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December 20, 2016

Droning into Retirement

When I had my first job after college I saved every penny not spent on dates for flying lessons. Eventually I got my private pilot's license and even an instrument rating. But I haven't been an active pilot in years.

So it's only appropriate that I got myself a drone as a retirement present. Yesterday the drone lifted off for the first time.

I'd like to say I soloed the drone; but the truth is that it soloed itself. There is a beginner mode takeoff button on your smart phone, which you use as part of the controller. Push it and confirm and the drone takes off and hovers at about eye level.

Hovering, which is default for the drone if you're not telling it to do anything else, is actually an amazing feat. Remember this is Vermont and the wind is not only blowing but gusting and changing direction as it comes around the house behind me. The drone uses GPS to remember where it's supposed to be as well as a compass and inertial sensors and keeps making minor adjustments to its pitch and yaw to stay more surely in place than if it were tethered. Any helicopter pilot can tell you how difficult this is.

Eventually I got the nerve to take control and used a pair of joysticks to take the drone to higher altitude, move it around, and get it to look down at me.

If you really care, you can see a video of me trying to get the drone to take my picture from the drone's PoV.


Today I took the drone on a short cross country – down our driveway. This meant threading through some trees and then around a curve and down a hill. The drone itself was out of sight so I had to navigate by my smart phone view through its camera. To come back, I pushed the come home button on the controller hoping that the drone's anti-obstacle capability would take it around the waving ends of the branches. I expected to see the drone reappear between the trees. To my horror, not only did the drone not appear where I expected it but its engine sound got weaker and weaker. I ran down the driveway. No drone! Then I heard it behind me and saw it high above. It had decided to go over the trees rather than between them. It stabilized and made a perfect landing no more than inches away from where it had taken off.

I'm blown away as a former pilot, a sailor, and a nerd at what the drone can do. The miniaturized sensors, the obstacle recognition, the low energy use, and the incredible programming which lets it adapt to wind conditions make me realize not only that autonomous cars but change beyond imagination are very near.

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