Lake Berryessa and the Glory Hole

Not something you see every day.

I spent a few weeks in the Sacramento area of California — as I have been since 2013 when I brought my helicopter there for its first frost control contract — in late February and early March. I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well over the past five years and as I continue to explore new places, I also return to the old ones. Lake Berryessa, the largest lake in Napa County, is one of these places.

I first discovered it during a drive up Putah Creek, starting in Winters, CA. From there, I made a stop at the Lake Solano Campground (which I eventually stayed at for the first time this year) and noted its crazy collection of peacocks. Farther up the road, I passed numerous parking areas for fishing and hiking and picnicking. Still farther, the road crossed the creek, wound up a hill, and passed the Monticello Dam, which holds in the waters of Lake Berryessa. Penny and I have hiked in various places along the shore, driven much of the west side’s shoreline, and even flown over it numerous times in my helicopter.

Aerial View of Lake Berryesssa
An aerial view of Lake Berryessa, shot with a GoPro on my helicopter back in March 2014. The water was very low.

For the first four years I’ve been in the area, the lake level was low — very low. This isn’t surprising given the serious drought that affected nearly all of California. All of the lakes I flew over were low. But this year things were different. This year, all the lakes are full, nearly full, or even — in some cases — overflowing. Lake Berryessa is one of the lakes with too much water.

Man-made lakes — basically, any lake that holds water in with a dam — usually have flood control features built in that guide excess water safely out of the lake and into a receiving stream or river. This is normally done with the use of a spillway that can be opened or is automatically utilized before the water level reaches the top of the dam.

Spillways come in different styles. The most common is a sort of water chute that excess water flows down, away from the dam. Most dams have this kind of spillway. The Oroville Dam, which has been in the news a lot lately, has spillways like this, one of which was severely damaged by floodwaters.

Another less common type is an open bell mouth spillway. That’s the type at Lake Berryessa. It’s a round concrete hole not far from the road and the dam. From Wikipedia:

Near the dam on the southeast side of the reservoir is an open bell-mouth spillway, 72 feet (22 m) in diameter, which is known as the Glory Hole. The pipe has a straight drop of 200 feet (61 m), and the diameter shrinks down to about 28 feet (8.5 m). The spillway has a maximum capacity of 48,000 cfs (1360 cms). The spillway operates when there is excess water in the reservoir; in 2017 after heavy rains it started flowing, for the first time since 2006.

Monticello Dam w/Glory Hole
In looking through my archive of photos from 2014, I found a GoPro photo of the dam from the air that clearly shows the Glory Hole when it isn’t in use.

It was in the news in February because the lake had finally filled, after 11 years, and water was flowing into the Glory Hole. Of course, I had to go see it. So when I got the helicopter into California and needed to a “maintenance flight” to check a few things, I headed over there. Sure enough, water was flowing into the hole and a small gathering of people along the road were looking in. I flew by a week later and the water was still flowing in.

I wanted to see it again from the ground, so I returned on Saturday. By that time, Penny and I were on our way home from nearly four months on the road so I had the Turtleback on my truck. Once again, I’m so glad I downgraded from my big fifth wheel; parking in the very crowded parking area was remarkably easy.

There were a lot of people there. It was, after all, Saturday and the Glory Hole had been on the news quite a bit. It made a good, easy, and free point of interest for sightseers.

Glory Hole from the Road
The Glory Hole, photographed from the road. That’s the dam to the right. The water is pretty close to the top.

Penny and I joined the crowd and walked along the road for a good look. The chain link fence made it difficult to get a good photo. The hole is right next to the road and pretty much fills the camera lens. But I did my best.

A guy was out there with a Phantom 4 drone so I decided to give my drone (AKA flying camera) a shot when he was done. I went pack to the truck, put Penny inside, and pulled out my drone. Within about 5 minutes, I had it all set up in a clear area between parked cars and the fence downstream from the dam. When I was sure the other drone had landed, I launched mine.

