I flew a drone! Novice pilot doesn't even hurt anyone

Crave writer Rusty Blazenhoff enlisted in drone "flight school" this week and nervously piloted her first flying camera this week. See how it went.

Phantom 2
The Phantom 2 at San Francisco's Dolores Park. Rusty Blazenhoff/CNET

Amateur unmanned aerial vehicles -- colloquially known as drones -- are trending almost as fast as "Star Wars: Episode VII" movie set leaks, and I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. So I enlisted in a special drone "flight school."

Headquartered in San Francisco's Mission District, Photojojo operates what it believes to be the world's first consumer drone rental service. Its founder Amit Gupta welcomed me to the "drone zone" Tuesday with my first flying lesson.

Amit Gupta
Photojojo founder Amit Gupta flying one of his rental drones.Rusty Blazenhoff/CNET

He scoped out a people- and pet-free grassy knoll at the top of Dolores Park and showed me the basics of remotely operating a Phantom 2. It's one of the two quadcopters his company rents out, the other being the 3D Robotics Iris.

The Phantom 2 is a lightweight but durable white plastic consumer-level drone. The one I gave a spin was equipped with a GoPro Hero3 camera for shooting aerial videography.

After attaching the propellers to the four arms, Amit shot the aircraft about 70 feet above us. He then flew it around and landed it -- giving me detailed explanations of every move he was making -- before handing the controls over to me.

With the first swift jerk of one of the two joysticks on the remote controller, the drone launched into the sky, and the feeling was exhilarating. Once the drone was hovering steadily overhead, I was able to start moving it around.

"Go slow and easy, slow and easy," my teacher calmly requested.

"Is this slow enough?" I said lightly tapping the controls, fearing I was doing it all wrong.

"You're doing great. I've just had a lot of guys who start 'hot dogging' because their buddies are here watching."

No hot dogging for me. I was too busy trying to avoid the headline, "CNET writer injures innocent sunbathers with flying robot."

OK, here's what I learned from my first drone-piloting experience.

--Drones are super-easy to fly. Unlike those remote-controlled hobby store helicopters that are difficult or impossible to control, flying the Phantom 2 is smooth and simple. It's responsive to even slight gestures on the controls.

--It will just hover, in one spot, for as long as you let it or until the batteries die.

Drone
Keep an eye on the lights. Rusty Blazenhoff/CNET
--The battery in this particular model will die in about 25 minutes. I was warned that if all the lights on the bottom of this machine go red, it's alerting you that it's time to bring it back to Earth.

--Its blades are sharp. Don't go sticking any body parts near the moving propellers (duh).

--If the remote's batteries die or it, say, gets damaged in some way, this specific vehicle will come right back to you. It's equipped with a GPS autopilot that triggers in such circumstances.

--These things are fairly loud, like the buzzing of a swarm of bees.

--The most important thing I learned? Drones are super-fun to pilot! Once I got past the fear that I was going to lop off someone's head or embarrassingly break an expensive piece of equipment, I really got into it. I highly recommend giving it a whirl.

If you can get really good at flying them, be sure to capture a dronie of yourself (a video selfie taken by drone).

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can rent a drone from Photojojo. They run between $49 and $99 a day, depending on the model. First-time fliers are required to take a one-time training lesson for $50 at Photojojo's own flight school before borrowing their drones.

If you're not near San Francisco and want to join in on the fun, you could buy a drone, or if you're feeling crafty, you could go all DIY and make one for yourself.

Happy flying! Thanks, Amit!

 

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