Seat of My Pants

When I was a kid I dreamt of piloting something, anything that flew. Jets, biplanes, rocket ships, if it provided a means of minimizing the affects of gravity, however temporary, I wanted to do it.

As home computers grew more powerful flight simulators programs (I called them, “Flight Stimulators”) began to appear. When I first loaded up Microsoft’s first flight simulator I was enthralled to be able to take off from LaGuardia and fly over Manhattan where all of the major landmarks were rendered in wireframe and updated every second. State of the art back then. 

On my Atari 2600 Game Console I could warp from sector to sector rescuing space stations under attack be a nefarious alien race in Star Raiders. With fairly simple graphics (especially by today’s standards) the game put you in the pilot’s seat and let you dogfight in space. Ahhh, those were the days!

Since that time I have flown on commercial and military transports, hang glided (tandem with the pilot/trainer was ready to take over in case I did something stupid), and took the controls of a Cessna 150 for about 10 minutes. The latter two I did with an enormous grin plastered on my face. I actually ‘flew’.

I’m not so much a thrillseeker, but I don’t back away from the prospect of an adrenaline rush either, and I will likely jump at a chance to take flight, in any manner. I guess I’m still a kid at heart.

Drones can allow one to scratch the flying itch, at least a little bit, so, I bought a drone, a DJI Mini 2. It’s a great little system that’s easy to control and allows me to shoot stellar video while not overtaxing my meager budget. Unfortunately, to keep the Mini under the 249 grams weight limit set by the FCC for drone to fly without being registered (I registered mine anyway), DJI left a lot of features off, like object avoidance. 

You can probably guess where I’m going with this, but let me give you the details.

Sample footage from my drone.

Another feature DJI did not include is the ability to automate a flight using waypoints (waypoints are places along a prescribed flight path where changes can be made to altitude, speed, direction, camera usage and so on). Luckily, DJI did open their drone control software to allow other companies to create such things and a company called VC Technologies did just that and created an app called Litchi. With Litchi, my DJI Mini 2 can follow a subject, fly a prescribed course with waypoints, and do all sorts of things the drone couldn’t before. Of course, I grabbed the software as soon as I learned of it.

Now, what comes to mind now is a quote from Spider-Man that goes something like, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Litchi imbued my drone with capabilities  once only available on drones costing thousands of dollars. I knew there was great power involved and I read and watch everything I could before deciding to try it out myself. 

Alas, there comes a time when reading and watching won’t suffice and one must take the controls. So, I packed up my drone, making sure I had plenty of battery power and storage for the movies I would create as a test, and set off for a local park. I picked a spot where there were few trees, programmed my drone flight with just 2 waypoints at a low altitude, and got everything ready.

Then the moment of truth. I initiated the flight. My drone rose like the obedient automaton it was, turned towards the first waypoint and took off like a banshee, straight into a tree. It was as if the drone knew the tree was there and wanted to commit suicide. It fell into a tangle of tree roots and blinked woefully. I ran to it and picked it up to examine the damage. Propellers were broken, the body was scratched and the drone’s single gimbaled eye dangled as if plucked from its socket by Edgar Allen Poe’s raven.

I gathered up the pieces of my robotic flight avatar and carried it home.

Ahhh, but my ordeal had only begun!

The broken gimbal, removed.

I examined my broken drone and determined that the gimbaled camera was, indeed, the worst of its injuries. DJI wisely provided extra propellers when I bought the device.

 I went online to see if I could fix the gimbal myself. There are lots of videos showing how it can be done, but doing so required opening up the drones and mucking around in its electronic innards, stuff I hadn’t done in years. And to add monetary insult to my technological injuries, a replacement gimbal cost $250! That’s half the cost of the drone! The old gimbal was beyond repair so I had little choice. I bought a replacement gimbal and waited for it to arrive.

While I waited I read and watched almost everything I could find on how to replace the gimbal, hoping there might be an easier way. There was no easier way. I would have to take the drone apart, disconnect tiny connectors, handle delicate circuit boards and more all while hoping my hands were still steady enough not to cause further damage.

The part arrived, so did the moment of truth; could I operate on my injured drone and bring it back to life?

The scene was reminiscent of an operating room. I had lights focused on the upturned drone lying listlessly on my table. Miniature screwdrivers, plastic pry tools, hot glue gun, small dishes to hold the screws and other parts I’d remove were all at the ready. I fired up a video the detailed every step then made the first incision, er…, unscrewed the first screw.

Minutes turned to hours as I gently dove deeper into the inner workings on the drone to get to the affected places. Finally, I had removed, disconnected, and detached everything associated with the broken gimbal. Now I had to reverse the process. More hours ticked by, but at last I screwed in the final screw. I installed a battery, pressed the power button and waited for the drone to take it first electronic breath. Lights flashed, beeps sounded, propellers twitched as if it was fresh out of the box. My drone was back!

New gimbal in. On the road to recovery!

It’s still convalescing, I need to run calibration software to get the camera aligned properly, but it will soon be back in the air and once again being my ‘eye in the sky’.

Stay tuned,

Vern

One thought on “Seat of My Pants

  1. Flying this sounds like serious fun. Serious as described by your recent experience but also similar to those moments of being in control and actually flying. Hope you share video soon too.

    Liked by 1 person

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