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Sunday
Apr082018

Editorial: Meet Genny

By Ed Downs

No, this writer has not misspelled the name of the legendary Curtis JN-4 training plane of WWI. The “Genny” in question is a drone, or more specifically, the Lily Next-Gen (https://www.lily.camera/), marketed as a “personal camera drone.” Naming a drone?  Sure, I also owned an airplane named “Whiskey” and a pistol named “Mike.” My stuff gets names. When you can take your drone for a walk, following you like a puppy, it gets a name… so there! But I am ahead of the intent of this article, so let’s go back to the beginning.

Several issues ago, In Flight USA recognized that our National Airspace System had a new arrival, by the tens of thousands… drones. This writer obtained a sUAS Pilot Certificate in 2016 and began teaching FAR 107 sUAS classes shortly thereafter.  Following attendance at a major drone trade show in 2017, the management of In Flight USA decided to embrace this new side of aviation and include a dedicated drone section in our publication. Knowing that the first major trade show of the 2018 flying season (Sun ‘n Fun) would probably have many drone manufacturers represented, it was felt that having an sUAS certified pilot on staff who also had actual drone flying experience would be a good idea. 

Go figure, the boss wanted genuine drone flying experience to back up our new column.  This writer got the nod to saddle up and learn how one of these things works. In Flight USA recognizes that our readers are contemporary pilots and airplane owners, not necessarily computer lovers or gamers. So, the assignment, should I choose to accept it, was to share the experience of learning how to fly and use a drone from the perspective of a contemporary CFI, while at the same time, learning more about the integration of this new-fangled technology into our world of flying. Yep, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Lily Next-Gen stepped up and offered their “Personal” drone, the Next-Gen, for evaluation and training purposes. Lily’s parent company, The Mota Group, is a multi-national, advanced technology corporation that is already a leader in high-end commercial drone manufacturing, as well as other technology endeavors. The Lily Next-Gen is Mota’s step into marketing a drone specifically designed for personal family use and light business applications. In other words, a high-definition flying camera, both for videos and stills, which is simple to use, highly automated (tracking and orbiting), and packaged to be easily carried in a backpack, purse, brief case, or auto glove box. 

The challenge taken on by Lily was to bring a flying machine to market that would fit in the palm of your hand yet fly with the stability and precision of a much larger machine, offer plenty of useful features, and be so simple to operate that even an old CFI could figure it out. While the suggested retail price of $699 for the “Pro Package” and $899 for the “Full Package” certainly takes the Next-Gen out of the toy market, it has capabilities that rival drones now being used by major-motion picture companies and falls into the mid-range of consumer-oriented drones. Hit the Lily website (https://www.lily.camera/) for details. 

But before continuing with this adventure of discovery, let’s toss in a few caveats. This writer is not a “gamer,” uses computers with the same emotional involvement that one shares with swinging a hammer (it is just a tool!) and had only flown one “toy” drone in the past, bashing it into virtually every obstruction imaginable before getting it under some semblance of control… but that was useful training. Frankly, this adventure started out with the attitude of “why would a real pilot want one of these things.” 

Good packaging is a good indicator of what is to come. A highly portable and padded tote case contains the Next-Gen sUAS, two batteries, charging unit, and other goodies.  Genny is packed in even a smaller protective sleeve, nicely padded and safely stored inside the first padded container, sort of a “doubled up” system. Easily opened with zippers and Velcro, the four rotor arms of Next-Gen can be quickly unfolded, and the landing gear extended, about a 15-second process. Genny is now ready to fly, just as soon as you download an app that will turn your smart phone into both a video system that lets you see what Genny is seeing (like being in the cockpit) and flight controller. 

The “Full Package” version of Genny includes a dedicated hand controller, which was not available for use at the time of this writing. Having learned the hard way that a drone can crash into things, this writer was determined to carefully study the instruction manual before powering up. Yes, reading the instructions may not be “manly” but it helps. I was a bit let down by Next-Gen’s instruction manual. I found it similar to instructions included with many smart phones, adequate for those who already have a lot of familiarity with the technology, but a bit lacking for one with my contemporary aviation background. The good news is that Genny is fully capable of taking care of herself, waiting in a stabilized hover for the new drone pilot to catch up.

Having downloaded the app and powered up Genny, one goes through the process of connecting to Genny’s Wi-Fi, an automatic function once an initial password has been entered. Your smart phone will show you exactly what Genny’s camera is seeing, a remarkably high-definition, wide-angle view, with only a small amount of typical wide-angle distortion. Bright sunlight can make the smart phone screen hard to see, a bit of a problem, especially in that the drone controls are also on the same screen. This is where I think the manual controller, using an unobstructed screen, will certainly prove its worth. 

Also know that this writer is using a Galaxy 5 smart phone, lacking the clarity and brightness of newer phones. The live-camera view equates to looking out the front windows of the cockpit of most planes. The flight controls overlay the camera view, causing some loss of image on the phone, but not the downloaded image. Altitude, speed, remaining battery power, GPS lock, and WI-FI status are also shown. When first fired up, Genny is going to ask (through your smart phone display) for an alignment process. Virtually all advanced drones (and advanced technology aircraft, like Cirrus) use Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems (MEMS) technology.

This involves solid-state magnetometers, accelerometers, gyros, and GPS inputs, all working together for automated attitude and directional guidance as well as stability augmentation. The magnetometer is an electronic compass that figures out where north is, where the center of the Earth is, and what direction you are flying by sensing the Earth’s magnetic fields. When first initialized, one must give the magnetometer a chance to figure out where it is by doing a “dance” with the device. Once done, the device (be it a drone or smart phone) will remember where it is. We aviators know that magnetic variation changes with location, so a drone may need occasional re-alignment, as does Genny. Your advanced tech airplane does this automatically. Okay, we found north, let’s go flying!

