06 Jun 73%
It all started one sunny Saturday morning when I decided that it would be a perfect day to tweak an old-school drone I’d built. It was a rather large and scary quadcopter with exposed bundles of coloured wires, blinking LEDs, laser-cut skeletal chassis with 3D-printed arms and carbon fiber propellers. On the ground it looked like a low-budget movie version of something a mad jihadi terrorist would create to blow up the White House, and in the air it posessed all the grace and elegance of a flying lawnmower. It handled like a freshman’s body on a Friday night: wobbly, unpredictable, and with a strong tendency to bump into things. Old and slow CPU running quirky autopilot software didn’t help. It was all a bit scary, but that’s what made it interesting. It was very satisfying to make this contraption fly. It had a character, something that my other sleek and expensive off-the-shelf toys were totally lacking. I have even given it a name, something that I’ve never done to a drone before. I christened it “The Crashinator II”. I think you can guess what had happened to the first one.
The autopilot that controls the stability basically compares the desired attitude from my 8-channel radio transmitter’s stick positions to the real attitude and GPS position, and adjusts when necessary by independently controlling the speed of 4 electric motors. Doing this constantly, many hundreds of times every second is what makes it fly. The problem is that the ancient CPU that it has is not very fast, so the code had to be manually adjusted very precisely for the specific hardware, and I had difficulties dialing it in for my drone. Because of its custom build and highly unpredictable nature, it was either reacting too slowly – which resulted in wobbles and dangerous instability, or too quickly – which resulted in a lot of angry buzzing sounds, constant vibration and sometimes self-amplifying oscillations. So that required a lot of tweaking at a very large and wide open place without the risk of cutting an innocent bystander in half with carbon fiber props. So, obviously, public parks were out.
Flying drones has become much more difficult with all the stupid new regulations enacted after that dreadful terrorist drone attack last year. In my experience, since the strict enforcement was implemented, and a license had became a requirement, almost every time I launch a drone in a seemingly empty area, suddenly several people pop up out of nowhere just to start a well-coordinated assault: adults take turns of asking stupid questions and kids run right under the drone, following it wherever it flies, while I silently curse, pray to drone dieties to spare me from technical falures of any kind and try to find a safe place to land. I mean with the tiny toy drones and the Amazon delivery monstrosities flying everywhere for years now, you would think a mid-size hobby drone would not attract so much attention? I guess it’s the same curiosity that killed the proverbial cat and makes me look right at the camera flash each time I see someone ready to take a picture. I know that I’m going to be blinded by the flash when it goes off, but instead of looking away I still look at the flash! Well, curiosity had indeed killed at least one cat, if my sources are to be believed, and very possibly will kill me. Quite soon too. But more on that later.
To fly my drone I needed some place that is secluded, has car access and no chances of people wandering in. And I knew just the place. I noticed an abandoned farm not too far from a cosy but bland subdivision where I live, that seemed completely deserted. It had no gates, fences or other means of preventing trespassers. I guess neither its location right next to an old cemetery nor its street number 4444 was helping to attract a new owner. It had been abandoned for years, and it looked like nobody would mind me testing my drone in the field. I put the drone, gear and laptop into the trunk of my car and drove there. With the car’s auto-drive mode on, I tested the drone’s batteries and connections. Which was not very easy as I have an older BYD Qin that still requires the driver to touch the steering wheel with one hand. When I got off the main road I switched to manual drive. I slowly drove past the place where the gate once stood and parked behind the old and decrepit farmhouse. At that spot my car was not visible from the road; there was no sense in attracting attention to what I was doing.
The farmhouse seemed to be barely standing. In this still weather it was easy to imagine that even a light wind gust would cause it to implode and crumble, dust shooting up from the holes where its windows once were. If not for the sunny and beautiful weather, this house against the background of an old cemetery would send chills down my spine. Next time I should bring my camera and take some atmospheric photos in the evening light. I thought that it was actually a perfect place to organize a dark LARP game with my friends: something with vampires, zombies, dark magic and all that jazz. Unlike Europe that is full of haunted castle ruins and abandoned factories, here in Canada it’s difficult to find places with character and history. Close to the house was a formerly red (now aged grey) barn full of holes and lacking a single right angle in its form. Next to it was an empty field – the actual reason for me being here today. Delimited by a wall of a dense forest on the far side, it gave me plenty of room to test-fly the drone.
I walked closer to the forest to keep the sun behind me – there is nothing worse than flying against the sun when you’re guaranteed to be blinded and lose orientation. Then I positioned my drone far enough from any obstructions, including me, and powered it up. There was so much room that I could even try flying with FPV glasses – so I connected a mushroom-like antenna to my drone’s transmitter, snapped on a tiny camera, and set it to record to a nanoSD card in parallel with the transmission, so I can review the flight video later. The camera conspiratorially blinked at me with its tiny red LED. I glanced at the screen above the transmitter, ripped from an old car GPS and rigged to display incoming video feed and telemetry – it was working. I took a deep breath, moved the stick all the way up and down to arm the motors, and slowly added throttle. Carbon props blurred into menacing black shimmering discs, a puff of dust went up, and I continued to push the stick until the drone took off.
Recent adjustments were not working very well – even though it was better than before, the craft still was not anywhere near as stable as my off-the-shelf DJI drone. The screen was showing a jittering image, which was not very usable. I sighed – more tweaking coming up… I flicked the switch on my transmitter to test the smart GPS-based “return to home” mode. The drone did try to fly in the direction of its take-off spot, but clearly miscalculated. It started flying in an ever-tightening spiral, trying to self-correct and get to the specific point, speeding up like a yellow rubber duck in a draining bathtub’s whirlpool. Its velocity was increasing with each circle and it was becoming clear that this was not going to end well. So, with another deep sigh, I flicked the switch off to put the quadcopter back into the manual flying mode.
And then something went really wrong.