Understand that I’m still learning how to use my Mavic Pro. I’m also very careful. Immediately after launching, I took it up over the lake, away from people. Then I captured some still and video shots of the Glory Hole from the air, including a short pass where I flew directly over the hole with the camera pointing straight down.

Glory Hole from the Air
I really don’t know why the water looks so green in this shot. I don’t think it’s the camera. It must be something to do with the light.

I tweeted the video clip and got a lot of positive feedback about it. I also got a request to contact the folks at a video licensing company who want to represent me on the resale of the clip to news other media organizations. I’ll all for that, provided my FAA Commercial UAS Pilot certificate has come through; it’s not legal to sell drone photography without it. Need to get home and check my mail to see if the paperwork is there; I applied back in January so I should be good.

I need more practice using my Mavic and I intend to get some on my way home. I had it out again this morning from my campsite at Bodega Bay. I’m hoping to put together a little montage when I get home and share it here on the blog. Stay tuned.

DJI Sales Support Experience Update

This is a total fail.

Back in January, I blogged about ordering a Mavic flying camera from DJI, a company with plenty of slick marketing materials that make it look as if they have a significant U.S. presence but apparently operate 100% in China. At about the time I had my lengthy online chat with DJI’s support people, I also sent an email message to them asking about the status of my order.

That was January 9, 2017.

On February 13, 2017 — yes, five full weeks later — I got the following response from them:

DJI Support Email

Of course, by this point, I’d already gotten my Mavic. In fact, I got it less than two weeks after my email message to them. It just took them 5 weeks to send me a canned response that provided no help and certainly proved they hadn’t looked into my support request at all.

I’m not the only one who is amazed at the complete lack of sales support from DJI. My friend Jim, who saw and liked my Mavic, decided to buy one, too. He ordered from DJI and was originally told it would ship out within a few days. Later, they changed that to a few weeks. He cancelled the order and ordered from Amazon instead. He’ll have it by the end of the week.

I can’t knock the product. The Mavic is an amazing tool for aerial photography and videography that’s incredibly easy to fly. I blogged a bit about it here. But the quality of sales support by DJI is dismal.

With so many customers in the U.S., would it kill them to open a call center with access to sales info to help its new customers? They must be absolutely raking in the dough on these things — they’re not cheap.

And are we going to be similarly served if anything goes wrong with our Mavics and we need technical support under our extended warranties? I sure hope not.

Return to Burro Creek

And another [safer] flight under the bridge.

Back in November 2014, I blogged about the time I was in a helicopter that flew under the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93 at Burro Creek. It was probably on my mind back then as I was reviewing log book entries for a book I’m working on about my flying experiences. I just re-read that post and I do recommend it. It’s short — for me, anyway — and tells an interesting story that gives you some insight into the minds of helicopter owners and pilots.

Burro Creek Bridge
Plenty of room to fly under, no?

Anyway, yesterday I drove north on Route 93, starting my annual migration from my snowbirding stay in Arizona to my late winter/early spring work site in the Sacramento area of California. (Yes, my seven-month “vacation” is nearly over.) I gave myself about 10 days to make the trip and planned stops along the Colorado River near the Hoover Dam, Death Valley, and possibly Lake Tahoe. Or the California Coast. I don’t really know yet. One of the things I like most about my life these days is my unfettered ability to make and change plans on the spur of the moment.

I’d been thinking about the drive for a while, wondering what stops I could make along the way. Burro Creek was a no-brainer. There’s a BLM campground down along the creek about a mile or so off Route 93. I’d considered stopping there for an overnight stay on my way south from Vegas in November but had ultimately chosen a different route that kept me on the Colorado River. The campground isn’t much — in fact, the water is turned off there so the bathrooms are closed up and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to use the dump station — but it does have ramadas (shade structures) at each campsite, along with picnic tables and a nice desert garden. And plenty of hiking opportunities.

