Mountain mapping with our custom Hexacopter.

Today a guest post by our head pilot, Marcus See, about his recent experience flying our newly built custom compact hexacopter, to map a portion of Cameron highlands, Malaysia.

By: Marcus

A first for us, flying our drone high in the clouds of Cameron Highlands. Approximately 5,000 feet above mean sea level (AMSL), with a mean temperature of 18 to 25, humidity levels of 80% and winds as high as 20km/h. A weather condition very much different from Singapore.

So what are we doing in Cameron Highlands? Our mission was to map an area 1km by 1km in the heart of the tea mountains, together with our counterparts from Malaysia, Avetics Malaysia (managed by Sanudra Aerial Solutions Sdn Bhd), with a secondary task to capture thermal data.

We brought our newly built custom Mini Hex for the challenge, against the tropical highland climate.

Our pilot Youzhi operating the Mini Hex, our custom-made platform.

Our pilot Youzhi operating the Mini Hex, our custom-made platform.

Tanah Rata was our area of operations. This was a tricky area to map, the town consists of tropical forest, tea plantations, farmlands and many facilities and amenities. Located amidst the highland region with an elevation of 4,720 feet.

First task on our list was a routine test flight, we also wanted to test the range of the Mini Hex as we could never get vast amount of open land like this in Singapore. We were like proverbial city boys in the countryside.

The outcome was good, we slowly pushed the drone further and further away from us - further than eyes could maintain Visual Line of Sight (VLOS). It was a new experience for us, to be able to push the drone to its limits and not having to worry about flying over people’s property, invading privacy, or worrying about obstacles.

Our Mini-Hex

Our Mini-Hex

With a successful test, we were confident executing the actual mission. But, we still had one more challenge to overcome. Locating a good connection for our data to be sent back to Singapore for processing. It’ll be a useless flight unless we had the data. On the hill, it was tricky finding a data connection at all!. Thankfully, cellular data pulled through.

D-Day, we found a pretty good vantage point to take-off, the rooftop of the bus terminal. It was rather foggy but that’s about the best you can get from a place 5,000 ft up.

Everything went according to plan, no mishaps and even no loss of video feed while mapping! With the flight done, it was time to process the data of Tanah Rata.

The data produced was good, a few things we could improve on but overall, the results was a  success.

Some observations for possible mapping improvements noted was:

1) Integration of the topographical map with the mission planning.

2) Thermal mapping would be an interesting idea to explore.

3) Implementing a portable data processing platform, to increase processing time.

The end of the day we gained experience we couldn’t have in Singapore’s terrain, learnt from our Malaysian counterparts how different the expectations are in the drone industry in Locally.

Time to head home

Time to head home

*Mini Hex Specifications:

Max take-off weight: 5.5kg

Endurance: 40minutes flight time (without payload)

Max ascent speed: 4m/s

Max descent speed: 3m/s

Max speed: 16m/s

Max wind resistance: 10m/s

Max altitude: 500m AGL

Operating Frequency: 2.400 – 2.483 GHz, 5.725 – 5.850 GHz

Max transmitting distance (unobstructed, free of interference): 2.4 GHz: 5km, FCC 5.8 GHz: 5km, FCC

Into the Sun

One of the key components of a successful picture is light. It shapes the subject, provides contrast, impacts the mood and also governs image quality. So in most cases we will try shooting for good strong sun that allows a building, ship or subject to pop.

But another component within light, would be light direction, if the sun is shining strong the whole day, you might be wondering - when to shoot?

Many know of the golden hour rules, dawn and dusk when the sun is low on the horizon. So how do you choose between?

When deciding for a stationary subject - like a building. First ascertain where is the main facade facing? The sun should be shining on it, allowing the facade to be well lit. This also avoids having the sun sitting behind the building - this generally washes out the sky, shooting with the sun at your back allows for the sky's blue to appear saturated.


Example : Backlit building

Facade is in shadow. Sky washed out.

Facade is in shadow. Sky washed out.

Front:

Facade is nicely lit, with shadows falling away behind. Sky pops.

Facade is nicely lit, with shadows falling away behind. Sky pops.

However, do note that this is just an aesthetic interpretation, some may like a silhouette shot. But it is good to know your variables.

A good tool to use, (free) is a app and site called : suncalc - with it, you can plot a location, and observe the travel of the sun specific for that location, date and time. It is of course, on my phone.

Though there are times these rules can be bent:

Situation 1) The sun may not be shining too intensely. Sometimes, it is obscured by clouds, so it does not wash out the sky too badly. The light is less harsh and directional, not impacting your facade too badly. The image can be saved and enhanced by editing.

