Apple Fan Dreams of an Apple Drone

We have Apple products atop our desks, in our pockets and, soon, on our wrists. As if there aren’t enough Apples in our airspace, one man is nudging his favorite company to design a quadrocopter. He’s even taken a stab at designing his dream Apple drone — and was careful to remain faithful to the Jony Ive aesthetic.

Eric Huisman presents his Apple drone concept like a classic Apple ad, with the product photographed on a seamless white background, perfectly lit, with a subtle shadow.

Huisman sees it in a white, industrial plastic with curves reminiscent of the iMac G3 from 2001.

“With the ‘Apple Drone’, the company could usher in the next era,” Huisman writes in German on his site. “The design is in typical Apple style: A shiny white combined with dark blacks that leave the drone look very noble and high quality.”

The curves of his Apple drone are not for design purposes only. His concept equips the quadrocopter with four cameras, each with an extreme wide-angle lens capable of shooting 4K video at 60 frames per second.

The cameras would be networked to produce “breathtaking” panoramic views. Oh, and streaming to YouTube would be part of the camera function.

Huisman doesn’t mention any practical challenges like weight, a slot for a micro SD card or battery power.

But presumably, he has enough faith in Apple’s design team to make such a drone unlike any other hovering above. Seems like he just wanted to nudge them with the idea.

Want to fly a drone? You may need a RPA licence says the SACAA

Cape Town — South Africa is taking the lead in Africa by joining seven other states at an International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO) Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Symposium to discuss how existing aviation rules need to evolve to meet the challenges in order to introduce Drones, as they are commonly referred to — safely and securely into public airspace.

ICAO is hosting the RPAS Symposium from 23 – 25 March 2015, bringing together key partners from civil aviation authorities, international organisations and the civil aviation industry, including RPAS manufacturers and operators, as well as other aerospace stakeholders such as research organisations and academia.

“This opportunity will enable South Africa, as represented by the SACAA, to showcase to other states, Air Navigation Service Panels (ANSPs) and operators, how the development of draft RPAS regulations was achieved, and once approved how they will be applied,” said Phindiwe Gwebu, South African Civil Aviation Authority spokesperson.

SACAA Senior Manager for Certification, Subash Devkaran says the key challenges and areas of concern when it comes to the use of RPAS, or drone are ultimately safety, security and privacy.

“SA as an ICAO signatory state member will be looking at how existing aviation rules need to evolve to meet these challenges,” said Devkaran.

While previously the SACAA referred to drones as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), the draft legislation now officially refers to it as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) and rightly so says Devkaran since this is in fact an aircraft whose “pilot just happens to be sitting on the ground”.

According to the draft regulation, an operator of an RPAS will be required to have a specific RPAS pilot’s license from a SACAA accredited school or institution — if it is being used for Commercial, Corporate or non-profit use.

Currently the SACAA RPAS Draft regulations is awaiting approval from the Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters and until it has been signed into law — the use of these systems however remain illegal according to the SACAA.

Devkaran states the Symposium aims to look at the complications drones pose in relation to the challenges of safety, security as well as privacy.

“An RPA is very different to a manned aircraft, the pilot is able to very accurately identify what the aircraft is doing as well establish its position in relation to other aircraft as well as interpret effects of certain situation or weather on the aircraft.”

With RPAs safety is compromised since these aircrafts are not certified in any way, says Devkaran.

“RPAs could easily fall out of the sky and crash. They could fall down and land on a person, with the propellers slicing them up. It could fall on and kill a baby or an adult or even crash land on a motorway, hitting a motorcyclist. Worst case scenario is that it could collide with another aircraft, causing a major catastrophe.”

Devkaran says the RPAs have and can continue to pose enormous security risks, since they could easily be used in terrorist attacks, simply by attaching a bomb to it.

Recently a drone was able to land on the lawns of the White House in the US, adding to security concerns that RVA’s could be exploited by terrorists.

Added to this, says Devkaran are concerns around privacy, since the devices are often equipped with video cameras that could mean a live stream or video recording can be done anonymously through bedroom windows for example. For this reason drones need some sort of registration record, for both the pilot and the device — which will be the case going forward once the regulations have been approved.

The SACAA RPAS regulation currently awaiting approval from Minister Peters states:

Operations as a hobbyist are subject to the terms of Part 94, whereas private use is restricted in terms of Regulation 101.01.4 of the Civil Aviation Regulations.

(a) The RPAS may only be used for an individual’s personal and private purposes where there is no commercial outcome, interest or gain;

(b) The RPA may only be operated over property for which the operator has ownership or permission;

(c) The RPAS can only be used in Restricted Visual Line of Sight which means within 500m of the pilot, and never to exceed the height of the highest obstacle within 300m of the pilot, during which the pilot can maintain direct unaided visual contact with the device to manage its flight and collision avoidance; and

(d) The pilot must observe all statutory requirements relating to liability, privacy and any other laws enforceable by any other authorities.

