Flying the “Phantom” (Quadcopter)

My wife bought me a radio controlled (RC) helicopter for Christmas a couple of years ago.  I remember feeling like a little kid as I tore it out of the box and put it together thinking I would be flying in no time.  The disappointment started when I couldn’t immediately fly it, but had to plug it in and charge it for what seemed like an eternity.  When it was finally charged up and ready to take to the sky, I was beaming as I turned it on, set it down on my living room floor, and grasped the controls.  I eased the “collective” up, envisioning a perfectly smooth takeoff followed by a masterful flight.  Much to my surprise the tiny chopper, which was not much bigger than a hummingbird, shot into the air like a bottle rocket!

I immediately released the controls before it hit the ceiling, which then caused the miniscule aircraft to drop like a rock.  Thus began the pilot induced oscillations.  Once again, in an attempt to save it from certain destruction, I gave it full power to cushion the fall (I don’t know why I envisioned executing a perfect landing from this “auto-rotation” type descent).  In spite of my heroic efforts, the helicopter had plans of its own.

The miniature chopper had tilted slightly in its fall, and when I applied full thrust it darted off in a diagonal trajectory.  It headed straight for the Christmas tree, but not before I commanded a control input to steer it away.  My yuletide avoidance maneuver (YAM) was timely, but of such a magnitude that the whirlybird now became a projectile heading towards my spouse – a projectile that could not be controlled.  I grunted a warning to my wife who instinctively ducked with cat-like agility.  Before I could do or say anything, the little chopper impacted the wall of our living room in the center of an ornately decorated wreath and burst into flames.

Ok, so the mini-copter didn’t go down in flames as much as my ego did, but that’s how I remember the experience.  My nearly 2,000 hours of flying high performance jet aircraft did nothing to help me fly that tiny rotary winged demon.  Those things are ridiculously difficult to fly!

Fast forward to last week when I received the following picture via email from my good friend Bill.   He had just purchased a Phantom Quadcopter capable of hefting a GoPro camera high into the sky.  How high?  Let’s just say the software is the limiting factor that keeps the gizmo below 6,000’ HAE.  After seeing this pic, I had to find out more about this ingenious invention.

The Quadcopter gives a PIREP for the air show…with the Air Boss’s permission of course!

My first question for Bill was, “What are the FAA restrictions associated with flying these babies?”  The FAA released guidance in 1981 (practically yesterday!) pertaining to the flight of model aircraft that still applies today.  If you’re going to fly any type of model aircraft (including a Quadcopter), you need to adhere to the following rules:

– Maintain an altitude below 400ft AGL
– If operating within 3NM of an airport, be sure to receive approval of appropriate controlling agency (which Bill did prior to taking the above picture).
– Avoid populated and noise sensitive areas
– Do not operate it near spectators until you’ve proven its capabilities with a test flight
– Give right of way to full-scale aircraft

(You can find the FAA Advisory Circular here and a brief Q&A by the FAA here.)

So what’s so great about the Quadcopter?  According to Bill, on an operating difficulty scale of 1-10, the Phantom rolls in between a 1 and 2 (whereas my Christmas gift was a strong 9/candidate for 10).  The Phantom has a “return to land” capability that uses GPS updates to bring the machine safely back to the ground if there is a loss of control input.  Additionally, the Phantom is GPS stabilized in flight and a small computer does most of the work that would normally result in a PIO if a human were to do it.  There is a mode in which you can take full command of the Quadcopter as its pilot, but DJI (manufacturer of the Phantom) highly recommends against it unless you are a seasoned RC pilot.  Technology has essentially eliminated “CFIT” from the model aircraft pilot’s vocabulary!

So how are the photos?  The Phantom comes with a mount for a GoPro Hero.  You can take HiDef video and 12MP still pictures with this amazing little camera.  The only drawback on the current version of the Phantom is that you are unable to accurately aim the camera.

The art of aerial photography is changing rapidly.  What used to require obtaining access to an aircraft, working airspace issues, and hauling several pounds of equipment now takes just minutes to accomplish thanks to RC aircraft like the Phantom.  There are still a few limitations.

As mentioned previously, the current version of the Phantom doesn’t allow you to see through the eyes of the GoPro – in other words, you are controlling simply by looking up at the aircraft.  If you’re hoping to get some good pictures you need to do your best to assess the position of the camera lens as you can see it from the ground.  Also, there is no way to tell at what altitude the Phantom is flying…once again, you just have to use your eyeballs.

All of that is about to change when the Phantom VISION comes online.  The VISION will provide you the capability to link wirelessly to your Phantom and thus be able to steer the camera as well as obtain altitude readout.  (There goes the “I couldn’t tell what altitude I was at” excuse…)  If that sounds appealing to you, get in line.  Bill just pre-ordered the Phantom VISION and is number 4,075 on the waiting list.

As far as price, you’re looking to spend about $479 for the current model.  (Amazon has the Phantom QUADCOPTER available for $479 with expedited shipping.)  The Phantom VISION is preselling for $1,199.  Keep in mind those prices do NOT include the camera.  If you’re after a GoPro Hero, you can pick one up for as little as $199.00 for the GoPro HERO3: White Edition or as much as $399.99 for the GoPro HERO3+: Black Edition.

So if you’ve got a pilot you’ll be shopping for this Christmas, keep this little gizmo in mind.  It can keep them entertained when they’re not in the cockpit.  And we give our thanks to companies like DJI who are making RC helicopter flying a lot easier for guys like me.  No burning Christmas wreaths for me this year!

By Tally One Editor Rob Burgon, Aerial Photo and Experience Contributions by Bill Fauth

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