Burro Creek Bridge
A view back toward the campground, looking southwest. That’s Route 93 south of the bridge in the distance.

Burro Creek Campground is about an hour north of Wickenburg, which is where I’d spent the previous two nights. Perfect timing for a break on my estimated three hour drive to Willow Beach on the Colorado River near Hoover Dam. I pulled in, drove down the cracked asphalt road to the campground, and parked in the day use area so the campground host wouldn’t try to hit me up for camping fees.

The Burro Creek Bridge — or should I say bridges? — is clearly visible from the campground. It’s a pair of two-lane truss arch bridges that are about 680 feet long about 390 feet over the floor of Burro Creek’s canyon. The first bridge was built back in 1966 and carried all northbound and southbound traffic. In 2005, as part of route 93’s widening project, they built a second almost identical span right beside it. The new bridge now handles northbound traffic while the old bridge handles southbound traffic. I’m glad they built a matching bridge. It really helps preserve the aesthetics.

Burro Creek Bridge
The two bridges are nearly identical, despite being built 40 years apart.

(A side note here: Route 93 between Wickenburg and I-40 near Kingman had the local nickname “Death Highway” because of the number of deadly accidents — often head-on collisions — that occurred there when it was just one lane in each direction. Widening it was long overdue since it handles nearly all auto and truck traffic between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Parts of it are still one lane in each direction. You can learn more about Route 93 in Arizona on Wikipedia.)

I had done a photo shoot of the new bridge back in 2005 with an aerial photography professional. It was a memorable flight, mostly because he did the shoot with a pair of Hassalblad medium format film cameras. These are extremely costly cameras and the reason he had two of them was so that when he finished shooting a roll of film, he could switch to the other camera instead of fumbling at an open aircraft door to reload film. I think each roll only had 12 shots. I distinctly recall hearing the mechanical sound of the shutter and his manual winding of the film though the intercom system since the microphone was so close to the camera. I orbited the bridges several times. I know he was disappointed with our timing; the second span wasn’t quite done but yet it wasn’t open enough to be dramatic. There was just a narrow gap maybe 50 feet wide in the middle of the roadway. We should have arrived about two weeks before for a more dramatic shot or two weeks afterward for a completed span.

I was thinking a lot about that photo shoot as I walked down to the creek with my Mavic Pro flying camera tucked away in my day pack. The construction company — or Arizona Department of Transportation? — had flown the photographer in to Phoenix from somewhere in the midwest for the shoot. He’d rented a car and drove to Wickenburg. I flew him up there with the doors on, then landed in the construction area to pull off his door and stow it in the back seat. We’d done the flight, circling around and and around. It was midday, but there were still shadows because of the angle of the sun in the deep canyon. I’d landed again to put the door back on and then we’d headed back to Wickenburg. The only reason we hadn’t done the whole flight with the door off was because I could get better speed in transit with the door on and it was at least a 30-minute flight. I’m thinking the whole job was about 1.5 hours of billable flight time, but without consulting my logbook, I can’t be sure. Total cost of those photos? Easily a few thousand dollars.

Burro Creek Bridges
Really. Nearly identical.

I walked as far as I could — at least a half mile — getting almost under the power lines that spanned the canyon just southwest of the bridge. I was hoping to be on the other side of them so I wouldn’t have to worry about them interfering with drone operations, but Burro Creek was running full and fast and I’d gone as far as I could without getting too close to the canyon wall. I spread out my collapsable landing pad in one of the few boulder-free areas, and got to work setting up the Mavic and its controller for flight. I have it down to a science at this point and it only takes me about five minutes from the moment I take it out of the bag to the moment everything is powered up and the Mavic is in GPS mode.

Mavic Operator
I grabbed this image of the video on the Mavic’s return flight. I circled where I’m standing with the landing pad. You can see the campground behind me.

