(Don’t call it a… ) Drone adventures Pt.1

selfie from wltoys v303 with GoPro3

I’ve spent the last 6 weeks or so using all my free time getting up to speed on drones, or as they should probably be called to avoid all the spy in the sky, US killing innocent civilians connotations – quadcopters.
The media buzz of the moment for good and bad reasons, it’s been a steep learning curve, hugely fun and frustrating by turns, so I thought I’d write a blog post about my journey to now.

I go pretty crazy if I’m not learning stuff almost constantly, so 6 weeks ago or so when I had a quiet time between paid jobs I started to get a little itchy and decided I would research about quadcopters for aerial filming.
The increasingly low entry costs into aerial photography/video are making it easier and easier to just go out and buy a beginners model and get the thing in the air with zero experience or knowledge of the potential risks and difficulties.
I decided after my initial reading to buy a “micro drone” to learn how to actually fly before stepping up to something capable of flying a camera.
This “learn to fly” step seems to be overlooked a little and seems to me to be quadcopter 101, especially with the larger craft. If you crash one of these things into someone it could do some serious damage – those 8 inch props would at the very least give you a nasty cut.

I decided on the Hubsan X4 107C which I could have got a lot cheaper than than $100 I paid buying it here from Amazon Japan (hilariously overpriced compared to sites outside Japan but often delivers same day – why is EVERYTHING on Amazon Japan so much more than Amazon US?).
The Hubsan is a “6 axis gyro stabilised micro quad” and it is tiny! It fits into the palm of my hand but flies like something 3 times its size so is a very good learning device. The bonus being you can fly it inside a tiny Tokyo apartment if its raining or too windy to do it outside.

I spent a couple of weeks frustratingly flying (read- crashing it) it for 6 minutes and then waiting a hour for the battery to charge.
An annoying (but ultimately rewarding when you get it) way to learn to fly and very good for learning about LiPo (Lithium Polymer) battery technology, which is scary stuff! not so much for the little 1s battery for the Hubsan but essential knowledge for stepping up to the bigger quads with their bigger batteries that could explode if they are not charged correctly!
Unfortunately even though the Hubsan has a camera in it (720p) due to it’s size and flight characteristics the video is unusable for anything other than personal use. It’s fun to re-watch your flight but it’s shaky and erratic and would never able to be used in any kind of professional setting.
I’m really glad I started out with it because it helped me to learn how to actually fly one of these things which is NOT that easy. Try spinning it round in the air and flying back towards you, you rapidly become disorientated due to left and right being reversed :) get some good crashes that way by smashing into trees or walls because you moved the control sticks the wrong way.
I’m going to do you all a huge favor though. The best piece of advice I read about that, the simple rule to remember when flying towards you (known as ‘nose in’) is this :
Stick towards danger – easy to remember!
Now to learn flying nose pointing left or right :)

Seeing as the whole point of me getting into this was to get some aerial shots for upcoming documentary projects it quickly became clear that I was going to need a bigger GPS enabled quad capable of flying a GoPro at least to satisfy me.
There in we have another huge can of worms which meant hours more pouring over forums on the internet deciding which quad to buy.
The simple go to answer if you don’t want to do all the research is a DJI Phantom. It’s the white quad you will have seen on numerous youtube videos crashing into buildings or flying through fireworks.
Whilst it’s not exactly expensive I had read of various problems including the dreaded “fly aways” – when the quad suddenly stops responding to stick inputs and just flies of in some random direction as you stand and watch your $1500 investment in drone/gimbal/camera disappear!! – ( not to mention the crazy cost of batteries for the new Phantom 2)
I also wanted to look at the alternatives and find out if there was a cheaper or better option.
(cue sound effect of can of worms being opened)

Not really sure in how deep I wanted to get into this I decided (perhaps a little foolishly) to go for one of the cheapest quads with a full GPS system – one that will just hover in place if you let go of the sticks and has a Return To Home feature where you just flip a switch on the transmitter and the quad flies back to the point you switched it on and lands automatically.
The quad I went for was the “WLToys v303 seeker” which when ordered from a cheap Chinese electronics site was mine for just $270 ! (price has since increased slightly)

 

If you go and read the forums over on rcgroups for any of the available quadcopters out there you will soon discover that they all have some issues until you get up into a much higher cost bracket than I was prepared to go (at least just yet).
The v303 is no exception.
Straight out of the box mine didn’t work and required opening up of the quad (invalidating my *LOL* warranty).
One of the leads to the the Flight Controller ( the magic box inside the quad that does all the work to keep the thing in the air) was completely unplugged!
Also the (much larger) battery wouldn’t charge with the supplied battery charger and anyway after reading all about LiPo batteries I wanted a computer controlled balance charger.
More outlay…….
(Go HERE to read more than you will ever need to know about LiPo batteries – an essential read for anyone getting into this)

I tentatively followed all of the calibration steps and took it up for my first nervous flight.
The feeling when you first get a GPS enabled quad in the air and just let go of the sticks and it stays where it is just hovering is pretty cool, it’s easy to understand why these things are getting so popular.

