Happily weird, Chattanooga is blessed in its fandoms. Case in point: drones.
Lydia Graham Jones arrives at a Dungeons & Dragons session laughing. In the trunk of her car, she has assorted unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs—or drones, as they’re often called. She’s been kicked out of Camp Jordan for flying them, she tells us.
What’s so exciting about drones that you’d get kicked out of Camp Jordan for flying one? I wonder. I imagine little remote-controlled airplanes. What Lydia removes from her trunk is a lot more interesting: an arm-length, remote-controlled quad copter—that is, a rotary-wing aircraft lifted by four rotors. It’s distinguished from a typical remote-controlled plane largely by its independence; guided by GPS, it can travel beyond the operator’s line of sight and even take simple actions in the absence of instructions.
Outside, Lydia pilots the craft around the East Ridge Municipal Building parking lot and zips up and down the Tombras Avenue sidewalk, coming to a delicate landing after hovering an inch or so from the ground as long seconds accumulate.
Drone capabilities are impressive, and pilots can have high degrees of skill. Think podracing on Star Wars, but with a remote-control pod. “I like to show off,” Lydia confesses. “In Florida, I would fly my Blade 350 QX3 upside down and cut the grass with it.”
Lydia’s Blade 350 QX3 is a striking GPS-controlled machine. White with two gray and two red rotors, it sports red, green and blue lights and audible alarms, including a beep that indicates a GPS lock. It’s also wrapped in a lot of duct tape.
“I’m embarrassed how much money I spend on these,” Lydia says. The drone, like many, has limited self-regulation capability, including PID (proportional–integral–derivative) control. It can hover without pilot input once the throttle is set. It also has a GPS-driven return-home function. If the pilot turns off the radio controller, it will fly back to its starting point to land.
“Will it fly back without the GPS?” I ask.
“No,” says Lydia affectionately. “It’s so helpless.”
The copter, which out of the box—that is, including a camera but minus the duct tape—weighs about 955 grams, doesn’t look helpless as it disappears into the evening sky. Soon we can only see its constellation of colored lights.
“I can’t go too high because of the rules,” says Lydia. According to FAA regulations, drones flown by recreational pilots cannot exceed 400 feet in altitude. She lowers it slowly onto its landing struts, but in a few minutes it’s airborne again, chasing my 8-year-old down the alley in defiance of the operator manual, which reads, in part: “Keep people and pets at least 35 feet away when the battery is connected.”
This quad copter has a beginner mode, too, Lydia says, toggling a control from red to green. “Now it knows I am here, and no matter which way I rotate it, it will still go the direction I push, because it is modifying the instructions relative to where I’m standing.” She toggles back to red. “It’s boring to fly that way. I like to fly normally!”
An alarm signals that the battery is 60 percent expended. “It will sacrifice battery to save itself,” Lydia explains, starting to land. The Blade 350 QX3 bounces into my ankles.
“Did that hurt it?” my son asks.
“No,” says Lydia, “but it probably hurt her.”
It did, a little.
At HobbyTown USA, Radio Control Manager Jake Lewis not only connects drones with customers, he builds UAVs and has been flying them for the better part of 21 years.
Like Lydia and other hobbyists I interview, he has many drones. His favorite just now is his DJI Flame Wheel 450, run by a NAZA-M V2 control platform. It took him two days to build, including soldering and controller setup.
At $300 to $500 off the shelf, says Jake, the DJI Flame Wheel represents a median cost and time investment. Small, ready-to-fly drones may cost no more than $20, while high-end models can set you back $1,500 or more.
The less toy-like, more-assembly-required drones are more rewarding, according to just about everyone I ask. “You put a lot more time and effort and love into them than if you buy toys,” Jake says.
He explains that, while DIY kits are for devotees, the required skills aren’t hard to learn. “I learned to solder on YouTube,” he notes.
