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How To Get Into Hobby RC: The Phantom Menace

By Terry Dunn

Like many of you, I watched Will and Norm’s video review of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ with great anticipation. I was very impressed with the footage they captured, and now I covet their quad. I was equally unimpressed, however, with a few ill-advised things that they did and said during the video.

Like many of you, I watched Will and Norm’s video review of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ with great anticipation. I’m still flying the original Phantom, so I was eager to see the capabilities afforded by the newest model. I was very impressed with the footage they captured, and now I covet their quad. I was equally unimpressed, however, with a few ill-advised things that they did and said during the video.

Photo credit: Eric Cheng

As relative newcomers to the RC flying community, many of our hosts’ infractions can be forgiven based on ignorance of the dos and don’ts. Much of this stuff is just not intuitive. Yet, as communicators of the technology, there is an underlying burden to lead by a learned and proper example. I discreetly pointed out a thing or two to Norm, as did several readers. Norm asked me to critique the video and use this column as a teaching tool for the readers (and the staff). So here are some lessons I think could be learned from watching the Tested review, including a few of my own RC indiscretions as examples.

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

No matter what your particular interest(s) in RC is, people are in it to have fun. When you start bringing up safety or legal concerns, it’s like you’re talking about saturated fats at McDonalds. People just want to be left alone to enjoy their RC widgets and Big Macs without any heavy thoughts. I get that. The unfortunate reality is that operating RC vehicles comes tethered to some very real hazards that you must be cognizant of.

I think that the relevant concerns can be broken down into three major categories: safety, property damage, and liberty. I’ll touch a bit on each of these topics while using infractions pulled from the Tested video as examples. Many of the lessons are not specific to multi-rotors and can be applied to any RC aircraft.

I watched the review several times to prepare for this article and my opinion on a few things changed with each viewing. I felt like I needed a second opinion, so I contacted Patrick Sherman. Patrick is a cofounder of the Roswell Flight Test Crew and an RC writing colleague of mine. I’ve never actually met Patrick in person, but I have read several of his RC-related articles and have respect for his expertise. I shot an email to Patrick with a link to the review saying “Watch this and tell me what you think.” A few of his comments are interjected along with mine.

Safety

Let’s begin by talking about some fundamental aspects of avoiding injury to yourself and others. One of the biggest problems with RC vehicles is that most of the world considers them to be toys, which most people consider safe. The first hurdle is merely acknowledging that RC equipment can be very dangerous. Yes, people have died as a result of RC-related accidents. Countless more are injured on a regular basis.

Perhaps the biggest cause of RC injuries is propeller strikes, which happens to coincide with the most egregious of the offenses I saw in the video.

Perhaps the biggest cause of RC injuries is propeller strikes, which happens to coincide with the most egregious of the offenses I saw in the video. Back in the office, Will and Norm talk about the benign danger posed by the Phantom’s props. Neither is willing to actually put a finger in harm’s way, which gives me hope for their future. A blood blister is probably the minimum injury you could expect. In the ongoing skin versus propeller saga, propellers ALWAYS win! Modelers have sustained all degrees of cuts from spinning propellers. I know of two cases where RC helicopters effectively decapitated someone (the pilot in both instances). I have personally had run-ins with propellers on two occasions. Both were bloody, unpleasant affairs. The second incident caused nerve damage which took months to heal. Anyone needing more proof should google something like “RC prop injury” and grab a vomit bag.

Electric-powered aircraft pose a particular threat for prop injuries for several reasons. First of all, they are so quiet that they don’t sound dangerous. The noise of an internal-combustion (IC) engine is a constant reminder of the threat. People tend to let their guard down with the soothing hum of electric motors. Trust me, the prop doesn’t care what type of motor is spinning it, it cuts just the same.

The Cuisinart in my kitchen spins an enclosed 4 inch blade with up to 250 watts of power. By comparison, my DJI Phantom uses slightly more power to whirl 4 exposed 8 inch propellers. Which is more likely to cause injury?

Another deceptive aspect of electric motors is that they can go from static to full power with no more effort than the flip of a switch, whether intentional or accidental. The Phantom actually requires coordinated stick movements to arm the throttle. This is a great, but unfortunately rare, prerequisite. I’ve accidentally nudged the throttle with my transmitter’s neck strap when picking up an airplane. I’ve also sent a plane zooming across my workbench when I inadvertently flipped the wrong switch on my transmitter. Thankfully no one was injured, but I did damage several airplanes. Two good rules of thumb are as follows:

1. Once you plug in the battery, treat an electric aircraft as if the prop(s) could start spinning at any time (i.e. keep your body away from the prop arc).

