5 Things I’ve Learned while Learning to Fly…

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A quick disclaimer, today’s post isn’t strictly Penghu related. But that’s ok. I never intended for this blog to be purely a travel guide. Rather, a blog from a small island, about small island life and yes, often about the small island itself. But sometimes, it’s going to be just about me and what I’m up to. After all, it is called The Islander and not The Island. Don’t worry though, there will be lots of photos of beautiful Penghu to follow.

Today’s I’m talking about flying. About unfurling your wings and taking to the skies, soaring high above the world aided only by the gentle breeze and a powerful Lithium-ion polymer battery. Apologies, if you were hoping for a spiritual self-help guide you’re going to be disappointed. We’re talking about drones today. Quadcopters, UAVs, whatever you want to call them. The ultimate big-boy-toys, for adults that never outgrew kites and remote control cars and now have the disposable income to live out those childhood dreams, with the help of phenomenal 21st Century technology. Before slapping my Taiwanese dollars down on the real deal, I’d owned two quadcopters in the past. The first I lost the first time I flew it, watching in helpless horror as it was carried away on a light breeze. Hours of searching in scorching heat with friends and dogs turned up nothing. It was a cheap, impulsive, night-market purchase and I wrote it off, swearing I’d never waste money on something so easy to lose again. Then a few weeks later I bought a tiny, micro-drone that was really only good for flying indoors and annoying my wife and dogs. Another toy for which the novelty value quickly wore off.

Then, a few months ago, after some research and discussions with other drone enthusiasts, I bought a DJI Spark, a tiny but feature-packed machine that fits in a coat pocket. My first real drone. The purchase coincided with a drop-off in blog posting frequency, for which I apologise. For the next few weeks, flying took over my life and I set about learning how to capture aerial footage. For the Spark comes equipped with a camera capable of recording superb video in full HD. I should say, the camera was important. Were I not able to use the drone as a photography tool, it would be difficult to justify to myself or my wife why I’d just dropped serious cash on yet another toy. But, the powerful little camera on the nose of my Spark deflected such criticism. I wanted to take photos and videos with this guy, to make art, to show off Penghu and Taiwan from a new angle, to add a new dimension to this blog. Almost convinced by my own justifications, I set to work learning the ins and outs of becoming a drone pilot, which has, so far been quite the journey, punctuated with moments of exhilaration, terror, jaw-dropping amazement and stomach-sinking despair. So, what have I learned? Let’s have a look.

Flying is Amazing and Terrifying in Equal Measures

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My little drone was a mile away and over open water when it snapped this. 

 

Flying a drone is scary. At times, it’s bloody terrifying. Imagine buying a brand new smartphone, carefully unboxing it, sliding it out of its packaging, holding it in your hand and marvelling at its sheen, its beauty, its build and features, the power of advanced hardware humming smoothly beneath the brushed aluminium and glass. Now imagine throwing that smartphone off the top of a high building. Just casting it off and watching it fall, trusting it will be ok, that it will find its way back to you unscathed, because that’s what it has been designed to do. That’s drone flying.

Let’s face it, mechanical flight, whether its a palm-sized drone or a Boeing 747, is a bloody wonder. It’s where science meets magic, an intense exercise in trust. We spend the vast majority of our lives with our feet planted on the ground, looking at the world from our lowly stature and gazing enviously at birds above. I still remember the first time I sat in a plane, the sensation of sheer wonder that accompanies flying. And the fear. The feeling of entering a forbidden world, one we are very obviously not designed for, an unnatural, defiant act where we show two fingers to God, to Darwin, to Newton, to millions of years of evolution. All the while knowing that, should the thin barrier of fallible technology between us and the environment outside fail, we are utterly fucked. Doomed. Burned to ash in a fireball of jet fuel. In many ways, flight it is a metaphor for the human condition, an example of us being too damn smart for our own good. The risks that we all take, in the name of transcending and escaping the limitations our frail human bodies impose.

Well, with a drone, you’re not placing yourself in physical danger when you fly. You’re not actually flying, after all. But, despite the vicarious nature of the experience, it feels just as real. You’re not in a simulator. The view you are admiring on the screen of your smartphone or controller is not fictional, or computer generated. Rather, you’ve extended your vision. Something which was in your hand a few moments ago is now hundreds of metres above, beaming it’s view back to you in real time. From tiny movements of your thumbs, you can turn, pivot, swoop forward, climb and fall. And capture it all to watch back later. After landing, when you’re holding the drone again, it’s hard to believe it was up there, buffeted by air currents, investigated by birds. That it travelled so far. My favourite part of every flight is landing the drone. The heady cocktail of relief and incredulity of a successful flight. Of popping the thing back in its case and carrying on with the day, travelling along streets that a few minutes ago you were soaring above. It’s an awesome feeling and part of the reason people get addicted to this hobby.

