How I Failed to Become a Drone Pilot

Drones are fun. Let's just get that out there. The small, semi-affordable aircraft that violate some people's privacy, hurt others' faces, and generally cause trouble are super duper fun. They're also very, very complicated.

I know this, because I've spent the past year or so flying (and crashing) them. It was a long time coming, I guess. The ambition to become a hobby drone pilot stemmed in part from spending years writing about combat drones—mainly how awful and inhumane they are. Generally speaking, though, I'm a big technology enthusiast and always felt like easier access to unmanned aerial vehicles could be a really good thing. And I've since learned that it really is.

So I got curious about a few things. First of all, what's all the fuss about? The Orwellian angle about cameras in the sky sort of makes sense, but flying things is hard, right? How easy is it to get a quadcopter airborne and peek in people's windows? Turns out it's very easy.

How it all begins

Before I get into the sort of gorey stories of my many attempts to pilot a drone, it'd be useful if I introduced myself. I'm Adam, and I come from an Air Force family. Three generations of men in my family served, and my brother made a career out of fixing fighter jets in Iraq—during both wars, mind you. Heck, even my mom is a pilot. I wanted to be a pilot myself, but my stupid bum ear kept me out of flight school. So I guess you could say we like to fly things.

I'll never forget my first model helicopter. It was a little gas-powered Bell UH-1 Iroquois with a perennially broken tail rotor and no remote control. Trying to fly it was a big event, because it would always, always crash. We just never knew how it would go down. In retrospect, that anxiety was a great learning experience in my larger quest to become a drone pilot. More on that in a second, though.

Anyways, we were not wealthy. I asked for a remote-controlled plane for my birthday God knows how many times, and I would inevitably end up with a remote-controlled car that I would promptly crash and break. All this crash talk makes me sound reckless, but I'm really a very cautious person. The technology never quite lived up to my hopes, though, and the dinky little RC cars would turn left instead of right and SLAM! Right into the flower bed. I don't think I ever grew out of that hope to pilot an aircraft, though—even if it was a small one.

The day I met my Phantom

I didn't pay much attention to the burgeoning hobby drone craze until I worked at Motherboard, VICE's blog about the future. One of the editors there, Brian Anderson, made a documentary about drones that intrigued me to no end, so a few months later, when DJI asked me if I'd like to try out the Phantom Vision quadcopter, I jumped at the chance to fly one of those little critters myself.

The Phantom arrived in a white box that looked like it should be holding an Apple product. It requires pretty much zero assembly—you just screw on the propellers—and so I took a couple friends upstate for a test flight the next day. It was awesome.

The key to drone piloting, I quickly learned, is finding a wide open space. Put another way, the key to failing at drone piloting is believing you can navigate through trees. We found a football field next to the Bear Mountain Lodge near the Hudson River, and much to my dismay got the Phantom off the ground immediately. Like, literally all I did was turn it on and press the control up, and it flew.

How I Failed to Become a Drone Pilot

Flying a drone is not unlike playing with a smartphone. For some models, the two are one in the same.

If you happen to be an actual drone pilot—hobbyist or otherwise—you may think that sounds dumb. These gadgets are designed to be easy to fly. That's part of the appeal! I just didn't expect it to be so easy.

The UFO effect kicked in almost immediately, and we drew a small crowd. Kids absolutely loved it, and parents looked very wary. The Phantom is Wi-Fi-equipped so you can use your phone as a viewfinder for the on board camera. I took a few photos and couple of videos in a pretty transparent effort to impress a girl I was trying to impress, and when the drone died soon thereafter, we were on our way. The battery life on the Phantom is only about 20 minutes long, so I quickly learned that planning flying time was key to enjoying my new toy.

I mean, let's be honest. To most people, these kinds of hobby drones are just very expensive toys. And according to Federal Aviation Administration, only recreational drones are allowed to fly, and according to a couple other government agencies, they're only allowed to fly in certain areas. This would soon prove tricky in my quest to become a drone pilot.

The day I crashed my Phantom (for the first time)

Fast forward a few weeks, and I thought I was getting pretty good at this drone flying business. Again, a monkey with a blindfold could do it. But steering $1,000 craft this way and that while spying on the Earth from a different angle made me feel something. Weirdly, it felt sort of like a super power. I always wanted to fly!

So I got a little bit cocky. I took the Phantom down to my aunt's house in Virginia for Thanksgiving, largely because my little cousin had just started cancer treatment and could use a high tech distraction. I also took a tiny Estes (no relation) Proto X quadcopter for him to fly. Turns out that quadcopter is virtually impossible to fly, probably because it's so small. He crashed it immediately, and it never flew again.

The Phantom was ready to go, though. Compared to the little Estes quadcopter, this thing looked like the Titanic to my seven-year-old cousin, and when I fired up the rotors, he gave me one of those cooooooooool reactions. I think he switched to woooooooooow, when it took off. His dad might've been more excited.

"How high does that thing go?" he asked. I'd learned that this is everybody's number one question when confronted with a drone in the wild.

"Couple hundred feet?" I said. I knew it went higher but was a little afraid to try it.