2. Always remove the prop (or disable the motor) when working on a model. The same goes for the drive wheels on an RC car.

Once you plug in the battery, always treat an electric aircraft with extreme caution. Simple things can make the propeller(s) come to life at inopportune times.
With electric motors, the danger does not go away once the prop hits you.

The last point that I’ll make specific to electric motors is that the danger does not go away once the prop hits you. An IC motor will typically stall when the prop hits a finger or leg. Electric motors, however, just pull more amps. Until the electric circuit is broken, it’s going to try to keep spinning…perhaps causing multiple cuts.

Another common way to cause injury to humans with RC aircraft is to actually fly into them. This is another case where the danger level is often downplayed or dismissed because of the toy-like nature of RC vehicles. Toy or not, Force still equals Mass x Acceleration, so RC models can do harm. The best way to avoid flying into people is to avoid flying over people.

Every organized flying field will have an established flightline, an imaginary wall behind which no model aircraft should fly. This provides a safe haven for people to park their cars, prepare their models, or watch the action without significant threat of being hit by a wayward aircraft. Yes, accidents still happen, but the flightline barrier mitigates the risk significantly.

When you choose to fly at a public place, it is up to you to define the barriers. Let’s say you are at a city park. You can’t expect anyone else there to heed the danger posed by your model. Remember, they are thinking of your model as a toy…and surely you wouldn’t bring a dangerous toy to the park. The burden to adapt to the situation is completely yours.

I’ve had people send their dogs and their children to chase my airplanes while I flew at a park. Even at established and clearly marked RC flying fields, I’ve seen clueless people drive their cars down the runway while people were flying. Another time, a group of equestrians wandered onto a busy flying field and ignored our frantic pleas to get their horses off of the runway. One flyer had to ditch his plane to avoid hitting them.

I repeat: The rest of the world is not afraid of your silly flying toys. Keeping those people safe from your model is your job.

Returning to the video, the opening sequence includes a clip of a Phantom flying directly above Will and Norm. Patrick and I disagree somewhat on this scenario. Patrick says, “I’m concerned that the very casual nature of the video will encourage folks watching at home to go out and do the same thing.” While I agree that this is a bit dangerous, it doesn’t cause me too much heartburn. Everyone involved is an adult who is aware of what’s going on and has accepted the risk. So my personal response here is: “Have fun, but be careful and don’t whine about it if you get hurt.”

Anytime you fly over people or things, you risk crashing into them and causing harm. Ask yourself if it is worth it to get the shot. PS – The sedan in the intersection is driven by a jerk.

Where I take exception is when they fly the Phantom over a fairly busy street. In this case, the people at risk of a wayward Phantom have no idea of the danger and have consented to nothing. Granted, the risk is somewhat low. But let’s face it; RC aircraft crash all the time for a multitude of reasons. If you happen to be over a crowd of people when that happens, that would be a very bad day for everyone. As Mr. Sherman points out, “Multi-rotors must always be flown as if they are going to fall out of the sky without warning.” He adds that the only excuse that you could offer to the victim of a plummeting quad would be, “Yeah, but I was getting a really cool shot!”

Property Damage

If you’re not mentally or financially equipped to deal with a total-loss on any given flight, maybe RC flying isn’t for you.

When I talk property damage, it has nothing to do with the potential damage to whatever model you are flying. Every time you lift off, you are accepting the risk of a potential fly-away or catastrophic crash. If you’re not mentally or financially equipped to deal with a total-loss on any given flight, maybe RC flying isn’t for you. Go buy yourself a bowling ball.

The damage that I’m talking about regards the innocent things that you might fly into. Just last year, I accidentally flew one of my models into a car. I lost concentration long enough for my airplane to dart behind the flightline. Rather than dumping the airplane into the ground as I should have, I tried to save it and center punched the door of a parked truck. My little 15 ounce foam airplane was slightly damaged, but my bill for the damaged truck was over $600 (in a strange twist of irony, the truck belonged to my insurance agent - oh how we laughed...eventually). This happened at a RC club flying field with everything arranged by the book. Taking larger, faster models to uncontrolled environments only increases the likelihood and severity of an expensive mistake.

As public multi-rotor flying locations go, the park on Treasure Island doesn’t seem so bad. Personally, I’d be a bit nervous with rookies flying near so much water. But that’s another purely personal risk that would not affect anyone else…save for the children subjected to the profanity-riddled tirade that would surely follow an ocean “landing”.

Sometimes you have to fly close to things to get the shot you want, as we see with the Bliss Dance statue on Treasure Island. Are you prepared to pay up if you goof up?

