'Drones' growing in popularity [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa :: ]
(Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 20--Model aircraft rule the sky over Polson Field, an airstrip at Big Hollow Recreation Area dedicated to the pursuit of remote-controlled flight.
The wide open space is perfectly suited for the purpose.
Piloted by members of the Burlington Model Airplane Club, planes take off from the runway or are thrown into the air to turn loops, glide lazily or execute high-speed maneuvers before returning to the earth. Helicopters are to be seen now and again, too.
But then there are the four-bladed machines piloted by the likes of Bill Swink.
"Watching from the first-person view is really neat. It's like looking out the windshield of a car." Bill Swink, quadcopter enthusiast
Quadcopters, which commonly get lumped into the catch-all category of flying machines known as drones, are operated by a handful of club members.
"They're a different breed to fly," Swink said.
The Burlington man's interest in them started on YouTube, watching videos people were producing with cameras mounted on their quadcopters and eight-rotor octocopters.
His first quadcopter, a toy version that cost less than $100, was broken after a crash. His second, a Blade 350QX, with its two red and two gray blades, each oriented vertically like the main rotor of a helicopter, remains in the box, waiting for its maiden voyage.
First, he needs to get through the directions. And keep practicing on the club's flight simulator.
Model airplanes were a pastime Swink shared with boyhood friend Don Tracy, who lives now in rural Hancock County, Ill.
"I flew control-line when I was a kid," Swink said, referring to a type of model airplane operated by a wired controller.
Though a control-line plane could bank and dive, do loops and go inverted, it never could fly farther away than the length of the wire.
"You're doomed to a circle," he said.
Tracy recruited Swink to pick up the hobby. And these days, the old friends frequently are found together at Polson Field.
"I also like to do woodworking," Swink said. "But my shop now is filled with airplanes."
With their remote-controlled planes, flight ceased being limited to circles around a fixed point. With their quadcopters, it isn't limited to horizontal takeoffs and landings, either. Hovering is an option, too.
Flying a quadcopter by remote control, Swink said, is much more difficult than flying an airplane. Once his plane is in the air and cruising, he can let off one of the joysticks and carry on a conversation. With a quadcopter, he said, both hands are engaged at all times and concentration is totally on flying.
His smaller quadcopter is best suited for indoor flying and was good for learning with. It is too easily affected by wind. And unlike an airplane, when a quadcopter gets too far away, the omnidirectional flight and lack of any obvious difference between nose and tail make it easy to lose orientation.
It doesn't matter that range is a mile if you can't see the plane or quadcopter anymore, Tracy said.
Attaching a camera allows for recording video and taking pictures. Swink's Blade quadcopter is capable of that. Adding a video transmitter and connecting that to a receiver and a monitor on the ground allows for a first-person view, meaning the pilot can see what the aircraft sees in real time.
"Watching from the first-person view is really neat," Swink said. "It's like looking out the windshield of a car."
That makes flight control easier. And opens new areas for flight, such as through rougher terrain like timber, where unseen obstacles would be a hazard.
Swink isn't there yet, though.
He hasn't even bought a camera, much less any broadcasting equipment. Tracy, meanwhile, has not yet stepped up from his toy version, leaving that kind of flying just a novelty.
Tracy said model flying, whether with traditional winged aircraft or quadcopters, is like any other new hobby.
Newbies start off small with cheap equipment, then graduate to more expensive stuff as their experience grows. With quadcopters, prices can range from less than $50 for a toy model to $10,000 and up for a commercial model.
"It depends on how much money you want to spend on one," Tracy said.
Higher-end drones, like the ones Amazon.com has proposed using for making deliveries, and those used for filmmaking, are in the crosshairs of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is writing rules this year to govern their use after a federal court ruled the agency couldn't enforce a fine on a Swiss man who was cited for flying a drone while filming a commercial for the medical school at the University of Virginia.
According to a report from the McClatchy Tribune News Service, the FAA has restrictions on commercial and law enforcement use of drones. The agency doesn't have the same rules for hobby use but does offer several dos and don'ts. Those include flying no higher than 400 feet and away from populated areas and airports.
Photography and videography is permitted for personal use, only.
For Swink and Tracy, those rules are perfectly reasonable.
"There are right places and wrong places to fly one," Swink said.
He and Tracy just hope the new rules coming out of the FAA don't place severe restrictions on hobbyists. Or on commerce, for that matter, where both can see practical uses for the aircraft in several industries.
"I guess we're all sitting back with bated breath," Swink said, "and waiting to see what the FAA does."
In the meantime, he can keep on reading those instructions and get that Blade 350QX out of the box and where it belongs -- in the air.
(c)2014 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
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