I showed up late to drones.
A few weeks ago it was my father’s birthday. The reason I am an engineer is because my father is an engineer. (Aside: The reason I am a leader is because I watched all of my mother’s moves as she wrangled my father the engineer.)
For the 4th of July, the engineers in the family like to shoot rockets off the porch. You know, easy to assemble Estes rockets. We’d build them in the morning and then fire them off in the afternoon. After 50 or so rocket launches over the years, I’m proud to report our recovery rate is precisely zero percent. See, we live in the Santa Cruz Mountains and much of these mountains are covered in trees such as Oaks, Redwoods, and Bays. Pro rocket tip: trees eat rockets.
It might seem like a tremendous waste, but the joy is not in finding the rockets. The joy isn’t even in building the rockets. The joy is in firing off the rockets because, of course, they are going to outer space.
Not really. But they could, right?
As this was a significant birthday for my father, I thought hard about what kind of rockets we should get. Multi-stage? Camera attachemnt? Wait a tick, what about a drone?
The Drone Situation
I’ve been watching the drone situation for years. My brother-in-law has been buying cheap drones which tend to show up at Christmas. These lightweight contraptions are borderline disposable, but they demonstrated to me that the quad-copter design combined with increasingly long (and compact) battery life could be affordable and fun. However, while it was clear the nerd frenzy regarding drones has been increasing, I had not yet partaken until I stumbled on the thought for my father’s birthday.
Deciding not to mess around, I purchased the DJI Phantom 3 Standard after a brief consultation with Twitter. My research showed the Phantom 3 was the correct drone for someone who wanted to pay extra for a drone that would do it’s best to not crash into a tree directly out of the box.
After arriving, the unpacking experience was very Apple-like. The Phantom 3 is well designed. Its weight has purpose. The minimal, but helpful directions give you barely a hint of what will happen at first launch. See, when I first launched the drone, I had a Holy Shit moment.
A Drastic Change of Perspective
I’ve written about this topic before, but as it’s been a few years since I’ve experienced a Holy Shit, it bears repeating. A Holy Shit moment is when you first discover a new idea that drastically and forever changes your perspective. You know when you’re having these moments because you stop, you stare at the new idea or thought with your mouth half open, and you say – out loud – “Holy shit.” Here are three from my life to help you calibrate:
Telnet Sitting in the computer lab at UCSC as Frank explained, “Type telnet 220.127.116.11. Ok, now enter this user name and password. Great, you are now logged into a computer in Germany.” Pause. I’m what? Pause. Holy shit, the whole world is eventually going to be connected.
Doom Playing Doom primarily on the promise of Castle Wolfenstein 3D. I distinctly remember walking around a corner in the game and having an Imp leap out at me. I jumped out of my chair, Holy shit, the computer will eventually be able to render the world as I see it and I’ll be able to walk around.
iPhone Writing my first email of significance where it wasn’t an absolute mobile chore to do what I did effortless on my desktop. Wait. Holy shit, a computer is not just a bulky something that sits on my desk. Computers are going to disappear by being everywhere.
You are unable to un-see a Holy Shit moment. It is burned in your brain because the world as you knew it is now forever different. This brings us back to drones.
A New Dimension
Do you remember your first plane trip when you had a window? Do you remember taking off? We’re moving. We’re moving fast. We’re rising. Look at the world, it’s made of… little toy houses and cars. There’s a moment around a couple hundred of vertical feet where the world you knew suddenly becomes small and you realize there is an entire dimension of space right above you that you have not experienced.
There are two Holy Shits around my first drone experience. The first and smaller of the two involves the technology used to build the Phantom 3. Like each and every one of my ill-fated rocket launches, my only initial concern with the Phantom 3 was losing it. I could’ve bought a much cheaper drone to practice with, but I was told the Phantom 3 was a great place to start.
It is. Once the Phantom 3 takes off – thanks to GPS – the drone just sits there in space. Little wind? No problem, it compensates and just sits there. I was fully prepared to be wrangling a cranky drone that desperately wanted to join its rocket companions in a nearby Redwood, but, no, the Phantom 3… just merrily sits there.
Manipulating the drone in 3D space is a little tricky. You’ve got to retrain your brain to not just think in terms of left/right and forward/backward, but also in terms of up and down. Since the drone just sits there wherever you parked it, this is a trivial process. Just nudge it a bit and see what happens.
To date, I’ve got 30+ flights on my drone and other than a really stupid excursion into the middle of redwood forest where I disabled GPS because I thought it’d be a good idea to measure the height of a redwood, the Phantom 3 has never felt remotely out of control. When you combine this eerie ability to stably hover in the sky with an iPhone app, which serves as a control panel and video display for the drone, you will say “Holy shit.”
And that’s the smaller of the two.
The second still involves the technology. The Phantom 3 Standard comes with a built in 720P HD camera built on gimbal stabilization technology that gives you incredibly stable and smooth video. You can see this video straight from the camera streamed to your phone which is conveniently attached to the remote control for the drone.
I’m guessing everyone does a similar first move with their drone. Once they understand a tree is not going to eat it, they place it directly overhead, turn on the video recording, and blast straight up.
I’ve lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains my entire life, but in the past few weeks I’ve actually seen the Santa Cruz Mountains. The shocking perspective the drone gives is understanding that you don’t really understand where you’re standing. There’s an entire world very nearby you and the view is spectacular.