I’ve been reluctant to write about my hobbies these past few months because so many momentous and terrible things were taking place in the world—not just the Ukraine war, but the deepening crisis of American democracy and the decline of liberal democracy worldwide. Nonetheless, there’s been a convergence between my personal interests and these broader issues due to the rising importance of drone technology, and in any event—hey, it’s August!
There has now been extensive coverage of the importance of drones in the Ukraine war. Ukraine’s superior ability to use drone technology has been critical in holding back Russian advances, and may in the end determine its ability to expel Russia from territories occupied after February 24.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
At the beginning of the war, there were countless videos of Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 drones striking Russian armored vehicles and other military targets. The volume of these postings declined dramatically after the Russian withdrawal from Ukraine’s north for a couple of reasons. The Turkish TB2s are large and relatively expensive craft, and have proven vulnerable to Russian air defenses. Despite crowdfunding efforts in Poland and the Baltic states to buy new Bayraktars, and the company’s donation of new drones to Kyiv, the TB2’s cost effectiveness has declined.
The United States and other NATO countries have supplied other kinds of drones to Ukraine, including single-use Switchblades (apparently not very effective), Phoenix Ghosts (another loitering munition designed specifically for Ukraine), and mostly recently ScanEagle surveillance drones. There has been extensive coverage of Ukraine’s efforts to make its own drones, and some amazing videos of Ukrainian-modified commercial drones dropping unguided grenades through the open hatches of Russian tanks. These simple drones are far cheaper than TB2s and much harder to shoot down, but they are also a lot less lethal.
While a DJI drone obliterating a T-72 is very spectacular, the more important function of these craft is for surveillance and target spotting. Much has been made of the devastating effect of U.S. HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) on Russian ammo dumps and command posts, which with currently supplied rockets have a range of up to 50 kilometers. But they cannot deliver their highly precise strikes without spotters, either forward observers on the ground or drones in the air that can provide the exact coordinates of their targets. The Ukrainians have not fully incorporated these assets into an effective counter-battery system to neutralize Russian artillery, as the military journalist Illia Ponomarenko has explained; this is perhaps one of the gravest deficiencies that needs to be corrected before more of the south of the country is liberated.
So now we come to my own interest in drones. I first started flying drones when I moved to California in 2010. I built a DJI F450 and a U.S. Robotics hexacopter with a little help from Chris Anderson, the USR founder. It was clear to me back then that drones would change the nature of warfare, which I wrote about in the FT. The Chinese company DJI would go on to become the leading purveyor of ready-to-fly hobbyist drones, but back then you had to build their products from kits.
I stopped flying drones after a couple of years, however, because I found the activity too stressful. The drones back then were big and heavy and would do a lot of damage if you hit someone with one. It was easy to lose them in a tree or have them fly off beyond visual range. After I had an afib attack on one outing that left me calling to be rescued by an EMT, I decided to stop. I went on to build terrestrial rovers instead, which used the same technology but didn’t pose the same dangers to people and equipment.
Fast forward to 2022. The technology, unsurprisingly, has evolved enormously. Ten years ago, you had to fly a drone “line-of-sight,” meaning that you watched the drone from a fixed position on the ground. This is really hard, since the effect of your controls (pitch, elevator, aileron) change depending on the drone’s orientation toward the pilot. It was hard to tell how distant it was, or which direction the drone was flying when it got too far away from you.
Now we have FPV or “first person view” drones. The new generation of quadcopters have a tiny video camera mounted in the nose that sends back an image to the pilot of what the drone is seeing on the ground. Digital FPV systems provide hi-resolution images in which every branch and leaf of the tree below you is clearly visible, as well as extensive telemetry data providing GPS coordinates, altitude, power reserves, heading, and the like. A small drone with 4- or 5-inch propellers can fly many kilometers away from you, while carrying a separate hi-resolution video camera that will record 4K video of what the drone sees.
FPV drones are in one sense easier to fly than their line-of-sight predecessors. With the former, if you want to turn to the right you need to hit the right rudder and aileron when it is flying away from you, but the left controls when flying towards you. In FPV you don’t need this kind of compensation. In my experience, FPV flying poses a different challenge: you can fly the drone so far away from you that you get lost and can’t find a way back to your position, or else lose the radio signal and thus control of the drone. I’ve lost several drones in this fashion, and have spend large amounts of time tramping around the park to locate a drone that came down far from my position. It’s really not possible to fly drones without spending a lot of time practicing on a simulator.
FPV has created an entirely new hobby of FPV racing and freestyle flying, where pilots set up obstacle courses and fly their drones through abandoned factories and parking garages.
I have no particular interest in either of these activities; what I have wanted to do is to be able to take beautiful landscape videos. But here the problem is legal. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the State of California have established a lot of rules about flying drones. You need to register any drone weighing more than 250 grams with the FAA (I’ve registered all of my drones), and you can’t fly them higher than 400 feet or within three miles of an airport. You’re also not supposed to fly beyond line-of-sight without a spotter, which technically makes 99 percent of all actual FPV flying illegal. California restricts flying anywhere near its gorgeous coastline and over many state parks. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to capture a few shots:
The drones I fly could be employed for military purposes very easily. They could be used to geo-locate targets, assess bomb damage, or even be rigged, as the Ukrainians are doing, to drop small explosive devices. They are so small that they would be nearly impossible to shoot down. While they could be jammed, they can be pre-programmed to fly to a precise location by GPS without having to communicate with the operator. This is why the technology is spreading so rapidly and is becoming the weapon of choice of the weak.
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