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You might well think ‘What on earth has a drone to do with a Cactus Trip?’ Not sure exactly when, but it was probably seeing some footage in a David Attenborough TV documentary that showed footage taken by a camera afixed to a drone that made me think WOW! How good would it be to come home with footage of aerial views of The Atacama Desert in Flower, of the extent of the invassive nature of a foreign cactus invader from Mexico (Cylindropuntia tunicata), the barren landscape where we plan to look for Eriosyce laui and Copiapoa tocopillana etc. The implementation of this plan has proven to be a good deal more challenging than envisaged.

First hurdle: where do you buy such a toy? The obvious answer is The Internet. But the item was so new to us that I’d rather buy it from a store with knowledgeable staff and a range of models to hold and to discover practical facts about ease / difficulty in flying it. It can only be a matter of time before a chain of ‘Drones’R’Us’ will find their way onto shopping malls. During a random visit to Maplins in Salisbury, there they were!!

From my research on the internet I had put the DJI Phantom 3 Advance at the top of my Wish List. They did not have that one in stock. A week later another impromptu visit and there was the Phantom 3 on display! Just pack it up and bill me!

After downloading the volumous support and user documentation from the internet I managed to put my back out – a great opportunity to read and digest the documentation, but the pain killers had numbed my brain (my excuse) so that a lot of the information, especially concerning the rather specific range of mobile devices to down load the App that controls the steering of the camera fixed below the aircraft. Clearly I needed assistance from my co-traveller (for the last two weeks of my 5 weeks Chile trip), Dr. Jonathan Y. Clark. (a.k.a. Doctor Y, as oposed to Dr Who, get it?)

With my back on the mend and with Jonathan having managed to clear his busy Diary, last Sunday was the time to attempt Mr PKDrone’s maiden flight.  We had already learned that this was not a matter of ‘unpack, charge the batteries and fly’! And so, Jonathan & wife Rose’s kitchen was turned into a workshop to work carefully work step by step through the pre-flight check list.

Drone workshop in Jonathan's kitchen

Drone workshop in Jonathan’s kitchen

It’s a good bit more tricky, than plug in and play, not in the least because these products are new and ‘bleeding edge’, rather than ‘leading edge’.

Our first check point indoors was to get to the Aircraft Unit and the Control Unit to recognise each other and to let them go through a routine where the four motors were whirring away. Health & Safety wise you’re not supposed to fly it in a built up area, not ‘near’ neighbouring houses as it may invade their privacy, not near airports, not on / near military or other high secure areas (My home on Salisbury Plain is owned by the MOD (Ministry of Defence!) and so on. We wanted the weather to be dry without any strong and gusting winds. A mobile phone or tablet, Apple or Android, is connected to the Control Unit to control the camera. My iPhone5 is already too old to be used, the iPhone5S would have done, but we did not have one of those. I had already bought an Android tablet – a Prestigio Multipad WIZE3008. The DJI App refused to download and install to it, even though the Tablet was running Android v4.2 – higher than the minimum V4.1.2 and with a much better size monitor screen. But the App refused to download to it – no idea why. Jonathan’s iPhone6 did the trick, but I find the monitor too small for use in the field.

Next challenge, removing the clamps that hold the gimble in place while in transit, without breaking it was less obvious but eventually was achieved. Screwing the first propeller on: easy! But why would the second one not go on? Because if I had read the manual, I would have known that some propellers have a left hand thread while others have a right hand thread. That all worked. Then there was the pre-flight safety check list. Batteries were charged (takes c 2 hrs, but Jonathan had done this already before we arrived.

More fluffing around as the iPhone needed different cables to the Android tablet to connect it to the Control Unit.

The propellers were taken off so that we could test if the 4 motors would start and embed themselves. Hooray! But JC’s kitchen was deemed too small to try a test flight, so with daylight fading we moved to the garden, fitted the blades. Hooray! But it was now sitting on a table on a concrete patio – if it fell off, it would break. Also too close to the house. So we found a patch in the garden, put down a base in the soft too long grass and switched on again! Hooray!  Angie was filming and photographing all this. Jonathan joined in the photography with his 3D Camcorder. Let’s fly!

Pilot PK carefully moved one of the control sticks and we cheered as the drone took off, hovering at c 1 m altitude. We had set the ‘user level’ to Beginner, so that it limited itself to Max 30 m. but 1 m. was enough. Tried the right hand joystick and Mr PKDrone flew slowly c 2 m forward, towards the glass greenhouse that suddenly seemed a lot closer than I remembered.  The drone responded well to the joystick instructions. I landed it on the soft grass. Another cheer went up. Then a controlled shut down.

ready for lift off

MR PKDrone, ready for lift off

We have video footage taken by Angie on her Nikon P610, but putting this report together I need to discover how to insert a .MOVIE file into the Blog. (PS. success – see bottom of page.)

We then ran through the preflight check list again and found that in order to fly with the last remaining daylight, we had skipped ‘update firm ware’ for The Aircraft and the Control Unit. The Control Unit update went fine – this is not ‘rocket science’, although …. when it came to doing the Aircraft, it failed to upload the file downloaded from the DJI site, claiming that the
file was corrupt. We tried a number of times – whiping the card each time, down loading it from different computers on different cards etc – all with the same results. Of course the original software was (probably) now out of sync with that in the Control Unit. Various ways of destroying the hardware in use and slashing of wrists were considered. By now it was c 23:00 and way past my 7 p.m. dinner time, so it was agreed to leave the beast with Jonathan to sweat over to get things going by Thursday so that it can join us on our flight on Friday evening.

Late Monday night a much relieved Jonathan rang to triumphantly announce that he had succeeded to bring the firmware up to date – won’t do that again until we’re safely back in the UK.

No cacti were harmed in the process of the drone’s maiden flight, was it my imagination that they had faint smiles on their faces about the length that Homo sapiens will go through to take their picture?

PKDrone maiden flight

PKDrone maiden flight

Test Video

Comments on: "Tuesday 20 October 2015 – the Drone Challenge" (5)

  1. Brian Bates said:

    Der, what’s a homo sapien?

  2. Brian Bates said:

    Is it like ‘uman beenz

  3. Rene' Zahra said:

    What a wonderful idea. That would be nice if in one of the lectures in Blankenberge we see cacti (and other succulents) being seen from the air. Especially those iin place out of reach.

  4. Paul Schreurs said:

    You will find this a very useful tool. I’m using what is now an ‘old’ Phantom II and have managed to get loads of great footage of gardens and larger plants, particularly the big pasacana’s which can all be seen on the CSSAustralia YouTube channel.
    Look forward to seeing some habitat shots and who knows, maybe a new species found in a hard to access area.

    • Hi Paul, My only concern is that we’ve not had enough practice flying it. El Ninjo is is still providing extra moisture to northern Chile, so we’ll try not to lose the drone in the Camanchaca!

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