For all other use, which includes, non-profit, corporate and commercial:

(a) the RPA must first be approved by the South African Civil Aviation Authority for use by way of an RPA Letter of Authority (RLA);

(b) all RPAs must be registered by the South African Civil Aviation Authority prior to use;

(c) an RPA may only be operated in terms of Part 101 of the South African Civil Aviation Regulations which includes specific requirements that the operator shall hold an RPA Pilot License; and

(d) no RPA may be sold to any person under the age of 18.

SA, one of the few countries to have submitted draft legislation for approval on the use of RPAS, will present together with seven other states, amongst them the Czech Republic, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the Unites States of America at the symposium.

“This is a major milestone for South Africa as a state and is set to position us as thought leaders in the area of RPAS. Given the comprehensiveness of the current draft regulations, it is anticipated that the rest of the world will focus on South Africa for benchmarking purposes,” said Gwebu.

Amazon And Google Delivery Drones Will Likely Fly In Europe First

Recent developments in European aviation regulations mean that innovators like Amazon, Google and DHL will likely find a more permissive environment in Europe than in America. That environment makes it increasingly likely that Amazon and their competitor’s first delivery drone flights will be taking place in Europe, not in America.

Europe’s claim to drone innovation comes as the EASA (Europe’s version of the FAA) released a new policy framework for dealing with drones. The agency has decided to treat drones as their own category of aircraft, rather than trying to squeeze them into the framework for manned aviation.

This doesn’t happen by accident, global innovation arbitrage is underway. Europe has decided to embrace innovation, as evidenced by the “Riga Declaration On Remotely Piloted Aircraft (Drones).” In that declaration high-level opinion leaders from EU Member States and institutions, as well as international aviation organizations and members of aviation industry, stated:

Today Europe is taking a decisive step towards the future of aviation. The European aviation community gathered in Riga to exchange views on how, and under which conditions, drones can help create promising new opportunities in Europe, offering sustainable jobs and new prospects for growth both for the manufacturing industry and for future users of drones in all sectors of society. Drones offer new services and applications going beyond traditional aviation and offer the promise to perform existing services in a more affordable and environmentally friendly way. They are a truly transformational technology.

The aviation community at Riga established guiding principles for regulators. They focused on the need for regulators to treat drones as new types of aircraft with proportionate rules based on the risk of each operation and urged regulators to quickly create rules to value innovation and allow for drone services to be developed immediately. Those principles in the Riga Declaration are clearly reflected in the EASA’s regulatory framework.

What does this mean for Amazon, Google, DHL and other drone delivery services? Well, the new regulatory framework means that these innovators will have a clear path towards flying in Europe. They can plan and design their products to address safety concerns, rather than plan around arbitrary rules based on the last century’s aviation technology. That’s important for research and development because they can now innovate with an eye toward performance, rather than developing technology to meet a one-size-fits-all regulatory box.

This is made possible because the EASA’s new regulatory framework creates three categories of operations, and delivery drones squarely fit into the middle category, known as “specific.”

Specific operations are, in part:

  • Those operations that pose significant aviation risks to persons on the ground or which involve sharing airspace.
  • Operations in this category require an assessment of each aviation risk, and mitigation steps that are agreed to with aviation authorities prior to the operation.
  • The minimum level of safety for airworthiness will be based on the results of a safety risk assessment. That assessment may allow compliance with industry standards to satisfy the necessary mitigation of risks, or it may require specific limitations on the operations, special qualifications for the personnel, or other considerations. In some risk situations, the drone itself may need to be certified, or specific safety devices may be required by the approval authority.
  • The airworthiness assessment is closely linked to the operational environment, thus operations close to crowds could be acceptable when the vehicle has some additional functionality (e.g. automatic loss of link procedures, impact energy limiting devices, etc.).

This regulatory framework gives Amazon, Google, and DHL room to plan. They can build sophisticated platforms with sense and avoid capabilities, ADS-B, redundant hardware, etc. Companies are already creating these types of systems. I’ve advised a company called Olaeris whose Aeva drone sends and receives ADS-B, uses Lidar for sense and avoid, features a 360 degree HD pilot view with ADSB overlay, uses a 12-channel scramble encrypted communications link, has a self aware control system that monitors all on board systems, features VHF airband to communicate and cooperate with Air Traffic Control and features multi-redundant backups to all flight sensors, subsystems and equipment.

I’m certain drone innovators can build systems that address safety concerns, and in fact we may someday see the day where unmanned aircraft are safer than manned aircraft. The EASA has signaled that technological solutions to safety problems are welcome in Europe, so long as a risk assessment is done and operators can prove they’ve mitigated safety risks.

Granted, the path to that future is a challenging technical problem, but what EASA has done is removed arbitrary regulatory hurdles, allowing engineers to do what they do best — design and innovate. Europe is not Pollyannaish, they recognize that integration of drones will present challenges. Delivery drones in particular are a very different type of operation than those which take place today. In their words:

today flying a single drone in non-segregated airspace with cooperative aircraft can be done with appropriate coordination and special procedures, operation of several of them possibly with non-cooperative aircraft will be much more complicated and will require additional measures. The concept of operations will need to be further developed to address the issues related to operations of fleet of drones in the non-segregated airspace. These operations of fleet of drones will pose new challenges not yet explored with manned aircraft operations.

