February 1, 2017

Droning Boy: first flights in Taipei

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I'm back in Taiwan for the Lunar New Year holidays so I could spend some quality time with the Parental Units, after having been banished for the last 6 months or so.  Since I took delivery of my new drone just 10 days before my trip, this would be a great opportunity for me to get some good flying experience with the new toy.

Traveling with a drone requires some homework to be done in advance of the trip.  First, I had to check with the airline about their rules regarding bringing drones onboard.  In this case, Cathay Pacific informed me that as long as I took the propellers off the drone and made sure the rechargeable batteries were in my carry-on bags, I was more than welcome to bring my drone with me.  That was easy.

Next I needed to research the drone regulations for Taiwan.  Fortunately the Civil Aeronautics Administration (民航局) has a section devoted to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).  In addition to explaining the rules regarding no-fly zones or zones with height restrictions around each airport, they even have an incredibly helpful interactive map which shows the exact boundaries of these zones, as well as a tool for measuring distances on the map.

On top of this, there are of course plenty of other no-fly/restricted zones around Taiwan - such as nuclear power plants, military bases and installations... etc.  Someone made a very helpful map which combined all of these restrictions.  This would also prove invaluable to me, as it helped me avoid running afoul of the regulations and potentially getting fined and/or having my drone confiscated.

So on the morning after I arrived, which happened to be the last day of the Year of the Monkey, I took my drone out for a spin.  After all, I do live on the fringes of Ganstaland - right by the river.  My apartment building was literally meters away from the border of a no-fly zone, but still within the zone which required me to fly below a ceiling of 60 m.  So I had to made sure I avoided flying in the wrong direction...

The cloud cover had cleared by late morning, and we had blue skies.  I took my DJI Mavic Pro up to a height of around 55 m, and began exploring my hood from the air.  With the max distance limit removed since my first flight a few days ago, I began to push the drone further across the Tamsui River (淡水河) towards Taipei - stopping when I've reached the edge of the river on the Taipei side, and then turning to follow the river southwest.

After I've flown about 1.4 km or so, my remote control started telling me that the signal was weak, and then I was told that the signal with the drone was lost.  I panicked.  I was a little weary about flying from my position as I was standing near a very tall radio tower.  Sure enough, when the tower stood in the line of sight between my drone and I, the signal interference became too great to overcome.  I quickly ran along the river towards the drone, closing the distance as well as placing the radio tower behind me.  Thankfully I regained the connection, and I was also grateful that the programming from DJI meant that the drone just hovered in the air and waited for reconnection.  There was enough juice left in the battery, so I didn't have to watch my drone fall into the river.

I got up again the next morning - on New Year's Day - and went out by the river again.  I need lots of practice to make sure I can control the drone and make those smooth turns.  I had a lot of fun, and kept my eyes on the remote control for any warnings about weak signals.

I flew over the strip of land in the middle of the Tamsui River between Zhongxiao Bridge (忠孝橋) and Zhongxing Bridge (中興橋), where I had always known that some people were doing some small-scale farming.  On this day I got a pretty clear view.

I also flew close to the New Taipei Bridge (新北大橋) as well as the section of the Taoyuan International Airport MTR (桃園國際機場捷運) which runs in front of my apartment.  The link to Taiwan's main international airport is meant to begin trial runs in a few days, and become fully operational in two months' time.

On the second day of the Lunar New Year, we decided to go out to Tamsui so that the Parental Units can watch me fly the drone.  I had two specific spots in mind, but due to heavy traffic it took us a little longer than expect to get to Fisherman's Wharf (漁人碼頭).  The silver lining was that by late afternoon, the low cloud cover started to clear and we were under blue skies.


I set up at the far end of the upper deck of the platform and sent the Mavic Pro up in the air.  The first flight was at a relatively low distance of around 30 m, but now that I was no longer in a zone with a ceiling, I decided to take it up to 100 m.  I did a couple of passes, flying over the Tamsui Lover‘s Bridge (淡水情人橋) and the boats moored in the wharf.

The Mavic Pro was inland after my last pass, and I started to maneuver it back towards me when I noticed the battery level running a little low.  Suddenly the drone went into automatic return-to-home mode, when the system determined that the remaining battery level must be conserved for an immediate flight home.

I was a little nervous, since this hadn't happened before.  I've tried out the system's return-to-home a number of times without much problem, but nevertheless I was staring at the battery level indicator like a hawk.  I was breathing a sigh of relief as the Mavic Pro came towards me and was almost overhead, when the obstacle detection system decided that the original takeoff point was not suitable for landing... and proceeded to shift away from me.

The next thing I knew, the drone began descending to a height below the upper deck.  I freaked out.  I wasn't sure whether it was fall into the water, so I rushed to the edge of the deck and looked below.  Thankfully it was hovering over the pier, and I rushed down to try to recover it before it lost power.  Miraculously, the Parental Units happened to be standing next to it, and I managed to lower it to about waist level before it fell on some stairs.  Other than a couple of minor scratches, there didn't seem to be much damage.

After that episode, I figured it was time to head out.  As the sun was going to set soon, I didn't think I could get another flight in over the mangroves further up the river, so we called it a day.

Two days later, I met up with a couple of friends so they could get a feel for the drone.  We figured Daan Forest Park (大安森林公園) would have nice, open spaces for us to launch, although in reality there were lots of people around due to the holidays.  We eventually found a park bench to put our bags and launched from the path in front of the bench.

One of our friends live in a luxury apartment building next to the park, so I jokingly sent the drone in front of the building to take a picture.  It's too bad that our friend lives above the flight ceiling of 60 m... otherwise I would have flown it right up to his window and snapped a few pics!

I did try out the ActiveTrack mode and tried to have the Mavic Pro follow my friend.  In general it works reasonably well, and even managed to re-acquire the target when it was briefly obscured by a street lamp.  But when my friend tried to trick the drone by ducking under a gazebo with adjacent tree cover and coming out on the other side... the Mavic Pro wasn't able to keep track when she went out of range.  Oh well.

Today was my last day in Taipei, and I went out by the river to test out more of the intelligent flight modes - in spite of the very strong winds.  Even at an altitude of 1.2 m, it was clear that the gusts of wind was affecting the Mavic Pro's performance.

I tried out the different modes under ActiveTrack - Trace, Spotlight, and Profile.  I kinda got the gist of them, although I probably need more practice with Profile since it didn't work as well as I had imagined.


The Point of Interest mode was the one that I really wanted to try, and I picked out the large tree that's always been visible from my apartment as the test subject.  I tried to center the drone on top, set the altitude as well as the radius, and sent the Mavic Pro circling the tree.  It was then that I realized that the tree was no longer as healthy as it had once been...

It's been a very good week in terms of flying my drone.  Although I've had a couple of close calls, I still have my Mavic Pro, intact, and have gained much confidence when it comes to maneuvering the craft.  I'm looking forward to taking it to Bali and Bangkok later this month!

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