One of the reasons that relief is so palpable is that while I’m flying, I’m in a permanent state of fear. Fear of losing the airborne supercomputer-camera I spent so much money on. Fear of losing control and causing an accident, of hurting someone. Even with all the advanced features of a modern drone, the GPS lock, the sensors and obstacle avoidance systems, battery failsafes and Return to Home modes, things can wrong. Things do go wrong. There is plenty of room for human error, mechanical error, and sheer bad luck to ruin your day at any given moment. I’ve lost count of the number of times my heart has been in my mouth while flying. I’ve had flocks of sea birds rise from the ocean towards my drone, oblivious to the impending danger. Storm clouds that materialised from nowhere, bringing with them the threat of rain and heavy wind. Sudden magnetic interference that caused the compass to go haywire and the drone to lose its orientation. Loss of signal between the controller and drone, agonising seconds of staring helplessly at a blank screen and praying for the feed to return, for the drone still to be under my control and not smashed to pieces somewhere below or sinking under the waves. I’ve even had an aggressive sparrowhawk attempt to attack my drone, divebombing it and forcing me to bring it down. On some flights, when I’ve been over open water, or in a tight space, my hands were physically shaking with nerves. But, nine out of ten times, everything will be just fine. Just like careening down a hill on a skateboard and realising you’re going too fast, sometimes the only thing you can do is ride it out. Bend your knees, take a deep breath and ride it out. Pro-tip, don’t bend your knees while flying a drone. You’ll look stupid.

But, one time out of ten, catastrophe strikes. Your worse fears come to pass. For me, that happened after a long day of driving and flying around Penghu, collecting photos  for a blog entry. It was my final flight of the day, sunset on the harbourside of a picturesque fishing village. I was taking photos of some smiling fishermen waving from their boats when the low battery warning started bleeping. Unconcerned (it is triggered at 30%), I finished taking the photos and at 24%, brought it in for landing. It was just a few feet above me when suddenly, I heard an announcement from the controller. “Battery is critically low. Returning to Home now.” That was odd. It had 24% and was right by me. Still, if it wanted to finish the job on its own, fine by me. It was already at the Home Point where it had taken off. So, you can imagine my confusion when, instead of plopping itself down in front of me, it started rapidly ascending. No, no no. What the fuck are you doing? I hit cancel, I pulled down on the thumbsticks. But the drone was now on autopilot, flying with a mind of its own. To my horror, it turned and zipped off away from me, over the rooftops. At full fucking speed. Desperate now, half running, half squinting at my screen, I tried to follow it, to bring it back under my control. Then, I heard a loud bang. The video feed showed a white wall at a cockeyed angle. It had crashed at an unknown location. At full speed. Panic bordering despair set in. This wasn’t happening.

After over an hour of panicked searching and knocking on the doors of bemused, not entirely sympathetic villagers, I recovered my drone from the fifth floor rooftop of a shuttered house. The propellers were broken and the body was scuffed, but it was in one piece. My initial relief melted away when a later test revealed the damage was not purely cosmetic. The sensitive camera gimbal was ruined. The arms had structural damage. It could still fly, but couldn’t record. It was a send-off, repair job. After nearly two months of wrangling with DJI’s customer service department, they finally accepted the crash had been caused by a mechanical error and agreed to repair it free of charge. Phew.

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Could have been worse. A lot worse.

A second accident occurred when, sat on the front of a small fishing boat travelling between islands, I decided to ‘seize the moment’ and take off from the small deck, thinking I’d then be able to follow the boat from the air and capture some sick footage. My Mavic had other ideas. No sooner had it lifted from the deck, evidently confused by the moving ground beneath it, the drone promptly decided to fly straight into me. Rather than get out of the way and risk losing it to the sea, I shot out my hand and attempted to pluck it from the air, catching my little finger in the propellor in the process. Blood and fragments of fingernail sprayed out and the Mavic tumbled to the ground. Both drone and finger survived the accident with minor damage and I turned to see the captain of the boat looking rather quizzically at me from the wheel as I gestured, “It’s ok!” with my bloodied hand. Once on dry land, drone safely stowed away, I walked into the island’s tiny doctor’s clinic where I was bandaged up and given a tetanus shot.

