s an accident waiting to happen. So, sure enough, drone hits tree, chews up a few branches and then falls to the ground. Thankfully on the sand. And off sets the young lad with me in pursuit.
My shouts stopped him, and due to the crash the props had stopped anyways. But I can’t help thinking about what might have happened.
Most people, let alone five year-olds, don’t realize just how powerful the motors are and how sharp the props are. I read a story last week of someone flying the same drone as mine, with his wife along as assistant/spotter. He was flying in strong wind. Stupid. And when he tried to land, the drone wouldn’t come all the way to him. So his wife rushed over and grabbed the landing gear. Rule #1 for assistants: don’t touch the freakin’ thing!
Drones are programmed to stay upright, and to do what the controller is telling them to do. Interfere with that program and the drone goes nuts. Now, the lady was lucky. They were in a cold country and so she was wearing a thick down-filled top coat. The drone ripped it to shreds. White fluffy stuff all over the place. That could have been red bloody stuff and assorted body parts. Lesson learned I hope. Yes, the controller has an emergency shut-off button sequence, but by the time that has been executed, all kinds of nasty things can happen.
So with the young lad at a safe distance I retrieved the drone. Anyways, a drone lying in the sand no longer held his attention, so he went running off flat out in the other direction. Damage? It looked like only a chipped propeller. Not serious. Easily changed. In fact I changed it on the spot and got the drone back in the air to make sure it was still airworthy. So everything seemed fine, until, that is, I put the drone on my workbench and thought “That doesn’t look right” …
A serious list. One very much out of place landing gear leg. Not only that, but the gear was jammed. The legs have sliding locks that allow you to fold the legs flat for shipping. And the lock was, well, locked. Permanently. It looked like an expensive problem.
I pulled off the little cover but couldn’t see any damage to the hinge, so I applied a little more force than seemed advisable – well, if it had to be replaced, I couldn’t make it worse – and heard a dull click. Voilà. The leg popped back into place, and the slider slided! No more expensive problem. I dodged a bullet there.
Which brings me back to spotters. If someone had been with me, s/he could have controlled the young lad, and/or run down the beach to tell me how to get the drone between the trees. “Left a bit, right a bit…” So, I guess I’m going to have to advertise for an honorary spotter. Fat chance.