Droning On

I bought a drone the other day.  Not a real one; I bought a tiny quadcopter by Hubsan called the X4.  It’s a lot of fun, but it has issues.

I’ve wanted a drone ever since I saw the incredible work Gabriel Scanu is putting up on Instagram.  He flies his drone over the coasts of Australia and is just putting out some amazing work.  Since then, more and more drone photos have started to crop up.  More excitingly, lots of gorgeous, high definition videos have appeared featuring beaches, onsens, trains, and gods only know what else.  They’re gorgeous and interesting and look like the makers had a lot of fun putting them together.

Here’s the thing:  a good drone runs close to a $1,000 USD.  That’s not counting replacement parts, batteries, and so on and so forth.

Here’s the other thing:  drone blogs insist that you know what you’re doing before you drop any kind of real money.  I’ve read in a few locations now that you will crash your drone.  Several times.  And then some.  And when these drones crash, they’re not always repairable, or at least not easily or cheaply.

So, I thought I’d scale it back.  I had my heart set on one of these (at only $600 for a base model!  What a steal!) but then I started reading all about how drone laws in Japan are fast appearing.  More importantly, I started reading about how strict the Japanese drone laws are.

Aside from the usual concerns about operating near airports and power stations, Japan is concerned that some poor drone enthusiast, with more money than skill, will crash a drone into a train, or onto a crowded beach, or into the side of a castle.  Oh, wait, that last one has already happened.

This is not to say that it is impossible to own a drone in Japan.  I’ve seen a few for sale and there are definitely some communities online supporting them.  But, what I’ve also seen is that drones are being bought by video production companies.  Companies that have the manpower and expertise to file flight plans and get permissions before shooting.  Companies that can say they are fulfilling a market need, which helps the economy.

I can’t say any of that.  I might, someday, in the future.  In fact, let’s file that away under “business to start real soon now.”

But, in the meantime, I wanted to make sure I would actually enjoy having a drone. I wanted to make sure I would enjoy getting it out and doing the proper maintenance and preparation necessary for great video.  After all, I’ve got a pretty spectacular history of buying some new piece of gear or tech and then never quite getting around to doing anything with it.  Sorry, turntable.  I wanted to be a vinyl collector, but I just got lazy.

All of which brings me back to the Hubsan.  It’s advertised as having a 720p video camera and a five minute flight time.  What they don’t tell you (at least not without careful research) is that the charger plugs directly into the drone body.  This means you have to be plugged into an outlet somewhere for over an hour while the drone re-charges because, oh yeah, by building the battery directly into the body, there’s no way to swap in a replacement battery.

I did my research and I knew these things going in.  I figured that I wasn’t going to be straying too far from my house to begin with, especially because the drone is so light that any sort of wind knocks it well out of any flight plan I could have devised.

The sticks, too, are so sensitive.  There is a steep learning curve to piloting the thing.  Every little breeze pushes and pulls the drone out of line.  At times, even just hovering in place takes pushing the rotors forward at maximum thrust, just to stay in place.  Still, there are good points, too.  Being able to activate both the still and video controls with the touch of a button is fantastic.  It lets you set up your shot, or just go for broke and figure that you’ll be able to fix it in post.

Will I do another of these things?  Probably.  I’ll continue to practice with this drone for a while, until its controls feel more natural to me, until I can make this one go through its paces without so much effort or so many crashes.  One day though, sooner rather than later, this thing is going to crash, or fly away, or burn out.  When that happens, I’ll see what all is available, probably at the next price point up.

A couple of extra thoughts that have come up between writing the rough draft of this post and actually posting it – the new Spark DJI lowers the price point down to about $500 USD for a high-def, good quality drone;  I picked up a book called Dronescapes put out by the good people behind Dronestagram.  It’s amazing and you should get a copy right away.

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