To meet those challenges requires innovators to develop new detect & avoid capabilities, new ways of dealing with airspace and airport access, command & control communications systems development, analysis of human factors, and more research into autonomy.

European regulators have not run from this challenge, and instead have embraced it. This means that when Amazon, Google and DHL drones are proven safe, the regulatory environment in Europe will be ready to welcome them into European airspace.

Drones Invade Hollywood

Four actors jump between rooftops and sprint through sheets drying on clotheslines while a camera tracks them from above, hovering close enough to see their faces. The sequence, filmed in Bogotá for the coming Netflix drug-war series, “Narcos,” was too intimate to capture by helicopter and too intricate to choreograph easily from the ground.

Cue the drone.

On the day of the shoot, a small unmanned aircraft, propellers spinning at the end of its eight spidery arms, lifted off the ground. Below it, two men operating the drone and its camera lightly thumbed joysticks on consoles to record the shot.

In recent weeks, drones have contributed to a hostage scene in “Scandal” and flown circles around Mary J. Blige in a music video. A drone buzzed the Kremlin for “Fast and Furious 6” and chased a speed boat over Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River for the coming “Mechanic: Resurrection,” according to people who worked on the aerials for both films. One unmanned aircraft swooped over the tree canopy for “Into the Woods” and another soon will gallop along the Chinese landscape for the Matt Damon film “The Great Wall.”

Used for everything from car commercials to news programs to televised sports, drones are becoming a permanent addition to aerial photographers’ toolboxes thanks to their relative ease, agility and low cost.

The remote-controlled aircraft are creating a new visual vocabulary in entertainment, delivering the stunning aerials once reserved for big-budget movies to even mundane projects. Pilots try stunts like weaving through the spokes of a ferris wheel, careening around a live volcano or hovering over a shark’s open mouth. The drone’s signature is getting more familiar: shots that descend from high up and zoom through a tight space, speed low to the ground facing straight into the action or lift from intimate angles to huge panoramas in a single fluid movement.

“Whenever you have a tool at your disposal that allows you to tell the story more efficiently and more poignantly, you use it,” said Pieter Jan Brugge, executive producer of the Amazon series “Bosch,” which recently sent a drone over a concrete bank along the Los Angeles River. The sequence, which shows a Los Angeles police detective growing smaller on the ground as the camera rises to reveal the vast city, is meant to underscore the daunting manhunt. “The shot tells the story.”

With the technology still new, Hollywood is split over whether the aircraft are artistic tools or flying buzz saws. Aerial film experts worry that with a low barrier to entry—buy it and fly it, the saying goes—one stupid mistake could ruin the drone business for everyone.

“You really have to know what you’re doing,” said Alan Purwin, co-founder of Team5, a Van Nuys, Calif.-based company staffed by longtime Hollywood film pilots and aerial cinematographers that supplied the drone work for the “Narcos” shoot in Colombia. He cautioned against newcomers who don’t have experience on high-pressure film sets. “You get an animated director yelling and screaming at you, you hit the wrong switch, the drone goes left instead of right and you go right into an actor’s face.”

Across the world of arts and entertainment, from fine-art photography to live performance, drone cinematography is fast becoming an essential new specialty. Disney recently applied for patents to deploy the machines in its theme-park shows, proposing using swarms of drones for light displays and sending them into the air as floating movie screens. The company is also looking into using drones to manipulate “flying marionettes” in the sky. “The inventors recognized that presently there are no mechanisms for creating very large aerial displays such as a display that is reusable/repeatable, dynamic, and interactive,” the Disney applicants wrote in their U.S. patent application.

The Federal Aviation Administration bars most drone flights for profit—only hobbyists can use them legally. But late last year, the agency began issuing exemptions to certain companies using drones in fields such as real estate and engineering. Last week, it granted permission for outdoor testing to Amazon, which has plans to use drones to deliver packages.

A handful of aerial production firms around Hollywood are getting the go-ahead, too. Michael Shabun, Los Angeles-based brand partnerships manager for drone maker SZ DJI Technology Co., estimates the Chinese company’s equipment has been used to gather footage for more than 20 TV and film projects so far. “That number is going to go through the roof in the next couple of months the more exempted pilots are popping up,” he said. Fees for a drone and crew are at least $2,000 a day on a film set. The equivalent for a helicopter and team starts at $10,000.

At the Los Angeles shoot for Mary J. Blige’s video, “Doubt,” a drone was a quick solution given the tight budget and short turnaround time. Ms Blige performed without flinching as the aircraft circled around her in a theater, said Danny Lockwood, Capitol Records senior vice president of creative and video production. “The drone is really loud—it’s like having a helicopter buzzing near your head—but she was very much in the head space of that song and was quite unflappable.”

Use of the aircraft in film stretches back more than a decade, but lately even the Hollywood establishment is paying its respects: director Martin Scorsese sent a drone over a beachside party in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and a drone-related device won an Oscar for scientific and technical achievement last year. In the coming days, a drone is expected to fly around central London for supplemental footage for the coming “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation.”

