×

Droning around

Like many kids, I dreamed of flying. And like most kids, I longed to do things without interference from pesky authorities such as parents or the Federal Aviation Administration.

My childhood aviation efforts were limited to paper airplanes (I learned how to construct three different types, each equally annoying to schoolteachers) and balsa aircraft.

The balsa models had two disadvantages. One was that they weren’t very robust; they were just one hard landing away from being transformed from a graceful airship into a handful of kindling. The second drawback was that balsa airplane kits cost money. As I recall, a glider would consume 59 cents of my meager allowance while a prop-driven model set me back the staggering sum of $1.29. I have long been acquainted with the high costs of owning state-of-the-art flying machines.

I constantly strove to wring increased performance from my aircraft. I climbed to the top of our silo to launch both propeller-driven and engineless airplanes. They didn’t fly any better, but it took a couple of seconds longer before they violently collided with the planet.

I tried to boost the power of my prop planes by installing bigger engines, by which I mean a heavier rubber band. I quickly learned that there’s a limit regarding how much pressure a balsa airframe can withstand.

My wife, a very intuitive person, intuitively gave me an aircraft for my latest birthday. The drool marks I left on the pages of Air & Space Smithsonian magazine may have had something to do with this.

Sadly, it’s not the kind of aircraft that a guy could climb aboard and soar off toward the shimmering horizon. A person couldn’t fly in this particular aircraft unless that person were Ant-Man.

My wife purchased a battery-powered, four-bladed helicopter, otherwise known as a quadcopter. Some would call it a drone, but that makes me think of useless male insects.

The quadcopter’s controller is a handheld thingamajig that sports a bewildering array of buttons and a pair of joysticks. That’s one joystick too many for me. I might feel differently were I a video game aficionado, but the last video game I played was Pong, which had just one twistable knob per player.

Never one to let a total lack of experience or knowledge stand in my way, I charged the drone’s battery, took the diminutive aircraft — it’s about the size of a large pizza — outdoors and set it on the lawn.

I searched for a button marked “go” but couldn’t find one. I made an educated guess and boldly opted to mash the button labeled “launch.”

And then … nothing. I decided to actually read the instructions and learned that that the quadcopter has to acquire a GPS signal before it will take off. Makes sense to me. I wish my brain had something similar as I often don’t know where I am or where I’m going.

I tried to get the quadcopter to send video to my phone, but the software wouldn’t cooperate. That’s OK. I’ll just navigate by dead reckoning, a technique known in aviation parlance as IFR, which means “I Fly Randomly.”

I flew the copter experimentally around our farmstead as the aircraft recorded video on a computer chip. When I later reviewed the video, I was startled to see a scruffy-looking guy loitering in our backyard. Good thing we had the drone, or we never would have known about that creep!

Closer examination of the video proved that the vagabond was, in fact, me. I must be taking that “every day is casual Friday” dress code a bit too far.

Hoping to find something to justify my new toy, I decided to buzz our cattle yard and check on our Jersey steers. It took several flights to acquire the skills to accomplish this, involving much more time than simply walking down to the barn and eyeballing the cattle in person. But it’s the principle of the thing

Jerseys are curious animals who want to know how everything tastes. I had to quickly hit the “up” command when a steer reached for the quadcopter with his long, slimy tongue. The copter’s warranty probably doesn’t cover being soaked with cow slobber.

Then I panicked and accidentally flew the quadcopter into a tree where it became entangled high above the ground. I had to do some hero stuff to rescue the stranded aircraft. It took well over an hour to check on the cattle.

But it was fun, so I’m thinking about boosting the quadcopter’s performance. I wonder if I can increase its power to the point where it can lift a lawn chair and about 190 pounds?

COMMENTS