Ain’t it Grand

Ahoy sailors and dreamers
Ain’t it grand when we get instant advice and great service at a competitive price

I love to write when I have something interesting or informative to say and that sums up why it’s been a bit quiet around here lately. But that’s changed recently because while we’ve been getting ready to rejoin our beloved Banyandah quietly waiting in Tasmania, we purchased a new drone. A difficult decision resulting in a big headache.

Many of you will know that we made the jump into aerial photographer a couple of years ago by purchasing what was at the time a rather expensive piece of high technology, namely a DJI Phantom 3 Advance drone. Wow! Talk about an adrenalin rush and massive learning curve. Imagine putting aloft $1,500 worth of gadgetry and sending it kilometres over water. Pretty scary after reading many “fly-away” reports on the popular forums. It seems even if these drones don’t suddenly get a bee in their circuitry and go off to never be found, a bird of prey may zero in on them thinking them a threat or tasty treat. But the truth is, if managed in an organised manner with proper safety limits put in place, these magical, if expensive devices can produce wonderful footage not otherwise achievable.

In these last two years we have flown our bird 45 times in some of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth, and have captured hours of exquisite scenery. But our bird is a rather too big, and weighs a hefty couple of kilos, making it difficult to carry to the hard to reach areas we frequent. Enter the next generation of drones, super small and light, with even better cameras and controlling software, all of course at a hefty price.

Well, a big decision loomed as we gathered our gear to fly south. The new DJI Mavic drones represents a larger risk to our limited capital if I should make a pilot error or it should suddenly fly-away or be attack. On the other hand, we’d be able to put this little critter into our backpacks or pack it away in a watertight container for storing aboard our kayak. And so, filled with trepidation we dipped into our savings and bought a combo bundle that comes complete with three batteries and several other extras.

Mavic Pro

I’ve got to admit to a rather sleepless night after doing the deal. Buyers remorse? Maybe. But adding to my money worries is the fact that drone flying has changed dramatically in the few years we’ve been doing it. Same ol’ story, irresponsible folk causing grief, resulting in increased regulation. A bit like our sailing. As sailors we’re having more rules imposed upon us because a few boat owners and sailors just don’t do the right thing. Well, same with drone flying. Our area of flying has been reduced by excluding a 5.5 km radius around airports, which is a good thing unless you live within that circle and want to film your backyard barbecue with the kids playing, or inspect your fencing, or check on your livestock,  anything like that because the software won’t even let you take off in those 11 km exclusion zones. And we’re not just talking about the big airports, but every airfield and helipad, even if only occasional used. They’ve taken away our right to decide. I should clarify that for some of the little used airfields and helipads a permit can be obtained online that’s valid for 72 hours. See the problem? Where we go, there isn’t internet.

Let’s put this aside and get on with my story because there is a bright side to it after a rather shaky start, which actually got really horrible when the bird arrived and I tried to do all the updates and registration stuff. The camera also didn’t seem to do its thing, but I figured that’d be fixed by upgrading to the latest firmware.

Luigi to the rescue
One can buy these Mavic combo bundles from many sources and the overseas ones, usually located in China, are the cheapest, often by heaps. And while I occasionally get stuff from overseas, big ticket items like cameras and drones are bought from a reputable local dealer – just for this reason. Right from the get-go, Camera House gave us great service. The techie, Luigi, not an Italian as I first thought, but born in the Philippines, gave me sincere sympathy for my troubles and then walked me through several possible solutions. Doing the firmware upgrade was the first minefield; it just wasn’t happening, taking up a lot of my bandwidth while repeatedly failing to download the 207 mb file during a very frustrating first night and first day of ownership. I even called on my neighbour who’s connected to the NBN and proudly said, “5 minutes and you’ll have the file.” To further paint the picture, while the firmware updates, the drone has to be activated and connected to the controller, and so, DJI recommends a minimum of 50% battery power in both devices. I had 100% in the bird, and 55% in the controller when my neighbour said, “We’re connected.” Lights continuously blinked on the craft, but, alas, the completion taskbar didn’t budge. Five minutes stretched to ten when we achieved a whopping 1% of the download. Eh-gods, my mind went into a tailspin. I could see we’d not have enough battery power. Do you know how boring it is to watch a completion bar creep along? I walked about then came back with high hopes that were dashed when seeing it not even up a single percent. Cut to the climax, two and half hours later, with the controller on recharge to keep it alive, the aircraft ran out of power at 64% download. Both of us knew there was a bigger problem somewhere, but where?

A call to Luigi just at closing time brought more sincere sympathy and a promise that all would be fixed, even if a new bird had to be shipped. Then we went though checking all the settings. When those proved correct, he suggested I make sure the SD card was properly installed. This gizmo comes with a 16 gb mini SD card in them, hardly enough for a single video when shooting in 4K mode, the files are huge. Therefore, I had taken the 64 gb stick out of my Phantom and plugged it in when putting the Mavic together. I had the greatest intention of reformatting the card once in the bird, but I could never find the link to do this, and so I pushed the record button as a sort of check, and it worked perfectly. So I naturally assumed all was apples and move on to the next task of upgrading the firmware. Well, Luigi’s suggestion had set off a burst of light in my head and I knew that must be the answer, and following his directions I found the format command hidden deep under several layers and did it.

Wow! Reconnecting to the internet and starting the upgrade, I was immediately delighted to see it restart at 64% and immensely more relieved when the completion taskbar steadily cruised up to 100%. That second night I went bed with a big smile on me gob, thinking all my problems had been solved.

Early next morning, I set up for my first flight and found that the camera still didn’t want to talk to the controller, no image on my screen. Crap! Reboot and whammy, I had an image and took off on a short flight around the yard. Now here was number two big relief. I could actually takeoff even though there’s a occasionally used helipad a little less than 5.5 kms away. Great, I can film my grandkids playing soccer at my castle. But elation turned to grief when the camera spat the dummy on flight two. Monkeying about, rebooting on and off, changing video modes to a lesser quality, exchanging SD cards for the one supplied, didn’t change nothing. Sometimes the camera would connect, sometimes not. Oh, I did get three flights in a row with great footage and discovered how wonderful it was to fly a Mavic. Covered really great distances with superb video quality and the very useful obstacle avoidance sensors make it much safer than its big brother. Plus the fact that it folds up to nearly pocket size makes it well worth the money. But, we need reliability. It has to work every time no matter where we are. So, after my lunch break when the camera failed to connect again, I called Luigi and he said, “Send it back. I’ll email a return postal label.”

So, the bird has flown back to the Macarthur Camera House, Shop L78, Macarthur Shopping Centre, NSW 2560 and will be promptly replaced. Fingers crossed we get a 100% healthy one next time. Ain’t it grand when we get instant advice and great service at a competitive price.

Farm Cove Tasmania