Flying is Addictive

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What’s better than one drone? The beginning of my fleet.
When I got my drone, I suffered the inevitable eye-rolls from my ever patient and wonderful wife. Another toy for me to obsess over and then get bored a few weeks later. And to be fair, those predictions were very well-founded. I do have a grazing mind, I’m easily hooked on a new sensation or activity, but its quite rare you’ll find me still doing it a month, let alone a year or a decade later. I always yearn for a new, greener patch of grass to nibble on. And I had owned drones before. I did try and explain that this time was different, this drone had advanced features, a professional camera, I wouldn’t lose it or get bored of it. And so far, that’s true. Sort of. I didn’t lose it. I crashed it. Or it crashed itself. Depending on whether you believe DJI’s data analysts or yours truly. But post-drone, life was unbearable. I was getting flight-withdrawal. I needed to fly again, especially as winter was rapidly bearing down and the fearsome winter winds would soon ground me for months. Who knew how long the repair process would take, or if they could fix it for a reasonable price, or at all. So, I bought another drone. Another one. I saw a great deal for a second hand Mavic Pro and I snapped it up in a moment of madness that left me eating plain rice for the rest of the month. It was worth it though, as I was able to spend the last few weeks of summer flying and taking amazing photos and videos. And if I thought the Spark was amazing… well, the Mavic took the biscuit. This isn’t a tech blog and if you want to read about the Mavic Pro I suggest you google some reviews. It’s incredible. Unfortunately, I’d barely flown it a handful of  times before winter slammed itself unceremoniously into Penghu and gale force winds stopped play. Although the Mavic is a powerhouse capable of handling substantial gusts, I’ve imposed a strict maximum wind limit on myself: 20mph. Anything over that and my drones stay safely folded and boxed. But now,  In June, my Mavic comes out at least once a week and accompanies me on all my adventures, while the Spark remains on standby as a trusty backup.

Be Brave, not Stupid

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As I already mentioned, flying a drone is an exercise in that kind of ‘leap of faith’ courage, having your heart in your mouth sometimes goes with the territory. Every time I send the little guy up into the skies, I accept I might never see it again, while taking every possible measure to ensure that I do. However, things can go wrong up there and unless you’re flying over gently undulating meadows of cotton wool and trampolines, accidents are almost always going to involved a damaged (if you’re lucky) or destroyed drone. The problem with flying over  meadows of cotton wool and trampolines is that: a) They don’t exist and b) If they did you’d get pretty bored of the footage after a while.

My point is, you have to be brave in order to get the cool stuff. Cliffs, islands, beaches, waterfalls, cities and mountains, they all come with their share of risks. But capturing exciting, spectacular scenes is also why most people want a drone in the first place. No guts, no glory. All my best videos and photos so far have come from flights where I was in two minds. Can I really make it out across that stretch of open ocean to the alluring spit of golden sand on the horizon? What happens if I lose signal half way? Should I take off from this bridge in order to swoop down over the waves crashing on the rocks below? Will I be able to orbit this magnificent Taoist temple with its enormous, crowning statue without upsetting the local residents and gods of the village? The answer to all those questions was ‘Yes’ and my I got handsome returns on my investment of courage each time. One of my best shots was looking down on a wind turbine bordered by coral speckled ocean on three sides. Maneuvering the aircraft up while those enormous, sweeping arms shredded the air above was terrifying. Although my drone and my brain knew I was outside the radius of danger, my hands were shaking a little as I tapped away at the shutter button.  I’ve recently started taking my drone out in my kayak with me, double bagged in waterproof drysacks, fully embracing the philosophy that there’s no point in having it if I don’t take it with me. Dragging my kayak onto a desert island before taking to the skies to gain a perspective on where I had landed was very cool, as were the photos I later reviewed that evening from my hammock under the stars.

Having said all that, some risks should not be taken. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon and sweeping towards you means taking off would be foolish, not brave. Ditto to flying in restricted areas or pushing the drone’s battery too far. A lot of aggressive seagulls flapping about? They probably won’t tolerate sharing the thermals with a noisy, alien invader. High winds or low clouds? Nope. Mavic stays in her bag.

You can plan for everything but birds and bowel movements…

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“What the hell are you doing up here?” Winged menace comes into frame.

Although I’m not the most organised person in the world, with a drone I quickly learned it pays to be prepared. Rushing a flight is always a bad idea which, at one end of the scale might mean you forget to load a memory card or charge your battery and on the other you overlook something which could lead to an accident resulting in you, your drone or in a worst case scenario, somebody else coming to harm.

