The Second Act | The Sky is the Limit

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My wife thinks I have an addiction to things that fly. I think of it as more an affinity. And given my affinities for photography and filmmaking, it was probably just a matter of time before my affinity extended to drones. (Theyíre tools, not toys, Carolyn.)

Drones, as you probably know, are UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Theyíre available everywhere: Target, Wal-Mart, BestBuy. Sometimes it seems that everyone but me got a drone for Christmas last year. You might think it surprising that drones arenít as thick as mosquitoes. But thereís a reason for that, and it pops up as soon as you express an interest in owning one.

There are regulations up the wazoo governing drones. Confusing regulations regarding who can fly them, where you can fly them, how you can fly them, and why you can fly them. The National Park Service, for example, doesnít think you should fly them in the national parks. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has jurisdiction in the sky over the parks, thinks itís OK. But you have to keep the drone within visual range. And if you walk into the park to do that, well now youíre back within the Park Serviceís jurisdiction and youíre not allowed to fly in a national park.

OK, I donít really want to fly in the park. Maybe over Kalispell, though. Well, it can be done, but not without some effort. You need permission to fly a drone within five miles of an airport. Do you have any idea how many airports there are in the Flathead Valley? Neither did I, but then I looked at Airmap, an online mapping service for drone-restricted areas. I found a no-fly zone that covers a swath about 10 miles wide and stretches from Whitefish to Woods Bay. You can fly in this zone, but you have to get permission from every airport within five miles of where youíre going to fly.

Eight ounces is the magic weight. Over that, your drone has to be registered with the FAA. Not a big deal. You can do it online for $5. Provided youíre just flying for fun. If you want to take pictures and sell them, then you need a license. For $299 you can learn all about weather, airports and the rules about where you canít fly. For another $150 you can take a test to prove to the FAA that your $299 was well spent and theyíll grant you a license. But then youíre a professional and need insurance (another $750) in case you happen to crash into something (or someone).

So I bought a drone, a Hubsan FPV X4 Plus. Mail order. A small two-ounce drone so I could avoid the hassles of registration while I became acquainted with the technology. It has FPV, or First Person View. This means that I can fly the drone from the video display on my transmitter (i.e., control box). FPV seems really important for orienting the onboard video camera.

It arrived and I opened the box. It came with a spare set of rotors.

I read the manual. There was a whole page devoted to replacement parts.

The manual was heavy on safety. Propellers and batteries are dangerous.

And light on instruction. Fly over soft grass and donít fly too high.

I decided to fly indoors. Although the FAA controls the airspace over my back yard, I have authority over the airspace in my living room. (Yes, itís restricted airspace, but itís the walls and furniture rather than the regulations that restrict it.)

Iíll have to admit that I expected the drone to be pretty easy to fly. After all, it contained a computer, a gyro and some sort of autopilot. So I turned it on and got the rotors whirling. Then I advanced the throttle and it took off.

This drone is a slippery little creature. Get it in the air and it slides around like a marble on a glass coffee table. And my flight zone, being about four feet by six feet, doesnít allow much margin for error. OK, Iíve flown model helicopters. Not proficiently, but Iíve flown them. But this felt like I was starting over.

Iíve made serious progress and have yet to need the spare rotors. Iíve gotten it off and back on the ground several times without knocking the rotors off. I even flew it upside down under the couch one time. (OK, it wasnít intentional.)

Youíve heard the expression, ďWhen youíre up to your butt in alligators, itís difficult to remember your original objective was to drain the swamp.Ē Well, my original objective was an aerial camera platform for video. Thatís still the goal with this little two-ounce drone. And Iím looking forward to the day I can achieve it. But right now, Iím trying to keep the danged thing in the flight zone and not hit myself in the face. More later.

By the way, please donít tell Carolyn what Iím doing.

David Vale, retired from a career in psychology and statistics, at one time had a room full of model airplanes. Carolyn prefers not to talk about it.

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