Situation 2) Imagine shooting for a building in a dense city area, the neighboring skyscrapers tower above it. In fact, one is sitting right in front of the optimal sun angle, casting a horrible shadow over your subject.

casting long shadows on your subject.

casting long shadows on your subject.

You will have little choice but to go for a near noon shot, where the sun is almost directly overhead, but still cantered bias to the facade of your building. However you might lose some of the shaping effect of shadows on the side faces, it is a compromise of sorts.

Situation 3) Aerial panoramas : As you can imagine, with a 360 panorama, all sky will be in shot all around you. generally it is nice to get a even blue all over. If too early in the morning or late in the afternoon, there might be a case where a portion of the sky washes out.

But as this is generally a small portion of the entire image, its really comes down to preference, with the sun lower, you can see nice shaping effects on the buildings. Again, another trade off.

sky slightly white out where the sun is

sky slightly white out where the sun is

As you can see it isn't really a hard and fast rule, but it is always good the control what ever you can, shaping the shot you want it to be.

 

Special A

 
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People who have visited us previously, may have noticed we underwent a major branding revamp of our website and logo. 

                                                                          Quite A Change

                                                                          Quite A Change

For our new logo, we had a few design objectives to be met:

1) Firstly, to update our logo with a  simple, modern and memorable design.

2) Communicate our strength as a tech company.

Sub objectives:

a) Design and colors that lend itself to adaptability to wherever it might be placed.

b) Incorporate an element of flight, to tie back to the core tech of drones.

Result:

We are happy with the final design, with the logo is able to stand alone (as on the left), or be used full text with our company name.

As seen below, it is also able to be reversed white on black with ease, without compromising its ability to be recognized.

One off-shoot benefit, which was also planned for - was that it allowed us to create company wear with a black based material. Our operations staff travel everywhere, from oil-rigs, to oil plants and bashing through dense vegetation, our previous white colored shirts were quickly stained.

Sharp angles and an almost dagger like shape of the "A" was intended to communicate the aggressiveness to remain at the cutting edge of drone technology.

All well and good you might ask, but where is the element of flight?

                                         See it now?

                                         See it now?

Here we go again...

Another Kickstarter campaign for mini drones: Selfly

This time raising over $1 million dollars. The media went gaga over it and none seem to raise the very high risk of this project not delivering especially after many failed high profile, drone crowd funded projects. 

Like the Zano drone.

And of course, the Lily drone

And there are many still in the "yet to be delivered" stage. Why are drones so hard? Even a well venture backed company like 3DR has trouble gaining market traction. I can think of 3 reasons why:

1) Technical challenges remain despite more resources available. There are now more reference board design and open source code like Ardupilot, Snapdragon Flight, Intel Aero but integration of these components/code is difficult.

You have to probably handle the camera stabilization and smart features, and at the same time, ensure reliable link from phone to drone.

Personally, I have tried Wifi controlled drones before, the lag time is simply too much, and this issue is also not addressed by Selfly. In fact, if without any of the smart features, one can just buy a similar drone to what Selfly claims to do from China - there are many such drones around..

2) Manufacturing is a challenge for most teams without relevant experience. It is easy to prototype but much harder to design for manufacturing. And at the manufacturing line, teams have to come up with tests for quality. That is also a challenge because teams must determine a) what to test and b) how to test.

Even then, developing automated tests or tests that assembly workers can perform, is a huge challenge by itself. 

3) Race against time. Big names like DJI and Yuneec are innovating all the time. Consumer drones are their bread and butter. So they pour in resources to make the next generation drones.

Being big, they have more resources and experience therefore Kickstarter drones risk being irrelevant the moment they are launched. Worst, if they are delayed for 1 year, then the technology/features are most probably obsolete. Totally DOA. Even companies like GoPro faces this problem, much less start-ups. 

I wish Selfy all the best, perhaps finally, we can have a successful Kickstarter drone campaign. But I am not holding my breath.

Drones and Privacy

This is one of the most common concerns that clients tell us when they want to use drones for inspection purpose; especially in a residential area. 

The main difference between a drone and a person on a gondola outside your window is probably a recording device. The drone has a camera that can store a digital copy of what it "sees" whereby a person does not. Occupants therefore might feel that a drone is more intrusive than a person. Moreover, there's something about a camera that makes a person feel uneasy. 

I believe society will get past this as drones become increasingly common and especially, when the benefits of drones become more obvious.

In the meantime, certain rules can be in place to ensure privacy of occupants are respected even if drones are used. For example, a rule can be that no photographs/videos of windows should be taken and stored. Another rule can be residents should be given ample notice before such inspection takes place. 

In the end, I believe technology will be able to solve this problem as well. The rules that I have mentioned above can actually be guaranteed by using software, preventing the operation of the camera when it is detected pointing into a window perhaps, instead of relying on the human operator to obey these rules.