The feature of the park that gave me the most concern was the statue Bliss Dance. It appears to be covered in a wire mesh that could be damaged by a propeller or the body of the Phantom. I’m not suggesting that the statue should have precluded their flying at that location. In fact, I rather enjoyed the aerial footage of the statue. My point is simply to be cognizant of the potential for damage and to be prepared to settle up if the worst should happen.

Liberty

As things stand now, anyone with the money can go out and buy a Phantom. You don’t need a license, a background check, or even a seven day waiting period. Perhaps the most probing question you’ll hear will be about the security code on your credit card. What you get in a return is an extremely capable quadrotor that requires no prior knowledge to operate.

The future could be a different story. There are well-publicized examples of people doing things with multi-rotors that are potentially very dangerous. Flying at high altitude near airports is of particular concern. Even DJI has addressed this issue with a firmware update that gradually limits the Phantom’s maximum altitude near airports. The consequence of a run-in with a multi-rotor and a full-size airplane of any type is not something any of us ever wants to contemplate. Yet there are people who foolishly tempt this fate just for the off chance of capturing some unique video.

For every imprudent multi-rotor video that appears on YouTube, the odds of having restrictions placed on the entire RC community increases ever more.

For every imprudent multi-rotor video that appears on YouTube, the odds of having restrictions placed on the entire RC community increases ever more. We are currently in limbo as the FAA decides just how to manage this expanding herd of multi-rotors in their airspace. Let’s not give them ammunition to bring draconian measures against us. Right now, it seems that the only organization fighting for our right to fly RC is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). They’ve made significant headway by touting that the modeling community polices itself with common sense guidelines. I highly recommend that all flyers join the AMA to support their anti-regulatory efforts*. Even if you decide not to join the AMA, you should aspire to follow their lead.

Some people defend their cavalier attitude towards reckless flying behavior by touting their rights as an American citizen. Well sure, you do have the right to be as foolhardy as you wish. That courtesy ends, however, when your actions invoke the same risks upon other people. As seen in the previous examples, transferring risk happens any time you choose to fly over people or their stuff.

At no point in this article have I, or will I talk about anything being against the law. With various local ordinances and pending national regulations, that topic could be a real can of worms. And who knows the legal ramifications of hauling a camera over private houses (or baseball stadiums)? Whether certain things are illegal is really not the point anyway. The bigger goal is for each of us to analyze our flying habits and determine if we are inadvertently putting the health, property, or right-to-fly of other people at risk. All that being said, be aware that the FAA does pursue blatant violators.

The good news is that Will and Norm did not do anything that I would consider particularly foolhardy. By my calculations, they were about 15 miles from both SFO and OAK airports. What caught my attention was that they were flying over an urban area using only the video feedback to navigate. This is commonly called First Person View (FPV) flying. From the post-flight conversation, I gather that they did this at very high and very low altitudes. Even if that didn’t happen, let’s assume it did for the sake of argument.

Flying by video feed alone severely restricts your situational awareness. Here, a Phantom narrowly misses an unexpectedly tall sailboat mast that couldn’t be seen until it was too late.

The risk with using only the video feed is that your situational awareness is severely compromised. This is especially true at high altitude where you could encounter full-scale traffic or low-altitude where you might encounter inanimate stuff. I think my point is illustrated perfectly in the recent Quadcopter Fun Flight video where Jeremy narrowly missed a sailboat mast while flying via video. I wonder what the outcome would have been if he had drifted just a little further left. I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.

I personally feel that FPV is an advanced skill that should only be attempted once you are completely comfortable with line-of-sight flying.

People do FPV flying all the time, although not usually under the same circumstances as Will and Norm. You will typically see flights over open country and at altitudes likely to avoid both aircraft and ground-based obstructions. Even better is to have a spotter next to the pilot who can see the model and keep an eye out for trouble. Furthermore, I personally feel that FPV is an advanced skill that should only be attempted once you are completely comfortable with line-of-sight flying. I think that you need to develop your reactions and confidence before you place yourself in a situation where trouble arrives in a hurry.

Conclusion

If nothing else, I hope the take-away from this article will be that some flyers realize that we are all in this together. I encourage everyone to take advantage of this fabulous new technology, but also to do so with an open-minded world view. Be artistic, be bold, be unique. Get that unique perspective that you never could before. Just keep in mind that it may be more than your neck, your property, and your right to fly that you are putting at risk.

My thanks to Will and Norm for being good sports and allowing me to use them as examples. Thanks also to Patrick Sherman for sharing his insight and expertise on piloting multi-rotors. In the next RC article, I will share my recent experiences with RC boats.

In the interest of full disclosure: I provide freelance articles to the AMA periodicals Model Aviation and Park Pilot. I am not an employee of the organization, nor do I receive compensation for encouraging membership. I simply believe in their mission.