When I was a kid, one toy that I wanted more than any was a radio controlled airplane.  Maybe it’s because I’ve always wanted to learn to fly a plane and this seemed like the next closest option. I never got one, though. We always lived among trees and I never had room to take off and land, and once I was old enough to drive elsewhere, I had moved on to other interests. I never imagined that my profession would offer an excuse to get my childhood dream toy.

Unless you’ve been living in a hollowed out stump for the past decade, you’ve no doubt heard of how drones (UAVs) can be a useful tool in your forestry work. There is tremendous potential for many uses, most of all reconnaissance and mapping. And while commercial drones can cost tens of thousands of dollars, many consumer grade devices sell for around $1,000, which is not a huge pill to swallow if you are small shop looking to add a powerful tool to your forestry quiver, and a handy excuse to get a fun toy. But what can you really do with it?

I enjoy thinking how to employ both primitive and advanced technologies to make my work more efficient, so a couple years ago I invested in a DJI Mavic Pro- a very compact drone that sells for around a grand. The two things that I was hoping to get out of the drone were more efficient reconnaissance and creating my own base maps. Over the next few months I’ll share my experiences about what I learned. Spoiler alert- it’s not all rainbows and roses.

In another post we’ll talk about using a drone for reconnaissance, but we’ll start here with a quick summary of the most sensible consumer drone for a forester who is looking to dip their toes. A company called DJI makes a model called the Mavic Pro.  It weighs just over a pound and a half, and folds into a package that fits in a soft case 4” x 6” x 8”- easy to stow in the back of your vest or a backpack- it’s pretty remarkable. It can fly for more than 20 minutes, as fast as 40MPH, and carries an exceptionally capable self-stabilizing camera that gives you a live view of the action on your smart phone or tablet, which is connected to the remote control. Record videos, take awesome landscape photos, or just fly through the woods like a maniac. It’s a real remote control with two joysticks, and a companion app on your phone or tablet does most of the thinking. Flying them is easy- they stay stationary if you aren’t moving the controls, so it’s not hard to get acquainted with their movements in a safe and sane manner. They have sensors that can protect you from certain collisions, and a $150 insurance policy takes care of everything else. Overall, it’s a very easy technology to get into, and that’s why I pulled the trigger. Stay tuned to hear what it did – and didn’t do – for me.

Tale of Caution # 1: Flying into trees- While obstacle detection works when flying forward, preventing you from flying straight into a tree/truck/partner/etc, the sensors do not point upward. I attempted to launch vertically through a gap in the canopy. As I was climbing, the drone sensed a tree in front of it, automatically moved itself backward, and I was no longer lined up below the hole that would’ve brought me to clear sky. It flew upward into branches and tumbled to the ground- thankfully it was soft leaf litter. The only damage was broken propellers (a few bucks a piece), which I quickly learned that I needed to purchase by the pallet.