I couldn’t tell how far above the canyon floor the power lines were. I knew they were lower than the bridge, but I also knew that we’d flown under them. They had to be at least 100 feet up. Still, when I launched the Mavic I kept it just 50 feet up until I knew it was on the other side of the wires. (I now estimate they’re at least 150 feet feet from the canyon floor, but likely more than 200.)

I spent the next half hour or so flying around near the bridge. I flew over it once and under it three times. I didn’t want it to distract drivers on the road, so didn’t fly anywhere where the average driver would see it. I had to bump up the maximum altitude for the flight over the bridge, but I figured that was okay because I was still within 400 feet of either the bridge roadway or canyon walls. Certainly nowhere where a manned aircraft should be flying — although I think I’ve already established that it was where a manned aircraft could be flying.

Burro Creek Bridge
This photo was shot from under the power lines.

I switched batteries after two flights and used up 20% of the second battery before finishing up. Penny had very patiently waited nearby. She doesn’t mind the drone or its bee-like buzzing but stays clear of the landing pad when it’s coming or going.

When I was finished, I powered everything down, replaced the Mavic’s gyro lock and cover, and folded it up. Within a few minutes, I was ready for the return hike with everything stowed away in my day pack again.

I got a bunch of video shots, as well as some still shots. This blog post shows off mostly screen grabs from the video. Launching from the stream bed inside the canyon limited what I could do, keeping in mind that I had to keep the Mavic within sight during the flight (per FAA rules).

I think that if I’d launched from up alongside the roadway, level with the bridge, I could have gotten the same shots that Hassalblad photographer had captured twelve years before — for a lot less money. But there really wasn’t a good place to launch from that wouldn’t distract drivers. And it isn’t as if this was a real mission. It was just more practice.

I wonder what that Hassalblad photographer is doing these days. I seriously doubt he’s still using those cameras to take aerial photos.

Drone Pilots: Beware of Bird Strikes!

Just a quick warning, with photos.

Last week, I did a few photo missions with my Mavic Pro flying camera. For two of the msisions, I launched from an open area at the far east side of the Tyson Wells complex in Quartzsite, just south of Keuhn Road.

I’m in the habit of using the Return-to-Home feature of my Mavic to get it back to its launch point quickly and efficiently. In all honesty, I’m awed by its ability to land exactly on its takeoff spot nearly every single time. I like to watch, with my finger poised over the pause button on the control (just in case), as it comes to the right coordinates far overhead, turns to the direction in which it took off, and descends to the spot.

On one of the three missions I flew from that spot, a small flock of pigeons flew right past the Mavic. I watched in shock and a bit of horror as the five or six birds swooped around my fragile aircraft. I felt relief as the Mavic continued its descent unharmed, but the whole thing repeated itself when another flock — or the same flock? — swooped past. Again, the Mavic was unharmed.

I happened to have the video camera going when this was happening. Here are two screen grabs, one from each flight, that show the closest encounter. The first one was definitely closer.

Near Miss
This reminds me of a scene from The Birds.

Near Miss
The bird is a bit farther off in this one. Can you see it?

Of course, the camera can’t capture action in a direction it isn’t pointing. For all I know they could have come closer behind the camera.

While this is all kind of cool in a weird sort of way, it wouldn’t have been so cool if one of those birds clipped a rotor. The Mavic has four independently powered rotors. If any one of them was destroyed, I’d have to think the whole thing would immediately go out of balance and crash. This is one good reason why we don’t fly drones over crowds of people. Even though the Mavic weighs in at less than 2 pounds, having one crash onto your head from 150 feet would definitely cause some injuries.

Honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened yet. A matter of time?

Mavic Pro Observations

What I’m seeing, liking, and not liking — so far.

Mavic Pro
The Mavic Pro, unfolded for flight. Although the manual says to remove the clear protective cover over the gimbal, I suspect it might be usable during flight — if it doesn’t fall off. I remove it.