As unmanned aircraft assume a bigger role in Hollywood, the industry is debating who should be at the controls. Veteran cinematographers and helicopter pilots say their skills naturally transfer to these devices—like drones, aerial cameras are operated by remote control from the helicopter cockpit. They caution against drone work by amateurs without FAA exemptions, citing everything from shaky footage to reckless piloting. They also complain that they’re losing TV commercials, music videos and other jobs involving drone aerials to these rivals.

Unregulated drone pilots, many of whom grew up on videogames and have formidable skills at remote-control consoles, say they can shoot spectacular footage cheaper and faster than the larger companies working through government channels. While drone pilots from FAA-exempted companies need to get clearance for a flight, these upstarts don’t have to deal with the red tape. It’s a gray market that’s hard to regulate—a drone can fly for five minutes, grab video and get packed up again before anyone sees it.

“Our focus is on education and having people understand what they can and can’t do, and if we see an operation that’s unsafe we have taken civil enforcement action—we can fine them,” said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

Corridor Digital, a Los Angeles firm that doesn’t have federal approval to fly drones commercially, makes short films for videogame companies and recently began directing a series sponsored by AT&T for the photo messaging app Snapchat. Corridor Digital co-founder Niko Pueringer, a puckish 29-year-old who stocked his company with old high-school friends from Stillwater, Minn., said he uses common sense when flying drones, including taking the aircraft to deserted areas for shoots. “Technically we’re pushing the rules when we use drones for our own videos, but no one’s really messed up badly,” he said.

Pilots who don’t have government exemptions sometimes fly in countries with looser rules or work “free” in the U.S. while charging extra for, say, a van rental or consulting. Some attach a string to their drone to get around restrictions on untethered aircraft. “There are laws, but it’s super easy to skirt them,” said Ajoy Mani, a visual effects supervisor who works with drones abroad and considers U.S. drone rules “bordering on draconian.”

Though no major drone accidents have been reported on movie sets, the machines do crash. Mr Mani oversaw unmanned aerials for the 2014 Sylvester Stallone movie, “The Expendables 3,” shot in Bulgaria, a country with fewer drone regulations. The shoot got off to a rocky start when a drone and its $15,000 camera plummeted into the Black Sea during a boat chase, he said. No one was hurt and the footage and equipment were recovered, Mr Mani said, but the roughly $30,000 lens required extensive repairs.

Currently, the FAA requires many of the exempted pilots using a drone commercially to have at least a private pilot’s license, fly the drone within the line of sight, never fly at night and file flight plans with the agency in advance. The drones now have tail numbers, like airplanes, and there’s talk they’ll one day carry radio devices sending signals to nearby air traffic control facilities.

Last month, the FAA released proposed rules for small, unmanned aircraft that would allow commercial flights as long as operators pass a written aviation exam every two years and follow certain restrictions, like flying during daylight and within sight. Final regulations are expected sometime next year.

On the “Narcos” shoot, a licensed pilot and an aerial director of photography from Team5 were at the controls, with another crew member observing for safety. Filming the rooftop chase from the ground could have taken days, with five to 10 cameras along a carefully planned route, but not this time. The drone was set up and ready to go in less than a half-hour.

3D Robotics introduces DroneKit API

3D Robotics has launched its DroneKit open-source Application Program Interface (API) which is intended to help simplify the writing of drone apps. DroneKit can be used to program drones that use the APM flight controller by ArduPilot, giving developers the ability to write a wide range of web-based drone apps, smartphone apps as well as apps that run in drones.

Without an API such as DroneKit, developers can still manipulate a flight controller but the process is a lot more complicated and requires a deep understanding of programming. Using an open-source API makes the whole process a lot faster and easier.

DroneKit can be used to write apps for quadcopters such as the 3D Robotics Iris+

With DroneKit, developers can program drones to fly waypoint navigation, follow a GPS target, manipulate camera gimbal systems and transmit flight telemetry. Developers can also log a drone’s flight data and view it later for analysis. 3D Robotics — the largest US-based drone manufacturer, expects DroneKit to be used in a wide variety of applications from agriculture to aerial photography. Besides multirotor drones, the API will also work for planes, boats and other autonomous vehicles that make use of the popular APM autopilot.

DroneKit will leverage on the features of ArduPilot’s popular APM flight controllers.

Walkera QR X350 Pro (Long Term Review)

In my earlier review of the Walkera QR X350 Pro, I had given my initial impressions of Walkera’s entry-level 350-size quadcopter. Most of it were good but that was nearly three months ago and since then I’ve had some really interesting experiences with it, culminating in a spectacular crash a few days ago which resulted in a ruined quad and close to $300 in damages.

Suffice to say, my experience of owning the X350 Pro has not been all rosy and although my initial impressions of it were generally good, three months of flying it has revealed flaws that were not obvious in the beginning.