While some drone functions are managed by PID controller, which is also used in industrial systems such as temperature or pressure controls where overcorrection can be a problem, you don’t have to be an engineer to get your system running smoothly. Analog lovers can tune their drones manually, by trial and error, while digital fans can use computer interfaces that run on PC or even Raspberry Pi. Either way, there are plenty of YouTube tutorials out there.
Buy. Practice. Make Friends.
To get started with a UAV, Jake says, pick something you like and buy it. Then practice. “Anything that goes up in the air is going to take a good bit of practice,” he says. “It’s okay to be a klutz at first.”
Drones let hobbyists do just about everything you do with model trains, bicycles, guns or D&D, all in one package. Think about it: they’re at the sweet spot.
You build them. Remember HO or S-scaled railroads running on intricate railways through lush landscapes with painstakingly painted sponge trees? Asking around at work, I find train-lovers, drone-lovers and aficionados of both.
When I ask Jake at HobbyTown about the attraction of so much time spent in construction, he says, “Flying can be frustrating. A propeller or radio glitch can end your day in a bitter manner.” On the other hand, he tells me: “Building can be more fun than just about anything to me.”
You race them. Radio-controlled UAV races are becoming popular, particularly FPV (first-person view) races, where pilots experience the course through their drones’ cameras. Races may be judged for speed and agility or for style.
How long are the races? “Until everyone crashes, usually,” says Lydia. Batteries may last six minutes on full throttle, so races are short. And when I check out the individual race finalist results for the Drone Nationals last summer, sure enough, half the participants recorded a time of “DNF”: did not finish.
You talk politics about them. When I asked my work colleagues about their drones, the most common answer was: “Yes, and did you hear about the new registration law?” UAVs, like guns, are constrained by a variety of regulations. Whatever your beliefs, there’s a debate for you. You can even debate guns and drones together, in the case of the Kentuckian who shot down a drone flying over his property. Or the newly proposed Tennessee law that would forbid mounting guns or grenades on drones.
The latest contentious development: Since Dec. 15, any small UAV weighing more than 250 grams must be registered with the FAA. The cost is $5 and the process can be completed online. The registration number will belong to the pilot, not the drone; the same registration number can be reused for any qualifying UAV owned by that pilot. According to the FAA website, registrations completed by Jan. 20 will have their fees refunded. If your drone weighs more than 25 kilograms, though, you must register it as an aircraft.
You build communities. Other fandoms have conventions; drone pilots congregate, too. While the big UAV cons, for now, seem to cater to B2B rather than recreational fliers, the Chattanooga drone pilots I spoke with seemed to know each other by name. I didn’t find my sources in a daisy chain; rather, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Lydia knew Jake. And Jake knew my drone-loving work colleagues. And so on.
Yet drones are far from a niche hobby. Recreational UAV builders and pilots span communities and overturn expectations. Lydia flies wearing a Minnie Mouse dress and brushed-suede ballet flats. Jake sports a D20 tattoo. Other pilots I meet are young men in baseball caps or grandfathers in button-down shirts and neatly pressed jeans.
Realtors fly to photograph houses for their websites, roofers to look for problem patches of shingle. Schools use drones as teaching tools. In 2014, for instance, Girls Preparatory School debuted the Bruiser Drone, a DJI Phantom II Vision.
“It’s a big community, a big flying community in Chattanooga,” says Jake. “You can find a friend anywhere.”
Now, just past the Christmas giving season, many dozens of small people around Chattanooga are meeting their first drones. We’re sitting around the table, dice and minis scattered in disarray. The dragon has won.
Upstairs, the little boys look over the banisters. Aren’t those grownups done gaming yet?
Lydia gets out her purse and removes a 19-gram Blade Inductrix, a palm-sized quad copter with a name that sounds like it should belong to an anime girl with fuchsia-colored hair and a big katana.
We turn off the lights. The Blade Inductrix lifts away from Lydia’s fingers.
It hovers fairylike above the landing, its lights illuminating two tiny faces turned up in wonder.
Photo: A Blade 350 QX3 in flight, courtesy www.bladehelis.com