Quadcopters – Revolutionary film tool or headache?

With the battery hooked up and one last check that all the wires are tucked away and nothing is obstructing the props, I arm the quad copter and give the left stick a poke. The props spin up and everything looks good. The weather forecast showed winds of only 8kph for this morning so it seemed ideal to test out the quad with the gimbal and gopro attached. I’d flown a few times but not with the gopro on board, so the nerves were running a little high with a relatively expensive camera serving as collateral.

The quad leaps up about 2m and I try to keep it in place with the right stick. Straight away I notice that the quad is not in self levelling mode and I switching it to the more forgiving mode. It’s a bit happier but I can tell there is a bit more wind than I expected and I’m having to work a little harder than I wanted to keep it in control.

One of the problems with flying a symmetrical aircraft is that it can be difficult to keep track of which side is the front. As a result if the wind blows it in one direction you need to counter it by pitching into the wind, but obviously if you’re not sure which side is the front you’re not sure which way to pitch it. What I find helps here is to fly it with constant forward momentum, then if you turn it left or right it’s easier to keep track of which side is the front.

After flying around a bit I decide to climb a bit. One of the features of the new gimbal is that I can tilt the camera in different directions, so I’d like to try it out by flying it higher and tilting the camera straight down. Once I reach a height of around 20m I take my hand off the left stick to control the camera gimbal. And in a brief second or two the quad rotates. It’s surprising how quickly you can lose orientation of the quad, especially when it is further away from you. With the wind blowing it further away from me and me being uncertain which side is the front I decide I need to descend. You don’t want to descend too fast otherwise you can descend into your own prop wash which can cause the props to stall.  As it’s coming down it looks like it’s going to land in the field that I’m flying in, but as It gets about 5m off the ground I realise it’s just passed the fence line and heading into the road ($%*#). I give it throttle to try and bring it up but it’s too late it’s behind a tree, I loose visual and I hear it crash… bugger

I rush over to the crash site, jump a fence and rip my trousers. Do you know what’s worse than arriving and seeing your quad copter in pieces? It’s arriving, seeing your quad copter in pieces and then watching a car drive over the remains of your brand new camera gimbal. I quickly collect up the pieces out of the road and evaluate the damage. It doesn’t look good. In that moment I can’t help but feel heart ache as I see my time and money getting wasted.

You might have noticed recently that more and more people are getting excited about the prospect of getting aerial video footage from radio controlled multirotors. At first I liked the thought but thought it would be far too impractical for our project. As I began to do research I found one or two gopro carrying multirotors that where sold as foldable, portable airframes which got me wondering. I almost put my money down on something called a Pocket Drone but I’m glad I didn’t. As I got more immersed in the hobby, I began to realise that if I built a custom quad copter I could get something tailored to my requirements and probably actually save some money in the process. It also has the benefit that if I put it together then I should be able to fix it if it gets broken.

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So here’s where I stand. My quadcopter has 1 broken arm, a broken leg, the frame is broken in a couple of key places, one of the four speed controllers is broken and the camera gimbal is a write off. Luckily the gopro escaped with just a crack, but otherwise still working. So it seems the real question is whether we can afford ongoing repairs. This quad is not a toy, it’s a tool and its cost needs to be evaluated against the value it brings to our film. In its favour, we’re hoping that it will be useful in some infomercials that we plan on shooting whiles working on our film, to supplement our finances. I had also planned one or two episodes of NarrowTV based around this film tool. I suppose then, that one of those NarrowTV episodes will need to be about rebuilding the quadcopter. Make sure you subscribe to NarrowTV if it catches your interest!