But wait, safety first. Pick an open field, set up an airport (I used a 24 by 24 scrap of particle board) and make sure you will not fly over structures or people. Also, be courteous to animals, as rotors spinning at nearly 10,000 rpm make quite a “buzzing/whine” that can frighten our critter friends. Preflight the Next-Gen as you would a full-size airplane. Make sure you have registered Next-Gen with the FAA and, unless flying strictly for recreational purposes, make sure you have completed your sUAS certificate training. Know your airspace, having reviewed AC107-2 for airspace restrictions. Perhaps even call Flight Service to make sure there are no TFR’s in your flight area. 

You can link in to some great drone information from the FAA homepage, www.faa.gov, and specific drone training and an easy path for sUAS certification can be found at www.faasafety.gov. Finally, an FAA app, called “B4UFly” can give you a heads up regarding airspace issues. Your drone (and Genny) is an aircraft, and by launching your drone, you become a PIC with all the same FAA-mandated obligations and responsibilities associated with a manned aircraft.

With three control methods available, I chose the default “safe stick,” which seemed to be the easiest to manage. Push a button, Genny moves; stop pushing and Genny stops. Perfect for a fast machine being operated by a slow mind. It would be trial and error, hopefully keeping error to a minimum. It had already been decided to give each flight a simple, specific goal. Flight “1” would be little more than taking off and landing.  Flight “2” would expand flight control use and so on, until each feature is explored, one at a time. It would be a mistake to think one can simply launch a drone and immediately use all features. Genny has a function button (on the smart phone display) for “takeoff,” “landing,” and “return to home.” 

Okay, power up Genny, app selected, WI-FI connected, controls in view, camera online, before takeoff check list complete. I pushed the “takeoff” function button and held my breath. The four rotors spooled up instantly, and Genny quickly climbed to about 6 feet above the takeoff pad and entered a rock steady hover, all automatically. Genny simply waited for the next command, which was “land.” Genny responded with a perfect descent and landing, smack on the slab of wood. All automatic and easy! 

Great, let’s expand the envelope. The next flight included simple up/down, left/right, and forward commands. Whenever control commands are stopped, Genny just stops and hovers, exactly where you left her, waiting for the next command. If one gets confused, just stop everything you are doing, push the “return to home” button, and Genny will take care of getting home. First flights were all done with Genny’s nose and my eyes looking in the same direction. Remember, being a “helicopter,” Genny can yaw left and right without going left and right. Frankly, this writer was very concerned about left/right confusion when Genny was flying directly towards me versus away from me. I soon discovered that a quick glance at the real time image on the smart phone controller (like looking out of Genny’s cockpit) could quickly orientate me as to which way Genny was pointing. It is interesting to note that FAR 107 strongly states that visual contact with the drone must be maintained at all times but that one may momentarily look at a viewing devise for orientation. Good rule!

Each flight (lesson?) expanded both confidence and comfort. By the fourth flight, positioning and landings were within inches of target. When done with a flight scenario, one simply commands, “return to home,” and Genny faithfully comes home and lands.  Just be sure there is nothing between “home” and Next-Gen, as the flight home is in a straight line. Camera test started with stills, which are saved to the smart phone and easily downloaded to a computer, all high definition. A short video of this writer’s ranch took on the appearance of professional motion picture work and has been sent to both friends and family. After experimenting with the three control modes, this writer chose the “free stick” function, wherein Genny responds to simply sliding your fingers on the smart phone display. 

Another control mode incorporates motion sensing, meaning you just tip the smart phone in the direction of desired flight. Battery life was tested and came close to the promised 18 minutes with continued maneuvering. The low-battery safety feature, which commands Genny to automatically return to the starting point, worked flawlessly. Final testing involved Genny’s ability to target a moving object (person, car, trail biker, boat, critter) and automatically follow it. Having targeted myself, Genny faithfully tracked along behind me, maintaining a stabilized camera center, although I tried to fool her with obstacles. This little drone will even enter an automatic 360 orbit, centering on a point the pilot defines. Yep, you can take Genny for a walk or a ski trip down the slopes! 

But the test period also showed that Genny can have a serious side. With brush fires a danger in the area of this writer’s modest ranch, the smell of smoke is the only warning we often get when a deadly fire is on the way. Such was the case only days ago. The small valley my ranch sits in was filling with smoke, but I was unable to see where it was coming from. I grabbed Genny and within five minutes, had a view of my surrounding area from an altitude of nearly 400 feet. I was immediately able to see where the fire was, and given wind blowing that day, concluded my family was not in immediate danger, but a call was made to emergency services to report the fire’s location.  Downloading the images to my computer provided a detailed view that helped this writer make some important decisions. While not intended for emergency service use, Genny answered to the call. Many other applications are quite possible, such as real estate (Next-Gen can be flown indoors, using optical-flow sensing and 360 propeller cages), construction site surveys, agriculture, and other commercial uses yet to be defined. The Lily Next-Gen even includes a Fly-a-Way protection plan (see website for details), a free insurance program just in case Genny decides to go off and look for a new owner. Lily is committed to making Next-Gen an excellent choice for first time drone enthusiasts, with an impressive array of high-end features.

There is a lot more to drones and learning to fly them than column space permits at this time. Stay tuned for updates as drone coverage by In Flight USA continues. Towards the beginning of this tale of learning I asked the questions “Why would anyone want one of these things?” That question needs to be updated to “Why would anyone NOT want one of these things?” Genny is the closest thing to a friend that this writer has in the digital world; why else would I have given her a name?

 

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