Poor Implementation of APM AutoPilot

For a start, the APM-based Devo M flight controller that comes with the X350 Pro appears to be a botched up version of the original APM by ArduPilot. My initial problems with the X350 Pro centered around its erratic flight behavior which usually happens after I tweaked around with some simple parameters in Mission Planner such as the RTL height. After hours of researching I found out that I wasn’t alone and that other X350 Pro owners have also experienced the same problems.

My X350 Pro during happier times.

In case you are facing the same issue with erratic flight behavior after tweaking around in Mission Planner, the only way to restore your X350 Pro back to factory settings is to load the original parameter list which is available on the RCGroups forum. To restore the original list, connect your X350 Pro to Mission Planner (without connecting the battery). Click on the Config/Tuning tab in Mission Planner and select “Full Parameter List”. In the Full Parameter List screen, click on “Load” to load the original parameter file. Parameters in the original list that differs from your current parameters will be highlighted in green. This gives you a visual idea of how different your list is from the original one. Once loaded, click on “Write” to overwrite the parameters in your X350 Pro. Once restored your X350 Pro should fly properly unless there is some hardware damage or calibration problem.

My badly damaged Devo M flight controller. The Devo M is the main culprit of many X350 Pro crashes apart from pilot error.

The general advice now for any X350 Pro owner is this — use Mission Planner only for waypoint navigation and nothing else, unless you are an ArduPilot developer and know exactly what you’re doing. Any attempt to tweak around with your quad’s parameters, even basic ones, will result in a X350 Pro that won’t fly properly. It seems the cause of this problem is how Walkera implemented the APM-based Devo M flight controller. Some APM features have either been locked or improperly tweaked around with, which means the Devo M flight controller does not behave like other flight controllers that make use of the APM Autopilot Suite.

Low Voltage Cutoff — the X350 Pro’s Own Suicide Feature

Perhaps the most critical flaw in the X350 Pro is its Low Voltage Cutoff (LVC) feature which has been blamed by countless X350 Pro owners for causing their quads to crash or drop very fast from the air. Ironically, the LVC feature was intended to prevent damage by preventing batteries from over-discharging. Both the X350 and X350 Pro are known to crash due to issues with the LVC.

So how does the LVC cause crashes? When flying your X350 Pro, the voltage in your battery will occasionally drop to 10.75V or less. This is normal and usually last only a split second but when the flight controller detects this drop in voltage, it will attempt to cut off power to the motors in an attempt to save the battery from over-discharging. What happens when the LVC kicks in during a flight? You guessed that right — a plumetting X350 Pro.

In my case, I learnt my LVC lesson the hard way.

With that said, you might be wondering why did Walkera incorporate LVC in the X350 Pro anyway since it can potentially cause the quad to drop like a rock from high altitude. Surely, choosing to preserve the battery at the expense of destroying the entire quad just simply doesn’t make sense.

Well, LVC is a safety feature meant to save RC airplanes from crashing when battery power runs low. When a battery is depleted, power to both the propeller and steering servos gets cut off simultaneously, resulting in a crash. With LVC, the plane’s flight controller will shut off the propeller first in order to save some power for the steering servos. This allows the pilot to save the plane by performing a “dead-stick landing” — a type of forced landing when an aircraft loses all of its propulsive power and is forced to land.

In an RC airplane, LVC is intended to protect both the airplane and battery from damage. While LVC is an essential safety feature in RC airplanes, it simply has no place in a quadcopter which uses its propellers for both propulsion and steering. The APM AutoPilot was designed to be used by a variety of unmanned vehicles, including RC airplanes which rely on the LVC feature. Since the X350 makes use of the APM AutoPilot, someone at Walkera probably forgot to turn LVC off.

Due to this reason, X350s have been crashing so often that owners eventually found out the cause and fixed it themselves. It’s puzzling why Walkera hasn’t solved the LVC issue in the X350 Pro although the problem has been plaguing the line since the earlier X350.

However, if you’re a proud owner of a X350 Pro, it’s not the end of the world for your quad. As I mentioned just now, there is a DIY solution for disabling LVC. You can read about it at the RCGroups forum here. If you don’t have the time to read, this short video explains the LVC mod in about 5 minutes.

If you’ve just bought a new X350 Pro, my advice is never fly without disabling the LVC unless you enjoy seeing your quad do heart-stopping kamikaze dives. However, once you have disabled LVC, you will have no way of knowing how much power your battery has if you don’t have live telemetry readings from your quad when flying. Remember that draining your 11.1V 3-cell 5200mAh battery to 10V or less can cause some serious damage. An effective and affordable way to deal with this risk is to install a battery voltage checker with buzzer.

I’d recommend a Integy C23212 voltage checker which costs less than $5 on Amazon with shipping. The Integy C23212 not only shows your battery’s voltage, it can also be used to check the voltage on each battery cell and has a buzzer to warn you if the voltage drops below a certain value (this lower limit is programmable). Just plug in the voltage checker into the balance port of your battery for it to work.

The Integy C23212 Lipo Voltage Checker can help cure “kamikazelitis” in your X350 Pro.