"Let's see!" he was taunting me. I watching the altitude increase on my iPhone screen, as we became smaller in the viewfinder. I also noticed a collection of trees nearby. It was already too late. "Go faster!" he said, taunting me still.

I thought the Phantom was high enough to clear the trees, but the problem with a relative novice piloting a drone is that you have few reference points when it's just the white drone against a blue sky. The Phantom zoomed over our heads, clipped the top of a tree, and hit every branch on the way down. The only thing more spectacular than its 200-foot-long fall to Earth was the explosion of plastic when it hit the ground. I felt sick.

Within 15 minutes my uncle, cousin, and I had completely disassembled the drone and assessed the damage. I was actually pretty impressed to discover that the only permanent damage was a couple of broken propellers and a tweaked engine. It looked pretty easy to repair, and the parts were easy to find online. When I asked about the repair, though, DJI said they'd rather just send me a new one. This is when things got really hairy.

The day of the incident

Never fly a drone inside. Never ever fly a drone inside at a party. And in my case, never ever ever let a friend fly a drone inside at a party, especially when it's dark.

The aftermath

So let's recap real quick. In the beginning, hobby drones are incredible, unbelievable, inconceivable. The technological sophistication of a gadget like the Phantom actually continues to blow my mind. And the extent to which you can go from a wannabe with a white box to the cool guy flying a flything in a field is basically ridiculous.

Then reality sets in. Just because it's easy to get a drone up in the sky, does not mean that it's easy to keep it there. Obstacles abound in many settings, and after my crash down South, I shied away from flying anywhere that seemed remotely complicated. I didn't dare fly it in New York City. After all, it only takes a single fall to cause irreparable damage to your expensive new toy, and even though many drones can be repaired, every flight remains a risk.

And then the dark reality sets in. I was pretty shaken up after the incident. I didn't know these things could draw blood. At worst, I thought a drone could give somebody a bump on the head and a funny story. It was an accident, however, and if you stretch a little bit, you could argue that flying a drone is no more dangerous than riding a skateboard. The main difference is that others are more often in the path of destruction with drones.

How I Failed to Become a Drone Pilot

DJI makes guards to protect both the propellors and people's heads that might be in the way of the propellors.

Now is a great time to remind you that I think drones are fun. Really fun! It's nascent, even unpredictable technology that zooms around at dangerous altitudes and cuts whatever's in the way.

I haven't even gotten into the privacy stuff. It was never an issue for me, because I usually flew the drone in wide open, wild spaces where even a drone couldn't see people nearby. While drones are awesome tools for photographers and filmmakers, I really just wanted to fly. I still want to be a pilot, and this is as close as I've ever gotten. It felt liberating to send a quadcopter into the heavens, and I felt powerful when I steered against the horizon.

Since I started flying drones, I've been noticing more and more in the skies above New York City. A couple weeks ago a friend and I were having drinks on a rooftop bar in Williamsburg, staring at the skyline and sort of having a moment. Skyscrapers are beautiful at sunset, especially right after they light up. The Empire State Building stood guard, looking stern, as the day's last rays of sunshine shot across the East River. That's when we saw them.

"What's that?!" the bartender said, looking up from her phone for the first time in 15 minutes.

Off in the distance, two blue lights appeared to be dancing with each other in midair. The UFO effect kicked in again, and suddenly everyone on the rooftop crowded over to the edge of the building holding their smartphones high in hopes of getting a good Vine. The blue lights, they danced, and they did look a little bit beautiful. I stayed seated and squinted.

"They're drones," I said, too quietly.

"They're huh?" the bartender replied.

"Drones!" now I was walking towards the edge. "You know, like, quadcopters. Little remote controlled aircraft."

"Wow," she sort of smiled. "I've never seen one before."

"Well, now you've seen two," I smiled back. We never did figure out who the pilot(s) were.

The last flight

A few days later, I took the Phantom upstate for one final flight. DJI had just announced a new autonomous flight feature that let you plot points on a map, and the drone would fly the route and return home, maybe safely. I couldn't wait to try it out. Having just written a blog post about airspace restrictions, I also didn't want to push my luck by flying in a no-no zone. New York City is pretty much one big no-no zone.

It ended up taking two days to find a safe spot. I ruled out private property, as flying a drone on someone else's property sounded like a great way to get shot. Areas around airports, national parks, and military bases were all off limits. Trees were friggin' everywhere. There was a bird sanctuary that was otherwise perfect, but the last thing I wanted to do was clip some endangered hawk.

How I Failed to Become a Drone Pilot

It took us hours to find a public park with few trees and no restricted air space. But it was worth it.

I finally settled on a little park in Beacon, New York. A couple of friends joined me. One sprawled out on the grass to the full view of the sky, and after a couple warm up flights, I passed the controls off to my other friend. She was flying like a pro in no time. She was having a great time, too! Once we got all warmed up, I decided to switch to autonomous mode. The first time I tried I accidentally tapped a spot on the map, and it took off in that direction. I had to do an outfielder-style grab to pull it out of the air. Everybody laughed.

Then, I got it all set up. I picked my points. I checked for obstacles. I boasted a little bit about how cool it would be when this little airborne miracle flew itself. I tapped the screen of my phone to take off, and the rotors slowed. The battery was dead.

Top art by Jim Cooke