I’ve had my new DJI Mavic Pro drone in my hot little hands for about four days now and have taken it on a total of five missions so far. (More on my use of the word “mission” shortly.) I’ve developed some definite thoughts about it, from the perspective of a pilot, photographer, videographer, and new drone pilot. I thought I’d take a moment to share them with readers who might be considering the purchase of a drone for photography.

And that’s a big part of what this drone is to me: it’s a tool for making photos and videos. While some people buy drones for the flying aspect of them and actually race them around obstacles, etc., I have no intention of doing that. (At least not yet.) And if you’re thinking of buying a drone for that purpose, I don’t recommend a Mavic, despite what the DJI website shows it capable of doing. I’m sure you can buy a less expensive drone that’ll be better for racing (and crashing). Do your homework. See what the other guys (mostly) and gals are racing and what they have to say about their equipment.

Portability

Folded Mavic
It folds up small.

The most obvious benefit to having a drone that folds up into the size of a one-liter bottle of coke is portability — and that’s the main reason I bought the Mavic. Its folded size is less than 4 x 4 x 8 inches.

The truth of the matter is, my friend Jim offered me a smoking deal on his DJI Phantom 4 because he was upgrading to a Phantom 4 Pro. Buying his gently used drone would have saved me a bunch of money. But the reality is that I travel a lot, often without a lot of space for baggage. The Phantom 4 does not fold up at all and although there are carrying cases available for them, they’re not easily brought on a four-month trip in a truck camper or with gear in the back of a helicopter or on a motorcycle. And don’t even think about taking a hike with one.

Although I bought the Mavic package that included a carry bag smaller than a shoebox that can fit the drone, the controller, at least two spare batteries, and a battery charger, I stopped using the bag on Day Three, switching instead to a very small backpack I’d bought around Christmas time for hiking. The DJI bag was a snug fit for the drone and I worried about damaging it as I crammed it in and dragged it out. The bag is surprisingly bad design for a drone that has an amazingly good design. If you are considering the purchase of this bag, I recommend you skip it. If you want a padded bag, look for a small camera bag. (Or buy mine. It’ll likely go on eBay next week.)

With portability comes the question of durability. A Twitter friend asked me if it was durable. Are any of these things durable? I said no. But I also said it isn’t fragile. Later, in my mind, I equated it with the difference between those standard green David Clark aviation headsets (durable but kind of clunky) and Bose ANR headsets (not durable but lighter and sleeker). Neither will break if you handle them with care, but the Bose headsets are more likely to break if you don’t. The Mavic, of course, would be the Bose in this analogy.

And yes, it’s light. The drone, onboard battery, controller, and two spare batteries weigh in at under 2-1/2 pounds.

Design

I am completely blown away by the drone’s design. The way it folds up so neatly, the way the blades fold to make it even smaller, the way the micro SD card fits into the side, the way the battery is so well integrated with the drone’s body, the way the tiny camera lens and gimbal hang from the front — it’s all extremely well thought out and executed.

That’s the design for portability and flight. The design for actual use is a bit less rosy.

As a regular commenter on this blog pointed out in comments for a previous post this week, the Mavic sits very close to the ground. It only has two legs (on the front) and two little stubs on the back. That puts the gimbal mounted camera just inches off the ground. If you’re flying it from grass or from rocky terrain, that camera is going to be in the grass or bumped by rocks. And if there’s dust, that dust is going to fly on landing and take off (just like with a helicopter) and possibly get into rotor heads or gimbal parts. I had the foresight to order a foldable landing pad to operate from — this helps ensure a safe, clean environment for operations. But I also have to take care on landing to make sure it lands on the pad. Later, I picked up a 3 x 4 rubber-backed mat that I’ll likely wind up using in my garage when I get home. Until then, it’s an expanded landing zone when I travel with my truck.

The only real complaint I have about the design is related to the plastic clamp that holds the gimbal immobile during transport: I have a heck of a time getting that damn thing on. I assume I’ll better at it one of these days; I sure hope it’s soon.

