My first drone was this little 100$ job I bought at the Ben Franklin store in Juneau.. A baby quadcopter, it sort of looked like a big green Preying Mantis… But… hard to fly! If I could keep that thing in the air for 30 seconds inside the house, I was doing great. And the only time that I tried it outside not a minute passed and it was in the trees, luckily within ladder reach.
As I learned later, this was before the kind of powerful micro GPS/enabled electronics that were being rapidly developed in China. So the main problem with the early drones was simply that they wouldn’t hover easily – you had to always keep flying them. Ideally you could adust all the controls to neutral so that it would hover without control input, however try as I might, I could never get there. Finally, after shredding many propellors, at least got the hang of the way the controls worked.
“Get a cheap drone first and learn to fly it.” was the advice I had gotten from more experienced drone fliers… Yet I never could keep that first drone in the air without whacking something, so I wasn’t dying to step up to a 1100$ unit with sophisticated video and still camera.
But, I really wanted to be able to take a drone to some of the places I had seen in Alaska and up and down the Inside Passage. So I kept watching the reviews and realized that basically a revolution was taking place with drones: GPS, sophisticated algorithms, and proximity sensors allowed the development of drones that would hover perfectly still when you let go of the controls. And a computer controlled camera on gimbals created essentially a rock steady platform for shooting videos and stills.
Sooo.. I dug deep and bought a DJI Phantom 4 drone with extra batteries, propellors, and a nifty hardshell backpack to carry it all in, plus a new smaller Ipad (my old one was too large to fit the brackett on the controller): totally cool! The whole package came to around 1900$, but who was counting?
Step 1: read the instructions, and there were a lot of them and a lot of sad videos on Youtube of folks who didn’t and crashed their expensive Phantom on the first outing. Next… out to the local baseball field to try it out. According to the instructions, it had a “Return to Home” (RTH) feature that you could activate manually or would activate itself if radio communication with the controller failed or if its battery was running critically low ( It warns you first…)
Soo.. for my first flight I thought I would test to see how accurate the “RTH” feature was. I placed the Phantom squarely on top of the second base bag, and hit the “takeoff” button. WOW: with this angry buzzing it jumped up into the air and hovered directly over the second base bag, maybe 4’ up, and just stayed there, perfectly still without any control input from me: totally cool! Next was simply getting used to the controls and its really slick feature called collision avoidance. It had some sensors facing forward, so that it would basically stop about 4’ away from any object in front of it ( you could still collide into stuff traveling sideways and backwards..) Pretty easy to fly really: an instrument readout on the Ipad monitor displayed its relative position to you and the direction it was pointed, as well as height and distance from you and what the camera was seeing. So… zoomed around getting the feel for things, and then a test: sent it up to max altitude, (around 400’ – set to comply with FAA regulations, its ‘service ceiling’ is about 20,000’) and about a half mile away and hit the RTH. At first I couldn’t even see it until it appeared about 90’ overhead and started descending until it landed with ONE FOOT ON THE SECOND BASE BAG! No more than 6” from the exact spot it had taken off from: I was blown away: how did it do that?
Then on another baseball field flight, I clipped a branch near the top of an 80’ spruce tree – the non-dense outer needles/foliage in trees confuses it apparently – and had a real “Oh Shit” moment as it fell sideways toward the ground. But then, halfway down it righted itself and went back into a hover again!!
So.. I was ready for an expedition – with Dan Kowalski, experienced filmmaker/photographer – up to Desolation Sound in lower British Columbia
The first night of our trip was the most dramatic – we rolled for two hours across the inland sea that is Georgia Strait on a blustery rainy late afternoon. Our destination was Roscoe Bay, only accessible at half tide and higher – at low tide the entrance is blocked by a gravel bar – and it wasn’t clear if we’d have enough water to get in… So cautiously at dead slow, the light failing…. fathometer down to 2 feet under the keel.. in we went over the bar and into this exquisite bay, more like a lake in the woods… Got down the anchor and got out the Glenmorangie – that exquisite feeling of the satisfaction of finding a secure anchorage after a challenging day filling us up: yahoo!
