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Dancing with the Birds
 

Daniel Adi Nugroho dot Net

...because a man can’t just sit around

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Dancing with the Birds

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It was a sunny morning at Ancol Beach, and I stood on a vacant lot a few hundred meters from the ocean front. The air was quite calm, which makes it perfect for my flight exercise. The beeps from the T380’s controller electronics marked the start of its propellers’ rotation. Stirring the dust on the ground, the quadcopter lifted off gracefully with its characteristic buzzing noise which got fainter as it gained altitude. Soon enough, I could no longer hear its buzzing motors, except for the occassional boost when I yanked the throttle up. So there, wearing my eyeglasses, I looked up and saw the glitter of sun rays reflected by the metallic cylinders in T380’s motors.  For the next hour, I become absorbed in piloting my remote-controlled quadcopter. The T380 is a quadcopter produced by a Chinese company aptly named LotusRC. I covered it a few months ago on on this article: First Impressions of T380 Quadrotor RC Aircraft

Within a few minutes after my quadcopter lifted off, I noticed flocks of birds coming from nowhere, surrounding my T380 like mosquitoes gather around me. Perhaps they were attracted to its buzzing noise which may similar to the sound of a swarm of bees, or perhaps the glitter from the motor casings rouses their curiosity.

I have the slightest clue of what kind of birds they are, all I know is that they are very similar with swallows, or maybe they ARE swallows. They went up and down, circling around the airborne T380 in every direction, just like GPS satellites circling the Earth, and there were more than 10 of them at the same time. I was quite excited to see that because I knew I will be getting a very good video footage.


After I landed it, I realized that I was approached by three security guards. However, none of them shows any signs of any disapproving words. They were all quite amused with T380 and began asking a lot of questions on this strange little aircraft, out of their curiosity. They just gathered around me and watch me perform another sortie with two more of them coming over.

My quadcopter flights wouldn’t be perfect without any kind of video camera. I need a camera that’s  small, light, sturdy, and well-built, and that’s exactly my first comment on GoPro HD Hero 2, a diminutive digital camera designed to be deployed outdoors, challenging the elements of nature. Not long after I purchased and unboxed it, I fixed it to the landing gear of T380, and in the next few hours, it went up 30 meters in the air somewhere in Depok. The footage captured was quite gorgeous and jaw-dropping, the GoPro adapts quite well to any abrupt changes in lighting intensity, very little jello-effect, pleasant wide-angle scenes, and of course, full-HD video quality, and 11 megapixels still-photo resolution. And most importantly, it went quite well with the T380.


I don’t like distraction, and definitely hates it when people asking questions while I was piloting my remote control aircraft. However, I do love explaining what I do with this tiny aircraft to people when I’m NOT piloting it. That’s why I always choose quiet places with few people as my flying arena. Therefore, on the first day of Fasting Month in Indonesia, I ventured to the National Monument park since I thought it was the perfect morning for practising my flight. It was sunny, the air was calm with occassional cool breeze, and most importantly, only a few adventurous souls present at the park. Even so, not long after my first sortie, two tourists from Bali joined me and watched me piloting. I flew the T380 as high as I could, and tried to capture the entire 360 degrees panorama. I devised a “tail”, which protruded about 60 cm from the body to the rear side, and added a horizontal square card as a marker which enables me to tell which side is the rear side.The red elongated tail did help me to judge the quadcopter’s orientation up there. Nevertheless, I still had the difficulty to quickly determine whether the quadcopter is actually going up or down.

Back home, when I scrutinize the captured footage, I saw some interesting scenes that I never thought I could capture. Here are some of them:


One day, I tried to do another high-altitude flight at Puncak Pass, at about 1450 meters above sea level. It flew fine, no significant changes to its flight characteristics. Previously I was thinking that I will notice some difference due to the thinner air. I was wrong. In Jakarta, I got around 1010 mbar of atmospheric pressure, while in Puncak, I got 840 mbar, which is not large enough to affect propeller’s lift.

It was a sunny morning, and slightly windy. There was a wide field of tea plantation below me, and there was a lone power line strung across the rolling field. Perfect location for high-altitude flight. However, less than a minute into the flight, I wrecked it.

I misjudged the separation between the craft and a power line. Due to the distance, I could not properly judge the “depth” perception, which marks the distance between the craft and the power line. One of its propellers hit the sturdy power line and detached away from the motor. For two seconds, the T380 tumbled to the ground, some 20 meters below the power line. Its motors stayed engaged until it impacted the earth, after which, all motors were silenced. Something shorted it out. It bounced up one time after the initial impact and came to rest on top of some dried twigs and leaves.

I took the wreckage between the tea bushes, and found that its canopy detached, broken, and mangled. The detached propeller sat less than one meter away. The connectors to the receiver unit were bent sideways, as well as its landing gear. I hurriedly disconnected the battery, scramble the pieces together and went back up to a level area.

When I turned it on again, there was a puff of smoke came out of one of its electronic chips. Oops. The flight control board was fried. I also noticed that the ball-bearing of one of the motors was detached and missing. The free fall which lasted about 2 seconds caused the craft to impact the bare ground at about 60 km/hour, enough to crush the canopy, skew the landing gear, and shorted the flight control board.  There goes my second T380.


As expected, the GoPro camera continued to do its job, capturing the video. No apparent damage was found, and the camera proved to be fully functional. While the incident was disheartening, the footage captured during the T380’s final moments is quite interesting. As it plunges into the ground, it flips several times in the air, and I could see the detached propeller spins by itself. The inequal torque and lift from the propellers toppled it from its stable position, and caused it to tumble as it went down. Just a few brief seconds after it hit the ground, the beeping tone of T380’s controller went into lower and lower pitch before finally silenced, which reminds me how the moviemakers portray the death of a robot. In the ensuing silence, the video shows the grass sways in the wind, little insects jumps across the camera, until I picked it up a few minutes later.

Once home, I disassembled the T380 and wondering how to put it back in good shape again. Looks like I will need a new set of motor, and a new controller board. I was already overbudget for this, and my finances are quite tight nowadays, therefore I decided to mothball it for the next few months to “cool down” my tendency to do shopping spree of these toys on eBay.

In retrospect, watching all video footage and its frame grabs, I noticed one thing: the lower part of the atmosphere is always murky.


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Last Updated on Saturday, 09 February 2013 00:44
 

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