Controller

The Mavic’s controller also folds up into a smaller package. It has a screen with general information about the drone’s status and the usual buttons and joysticks to control it. But it has no video monitor. Instead, you affix a smart phone running the DJI Go app (or another app; more on that later), to the controller. It has a moveable plug preconfigured for iPhone users, but also comes with other plugs for other smartphones. You plug in your phone and then clamp it into the controller. The clamp is tight and, miraculously, lets me keep the bumper cover I have for my phone on the phone. The phone is definitely not going to fall out. My only complaint, which is minor, is that I have difficulty tapping the home button since it’s partially covered by the clamp. I think that if I fiddle with it enough and experiment with different positions, I might be able to make that problem go away.

The controller and a smart phone work together to control the drone. I’m pretty sure you can control it without a smart phone, but I suspect it would be a lot more difficult, especially since you would not be able to see what the camera sees without the camera as a monitor.

There is a lot to learn about the controller and the DJI Go app. Yes, you can pick it up and fly it almost immediately with just a few pointers from a friend or a quick glance through the manual, but you will never master either flying or photography — which really do need to be considered separately — without reading the manual and trying various features until you learn what works for you.

My only gripe about the controller setup is age related: my older eyes simply can’t see the video feed on my phone as well as I’d like them to. Yes, I wear readers. And yes, I stand with my back to the sun to shield the screen from direct sunlight. But still, in monotonous terrain — like the desert where I’ve been flying lately — it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the camera is looking at. More than a few times, I sent the drone forward only to discover that it was pointing in a different direction than I thought it was. Oops.

User Guides

The User Manual — which is only available online as a PDF — sucks, plain and simple.

At 59 pages long, which includes the cover and a lot of pages that simply don’t provide any real instructions, it provides just enough information for someone knowledgeable about flying or photography to figure out what they need to do to fly and shoot photos/video. But if you’re a complete newcomer to either one and think you’re going to race around trees in a forest while filming exciting video sequences on Day One, you’re only fooling yourself. I’m constantly going back to it, looking up features I think should be available, finding bits and pieces of information, and then putting it all together to learn a new task. I’m thinking I might write up some task-based tutorials for myself and others who might need them.

The Quick Start Guide, which comes in a tiny booklet, has only 10 pages of information between front and back covers. The printed version has multiple languages in it, which makes it seem a lot larger than it is. It’s also available as a PDF with just one language. Again, if this isn’t your first drone, it’ll definitely have enough information to get you started. Otherwise, good luck.

Flight

Okay, this is where I’m completely blown away: the automatic features for flight are amazing.

While it is possible to manually take off using the joysticks — and my friend Jim taught me how to do this on his Phantom 4 — it also has an automatic takeoff feature. Tap a button and slide your finger across a confirmation screen, and the Mavic powers up and climbs to a four-foot, rock solid hover. It’s just amazing to watch, especially if you’re a helicopter pilot and understand what it takes to make such a smooth, solid takeoff in a helicopter. And yes, I understand that the aerodynamics of a four-rotor drone is different from that of a single main rotor helicopter.

Push the left (pitch/yaw) stick forward and the drone can climb straight up like a rocket at a maximum speed of 16.4 feet per second — that’s 984 feet per minute for us pilot types. Push the left stick right or left and the drone rotates. Pull the left stick backwards, and the drone descends at up to 9.8 fps (588 fpm). Helicopter pilots can equate the operation of the left stick to the collective (forward/back = pitch) and tail rotor pedals (left/right = yaw) on a helicopter, even though the stick controls different mechanical operations on the drone.

Push the right stick in any direction and the drone flies in that direction without changing the direction in which the nose (camera) is pointing. This is like a helicopter’s cyclic, although again, it controls different mechanical operations on a drone.

As you might expect, the farther you push a stick, the faster the drone moves.

Getting it airborne and actually flying it is remarkably easy — to a point. It’s precision flying that takes a lot of effort and practice. The drone acts immediately and rather abruptly to most control inputs, so if the video camera is turned on while rotating it or adjusting the angle of the gimbal, you can clearly see a sort of jerky response. Like learning to hover a helicopter, you need gentle control inputs. And that takes practice.

