Love them or hate them, remote controlled flying devices are everywhere and offer “game-changer” capabilities everyone should consider for their personal protection and toolset. Commonly referred to as “drones” I’d like to offer some personal experiences and learnings both in using and trying to deter them from use around me and my property. Specifically, I will discuss any remotely-controlled flying device including quadcopters, helicopters, or airplanes piloted by a remote operator and how they can aid in personal or property protection or pose a real threat. I’m not going to get into military tools but will focus on devices easily available to private citizens to use.
There is a huge variety of drones available in the United States and a growing complexity of laws governing and restricting their use – each State as well as the Feds have serious restrictions for legal use and licensing of drones now so know the laws that apply to you! The ‘golden age’ of drone flying passed years ago with teh end of unrestricted flying and usage. I will also note many (but not all) Western States prohibit the use of drones for hunting, fishing, and trapping. I’m not going to get into all the details but by knowing what you can and can’t do you can safely explore your options. In all of the examples and personal experience I’ll be sharing I was flying within all current laws for the States I was in at the time.
Two types of drones I will touch on include sport/stunt (“sporties”) drones and “camera” drones, both of which are flown by visual sight of the operator. Sporties are fast, nimble, and maneuverable for stunts, racing, etc. but are typically shorter range for control (less than a quarter mile). An example I’ve used is the Eachine E013 with goggles. Camera drones are usually slower but with greater range, carrying capability, and high-resolution cameras of up to 4K quality. DJI is the Chinese company that makes the Phantom and Mavic series of drones that I’ve used and will talk about, specifically the Phantom 3 (Professional), Mavic Pro, and Mavic 2 (Enterprise Advanced). All of these have competitors with as good or better capabilities.
Drones are fast and small – up to 40 miles per hour and smaller than a mylar balloon. With a 4K video camera I can read a truck’s license plate from 400 yards away, but not in real-time. I’ve been able to routinely fly the Phantom 1.5 miles away and Mavic drones up to 4.5 miles away before losing visual control of the drone, and some models are rated for more than that. Flight durations depend on each battery but are typically 20-25 minutes long. Inexpensive signal boosters have added another half-mile to these flight ranges.
These drones can hover in place when not in control, and all of them have advanced features such as gesture recognition and object following that can be a real advantage. Very quickly I can tell the camera drones to follow a specific object on the camera – a car, deer-size animal, or person and the drone will fly itself in parallel or circling that object until I retake control. This is a fun “selfie” option if you are watching yourself but a great feature to keep a subject in view while freeing the pilot up to focus and do other things.
My drones are older models of what DJI currently offers that give great advantages – lower cost, lots of after-market features, and other software capabilities. Older DJI drones are commonly available on craigslist or resale websites. I’ve found them for $2-400 dollars for the Phantom and less than $500 for Mavics, much less than an entry-level, “sport” rifle nowadays. Finding a decently priced, used model is the way to go if it is in good shape – don’t ever buy one that shows evidence of a crash. You can buy them new, but I’ve found I fly a drone much more and try new things when I’m less afraid of crashing or damaging the drone.
After-market features include attachments to the drones that let it carry a payload and drop it remotely; play audio on a loudspeaker; strobe and spotlights; and even remote on/off lasers. Software is available for these drones that will let you pre-program a flight path, upload that path into the drone, and it will fly itself on the route you gave it (even farther out than you could remotely control it) and return with the pictures and video you sent it to retrieve.
The Pray Button
My favorite capability of the DJI is the ‘return to home’ button. So many times, I’ve lost visual control of the drone because of distance, interference, or whatever and pushed the “pray button”. The button commands the drone to immediately return to the place it started from. I push the button and then all I can do is pray the drone comes back. Prayer is always more powerful than technology. Whether it is prayer or technology, within a few minutes the drone has always returned!
Other great options with drones would include your own “add-on” features. I have several 3D printers and with free CAD software (I prefer FreeCAD) it has been an awesome learning experience to design and build my own drone features! I like FreeCAD because of the price and all the YouTube tutorials. With some encouragement and hard work (i.e. study, trial, and effort) I think any person could really have a great time and come up with fun options. I’ll talk more about this later.
Finally, the last capability I’d touch on is Infrared viewing. The DJI Mavic 2 Ent has a thermal camera built-in so the pilot can switch between video control and thermal imaging. Built for search-n-rescue, the thermal capabilities are a real game-changer, to let you find or see persons, wildlife, etc. in the woods of your private property. I think this option is huge for private usage, but it is more expensive ($2,000-$3,000 USD). Infrared light is visible to any digital camera, including all of those used by drones. When flying at night I often turn on an IR strobe at my location to help me find my way home (there is always the “pray” button, too). I’ve been able to watch friends with IR spotlights and active night vision with the drone, too. A drone is an awesome observation platform!
My list and examples are not exhaustive- some fun research and reading on the internet will help you explore and really understand what these drones are capable of, and how they might help you on your ranch, hike, campout, etc.
I’d like to share a few observations and experiences I’ve had with drones over the years. Again, all existing laws were observed at the time, all drones registered with the FAA, and permission to fly over any private property. Whether you like or condone it or not, take it for what it’s worth.
I love taking my drone along on hikes and campouts. I love being able to quickly fly up to cliffs and caves in the mountains to see if they are worth snooping around in before embarking on the 45 minute hike to get up there, only to find the cave wasn’t as cool as it looked from below. Here’s an example. I flew my drone several times to check coyote and bobcat trap sets along rocky ledges and open plains to look for caught animals. These trap checks took minutes instead of hours and saved both time and sweat while leaving no scent to spook the quarry. This isn’t an option anymore in many Western States, but if it is an option in your state, then check it out!
For hiking and camping I love taking my Mavics. They are small, very portable, and quick to deploy. They aren’t as powerful as the Phantoms and can’t carry as much payload, but the Mavics fly faster and farther with more features. It is especially nice flying ahead along a mountain river to scout good fishing holes or river crossings. Several times I’ve found better spots by scouting ahead.
While out in the woods, I LOVE spotting wildlife with the drone. Interesting how each species reacts to the sound and proximity of the drone. Deer and elk bug out ASAP when they hear the drone. I’ve had no luck trying to stop or herd the deer in their flight away – and they can hear the drone from far enough away they know where it originated. They can’t outrun the drones – so I get to watch and record them better than when I’m on foot and that is another great plus. My drones have been valuable in chasing deer and elk out of grain and hay fields, and for patrolling haystacks in the winter.
Antelope, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats, however, seem ambivalent to the drone – they freeze still and watch it if they take notice at all. Maybe it is because of their visual nature of relying on eyesight for predators instead of hearing or smell? Whatever the reason, it is harder to spot a goat or sheep with the drone simply because they don’t run. I’ve gotten quite close to all three species and observed the same responses – they keep feeding or might look and watch the drone but don’t seem too concerned with the noise in the sky.
Predators spook easily with the drone. Grizzly bears hear it and immediately move off. They will change direction and seem to be “herd-able” with the drone for great benefit. I’ve never wanted to herd a bear back to me and they push away with the drone very well. Push a Grizzly bear away from cows and you’ve made a rancher a friend for life! (They are great friends to have). I’ve never flown around an un-trapped coyote before but every time I fly a DJI drone and there are coyotes around, they become very vocal. In the deep woods of Oregon, open draws of Wyoming, and mixed sage land of Idaho they all start calling and always with longer howls – what I’d call “locationing” calls. Most dogs will get curious, and if it is a barking dog it will bark at the drone. Can’t say definitively what a wolf would do but some howls I’ve heard in Idaho sounded more like a wolf. More data is needed here…
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)