What it's like to fly a drone

March 10, 2017

“Would you like to fly a plane?” asks Rett Newton, Ph.D. student at the Marine Lab, cheerfully proffering the controller to a Parrot Bebop, an inexpensive starter drone that beginners can safely manage. I give, in order, what I assume must be the two most common responses to that question. First: “Has anyone ever said ‘no’ to that question?” (no one has). And second: “Do you have insurance?” Because as thrilled as I am to get the opportunity to fly a drone, I know from video-game experience that I lack every skill needed to keep such an object in flight and out of trouble, much less master takeoff and landing.

Wrong. The Bebop does pretty much all of that by itself. My entire job is, mostly, to hold the controller and express delight.

So: Takeoff. No careful joystick management along with throttle control and anxious looking back and forth between craft and controller screen. Nope. I just press the controller’s “take off” button and the propellers begin to spin, get up to speed in a second or so, and then the thing hops into the air, stabilizing at about a meter up and turning expectantly toward me. After that, my thumbs keep busy adjusting the camera angle, rotating the craft, and zipping it in any direction I want it to go, though when I send it around some trees Newton reminds me that I’m required by regulation to retain eye contact with my drone. It’s a little speck in the sky, so if I wonder I can just glance at the controller screen, which shows its view. If I turn the camera toward me, I know where we both are.

Back it comes, and when I’m ready I effortlessly direct it to a spot a few feet in front of me and a meter or so in the air. Then I press “landing,” and that’s what it provides, slowly descending and then dropping into the grass from a foot or so.

I cannot state this plainly enough: My boys no longer invite me to play race-car video games with them because I am so incompetent that I present not even token competition. So don’t say I flew a drone. Say, rather, the drone went for a fly, and I didn’t interrupt it too badly.

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.