Another essential item to have when flying your X350 Pro is a stopwatch. Bear in mind that you may not always hear the buzzer on your voltage checker, especially when your quad is some distance away. This is why having a stopwatch or timer to time your flights is important. A X350 Pro without any extra payload has a flight time of about 25 minutes. A fully loaded X350 Pro with camera and gimbal will fly for about 15 minutes so having a timer will give you a rough idea when it is time to land before your battery gets damaged from being over-discharged.

Camera Gimbal System

My X350 Pro’s epic crash from 60m in the air resulted in a badly mangled G-2D gimbal. This wasn’t surprising since it landed on hard tarmac. The impact had caused the Devo M flight controller to be pancaked, apart from crushing the plastic body like an egg shell and causing damage to various other parts such as the power distribution board and landing skids. Surprisingly, the iLook+ camera survived the crash intact with only a small dent at the bottom. I had installed a lens protector which got shattered but managed to protect the front element of the lens from scratches or getting cracked. The iLook+ is still capable of taking videos (and transmitting video), still photos and audio and record them on a memory card. Kudos to Walkera for building such a sturdy camera.


Without the LVC issue and botched implementation of the APM AutoPilot, the X350 Pro is actually a nice and reliable quadcopter to own and fly. It’s a shame that Walkera had to ship the X350 Pro with these critical flaws and leaving Walkera fans to fend for themselves. With such flaws, the X350 Pro is certainly in no position to challenge the DJI Phantom 2 which is known to be more reliable. Disabling the LVC and installing a voltage checker in their products shouldn’t be a costly move but exactly why Walkera hasn’t done this with the X350 Pro is simply beyond my understanding.

What’s left of my X350 Pro’s plastic body. I plan to salvage the usable parts to build a 250-size quad soon.

I hope Walkera has been listening to the problems faced by X350 Pro owners and will not repeat the same mistakes on the upcoming X350 Ultimate which is due to be released soon. If you already own a X350 Pro or plan to get one soon, there is no reason to panic or cancel your order. Just remember to disable the LVC and not mess around with parameters in Mission Planner and your X350 Pro will fly just fine.

Facebook wants solar drone to bring Internet far and wide

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a giant Internet router?

That could be the reaction later this year when Facebook gets its high-flying, wide-wingspan drone off the ground.

At its F8 conference on Thursday, Facebook revealed that it had made a first test flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle. That drone, though, was a small-scale model — used to test out the aerodynamics — of a much larger, and solar-powered, one that the company aims to send aloft as it works to bring the Internet to millions more people around the world.

The big Facebook drone, called Aquila, will hold its first test flight this summer, Facebook vice president of engineering Jay Parikh told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Thursday.

“The idea of this,” Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, told an audience at F8, “is to loiter across an area at very high altitude — 60,000 to 90,000 feet in the air — stand on station for months at a time and beam down backbone Internet access.”

The boomerang-shaped Aquila will weigh only about as much as a small car, but will have the wingspan of a Boeing 737. Those dimensions are similar to the proportions of the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft, which carries a human pilot and which earlier this month embarked on a first-ever round-the-world journey. In both designs, the solar panels are built into the wings.

The use of solar energy could help with the aspirations to keep the aircraft aloft for “months at a time.” The earlier prototype Solar Impulse aircraft charged its batteries as it flew during the day and then drew on that energy to keep flying through the night. But aircraft with pilots aboard can quickly run into the limitations of human endurance.

Drones are another matter. In 2010, a lightweight, solar-powered unmanned aircraft called the Qinetiq Zephyr set a remarkable world record, flying nonstop for just over 336 hours — that is, two full weeks.

By comparison, Boeing has been test-flying, in short spurts, a liquid hydrogen-powered unmanned aircraft called the Phantom Eye that it wants eventually to be capable of four days of unrefueled autonomous flight. Northrop Grumman’s remotely piloted Global Hawk has flown for as long as 34 hours.

The Aquila mission is part of a broader desire on the part of Facebook, the world’s largest social network, to bring Web access to underserved countries through its initiative. is looking into a wide range of technologies, including lasers and satellites, that could be used to beam Internet access to people around the globe.

Under the program, the drones would fly over areas where Internet access is either unavailable or spotty at best.

“Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10% of the world’s population that live in remote communities without existing internet infrastructure,” Facebook CEO said in a post to the social network.

Internet giant Google, meanwhile, has its own aerial programs to help people get online. Project Loon, developed by the company’s oft-secretive Google X laboratory, aims to beam Internet access from balloons. Google also has a drone program in the works.

Parikh told the Journal that it’s unlikely that Facebook will have a real program in place anytime soon, saying that the company needs to adequately test safety and feasibility before drones offering Internet access are actually put into action. He didn’t say when the program might launch.

There’s also the issue of where that access comes from. According to the Journal, Facebook is content to partner with mobile carriers to offer Web access and will not provide its own service to users.

Hubsan X4 Pro H109S (Preview)

If you spent money on a Yuneec Q500 or DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ earlier this year, you’d be pulling your hair when you read this news. The long-awaited Hubsan X4 Pro H109S — the quadcopter that got a lot of multi-rotor enthusiasts excited when it was showcased at CES 2015, is now available for pre-order at major sites like Amazon, BH Photo and Ebay. Now considering that the X4 Pro is going to sell for less than $1300 with shipping, you can understand why anyone who bought the Q500 or P2V+ would feel they missed out on an irresistible deal.

