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  • Dave Burgess

My Brief Career As a Drone Pilot

Like many photographers, I've been dabbling in shooting video, and if you are shooting video, you are thinking about getting a drone.

So I did what every gadget freak does, and I started shopping online. So many choices.. but it seemed that DJI Phantom Drones where the obvious choice. But which model? They range in price from $399 to more than $1500. And that's not counting accessories, and of course a spiffy case. If I went hog ass wild, I could have $2000 tied up in this purchase.

My friend Sue Bakkila is also a photographer and I knew she had purchased a drone and even travelled to a drone seminar for professionals. I knew she would point me in the right direction. Her advice surprised me. "Before you buy a pro quadcopter," she said, "get yourself a Tello."

She went on to explain the Tello is a learner drone with a not-too-bad camera capable of shooting 720p video and medium resolution jpg images. The Tello offers 13 minute flight time, it's controlled with a free iPhone app, and the best part is the price - just $99.

"You can get a feel for drone piloting before making the big investment," Sue advised.

Cute little Tello drone in flight

Tello Drone retails for just $99. I bought mine from B&H Photo.

How Hard Can It Be To Fly A Drone?

So I ordered my Tello and a few extra batteries and a few extra propellers, even though I probably wouldn't need them, since I was probably going to be pretty good at this sort of thing.

Imagine my delight when the UPS guy dropped off my Tello drone a few days later. I unpackaged it and was surprised to see how small it was - the Tello body was tiny; larger than a pack of TicTacs, but smaller than a deck of cards. With the four props and prop guards attached, the entire assembled drone was small than a paper plate, and just a bit heavier.

My first flight was in my living room. Tentatively, I lifted off, went straight up, and quickly lowered the drone and landed again. So far so good.

For my next flight, I lifted off, moved forward and backward a few times, then decided to strafe the sofa. This required a change of direction. I quickly learned that the first person visual display from the drone did not necessarily correspond with the orientation of the direction controls on the app. With the drone pointed in a different direction than me, a left control might send the drone right. Panic set it, and when you panic, over correct, and make even more directional mistakes. The result: crash #1. After a few more trips around the living room, and one more crash, I called it a night.

Over the next couple of days, I had a few more training sessions in my windless living room, and I began to feel like I had a basic understanding what it took to pilot this thing.

Bad Michigan Spring weather delayed my first outdoor flight, and finally on a warm late April evening, I took my Tello outdoors and made some nice video footage with the drone tracking up my driveway and doing a fly-by of the house. I shot some nice footage from way up high, and even did an approach from the front lawn to the front door with a perfectly aligned landing on the welcome mat.

As Tom Wolfe might say, I was beginning to think maybe I had The Right Stuff.

The were fearless, they were ambitious, and they were the best pilots the nation had to offer. They had The Right Stuff.

Let's See What This Thing Can Do

Saturday, April 28. A chilly but sunny day at the lake house. I have a nice high deck, overlooking the lake, and 100 feet of brand new patio light that I was going to string over the deck for festive outdoor summer gatherings. While pondering what sort of pattern I would use to hang the lights, I had a brainstorm: get the Tello out and take an aerial photo of the deck! Then, I could play around in Photoshop and render different stringing patterns! Brilliant!

The drone has a built in wireless signal, and I quickly connected the Tello to my iPhone app. The battery power on the drone indicated half power, which should be 6 to 8 minutes. Plenty of time for my simple photo.

I lifted off, turned the drone around so was facing me and the deck, and slowly backed it out over the water and away from the house. The framing was pretty good, but I needed a little more altitude and a little more distance. I gently nudged the controls and the drone moved obediently. That was better, but a little more altitude and a little more distance would be even better, right? WRONG.

I had neglected to take into account the gentle breeze blowing across the lake. As long as the drone was the same altitude as the lake house, the breeze was blocked. As soon as the drone lifted above the house and into the breeze, it began to move further away, despite my amateur pilot efforts.

All Of A Sudden, It Was an "Oh Shit" Moment

Looking down at the display, I saw an ominous warning:


I panicked. That's not good for a pilot. In my panic, I forgot that because of the orientation, a backwards command was forward, and a forward command was backward. The lightweight drone was struggling agains the breeze, and I inadvertently sent the drone exactly the wrong way, away from the house and with the breeze.

The buzzing of the drone was getting harder and harder to hear as the drone drifted higher and farther away. The drone didn't seem to be responding to my commands. Looking down, I saw this:


Great. With signal lost, the Tello is without command. In a still environment, it will hover in the same spot. In a gently breeze, it will drift with the breeze, like a leaf floating along on a stream. I stood helplessly watching my barely used Tello drone drift gently out of sight. And because I lifted off with a half charged battery, the drone would lose power in a minute or two, and fall from the sky into the welcoming lake.

I turned around, shut off my iPhone, walked into the house, and shared my story with Carol. She responded with world's biggest eye roll, but otherwise spared me any more embarrassment.

The tragic final flight of Dave's Tello drone.

Five Lessons I Learned About Drones the Hard Way

  1. Flying a drone isn't as easy as it looks.

  2. My friend Sue gave me great advice - start with a low priced drone so you know what you are getting yourself into.

  3. Don't fly the drone in an area where you can't retrieve it. Like a lake. Duh.

  4. Don't fly the drone without a fully charged battery.

  5. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Stick to hand held cameras, dumbass.

Dave Burgess is the owner of Studio 616 Photography in Grand Rapids MI. He specializes in studio portraiture, physique and photography. Sorry, no drone photography.

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