We were so excited: there we were with our new drone in one of the most spectacular spots on the B.C.Coast! But when we fired our new puppy up the next morning, the Ipad/monitor flashed ”Aircraft needs firmware update!” Sh*t.. for that we needed internet and Wi-Fi, and where the hell were we going to find that on a remote part of the BC coast?????
But there was a guidebook aboard our chartered cruiser and we discovered that about three hours away up this winding channel was “Toba Inlet Wilderness Marina” which supposedly had wi-if .. So off we went to a gorgeous spot – of course we were the only ones there.. And… YES! Indeed they did have Wi-Fi and so with updated firmware we were ready for a short test flight: up a couple of hundred feet, and hit RTH. All looking mighty good, but then at the last minute realized that instead of landing on the middle of the dock, the Phantom was instead about to land about 4’ over, in the WATER! By the time I realized this it was about 6’ off the water and dropping fast so I hit the cancel button and tried to throttle up: no go… Then I looked at the monitor and saw a flashing message: “Are you sure you want to do this”.. YES, Godammit!!!! By then the drone was about A FOOT off the water and dropping fast so I hit up and it shot up so quickly that the prop wash splashed the water high enough to hit the blades.. Waaaaaaay toooo close.
Landed it safely on the dock; breathe in, breathe out… Then to add to the stimulation of the day, we found a Hillary Donald debate on a live feed and watched it with some fine old single malt, all around. Way too much stimulation for one day… Then in the middle of the night the wind came up and I went to check on the lines and the front had come through bringing NW’ly flow and clear skies…
The next evening we were at a place called Big Bay on Stuart Island, overlooking a place I nicknamed “The Gauntlet” where several channels converge creating dangerous tide rips that have claimed the lives of careless mariners. It’s also the place where many mariners feel “The North“ begins, where the rapids mark the transition from the sunnier climate, protected waters, and populated shores of the South Coast to the lonlier, wetter, wilder, North Coast. Safe passage through the rapids is only possible at slack water – the top or bottom of the tide when the current briefly pauses. All vessels, big or small, bound up the Inside Passage have to wait for slack water. It’s almost as if nature wanted to give travelers pause, as if to tell them to be careful.
Dan is a very experienced filmmaker and photographer. I am also a photographer, having produced numerous color books on Alaska and the Northwest coast. At the end of the evening’s flying, we landed the drone, took the thumbnail-sized micro SD card out of the drone and into the side of my laptop, and literally gasped at what played out on the screen before us: a crisp, rock steady video with perfect color: we were truly stunned at the clarity and colors from the drone’s camera, which was little bigger than a cigarette pack.
And so the next few days went: exploring the narrow and winding wilderness passages north of Yucula Rapids. At the end of each day, we’d review the footage, amazed yet again at the new vistas that the Phantom allowed us to see. And pushing the envelope and learning a little more on each flight. The most fun was one morning steaming down Cordero Channel to catch slack water at Yuculta Rapids. It was windless and still when we launched but when the controller started flashing “low battery” the wind had freshened, setting up a short chop, and making a normal landing on a piece of plywood on the back deck dicey. So I told Dan I’d fly the drone in close and he’d have to grab it. No sweat.. though in reviewing the footage Dan did look a little anxious as the whirling blades got closer and closer.
And Desolation Sound saved the best for last. We’d ended up our week in this exquisite anchorage called Laura Cove, with just one other boat (In August it would have been jam packed). The sky was cloudless, the water still.
“Dan,” I said when the anchor was down, “you gotta try the kayak, it’s so gorgeous. I’ll launch from the shore and follow you around.”
And so we did – I set up on shore, and when Dan started paddling, launched, and followed him about 50’ behind and maybe 30’ up. The water was so clear I could clearly see the bottom under the kayak, the ripples from his paddles. Then as he slowly paddled around a corner in the narrow channel, I slowly took the drone up to 400’ until I was looking down at a canyon in the tall firs, at the bottom of which was Dan, still paddling. Then, slowly tilting the camera back up to horizontal, I panned slowly around, taking the dramatic vistas: mountains behind; channel and islands ahead: WOW!
That perfect day and those wonderful takes pretty much creamed the weather too: the next afternoon found us rolling across the strait once again in wind and rain, but immensely glad that we’d got that good weather window at all so late in the season and thrilled and excited that the drone had performed so well. Now we were ready for Alaska in the spring!