So I thought, time to attach the GoPro. Initially I wanted to try it with the included hard mount, which I knew would provide less than ideal video as the camera is not independent of the quad so we see all the movements of the quad in the footage.

First results were to say the least disappointing.
Jello and lots of it. Jello is the effect that happens when the camera is subjected to micro vibrations from the quad while recording. It makes the resulting footage look like it was recorded on an undulating sheet of jelly. Completely unwatchable and unfixable in post.

Brief pause for more reading and the purchase of a “prop balancer”.

After balancing the props, the process of making sure both sides of the propeller are EXACTLY the same weight and therefore do not cause vibrations in flight, I tested again.
Much much better – but still nowhere near the level required if I was going to use any of this footage for commercial work.

More reading and studying – flying and testing.

After a few weeks of nighttime flights in my local park – to ensure no one was around to get hurt – I was feeling pretty confident that at least for relatively low altitude and close distances I had this thing under pretty good control. It was flying well and seemed to be having none of the issues other people were reporting over on the rcgroups thread.
I had been lucky, I thought (a little prematurely)

So I decided to buy a brushless gimbal. A seperate gyro stablised platform for the camera to sit on below the craft that stabilises the camera in space.
These come in 2-axis or 3-axis versions with the 3-axis obviously being more expensive.
I decided on a 2-axis Walkera g2-d (plastic version).

The gimbal arrived and I was all excited to get it hooked up. Of course the power connector was different (it is designed to be plug-n-play on the Walkera QR x350 Pro)  which involved a little DIY finagling but nothing too drastic.
Got it all hooked up, powered on and voila – the gimbal booted up and righted itself to horizontal!
I took it outside for a quick test flight – all seemed well.
In retrospect I do remember thinking that the motors on the quad sounded slightly different to normal but I put it down to poor GPS lock (I was surrounded by tall buildings).

Footage was perfectly stable! except some of the jello had returned which (upon further reading!) seemed to be to do with the rubber isolation balls between the frame and the gimbal being too soft.
I DIY’d a solution (foam earplugs inside the rubber isolation mounts to firm them up) waited for the battery to charge and took the quad to a nearby park for a fuller test.

The quad started up as usual, GPS lock achieved so I popped it up about 6ft in the air and started to move around slowly checking the gimbal.
30 seconds in and all the motors stopped and it dropped out of the sky smashing into the ground and breaking one of the legs!

WTF???!!!??

All the lights were still on and thankfully the gimbal was undamaged and still had power.

It made no sense. I limped home feeling slightly dejected and opened up the quad to see if I could work out the problem.
It seems like it was an issue that had been documented over on the rcgroups thread concerning the power connection from the main board to the flight controller and the terrible quality of the soldering joints. (link to QuadFlyer01’s post on RCgroups HERE)

QuadFlyer01’s picture of the problem 

I removed all of the white silicone gunk and pushed slightly on the connector pins and the Flight Controller rebooted!

How this problem had suddenly developed after 20 successful flights with no issues I’m not sure. My only explanation is that fiddling with the power connector for the gimbal must have disturbed the already fragile join and caused the issue.

So for now the v303 sits in my cupboard awaiting the return of my Safecast friends who have soldering and diagnostic abilities that far outshine anything I am capable of.

This story is NOT over. I am determined to get my quad working again and get some useable footage out of it!

The moral(s) of this story?
No 1. well, as always you get what you pay for.
And no. 2 this is not a hobby you can take up with out being prepared to put in some serious study not just in electronics and battery technology but also in the aerodynamics of multi rotor craft and actually flying them.
There is a learning curve that I feel has been very valuable. I continue to be fascinated with these craft and the possibilities that they open up and I’m thankful that my quest to be leaning something has been given a new area to point itself in :)

I must also thank all of people over on the WLToys v303 thread on RCgroups – there are many very helpful and knowledgeable people who have made this learning experience MUCH easier by sharing their knowledge and problems as they arise. HUGE thankyou to all of them!

Look out for part2 coming soon (?) in which everything is well and I get to do some actual filming!!!

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