For the uninitiated, the X4 Pro is a 380-size quadcopter that earned itself a significant following when it was first announced about a year ago and has specifications that puts it in the same class as the Yuneec Q500 and other similar quads. Unfortunately, due to numerous delays in its release, many who waited for the X4 Pro eventually gave up waiting and bought the Q500 instead when it started selling earlier this year. Now you can understand why patience can sometimes be rewarding.

Or is it so?


Development in the consumer multi-rotor industry progresses at the speed of a 2300kV brushless motor so it’s not surprising why the Q500 is now finding its position threatened by the new kid on the block just 3 months after it started selling. But then again, every 3 or 4 months we see a new model being released with each model becoming the rage almost instantly before getting eclipsed by another new model in just a few months.

I guess patience doesn’t really matter when it comes to shopping for consumer drones, at least for the time being. In an industry that progresses so fast, it makes the smartphone industry look like a turtle, playing the waiting game probably won’t pay off considering that new drones are released with such frequency.


  • Size: 30×30×20cm
  • Diagonal size: 38cm
  • Weight: 1400g
  • Battery: 11.1V 7000mAh 25C
  • Flight time : 40 minutes
  • Top vertical speed: 36km/h
  • Ascending rate: 3m/s
  • Camera: 13MP HD, 1080P
  • FPV transmission range: 1500M
  • FPV frame rate: 30fps
  • Motor: 4 brushless motors
  • Control range: 1500m
  • Channels: 10, two-way transmission

The X4 Pro marks Hubsan’s first stab at the 300-size quadcopter market. Hubsan has been around for some time, producing highly popular RC models such as the X4 series mini quadcopters and RC airplanes so it’s going to be pretty interesting to see if the X4 Pro can gain a following similar to its smaller siblings.

Details about the X4 Pro are still a bit murky for now and the Hubsan website only shows hyped-up marketing material with little detail apart from its basic specifications. However, based on what little information there is, the X4 Pro appears to be a very promising quad.

Some Pretty Impressive Features

The X4 Pro comes with a monster 7000mAh battery which is probably the largest battery to be shoved into a 300-size quad which should raise plenty of eyebrows (and throttle sticks). With such a large battery, Hubsan claims the X4 Pro has a flight time of about 40 minutes. If this is true then the X4 has not only the largest battery but also the longest flight time for a drone in the consumer multi-rotor category!

It’s not clear if the 40 minutes flight time includes the camera gimbal system or without it. The 40 minutes claim could very well be marketing hype. My guess is that it could fly for about 35 minutes without the camera gimbal system and about 25 minutes with it which is still class-leading if this were true.

The list of impressive specs doesn’t end there. The X4 Pro also boasts a parachute which makes it the first consumer drone to include one in a standard kit. Drone parachutes such as the Mars Mini are not new and they’ve been around for some time but they tend to be costly (around $200 to $300). So it’s nice to see Hubsan include one in a sub $2,000 drone.

The X4 Pro features a parachute — the first consumer quadcopter to come with one.

Apart from these interesting features and specs, the X4 Pro appears to be similar to other 300-size consumer quadcopters in terms of dimensions, weight, motors and radio transmission range.

Flight Controller

Hubsan has not given much detail about the X4 Pro’s flight controller apart from claiming that it is capable of performing waypoint navigation and other GPS features such as automatic takeoff, hover and return to launch.

The only other quad in the 300-size category that can perform waypoint navigation is the Walkera QR X350 Pro which uses an APM-based flight controller. This brings me to suspect that the X4 Pro may also be running a flight controller that uses the APM AutoPilot.


The X4 Pro has a pretty impressive dual frequency 10-channel transmitter that makes other transmitters in the same class look like toys. It is a lot larger than transmitters that typically come with 300-size quads and features a 4.3″ color LCD touchscreen for displaying an Android-based OS that allows you to view First-Person-View (FPV) video feed, settings, waypoints, etc. Above this screen is a smaller LCD screen that displays telemetry data.

Looking at the various pre-order listings, it appears the X4 Pro might be shipped in different configurations that includes two different types of transmitters — the more expensive one described above and a cheaper trimmed down version that appears to be the same transmitter used by the Hubsan H301S Spy Hawk airplane.

The X4 Pro’s single display transmitter appears to be the same one used by the Hubsan Spy Hawk.

My guess is the more expensive dual-screen transmitter will be shipped with a kit that costs $1,300 to compete against the Q500 while the cheaper transmitter will go with a sub $1,000 kit.

Camera Gimbal System

Hubsan has chosen to include its very own 13MP HD aerial camera with the X4 Pro (It also says the X4 Pro is available in a GoPro configuration).

The X4 Pro comes with a 3-axis gimbal and 13MP HD aerial camera.

