Editorial: Pilot Report by a Newbie
Wednesday, October 11, 2017 at 12:57PM
Ed Downs in 8710 forms, FAA, FAA Safety Course, IACRA, Inflight USA, UAS, UAS pilot, drones, unmanned aerial systems

By Ed Downs

The Dromida Drone was a learning experience for this writer. (Courtesy Dromida)Like it or not, drones (Unmanned Aerial Systems) are becoming a major player in the National Airspace System.  This writer decided last year to add one more pilot rating to the list I now have by becoming an FAA UAS pilot.  Sure enough, I visited www.faasafety.com, took the UAS pilot training course, fought my way through the IACRA process (electronic 8710 form) and presto, I was a drone pilot … sort of.  Yes, I had the plastic in my pocket, but had never actually flown a drone.  Leaving that small detail behind, In Flight USA reached out to drone manufacturers, inviting them to submit news announcements that might help us provide the most current information to our reader base of contemporary (real?) pilots. In Flight USA is even attending the Drone World Expo, being held in San Jose in early October.  But, the results of our outreach have been mixed, as the gaming and business world of drones has been slow to pick up on the fact that they are a part of the family of flying machines, mixing in with airplanes stuffed with people.  But that suddenly changed, about two weeks before this October issue went to print.

An e-mail announcement from Hobbico Inc. suddenly showed up. Don’t recognize the name?  Hobbico is the largest distributor of model products in the world, with more than 400 brand names and some 60,000 products. Do the names Revell Model, United Model, Tower Hobbies, Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, or Hobby Lobby ring a bell?  Yep, this employee-owned company holds a leadership role in the world of drones, ranging from toys to professional commercial versions.  The announcement addressed a new, low end, drone that probably falls into the “toy” category, but seemed to have some of the features normally reserved for the big guys. With a Wi-Fi connected camera that take photos and videos (direct to an app on your smart phone), hand controller, 3D goggles and all the accoutrements needed to fly (including spare rotor blades and even a small screw driver), my interest was piqued.  With an MSRP of $89.99, this intrepid aviator figured, “how about getting hold of this critter and actually learn how to fly a drone, from the perspective of a pilot report.”  Thus, began a trip into the world of technological humiliation, ending with an enlightenment about the world of drones that exceeded my expectations.  Yep, an old dog can learn new tricks.

A call to Hobbico Inc. ended up with the offer to send this writer the new Hobbico Dromida, also labeled as the “KODO FPV.”  Yes, I had to look up “FPV,” which translate to “First Person View.”  This means you can fly the Dromida by looking though its camera, either by mounting your smart phone to the hand controller (it just snaps in) or by placing your smart phone in the 3D goggles.  Basically, you can “get in” the cockpit of the Dromida.  Now, form the world of gamers and active drone fans, I hear an overwhelming “duh dude!” as these capabilities are common in today’s home entertainment market, so let me set the stage for this “pilot report.”  This writer is comfortable in modern airplanes, jets, classics, antiques, helicopters (that helped) and the Orion Spaceship.  But I have never played a computer game, worked a game hand controller, worn a 3D view device or figured out how to talk on my smart phone and look up a contact at the same time.  I am very cool with an E-6B but get lost in Foreflight.  I do not own a tablet and use the now obsolete Galaxy 5 smart phone. Model airplane skills include U-control, free flight and a primitive, single channel RC.  But I do have a UAS pilot certificate, (not actually required for this light weight drone) so flying the Dromida should be a piece of cake, right?  Well, hold my beer! 

A preflight of the Dromida box impressed me.  It is designed to be used as a carry case, with molded plastic inserts that protect delicate components.  Seemingly a small feature, but as it turned out, important.  Given the short test time due to publication deadlines, I did all my flying at two hotels while teaching pilot class.  Next, Dromida comes with big, easy to read, printed instructions.  Yes, real “printed on paper” instructions with lots of pictures, written in good English.  Of the six pages, one is dedicated to battery safety, actually pretty important.  Two pages are dedicated to maintenance, like replacing rotor blades, all well done.  Flight controls are clearly defined, although some of the terminology is peculiar to the drone world, not using common aviation terms.  No big deal.  Specific recommendations are made as to how to begin the learning process, which this “newbie” followed with success.  The only “tech” stuff is the need to download a smart phone app, but the instructions are clear and download took place with no difficulty, even thought I was using a hotel Wi-Fi.  So far, so good.

Now comes the flying part.  The instructions clearly state that you need unobstructed space, so I used a wedge of floor space in a small hotel room … oh well!  Next came a warning label on the front of the box, “14+.”  This meant I was now going to challenge the intellect and flying skills of a typical 14-year-old who grew up playing with computers and gaming devices.  One begins to wonder if the box should have a maximum age listed.  No problem, just send the kid to his mother’s basement and get on with it.  A specific checklist is used to activate the interface between the controller and Dromida, a simple but important process.  With throttle and yaw controls on the left and forward/aft/left/right on the right side of the controller, the instructions recommend short, small “hops” to figure out what does what.  So, at about 5 seconds at a time, this student begins the process.  One learns quickly, that you need constant control inputs to hover, like an old technology helicopter. Control inputs are small, and even with the tiny size of the Dromida (about 6-inches by 6-inches), inertia sets in, and you need to give it an input and then take some of the input back.  You learn quickly that maneuvering takes away lift, and power must be added and removed as you change direction.  Coordination is a must.  After about 15 minutes of hopping, the battery gave out and a 35-minute recharge was needed.  The next flight ended with the ability to hover and move in a square pattern, with lots of jumping and jerking, but no damage and a sense that control was possible.

A week went by before the next flight.  High winds prevented outside practice, so with about 30 minutes of practice under my belt, the next hotel trip allowed an expansion of skills, in that large, unoccupied, conference rooms were available.  With much more room, I almost surprised myself by going straight into a hover, allowing use of “trim” controls to adjust the Dromida to hover hands off, a great aid in flight control.  It was now time to try the smart phone interface.  Connecting to the Dromida’s built in Wi-Fi (really!) was surprisingly simple and the phone can be mounted on the hand controller.  The Galaxy 5 just fit, any phone larger than about 6-inches by 3.25-inches will not fit. 

You can now see what the camera on the Dromida sees. This takes practice, as trying to maintain visual contact with the Dromida and looking at the phone display at the same time can be distracting.  While no high level of skill was developed, I did mange to fly around a corner to see what was on the other side, … nothing.  It was then time to try the 3D goggles.  The instructions are quite clear, start very slow and have a safety pilot next to you to tell you where you are and where the Dromida is.  Of course, I had no safety pilot.  I should have.  To put it mildly, trying to function while looking though another set of eyes that is constantly moving is weird.  The Dromida’s camera is wide angle, so there is some spatial distortion and rapid camera movement causes some pixilation to take place.  More expensive drones have faster cameras.  Disorientation can be considerable and it is quite possible to walk into an obstacle of fall, so be careful.  After some practice, I did pull to a hover, and the view is great.  Clearly this drone newbie needs more practice, but the technology is fascinating.

Sure, to an experienced drone pilot or gamer, these observations may seem almost silly, but this “real” pilot had a blast becoming a UAS pilot.  In about an hour of actual flying time, it was clear that even a “toy” like the Dromida could serve practical purposes on my ranch.  I can absolutely see the Dromida becoming sort of the “Cessna 150 of drones.”  It can be assumed that large and more advanced drones will be easier to fly, with auto stabilization and flight path programming.   But the simple little Dromida allowed this old pilot to add one more make and model to the long list that has accumulated over the years.  Yep, you can teach an old dog new tricks …BARK!


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