Deadly Winds, Diving-Bombing Birds, and the Challenges of Flying a Drone Abroad

My first Youtube video in 4K!
Flying a high quality drone is wicked fun. It’s fast, responsive, and really quite easy to do. I got into drones for the photography, but now I can also see the allure of drone racing and hobbyist RC pilots -it’s just so fun to fly. I started flying drones two years ago with a Phantom 3, but only used the drone a couple of times (mostly because of classes). With the purchase of a Mavic Pro Platinum, a smaller, quieter, smarter, and faster system, this spring, I’ve become increasingly engaged in the activity.
At first, I was skeptical that I would really use the DJI Flight Goggles -virtual-reality-esque goggles enabling first person views through the main camera bought by my dad – but they proved to make an amazing, if bulky, tourist accessory and filming aid. I’m two weeks back from a trip to Europe (it took me this long to get around to video editing, which I don’t like nearly as much as filming), and I’d like to reflect a bit on the two aspects I considered about the drone: use as a tourist, and use for filming.

The Tourist Drone

An accidental self-portrait taken while prepping for takeoff with the Mavic

To start off, I must confess the drone was a major inconvenience in size for a carry-on traveling backpacker. Although the Mavic itself is no bigger than a DSLR, you also have to take spare batteries, charger, remote, and in my case, a bulky FPV goggle set. I had a large photography backpack filled completely with that gear, plus my DLSR (a Sony A7 R2). The drone’s remote also rapidly drains the attached smartphone’s batteries, necessitating a large capacity travel charger/battery thing (in the future I might set the drone to R/C mode and see if I can fly with just the FPV goggles).
Amongst other issues, it can also be very difficult to know the rules on flying drones in other countries. An internet search alone isn’t always enough to reveal what the rules are, and to be honest, sifting through every city/state/country online legal code is impossible.
Of course, I often wonder what the point of looking up the rule is, since those responsible for enforcing the rules NEVER seem to know either. I had a lady working the desk at Vindolanda, when I asked if I could fly there, assure me that drone flying was forbidden at all UNESCO world heritage sites, a rule which I have yet to find recorded anywhere else although it may exist. I also pointed out to her that I could get an excellent view of the site from many hundreds of meters away, flying not over the site but over other public land -a comment which stumped her, since she clearly just didn’t want to have to think about a drone being around. Ultimately I didn’t fly there, but more because I spent too much time at the museum and had to catch a bus.
I would say the rules I follow are thus:

  1. Follow essentially global/common-sense rules like not flying over people, respecting other’s privacy (don’t chase people!), and generally respecting the site and assuming your drone is always only a second away from losing control, and exploding.
  2. Be subtle. As you can see, I ask permission to fly if there seems to be someone reasonably qualified to so ask (often there isn’t, say at large parks), but I’ve found that to be almost always fruitless since they rarely know what to do. Best to find a quiet place to setup out of the way of the general crowds. People are far more likely to notice me (especially with the large overhead FPV goggles on) than they are to notice my drone, so finding a staging area that’s less public reduces attention.

I’ll be honest, most of the attention I get is positive, and enthusiastic. People loved the opportunity to put on my FPV goggles and get a look around. It’s basically a free helicopter tour! In fact, it might not be a bad idea to have the FPV goggles around just for such purposes, offering a chance to make friends with otherwise skeptical people.
Of course, people aren’t the only problem.
According to an infographic on the seat-back display of my Icelandair Flight, Iceland is the third windiest spot in the world, and the most populous of the top three. Although not necessarily a reliable source, experience bore out those observations. It was stormy, sleety, and generally rainy most of the time I was in Iceland, cutting down greatly on filming opportunities. In several places, the wind was in the blow-you-off-your-feet levels, and continuously so. That was thrilling in my opinion, but not good flying weather.
Even over Gullfoss, in one particularly strong gust I had my drone going full throttle (in sports mode, no less) into the wind, and still being blown backwards, towards a looming cliff wall. Needless to say, I was nervous.
Over Vik Beach, my drone kept getting dive-bombed by birds. One apparently actually hit it in some way, because it briefly spun out of control before regaining stability.
In Belgium, my own stupidity resulted in slightly bending a propeller, and having flight difficulties. As I was bringing it back to land, I noticed that the engine with said propeller kept cutting out. I’m glad I noticed that before flying it a hundred meters up.
So all in all, I am quite lucky to have managed to make it back home with my drone intact.
And at this point you are probably wondering why I said it was absolutely so much to fly a drone while traveling.
But do I even need to explain that? I have an on-demand helicopter tour available whenever I want! And with Hadrian’s Wall, the Ypres Salient, or other such historic sites, the drone offers better perspective than almost any museum exhibit.

Filming Drone

View down from Gullfoss, shot by the Mavic

I am a novice, and as a novice the biggest challenges are flying smoothly with a slow-and-steady pace. To that end, I was delightfully surprised by how much the FPV goggles helped with that. Filming slow and steady while squinting at a small phone screen is hard. Filming slow and steady while in an VR headset is much easier because suddenly you intuitively and completely grasp how the camera’s movement feels.
My favorite shots are the fly up, overtake/terrain-follow, and helix. The first two of these are illustrated in the clip below, which opens with more of a terrain-follow along the stairs, and ends with a fly up for an expanding view across and beyond the University of Minnesota. A good example of the helix is the second, ‘twisting’ shot of Gullfoss in the opening video.

My greatest frustration: exposure compensation! The default remote layout has one of the dials adjusting exposure compensation, which I accidentally bump all the time! This is more my fault though, for never remembering to change what that dial does.
Never mind, my actual greatest frustration is: video editing! I love flying, but sitting at a computer, I do plenty of that already. Also choosing music is a pain.
What needs work: Moving slowly, especially on pans up or down. Another thing I need to do is to add a longer pause after shots. I tend to take my shot then immediately shut the recording off. That’s good for saving a little space on the SD card, but I would make better video edits if I could pause a bit longer at the end of certain shots.
And what is to come, perhaps, with drones?
Remote sensing! I’m a data scientist, so using my drone to take, then analyze, images (ie for moisture level in soil) sounds like fun!