Keeping your world up and running.®

Beyond the basics: Who needs a ladder?

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) gets the picture

By Chuck Newcombe

May 2014

Marketers call people like me "early adopters." I'm usually the first kid on the block to get the latest gadget, but recently it's become a challenge. Technology is advancing so fast these days it's hard to keep up.

One of my recent purchases was a quadricopter - an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that I can fly using an app on my smart phone. It is an impressive system, at an amazingly low price of about $300.

Chuck with Quadracopter

The basic system has two cameras - a forward-looking HD unit and a lower resolution unit that looks down at the ground. The images from these cameras can be viewed real-time on the smartphone screen, even while you are tilting and tipping the phone to provide the control inputs to the UAV via a dedicated WiFi connection. You can also record video of the scene as an mp4 file on the smartphone.

I had to try it out

I had to try it out, of course, so I used a favorite indoor test area that you may have seen in my October 2012 column.

It's the loft of an old barn that has been converted into a home. Here, I can be seen measured the distance to the top of the loft from the floor, a distance of 22 feet, 2 inches (6 meters), using a Fluke 424D Laser Distance Meter - no need for a ladder.

This video clip shows one of my first flights of my "toy" quadricopter in that same loft. I took the quadricopter from the floor to the peak, moved it around a little to look at details that could normally only be seen from a ladder, and then brought it back to the floor for a well-controlled landing.

Before you congratulate me on my flying skills, let me explain a little more about the capabilities of this impressive 'copter.

'Copter abilities

424D laser Distance Meter

Besides the WiFi communications link, the technology includes an on-board three-axis accelerometer that, in conjunction with a similar device in the smart phone, lets you control the attitude, orientation, and direction of flight of the 'copter.

Pressing the Takeoff button on the smartphone app screen causes the four rotors on the 'copter to become active. The vehicle rises straight up three feet (.9 meters) and then hovers, waiting for further commands.

At my leisure, I directed it to go higher, and then, watching the camera scene on my phone, panned the view to show the top of the enclosure at the end of the room as well as roof structure detail. When I stopped my commands, the vehicle platform remained in a stable hover in its last programmed position.
I then returned the 'copter to near its takeoff position and pressed the Landing button. As you can see in the video, the on-board system performed a perfect soft landing. It doesn't get any easier than that.

What about industrial settings?

I've been experimenting with the quadricopter to see if something like it might be useful in an industrial setting. The early answer is, in my humble opinion, "Not quite yet."

Another manufacturer has strapped on a GoPro video camera (more about that later). This 'copter sports a GPS receiver, and has improved battery life to allow nearly 30 minutes of operation at around 20 mph, so it should be able to handle light winds with no problem. That unit costs about $1,200, but includes a separate radio control box. The smart phone acts as the real-time monitor for the camera output. It's outside my definition of a toy, but it's becoming hard to resist the impulse to buy one.

I can imagine such a system carrying something like a Fluke thermal imager aloft to make surveys of a hot-mopped roof, looking for leaks. This is already done, of course, using a much more expensive manned helicopter with a thermal imaging technician on board.

One would need a way to trigger an image capture, and with a down-looking visual camera, the operator could zero in on the sections of the roof to be examined.

My quadricopter couldn't carry one of the current Fluke imagers, but I found a video of a 'copter not much larger lifting a 50 pound load, so I expect it won't be long before we'll see all sorts of loads being carried by such devices.

There is some uncertainty and nervousness about the outdoor use of these devices under 400 feet (122 meters). My "toy" falls into the classification (for the moment) of the "under five pound" (including its shipping container) category, which is unlikely to cause any damage or hurt anyone, but the FAA has yet to define clearly what limitations might be applied in outside use.

However, visual inspections in interior areas difficult to reach with a man-lift are also a possibility. With a little more practice, I might even be able to do something like this myself.

My video example from the barn loft suggests this type of application.

Watch video »