Pilot, mechanic, drone pilot, drone mission specialist
The Transformation of Man and Machine: from a hobby to a profession, from a toy to a tool
Remote control and innovation have blended to create all types of new flying machines. Manufacturing methods from 3d printing to advanced computer-aided design (CAD) have exploded design and function: a man with a jet suit, flying cars, manned drones, and autonomous flight. Let’s cover the latter innovation.
I don’t want to say I was late to the game, but this one caught a lot of people off guard. It’s been a couple of years for me. Three years ago I started with 3d printers and Thingiverse (a website for sharing digital design files), and I had a great time learning all the aspects of this new and – you must admit – cutting edge manufacturing. This is a pretty difficult learning curve primarily because it involves so many independently developed components. Windows was maybe the biggest struggle, primarily because most people want their single computer to do 15 different tasks, and one of them is the OS talking to a USB machine made by foreign identities that don’t really give a hoot if you succeed or not. Just check online stores and see all the “used like new” 3d printers. Yes, this is about drones, it’s just that they all started with the same origins: small processors on mini-computer boards that had power. The Raspberry Pi is one example, but almost all are similar to Arduino-based processors. This is a big success story for programming lessons based on great projects that teach real science.
With the drones, I started with the concept that I should build a machine and learn all the components and the roles they played. At first it was confusing because there are small flying drones that are hobby-built and are based on that, not commercial applications. I got lost in this environment for a few months, but still learned radio transmission protocol, battery technology, and making it all work together (sort of).
I realized that I was still in the hobby realm and that my county in my state (Volusia) hates drones and people that fly them. This led me to the Pixhawk and PX4 world, which is the industry where development is. I spent a few months learning about motors that spin without brushes, the speed controller that does the magic, and the brain that puts the components together.
My commitment was to build with American-made parts. That American-made dream was shot down rather quickly due to the fact that the limited producers of US-made parts don’t want to deal with small-time builders, and they tell you directly. I should name the companies, but what good would it do?
So I slapped together a couple different configurations, purchased the best controllers and radio telemetry, and then came to the realization that even if the units flew, they required some intensive tuning, changing parts, and forever more, and there wasn’t any flying going on.
Then the Big Bad FAA laid down the law and said, “You boys need a license and registration and insurance card please.”
FAA license in hand, it was time to get some sea legs.
What to buy and where to look
Good luck! My advice is this: no matter what you buy it’s not going to do the task you intended it to do, in my opinion. I read and searched and read and purchased a big 6-motor commercial class ORANGE bird (commercial, maybe, because it’s placed in an advertisement). Here are some lessons learned on that one:
Nice big fancy controllers with built-in displays are bulky, cheap, assembled light plastic and unreliable.
Big is bulky and slow.
Drones have a specific mission and sometimes flying is an afterthought (they fly themselves).
Batteries are a major concern and are very unreliable and sometimes dangerous.
Manufacturers drop model support quickly and without notice; some manufacturers don’t even answer support requests (at all).
If you wonder if or why these drones are not type-certified, it’s because they are built like toys, though they are expected to be
Finally, if you want to purchase DJI drones I can’t blame you. It’s just that someday US-made will be in your future. Yes, the US government has finally awoken and started putting development dollars into the market. Even though I say they are late to the game, I can defend us because America has shifted all its manufacturing to China, so it only makes sense – at least until Mr. Trump decided there was a national security issue. Fortunately, this is one area the current administration hasn’t blundered. Yes, they are backing US-made for national security reasons.
True, the China drones don’t transmit data to China if you turn them off, but try flying a mission with the drone turned off.
But what’s the solution?
You have to fly and learn how to fly professionally no matter what. Even if your drone can fly autonomously, you’re still going to have to be competent. And you’re not going to fly some big 6-axis beast on any training course.
DJI has the best fit for price and performance, and although you’re going to have to buy a couple, it still won’t break the bank. You can get some training and 50 hours of flight time in about 90 days for about $3,500. That should get you some stripes on your shoulders (or at least it will scare you out of the market!). “What?” you ask. Yeah, there are going to be extremely terror-filled moments.
It’s 2022, so where are we going? There’s not going to be any flying drone taxi services starting this year, and I don’t expect single-cockpit racing drones to be zipping around New Smyrna Speedway this year either, but this tech is there now and getting better. No, what we are going to get this year are autonomous drones that can define the mission, calculate the data required, and fly the mission on their own. Don’t jump ship on the pilot training because there will still be a part 107 operator running the show, but the capability is going to bust the inspection industry in the head.
And here it is folks: Skydio and their two US-made industry work horses!
We are entering 2022 with the Made in America Motivation. Although the drone industry has taken a hit in the stock market, and it wrestles with “who’s got the best technology,” one thing is for sure: the use of drones and their development will continue to grow – especially agricultural and big drones – and we intend on being involved in this adventure.
Drones: a toy no more and a hobby that has grown into an industry. Things to look forward to: bigger drones, better batteries, UAVCAN protocol, better training opportunities, and MADE IN AMERICA!