06 Jun 73%
It all started one sunny Saturday morning when I decided it would be a perfect day to tweak an old-school drone I’d built. It was a rather large and scary quadcopter with exposed bundles of coloured wires, blinking LEDs, laser-cut skeletal chassis with 3D-printed arms and carbon fiber propellers. Vintage stuff. On the ground, it looked like a low-budget movie version of something a mad jihadi terrorist would create to blow up the White House, and in the air, it possessed all the grace and elegance of a flying lawnmower. It handled like a freshman’s body on a Friday night: wobbly, unpredictable, and with a tendency to bump into things. It ran on an ancient processor with a bad personality, running quirky autopilot software, which didn’t help. Quite scary, in other words, but that’s what made this retro-engineering hobby interesting. It was very satisfying to make this contraption fly. It had a character, something my other sleek and expensive off-the-shelf toys were totally lacking. I have even given it a name, something I’ve never done to a drone before: The Crashinator II. Guess what happened to its predecessor.
Dialing in the autopilot software parameters correctly proved difficult. It was either reacting too slowly, leading to wobbling and instability, or too quickly, resulting in frequent angry buzzing, constant vibration, and dangerous self-amplifying oscillations. Flying it required a lot of tweaking at a large and wide-open place without the risk of cutting an innocent bystander — or me — in half with carbon fiber props. So, obviously, public parks were out.
All the new regulations enacted after that dreadful terrorist attack last year has made flying drones quite difficult – and not entirely legal. It earns me nervous glances from passers by, usually followed by an unhealthy attention from the police. I mean, with the ubiquitous tiny toy drones and the Amazon delivery monstrosities, you’d think a mid-size hobby drone would not attract any attention. But it often does. I guess it’s the same curiosity that makes me look right at the camera flash each time I see someone ready to take a picture. Well, curiosity has killed at least one cat, if my sources are to be believed, and very possibly will kill me. Quite soon too. But more on that later.
Anyway, attracting attention was the last thing I wanted, especially with the increased police presence in public parks after the particularly nasty seasonal COVID spike. Lots of policemen with nobody to police – smells like trouble for me and my experimental drone.
I needed some secluded place with car access and no chances of people (or the police) wandering in. And I knew just the place. An abandoned farm, seeming completely deserted, sat not far from my cozy but bland subdivision. It had been abandoned for years, a fate many of local farms couldn’t escape after most meat and protein production went synthetic and vat-grown. This farm apparently didn’t have what it takes to convert to an exclusive and elite organic boutique food supplier and went bust along with most of the others, when it was outcompeted by multinational synthetic food corporations. Neither its location right next to an old cemetery nor its street number 4444 was helping to attract a new owner. It had no gates, fences or other means of preventing trespassers, and looked like nobody would mind me testing my drone in the field.
I dumped the drone, gear and laptop in my car and drove there. With the car’s auto-drive mode on, I tested the drone’s batteries and connections. Which was not very easy as I have an older BYD Qin whichstill requires the driver to touch the steering wheel. However, as the sensor couldn’t tell what I touched it with, I mostly used my knee for that purpose. It was awkward, but it kept my hands free.
When I got off the main road, I switched to manual drive, drove slowly past the place where the gate once stood, and parked behind the decrepit farmhouse. A perfect spot to hide my car was from the prying eyes on the road.
The farmhouse seemed to be barely standing. In this still weather it was easy to imagine that even a light wind gust would cause it to implode and crumble, dust shooting up from the holes where its windows once were. If not for the sunny and beautiful weather, this house against the background of an old cemetery would send chills down my spine. I remember thinking that it was a perfect place to organize a dark LARP game with my geek friends: something with vampires, zombies, dark magic and all that jazz. Unlike Europe that is full of haunted castle ruins and abandoned factories, here in Canada it’s difficult to find places with character and history that weren’t plastered with “No Trespassing!” signs or required tickets to enter. This one certainly had character. Close to the house stood a formerly red (now aged grey) barn full of holes and lacking a single right angle. Next to it there was an empty field – the actual reason for me being here today. Delimited by a wall of a dense forest on the far side, it gave me plenty of room to have my criminally geeky fun.
I walked closer to the forest to keep the sun behind me, positioned my drone far enough from obstructions, including me, and powered it up. Plentiful room allowed for safely flying with AR glasses. I connected a mushroom-shaped antenna to my drone’s transmitter, and snapped on a small camera to review the flight video later. The camera conspiratorially blinked at me with its tiny red LED. With eager anticipation I put on my glasses. Video feed, telemetry – it was all good. Yay! Flat and two-dimensional, a bit noisy image with visible pixels – so charmingly vintage, just how I like it! I took a deep breath, Pushed the stick all the way up and down to arm the motors, and slowly added throttle. Carbon props blurred into menacing black shimmering discs, a puff of dust went up, and I continued to push the stick until the drone took off.
Recent adjustments were not working very well – even though it was better than before, the craft still was not anywhere near as stable as my off-the-shelf DJI drones. The glasses were showing a jittering image, which was not very usable. I sighed and took them off – more tweaking coming up…
I quickly found where the drone was impatiently hovering, trying to stay in one spot, and flicked the switch on my transmitter to test the GPS-based “return to home” mode. The drone did try to fly in the direction of its take-off spot, but clearly miscalculated and tried to correct itself. It started flying in an ever-tightening spiral, speeding up like a yellow rubber duck in a draining bathtub’s whirlpool. Its velocity was increasing with each circle and it was becoming clear that this was not going to end well. So, with another deep sigh, I flicked the switch off to put the quadcopter back into the manual flying mode.
And then something went really wrong.