Knowing pilots have reservations about sharing airspace with unmanned aircraft, drone manufacturer Yuneec came to Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, to showcase its latest products and give attendees a chance to try them out. Drone23, which provides sales support for the Chinese company in the United States, is staffing a large screened area where pilots can take a familiarization flight using the Typhoon Q500+, a Yuneec quadcopter that comes with a gimbaled high-definition still and video camera. Called an “aerial and ground imaging solution,” the system is meant to be used for personal and commercial photo and video operations. Yuneec’s CEO Tian Yu also formed GreenWing International, which is developing electric airplanes, such as the e430 and the eSpyder.
Ben Marcus, owner of Drone23, said customers use quadcopters such as the Typhoon for everything from videotaping real estate for sale to inspecting damaged roofs. Although the FAA prohibits commercial use without a waiver, customers are known to be using many drones for purposes that the agency would consider commercial operations.
Recognizing the issue, the FAA is expediting waiver approvals for all sorts of uses.
The drones come with software that does not allow them to be started within five miles of “major airports,” a process known as “geofencing,” or fly more than 400 feet above ground level. Marcus, who also owns NoFlyZone.org, says his goal is to help the drone industry launch safely and successfully. NoFlyZone.org allows property owners to register their addresses if they don’t want drones overflying them. That data is shared with drone manufacturers who can include it in drone navigation software to avoid those areas.
On the first day of Sun 'n Fun some 100 people flew familiarization sorties using the Typhoon, according to Marcus, who is also an airplane pilot. He expected some pilots to express concern about drones, but had not heard any complaints on the first day of the show.
The $1,100 system includes the drone and a battery pack, good for about 25 minutes of flight. The kit also includes a wall charger and car charger as well as the handheld control station, the gimbal, and camera. The ground station looks similar to a controller for a radio-controlled airplane with dual joy sticks to control climb/descent and yaw. The digital link to the drone provides the video signal back to the controller where the image is shown on a built-in 5.5-inch color display. The $1,250 kit adds in a second battery, aluminum travel case, and a SteadyGrip, which allows you to use the gimbal mount to shoot on the ground, with your smartphone as a view finder. Both kits are $100 off at the show.
I had a chance to fly the Typhoon and found it amazingly simple to use. Bump the left stick forward to cause it to lift off the ground and climb. When it gets to an acceptable altitude, let go and the joystick recenters, stopping the drone, which is then stabilized at that position in space, even accounting for wind drift. Bumping the right joystick causes the drone to yaw left or right, so you can turn the camera in any direction. A switch on the side controls the pitch of the camera. Buttons are used to shoot still images or turn on the video.
A Home button causes the drone to return to where it took off.
The biggest challenge is remembering which way to manipulate the controls when the drone is facing you, as then reverse inputs are needed. However, for beginner drone pilots, there is a switch that automatically accounts for the heading of the drone and allows the pilot to simply move the joystick left, for example, to have the drone always go left, no matter its orientation relative to the pilot.
Landing the Typhoon was far simpler than any helicopter I’ve ever flown. Simply lower it into ground effect and allow it to stabilize, and then pull the descent joystick back and it will on its own settle to the ground safely.
The Drone23 demo area is at LD12, located behind the FAA building on the show campus.