The Mavic has three modes for flying: Positioning (P), Sport (S), and Tripod. Most regular flying is done in P mode, which also has obstacle avoiding features enabled. If you want to fly faster and aren’t worried about obstacles, S mode is available with the flick of a switch on the controller. The difference in speed is about 20 miles per hour for P mode vs. 40 miles per hour in S mode. Tripod mode, which I hope to explore today if the wind isn’t as bad as forecasted, slows everything down, making it easier to get smooth video shots.

DJI Go app options make it easy to keep the drone from wandering off where it shouldn’t be. The very first thing I set was the maximum altitude — in the U.S. drones are limited to 400 feet AGL unless an FAA waiver is obtained. I also limited its distance, at least at first. While the Mavic’s dark color makes it easy to spot in the sky, it’s easy to lose sight of it if you take your eyes off of it while it’s moving. I recommend operating with a spotter whenever possible. I usually hear it better than I see it, unless I’m in a noisy environment. I do believe, however, that it’s a little quieter than Jim’s Phantom 4. They both sound like angry bees — and believe me, as a beekeeper I know exactly what angry bees sound like — but Jim’s drone sounds like more angry bees than mine.

I believe there are limitations built into the software that prevent operation near airports, but I haven’t been close enough to an airport yet to test that. If so, it’s a good feature that pilots should be happy about. (Now if only they’d limit climb to 400 in the software instead of making it an option. Out of the box, the Mavic has an operating ceiling of more than 18,000 feet, which is absurd.)

Landing the Mavic couldn’t be easier. Really. I use the automatic landing feature almost all the time. It eliminates the need to navigate back to the home base. Just tap a button and use a slider to confirm you want the drone to return to home. It immediately turns back to its starting point, climbs if necessary, and heads back at top speed (for its mode). You can watch the distance change on the controller. When it’s overhead, it might look as if it has passed the landing zone, but it hasn’t. It turns to the direction it was facing when it took off, then descends straight down. When it’s less than 10 feet from the ground, it might make some adjustments. At about three feet up, it pauses and then comes right down to the ground and shuts its engines. The whole time it’s doing this, the controller is letting out an annoying beep-beep-beep, displaying an option that enables you to take over. That’s because obstacle avoidance is disabled while landing and you might need to stop the auto land feature. I’ve found, however, that in good conditions with precision landing enabled, the Mavic lands exactly where it took off from. To me, that’s the coolest thing of all.

Photography

Tyson Wells from the Air
A view of Tyson Wells from the air, looking southeast.

The thing that changed my mind about drones, as I discuss in a blog post from December, is the quality of photographs and video — especially video — from drones. I’d seen videos from my friend Jim’s and I was hooked. They were, by far, clearer and steadier than most video shot from my helicopter. It was no wonder videographers were turning to drones. They could get better results for less money.

(I do need to point out again here that for aerial photo jobs covering a large area, you’ll definitely get the job done faster in a helicopter. As I mentioned in my December 23 blog post:

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

So don’t give up completely on helicopters. Think about the mission before deciding on the tool.)

I’ll admit that it sort of broke my heart when I realized that the GoPro “nosecam” videos I’d been sharing were absolute crap compared to what I could get with a drone. If you can’t beat them…

So here I am with my own aerial camera — which is what the Mavic really is. It can do video with resolutions up to 4K, which is the default setting. I actually thought there was a problem with the camera when I tried to play back the video on my 5-year-old MacBook Air. The reality was that the computer simply couldn’t handle the amount of data in the video file. I’ve since set it down to 1090p, which is all I need, at least for now. The video is amazing: smooth and clear. I’ll let you see for yourself; if you can, view these in full screen at the highest resolution YouTube offers:


In this example, I’ve put the Mavic into a 200-foot hover at the edge of an outdoor sale event in Quartzsite, AZ. Hands off on the controls and it’s rock steady. I couldn’t do that in a helicopter.


