Ask most people what superhero skills they would want, and many would say they would love to be able to fly. Kids around the world pin on capes and run around with their arms out as they patrol the skies looking for danger and bad guys. Also, I don’t know about you, but I’m still looking for my Jetson’s space car. Even though that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, we do have the next best thing: drones.
Drones for Recon
Drones are multi-rotor aircraft that are portable, easy to fly, and affordable. While some see drones as only remote-controlled toys, there’s another way to use drones, as our eyes in the sky.
Using a drone as a flying camera gives us an actual bird’s eye view of our terrain, allowing us to see activities that we would not be able to from the ground. The cameras are very high quality with the ability to record 4K video and 20-megapixel images or better.
There are also drones with infrared thermal imaging capabilities. Imagine being able to fly a thermal imager around your property and seeing the live feed of anything with a heat signature walking around below. That’s a game-changer.
In addition to their high-end camera systems, drones also contain precision software and built in-flight systems that allow us to do everything from free flight, to flying automated patterns, and even three-dimensional mapping.
Worried you don’t have the skill to fly such a complicated piece of equipment? The great news is that you don’t need to be a computer scientist or flight engineer to work these things. One can learn to fly almost immediately upon takeoff, and the handheld remote systems can be used on a variety of different platforms, including both Android and iOS.
The new drones that have GPS stabilization will sit where you put them, regardless of winds upwards of 25 MPH. You can literally fly out, let go of the remote and the aircraft will wait and film from that spot patiently for as long as the battery holds out.
Generally, the higher end drones will have battery life allowing for 20-30 minutes of flight time. On some drones, when the battery runs low, it will return home and land.
Why Use Drones?
There are many good reasons to use drones as part of your disaster planning, including security patrolling, surveillance, scouting on missions, search and rescue, thermal imaging, mapping, delivery of supplies and much more.
The drone’s ability to provide an overhead view of both your own property and/or unfamiliar terrain means that it is a force multiplier. This means you can be in one place, yet simultaneously see in multiple places without requiring additional people to work alongside you, reporting what they see. There’s also the fact that you don’t have to rely on another person’s interpretation of what they are viewing. You can perform your own assessment, in live time.
Some people have asked, “But aren’t they noisy?” It is true that the sound of a drone resembles a swarm of hornets. Most of the rotor sounds come from sudden direction changes as the rotors bite the air in response to the remote-control commands. But, with some practice and being light on the controls, a good remote pilot can drift in at altitude with the sun behind and easily stay unseen and not heard. This makes them particularly stealthy for surveillance purposes.
Another bonus is that if you’re spotted by an opposing force (or just a nosy neighbor), they are extremely difficult to shoot down as long as they are moving and not down low hovering.
How to Photograph
Since we are looking at our drone as a flying camera, we want to put it in the best position to give accurate and clear images back to the remote control. Flying and composing images takes a great amount of spatial awareness, and when you add in the fact that the pilot is simultaneously trying to avoid obstacles such as trees and powerlines, it can be downright nerve-wracking.
Over time, you will get more comfortable flying, but you will have to practice mentally mapping everything around the airframe. Also bear in mind that in a survival situation, focusing on the drone means that you won’t be focusing on the area immediately surrounding you, so it would be best to get some help to watch your back while flying.
Rules and Safety
Before you run out and buy the latest quadcopter or multi-rotor airframe, take some time to consider where you’ll be flying and what you are trying to accomplish. There are restrictions in many areas near airfields, public gathering places, and critical infrastructure sites. Also, these rules are constantly changing as the technology continues to improve, and more and more drones are in the air.
In addition, safety is the most important consideration with drones. They really should be treated with the same safety mindset as firearms as they have high power spinning rotors and use lithium batteries.
The rotors can cause serious damage upon impact (or a near-miss), and the batteries, if they are damaged or left to get too hot, can cause a fire to break out. Lithium battery fires are difficult to extinguish. Google “Lithium Drone Battery Fire” if you need some scary images before bedtime.
How to Learn
When it comes to training and mission planning, there are a variety of apps and videos on how to account for weather issues, airspace restrictions, and other helpful tips and tricks.
It is strongly recommended to get your Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA. You only technically need it under certain circumstances, but the information you will learn in the process of studying for the certificate will go a long way to better understanding everything from airspace to flight dynamics to the five hazardous attitudes that can get us all in trouble.
As an added bonus, you’ll be able to say you’re a certified Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) pilot by the FAA!
What to Get
The best advice I can provide is to buy a quality drone that has onboard GPS, a high-quality camera, obstacle avoidance and a return to home feature. You’ll be into it for roughly $1800 to get started, but you will be less likely to watch it fly away forever.
Smaller, well-appointed portables with much of the same technology can be had for under $500 and are just fine as long as you choose a well-recommended brand.
It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Flying drones is a fun, family-friendly hobby with many valuable upsides for survival and disaster planning, and I maintain that it’s a whole lot easier to learn than HAM radio as a hobby. Cue the angry emails from our beloved amateur radio friends.
The moral of the story is to fly carefully and not beyond your experience or in unfavorable conditions and you’ll probably be just fine. The new drones almost fly themselves – almost. Just keep in mind the old adage of: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”
This article was originally published in Survival Dispatch Insider magazine Volume 4 Issue 2.
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