I had to learn how to fly a drone

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My wife, Alexa, found a new drone for my birthday, the only problem: I had to learn how to fly it.

This may not be easy for many people. First, there is the matter of figuring out the capabilities of the drone. Consumer drones come in different sizes and prices. You can build your own drone, attach a GoPro camera and customize a range of options. Or you can get one that works right out of the box.

Flying the drone is daunting. There are regulations to know. In the United States, because the industry is relatively new, federal rules are sometimes at odds with regulations set by states and local authorities.

In Britain, where I live, rules for flying hobbyist drones are mercifully more straightforward, and the Civil Aviation Authority has taken steps to translate often dense guidance into easier-to-understand language. In July, it released “The Dronecode” and has published an animated video summarizing the rules.

Drone flying: a short guide Video by UKCAA

There is also the safety of others to consider. British aviation authorities recorded 39 “airprox” incidents, or aerial near-misses, in 2015, and those are just ones that involve a drone and another aircraft. I did not want to make headlines.

But there are ways to ease into it. Commercial drone operators and those taking professional videos can take short courses to ensure they know what they are doing. For novices like myself, YouTube videos abound, offering tips and explainers.

“Not everybody who can control things on the ground has 3-D spatial awareness,” said Jonathan Carter, a director of the Aerial Academy, which conducts courses to help professional drone users get licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority. Mr. Carter, who first strapped a compact camera to a single-rotor drone in 2010 out of curiosity, said the courses could be completed in as little as a week and cost about $1,600.

For me, the first step was evaluating my drone, a DJI Phantom 3. DJI, which is based in Shenzhen in southern China, makes more small-scale drones than any other manufacturer, and the Phantom series has been the world’s best-selling consumer drone. The company was founded in 2006 and has been valued at around $8 billion.

My Phantom 3 Standard cost about $635. Weighing less than three pounds, it is a white plastic quadcopter with an attached camera that shoots video at 2.7K and captures 12 megapixel photos. I could fit the entire system — the drone, detachable propellers and the remote control — in my backpack.

The instructions for flying the drone were straightforward. Simply download DJI’s mobile phone app, attach the propellers to the machine, turn the drone and remote controller on and the app guides you through the setup process.

For beginners, DJI’s app offers a basic mode that restricts the drone to an altitude and distance of 100 feet. All you need to do to initiate takeoff is tap an on-screen button on your smartphone and then swipe to confirm. After that, you are airborne.

Everything is controlled with the mobile app in tandem with the remote controller, and you can have as much, or as little, assistance as you want. Landing can be completed manually or automatically. While in the air, you can control the drone yourself or use one of a handful of “intelligent modes” that let you instruct it to circle a single point, follow you without changing distance or altitude or trace a predetermined set of directions. If your battery is about to run out, it immediately comes back to its takeoff point.

So far, so good. The next task was assessing the rules of flying in my area. Where I live, there are a few geographic restrictions — basically stay away from the airports, Parliament and royal parks like Kensington Gardens.

Over the coming years, though, those regulations may be in flux, according to Peter Lee, a consultant at the law firm Taylor Vinters.

“I think the catalyst would be some kind of catastrophic event that would really force the public narrative down the track of stricter regulations,” said Mr. Lee, who owns two hobbyist drones.

After learning what the local regulations were, my wife and I chose Battersea Park in the southwestern part of the city for a first flight. There, we found a relatively quiet area. Though the market for civilian drones is apparently growing fast — the chief executive of 3D Robotics, a DJI competitor, said in October 2014 that it was worth $1 billion and forecasts almost uniformly predict rapid expansion — I was the only person at the park with one.

Following the instructions, I turned everything on, and with minimal effort the drone rose above me. People nearby slowed to watch, and my wife snapped a couple of pictures on her iPhone. “Boys with their toys,” she said later.

It was all remarkably easy, albeit brief (more on that later). The drone was comfortable to maneuver, the app was easy to use, and the video that the drone was recording was sharp. Everything was saved on a microSD card, meaning it can be popped into many laptops or some TVs and viewed, edited and shared without much trouble. I have kept my videos on a laptop but am cutting together a couple of videos to put on YouTube eventually.

Crucially, it was fun. Seeing your surroundings from a different angle is interesting and adds a cool element to the experience. I have lived here for several years, on and off, but I now want to re-explore places I have already been to just to use the Phantom and see them from above.

The drone is not without its limitations. The battery life is frustratingly short. In all, I got about 20 minutes of HD video capture on a full charge, a number that is in line with DJI’s advertised battery capacity. At various points, the camera’s real-time display also would disconnect, and on another clear day in the park, the app told me I did not have a strong enough GPS connection to use some of the intelligent modes.

DJI said this was most likely because of the Phantom 3 Standard’s reliance on Wi-Fi, rather than Lightbridge, the company’s wireless communication technology, which has a longer range. The technology is used in DJI’s newer and more advanced models.

Windy days also made flying a little tougher, though by no means very difficult. Being in an urban setting, I tried to fly the quadcopter high enough to make sure people in the area did not feel as though I was spying on them, restricting the things I could try out.

Partly because of the drone’s own stability and an overabundance of caution on my part, I never crashed it, but it did flip over once because I landed too quickly while trying to keep it from being grabbed by a curious dog.

Over all, I cannot complain – spring is here, and the city, thankfully, has a lot of green space for drone flying. Also, I have a couple of vacations planned, and I am already thinking about how best to use my birthday present.


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