Beginner Tips for Piloting a Quadcopter

Posted October 14, 2014 By Ed Phelan

Radio controlled helicopters, quadcopters and even octocopters have been taking off (pun intended) in a big way in recent years. With the emergence of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the consumer market, this technology has been brought firmly into the limelight and as the cost of copters for the amateur pilot has been driven down, their popularity has soared.

However, don’t mistake the popularity of these devices for ease of operation because you’ll find there’s a very steep learning curve if you’re not used to the mechanics of flying. Much like an expert pianist can almost effortlessly perform a breathtaking rendition of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, so too can the experienced quadcopter pilot pull off dramatic stunts and perfectly level flying that us mere mortals can only dream of. You may watch in wonder at how easy they make it seem but get behind the controls yourself and your own experiences are likely to differ wildly.

For many learner pilots it can be all too disheartening to discover just how complex it is to successfully command a multi rotor craft and if you’ve not got the patience to commit yourself to the long haul then you might need to reassess whether this is a hobby for you. Rather neatly this brings me on to my first tip…

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

It might sound obvious but it really is imperative that as an amateur pilot you recognise that you won’t be pulling off daredevil loops and gravity defying manoeuvres the moment you take off. In the same way that learner drivers aren’t expected to navigate the M25 in rush hour in their first driving lesson, so too must you recognise that there’s going to be a lot of repetitive and mundane starting and stopping as you go back and forth over the basics trying to achieve a steady take-off and landing. To return to the classical music analogy, let’s not forget that Mozart didn’t compose his Requiem Mass overnight and the young Wolfgang Amadeus would have been frequently mishitting notes and going off key in his efforts to get it just right, although perhaps that’s not the best example given he never actually finished it!

Therefore the very first step towards mastering quadcopter flight is recognising the time and effort it will take. You WILL crash. A lot. Just remember that we learn from our mistakes and all the best pilots started from exactly the same position as you.

Take Time To Understand The Trim

To the novice pilot the concept of trim is a tricky one to comprehend. You’re piloting a craft that can move in any and every direction. It’s a machine capable of rotating on any axis and that kind of manoeuvrability cannot be tamed with a simple throttle and wheel as you’d find on the controllers of most RC cars.

Make no mistake, getting the trim right is tricky. Assuming your craft is balanced correctly (which by itself is a big assumption to be making) it is going to require constant adjustment and tweaking as you get a feel for what is required to keep your craft on the level. It won’t make sense at first, and you’ll find it frustrating but I would liken it to traditional beat matching as a DJ. You want to get two separately playing records to sync with one another and all you’ve got to go by is your hearing. Is record A playing in time with record B or is it too fast or too slow? You know they’re not in time, but how do you know whether to speed up or slow down? Ultimately you just have to play it by ear (moving away from aerial puns now) and experiment until one day it just clicks and you’re doing it without having to think about it.

Be assured, if you spend enough time working on adjusting the trim, you will get the knack of it eventually, to the point where it’s no longer a chore and your adjustments become second nature.

Consider Your Flying Environment

Knowing where to fly your quadcopter is another important consideration to take into account that will affect your chances of success. Even the smallest of craft requires considerable space, especially when you’re starting out and getting to grips with the controls, so be sure to choose a suitable arena. You may be tempted to unbox your new toy and get flying across your bedroom but frankly this just isn’t going to work, unless perhaps you live in a palace.

Knowing that you need a good deal of space you may be tempted to take your chopper down to the local park but then you have to be wary of the weather conditions. On a blustery day you’ve got no hope of keeping the craft under control and should it start to rain you could be washing your investment straight down the toilet. Of course there are plenty of occasions when conditions are ideally suited to an outdoor flight so don’t be too disheartened, you just need to be aware that you can’t take it for granted that you’ll get to go flying when you want to.

For the very best flying experience however, nothing beats a big hangar or warehouse and if you’re lucky enough to have access to such a space, my advice is to take full advantage!

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DJI S900 + Brushless Camcorder Gimbal

Posted September 11, 2014 By Jonathan Malory

I’ve been wanting to use my Sony CX730 for a while now because it has Sony’s Balanced Optical Steady Shot (BOSS) system, where the lens and sensor moves independently from the rest of the camcorder, a bit like a stabilised camera gimbal.

However, there aren’t too many choices for brushless gimbals that work with camcorders, or are especially designed for camcorders. In fact I could only find one. There are shed loads of Gopro gimbals, a few Sony NEX gimbals and a load of Canon 5D gimbals. A camcorder will pretty much only fit on the last one, but they’re usually not balanced quite right as they have the Canon’s odd shaped body and lens sticking out in front in mind, where a camcorder has a pretty narrow profile head-on and is pretty equally weighted along its length.

bushless-camcorder-gimbalSo, long story short, rather than shell out 599 Euros for the one camcorder gimbal for sale online, I thought I would try and make my own. Actually, to be honest, I got my mate Andy to do most of the hard work, which wasn’t actually that hard in the end as we had most of the parts already. Also, because the Sony balances itself somewhat I was hoping I wouldn’t need the third axis to take out the side-to-side movement caused by the hexacopter. Without the third axis the gimbal is lighter, more sturdy and easier to setup. I bought a Basecam (Alexmos) 32 bit controller from Unmannedtech, which is actually quite nicely finished in a hard case, both the main board and the two external sensors.

The 32 bit controller comes with two sensors, one for your gimbal and another to go on your drone or handheld camera frame, so the two can be compared by the software. However, in this video I only used the one sensor on the gimbal to keep it simple. I may try the dual sensor setup next to see if there’s any difference.

There are a couple of tiny unwanted movements in this video, partly due to not centering the camera properly and possibly because of the Sony BOSS system overcompensating. I think I can tweak both for the next video.

heslington-churchAll in all I’m very pleased with the results, camcorders are made specifically for video and this particular one does a great job. The footage is straight from the camera on full iAuto. I should really have chosen settings suitable to the light and environment, all of which can be done with this camera, but I had no idea what the footage would come out like and just wanted to see if it even worked,  and if there’d be any vibrations and jello getting through, which it seems there is not.

Anyway, the video after my wafflings is of Heslington Church near York University, with a bit of a pan of the surroundings. If you have any questions or comments please do make them, either below or in the forums.

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