Head in the Clouds

When I was a kid, I remember thinking I might like to be a helicopter pilot when I grew up. Movies like Blue Thunder got way too much love from me as a kid (really, it was an awful movie). I looked forward to every new episode of Airwolf, and even watched the reruns. But then I grew up, and I learned how godawful expensive it was to fly helicopters recreationally, and how unlikely it was I could ever get paid to fly them because of medical reasons.

Radio controlled helicopters seemed fascinating, but they had a reputation for being very difficult to learn to fly, and for being very expensively crashy.

But something really neat started happening in recent years. Sites like DIY Drones started hitting my radar. Open Source hardware/software projects like APM:Copter took off. Technology was now making multirotor drones like quadcopters and hexacopters affordable and easier to fly. Videos started popping up on YouTube showing off how these hobbyist aircraft would loiter in one spot, stubbornly returning to where they were told to remain if somebody walked up to it and forcefully shoved it out of its chosen airspace.

My fire had over the years become a small, warm ember. But these new developments in the hobby had fanned the flame anew.

Before long, toy manufacturers entered this space and presented dumbed-down versions of these smarter aircraft. They offered a promise of being more controllable, newbie friendly. I pulled the trigger and bough a Syma X1 quadcopter in January, 2014. While it was a little fun, it was a sort of wild and untamed thing. It was pretty easy to crash hard into walls, ceilings, etc. So it spent a lot of time on a shelf while I played with other flying toys, mostly helicopters.

There was a lot of news going on about what was happening in the high end of this space. Commercially produced quadcopters were being offered at a price point near $1,000. Not something I could justify spending as a hobbyist, and my interest wasn’t in perving on my neighbors. But other aircraft started popping up on the toy scale, and at a very sweet price point. Sometime in 2015, I noticed one could buy decently flying toy quadcopters and hexacopters for $18 to $35.

Toward the $30 end of the price range was the Estes Proto XTruly a “nano” sized aircraft, the full airframe could fit on a playing card with room to spare. My Syma X1 was by now badly beaten up and flying poorly. The plastic pots that the motors rest in were breaking apart. It was time to upgrade the fleet.

So I bought the Proto X!

Honestly, I would not suggest this as a first quadcopter for beginners. It’s a deceptively powerful zippy little thing for its size, so it’s quite easy to accidentally overdrive it. And as any Proto X owner will tell you, these things throw propellers as if they cost pennies. Sadly, a propeller costs you about a buck or more. This is probably a really good second quadcopter, but not a good first. Learn to fly on something more predictable, more rugged, and cheaper to maintain. This little guy is super fun, but it’s rather like trying to control a bumble bee. Mine is no longer flying too well as a hard crash has broken one of the plastic pots for its motor, but happily that’s available as a replacement part. You can bet I’m going to be making this one good as new.

I learned a bit about different flight modes through the Proto X. You see, many quadcopters boot up into a more limited flight program that optimizes for stability and more deliberate movements. This is great while you’re learning, but not as fun when you’re outdoors (especially if there’s any kind of wind going on, which the slow/stable default settings often have a hard time coping with). Tap the right incantation on the controller, hear two audible beeps, and now the quadcopter is way more responsive, pitching hard on your whim. I was now able to fly outdoors rather like a hooligan. And it was brilliant fun!

I managed to get the old X1 out for just one more flight, held it together long enough to get it going in its high performance program, and it too was far more fun on this setting. So much so that I might even go to the trouble to repair it and start flying it again.

Let me tell you really quickly that there is an enormous amount of quadcopter content out there on sites like YouTube. One of my favorite channels right now is run by a guy who goes by the username of Quadcopter 101. Talk about a guy who has his head in the clouds! This man buys one of just about every single popular and obscure quadcopter that’s out there, but each of them is on the affordable end of the spectrum. He takes them out to the desert and flies them around and tells you what’s good and bad and ugly about each one. And he might take an older one out every now and then and teach it a new trick with something like a camera upgrade. If you’re at all curious about quadcopters and hexacopters, I can’t recommend highly enough binge watching everything on his channel.

I mention this because it was through Quadcopter 101 that I learned about the Syma X11. Folks, this is the one. If you’re interested in learning to fly a quadcopter, start here. Syma has come a long way, both with the airframe design and the flight software, since introducing the X1 that I first flew. This is a really versatile quadcopter that is easy enough for my kids to learn to fly inside of the house. It’s got a rather generous propeller protector, and such stable flight characteristics, that I was able to intentionally bump it into the walls and into the ceiling without a crash. The propellers are geared, which allows them to use very small motors running at a slower speed. And that equates into better stability and flight time. Most of these cheap toy type quadcopters use direct drive propellers.

But take the X11 outside, remove the propeller protector (which now improves weight and aerodynamics). Then bump it into the high performance program and take to the open skies. I was able to maintain control of this micro quadcopter out to fairly irresponsible distances (well above the tree canopy). And in its high performance mode, it’s capable of some fairly hair raising dives and swoops and turns.

Compared to the popular DJI quadcopters (that are, to be fair, way more capable in a very different way), these X11’s are cheap thrills. You can fly it like it’s stolen, because you can get one for about $17 if you’re patient and $26 if you’re in a hurry and have a Prime membership. That’s a steal for this level of fun. And I did. I flew it like it was stolen. I didn’t suffer any terrible crashes outside.

But then tonight something weird happened. I was flying around at dusk, in the open space between the oak trees. First a bird, maybe a mockingbird, came out of a tree and took a swipe at my quadcopter. He chickened out at the last moment and didn’t come back. Then the bats came out. They didn’t attack it, but they were definitely curious about it. They flew around it, without getting too close. If I changed direction and flew towards them, they evaded, but then quickly fell back in line behind the quadcopter.

This was too much fun! I was flying with bats! We flew higher, higher, ever higher. We flew above the canopy. I was so enjoying this moment, and I was so carried away, that I’d forgotten to consider the state of the battery.

One thing you really need to know about these low end toy quadcopters is that they don’t give you any real warning that the battery has run down. The sort of give you a courtesy “screw you, I’m out” blinking of lights when they are done, and then the aircraft will suddenly power off. This is not universally true, but it is certainly common in quadcopters in this price range.

So that’s exactly what happened. There I was, high above the trees, using the LED lights on the quadcopter to see where it was and which way it was oriented. And then the lights blinked.

Oh, shit!

I had about one or two seconds of controlled descent. I tried moving the aircraft out into the open so it would free-fall between the trees. But this was not to be. The craft went into a free-fall, and a breeze gently pulled the limp airframe to an area just out of sight, just above the tree canopy. I heard no crashing branches. I saw nothing hit the ground. I’m fairly certain that the quadcopter came to rest at the top of the big oak tree on the corner of my property.

Then I got on Amazon, and ordered two more (one on Prime, one at a bargain price with a longer shipping lead time), and spent under $40 on the pair. Because they are that good, I want to have one at home, and one in the office. I also ordered spare props, spare batteries, and a fast charger.

If you’re at all curious about flying quadcopters, stop thinking about it. Check out the Quadcopter 101 channel on YouTube, buy yourself an X11 or something like it, and learn to fly it!


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