I shot this video yesterday morning. I flew out at 150 feet and back at 200 feet. This is the return flight, which seemed to have a better angle, using Return-to-Home mode. At the end, you’ll see me standing with a retired guy I met who used to program robots for airplane manufacturing. Keep in mind that this is only a small portion of the thousands of people camped out in the BLM land around Quartzsite right now.

I have not experimented much with still photos. I get so caught up in the flying and video that I forget to snap photos once in a while. It can save JPEGs at 12 megapixel resolutions. I’m not sure if it can save photos while it’s shooting video.

The camera is completely adjustable for automatic and manual settings. Again, I haven’t experimented much with this yet. Just getting it to fly where I want has been enough of a challenge for the first three days of flying. And the manual leaves out too many details; it’s hard enough just to find the settings.

Missions

I’m teaching myself how to use the Mavic by creating “missions” for myself. A mission is a task I need/want to complete. Yesterday’s mission was to get video footage of the long stretch of desert near where I’m camped where so many other people are camped (see second video above). I wanted a nice record of the sheer volume of people dry camping here. I can repeat this mission in about a half dozen other places to get an even bigger picture of the weird situation in Quartzsite during the big RV show, but time is running out. The forecast calls for high winds today and the campers will start rolling out of here on Sunday.

Another mission is to video the activity around the RV show. That would entail setting up a point of interest in the middle of the show area and then flying the drone around it at a safe distance from participants with the camera continuously focused on the middle of the action. I’m hoping to do that on Saturday when the show is busiest. I might practice on a smaller scale with some of the camps around here first.

My goal is to understand what controls and settings to use to accomplish missions like these. I can then call upon what I’ve learned to complete missions for paying clients once I finish getting my commercial UAS pilot rating. I see drone photography as a component of the services Flying M Air can offer.

Ready to Buy a Drone?

My interest in drones seems to have sparked an interest in other people. I hope this blog posts helps them decide, one way or the other. In any case, I’m sure this isn’t the last you’ve heard from me about my Mavic Pro.

I do have a favor to ask, though. If you do decide to buy a drone and you want to buy from Amazon — which offers great prices and free shipping — please use one of my links. I get a tiny commission from sales that originate with a link from this site and I sure would appreciate the income to help cover my hosting fees.

How many mostly ad-free sites have you visited lately? Very few, I’ll bet. I guarantee that the folks who build and maintain them would similarly appreciate your support.

And if you’re interested in buying a gently used DJI Phantom 4, my friend Jim has one for sale — as soon as his Phantom 4 Pro arrives, anyway. I can put you in touch with him — but please, only if you’re serious. It’ll be a good deal, but he isn’t giving it away.

First Look at My New Drone

Just a quick update…

Well, I got my Mavic Pro drone yesterday and unpacked it. Amazing they could get everything into that box. And they sure learned something about packaging design from Apple; unboxing was a real pleasure that reminded me of just about every Apple device I’d ever bought. 


The drone has a truly amazing design, too. Folds up small enough to fit in a kid’s shoebox. With the controller. Self-deploying rotor blades. Easily accessible battery and micro SD card port. And don’t even get me started on the multiple battery charging station. I love good design. 


Got it up in the air today. Started out in the very limited beginner mode, then went into P mode and began experimenting with features like ActiveTrack and TapFly. 


Had it out for a longer flight when it told me it was too windy and suggested I use the Return to Home feature to bring it back. I did, but I manually landed it, mostly for practice. The area I’m camped in right now is level rocks — harder to explain than I’m willing to tackle right now — so I land it on a landing pad I bought to keep the gimbel and camera head safe. The Mavic sits very close to the ground. 


I’ll take it out tomorrow and try to get some video of the mass of RVs parked within a half mile of me. And maybe a look at the big RV show, too. 

Practice makes perfect.

Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.