Two of my most heart-stopping moments came on flights I had planned meticulously. The day before I had checked forecasts, charged my batteries, cleared my memory cards, updated my firmware, tested the drone and reconnoitered the areas I planned to fly in.  I got up before the rising sun, drank my morning coffee and arrived in perfect time to capture my planned subjects. I completed my pre-flight checks and took off into the azure, windless skies above. In the first scenario, I had just ascended to my planned altitude over the cliffs and begun filming when there was a troubling rumble from down below. Less of a “Sorry to disturb but you might want to think about locating some facilities in the next hour or so”, and more of a “CODE RED, INTESTINAL EVACUATION IMMINENT, SEEK SHELTER NOW!” situation. The jalapenos in last night’s Mexican Hot pizza were on the march and would be at the gates of Rome in seconds, not minutes. Never has a drone descended with more infuriatingly unhurried nonchalance than my Spark did on that flight as my clammy hands jammed the throttle down. Both my trousers and my drone survived the encounter, although the same can not be said of the public restrooms on highway 201.

The second near-miss, which I was equally unable to predict or plan for, came about when attempting a tricky Point of Interest flight around Penghu’s improbably humongous Courthouse. Again, I was flying with minimal wind and optimal visibility, squinting at my phone and smiling at the sight of the building’s imposing facade, painted rose gold by the early morning sunlight.  A blur of feathers momentarily filled the screen. “What the…” I craned my neck, combing the sky for my drone, a black dot in the blue. I located it and realised with a missed heartbeat that it wasn’t alone. Another dark shape was up there with it, something twice its size. From its substantial wingspan and the way it was swooping around, I knew it was a hawk. The bird of prey was hovering nearby and every few seconds would dive towards the drone, before something in its primitive bird-like brain told it to abort its attack at the last minute. Good choice, my feathered friend, I muttered after a string of unrepeatable obscenities had escaped my lips.

I glanced down at the screen again, just in time to see its face on my screen, an imperious hooked beak and golden eyes looking down the camera straight at me. Or maybe I imagined it. Either way, a dogfight was taking place in the sky above me that would surely end very badly for both aerial combatants, if they came into contact. The powerful rotors would make mincemeat of the hawk, which would bring the drone down with it. I could already picture the twisted wreck of plastic, electronics, and bloody feathers that would come spiralling to earth. Despite the peril my drone was in, for a brief moment I wondered if I could get a shot of bird. What a photo it would make. What a video… I spammed the shutter button a few times as the hawk made another pass, even closer this time. Okay, that’s enough hotshot. I began to bring my aircraft back, praying the movement wouldn’t incite the hawk any further and bring about a kamikaze attack. It followed for a little while, then, satisfied it had seen off the noisy invader, wheeled away in search of easier prey. I landed the drone and packed it away. Later I discovered that, although I hadn’t got a photo of the close encounter, I had caught it on video.

Flying Opens up a Whole New World of Photography

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Think you know the place you live? Think again. Flying a drone gives you a fascinating new perspective on the world. You notice amazing things from the air, from the symmetry of buildings and man-made constructions to awesome geological formations and natural patterns you would surely miss from the ground. From a photographer’s or videograper’s point of view, it’s paradise. There’s always another angle. You can move in three dimensions, pan around a subject, climb over it, track it, sometimes even pass through it.  I’ve followed fishing boats into harbour as the sun sets in front of them, flown backwards to reveal myself standing on the edge of cliff and further back still to reveal the entire island I’m on. I’ve shot traffic junctions at rush hour and beaches filled with triathletes racing into the waves, the sun rising over a causeway, tourists gathered on Rainbow Bridge, my wife skating across the battlements of an abandoned fort at sunset. And all of this within a few months of getting a drone. As summer swings back into the foreground here, I can’t wait to get back up into the sky.

I’ll finish off with a few of my favourite photos so far. One of the best things about drone photography is getting home and reviewing the photos. There’s always surprises, things you hadn’t realised were in the shot, unexpected details and beauty I couldn’t appreciate from squinting at my tiny phone screen. I’d love to know what you think of them, and hear any ideas from fellow photographers and drone enthusiasts about things I can try with my Mavic and Spark.

Peace, love and happy islanding.

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Pengpeng Island 
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The start of Penghu’s annual Ironman
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Rainbow Bridge from an angle rarely seen.
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A jagged stretch of broken coastline
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Yuanbei Island in the afternoon sun
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Rush hour in Penghu
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Sunset over Shili

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