Accompanying this camera is a 3-axis gimbal system with a claimed angle sensitivity of 0.03 which is impressive considering that it is nearly as sensitive as the one on the Yuneec Q500.


At press time, details about the X4 Pro are still not very clear although some sellers have already started taking pre-orders. It’s quite possible that some specifications might change in the next few weeks.

Rumors swirling around at RC forums indicate the X4 Pro will start shipping some time in May or June.

At least on paper, the X4 Pro currently looks like a really good buy. My guess is Hubsan will ship the X4 Pro in at least 3 different kits:

  • The first fully-loaded kit will include the camera gimbal system and dual-screen transmitter selling for $1,300.
  • The second kit is a GoPro variation of the first kit with gimbal and dual-screen transmitter at a slightly cheaper price.
  • The third kit has no camera gimbal system and comes with the cheaper single screen transmitter selling for below $1,000.

With an impressive gimbal angle sensitivity of 0.03 degrees, the X4 Pro will appeal to buyers looking for an affordable aerial photography platform and should be able to provide decent video stabilization in the same league as the Yuneec Q500.

Video samples taken from the X4 Pro’s camera appears to be similar in quality to Walkera’s iLook+ but whether these samples have been doctored or not remains to be seen.

It would be very interesting to see how the X4 Pro flies with that huge 7000mAh battery fully loaded. Based on my experience with the Walkera X350 Pro, a fully loaded 350-size quad which has a 5200mAh battery with camera and gimbal can be unwieldy, especially when flown fast.

Will the X4 Pro struggle to maneuver when fully loaded? Or has Hubsan engineered a 380-size aerial photography platform that can fly gracefully for 40 minutes with a 7000mAh battery?

Only time will tell.

Watch this drone herd sheep like a sheepdog

Drones have many potential uses, from entertainment and news to spying and snooping. As they become increasingly more affordable, humans are only going to find more ways to leverage them, like to replace dogs.

More specifically, sheep farmer Paul Brennan has figured how to use a drone to do a sheepdog’s job. Introducing Shep the Drone:

Brennan has basically figured out that he can use a small drone to move the sheep in his care from one field to another with not much effort. The drone’s blaring sounds are likely enough to convince the sheep they want to move away from the weird, noisy unidentified flying object.

Speed up the clip, add some Benny Hill music, and you have comments like “I didn’t know dogs could operate drones.” Actually, it would not surprise us in the slightest if that was the next sensation: dogs using drones to chase squirrels. Just try picturing that without smiling.

To be fair, Shep the Drone can’t properly replace a sheepdog since it requires a human to control it. That said, it’s easy to see how, with some software, a drone could indeed get the job done. It would also possibly be more affordable, though it’s hard to say if it would be as effective. Sheepdogs have been doing this for hundreds of years, after all.

A drone naturally can’t replace the companionship a dog offers. Still, drones are finally here, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re everywhere, flying around and managing all sorts of business.

Amazon now testing delivery drones in Canada

After facing endless rounds of red tape in the US, Amazon is now conducting extensive testing of its delivery drones at British Columbia, Canada. According to The Guardian, the e-commerce giant decided to focus its testing program in Canada following repeated warnings that stringent aviation regulations in the US were impeding on its efforts to launch its drone delivery service there.

Amazon has so far been tight-lipped about its testing location in Canada where it currently has a large team of engineers and experts operating. Its Canadian testing program has drones of less than 55lbs flying between 200ft to 500ft above ground, carrying packages up to 5lbs and flying at speeds of up to 50mph. Packages of 5lbs or less make up roughly 86% of Amazon’s orders and the company hopes to deliver these packages within 30 minutes of ordering to customers who live within the service range of its warehouses via its drone delivery program — Prime Air.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had granted Amazon permission to conduct experimental testing of its drones in the US, the company says that decision had come too late and the drone design which it had submitted along with its application is now outdated, having been replaced by newer and better designs. The “experimental airworthiness certificate” which was granted by the FAA only allows the company to fly a specific drone design that has been approved. The process of granting the certificate itself took several months.

An outdated drone design that had been used my Amazon earlier in its testing program.

An outdated drone design that had been used my Amazon earlier in its testing program (Photo by Amazon).

In contrast, the license required by Amazon to test its drones in Canada took only 3 weeks to approve. The company now conducts frequent testing of its drones over a plot of land it had purchased just 2,000ft from the US border.

Prior to opening its Canadian test site, Amazon had been conducting indoor tests at its Seattle facility as well as at other research posts in the UK and Israel. Requests by Amazon to begin outdoor testing in Washington state have so far been unsuccessful thanks to federal regulators. Just last week, Amazon’s vice-president for global public policy Paul Misener spoke before a US Senate subcommittee and warned that the US may lose its edge in aviation development if federal regulators continued to hamper the development of the company’s drone delivery service.

While stringent aviation regulations in the US continue to show no signs of slacking, more outdoor facilities for testing and developing drone technology have sprung up in other countries. In Alberta, an area covering 700 square nautical miles of restricted airspace has already been dedicated to the testing of drones that fly beyond line of sight. A similar facility is also being opened in Europe.