Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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                   Wednesday, March 5, 2014 12:36AM CST

Flying! And, the annual March 1 post (a bit late)

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I'm a little late on the 2014 annual March 1 meteorological spring blog post. I could say it's because this winter has been so long and brutal that it doesn't seem like spring, but that would feel strange considering I've already seen tornadoes this year. Such is the weather here in the Midwest! Glancing at the long-range models shows that spring weather is still a good ways off, with a big eastern US trough remaining entrenched. Until that changes, the increasing sun angle will be our only advocate in warming things up. One thing is for certain, by the end of this month the battle for warmer temperatures and more regular thunderstorm intervals will be well under way, and that's always reason to be positive. So, whenever it happens, I will be glad in the coming weeks to see the snow melt, the brown landscape replaced with green and finally being able to put the gloves, hat and winter coat away for the season.

So, on to some new things, all involving flying! Last week, I made my first foray into the world of multirotor RC aircraft, or "drones" as they are commonly called. The main purpose of these machines is capturing aerial photography and video, though they are fun to simply fly around. I feel like these will be of increasing usefulness as time goes on, so I wanted to go ahead and get my feet wet. Setups that are capable of reliably capturing stable video will set you back at least $1,200. Since I had no experience flying these, I decided to start out small and cheap with a tiny entry-level Hubsan quadcopter as a 'learner'. The all-manual controlled Hubsan is much more difficult to fly than the average GPS-assisted multirotor. So, if I can learn to fly this one, I shouldn't have any problem transitioning to a bigger aircraft later.

After about a week of practice, I've managed to get the basic hang of flying the quad without crashing into the ground or other objects. At the advice of several online sources, I purchased a tiny 720p HD keychain camera (the 808 16v2) to affix to it. The camera needed to be removed from its case to save on weight, then wrapped in packing foam to avoid 'jello effect' from the propeller vibrations.

The results aren't bad for what I spent on everything, but aren't anywhere close to having any real-world imagery application (other than some low-res images for the blog). The Hubsan can be flown well above 100 feet high, which makes for some nice views. Here is a view from the quad from above my apartment in New Baden, IL:

And a vew of the town from about 200 feet up, near Haselhorst Road:

It can go higher, but since it is tiny and difficult to see at altitude, you run the risk of losing it. During the flight in which that last image was captured, I took it so high that I completely lost visual on the quad after briefly taking my eyes off of it. It landed in the middle of a field, and I located it only because I could barely hear the propellers spinning when I gave it throttle. Without that, it's unlikely I would have found it and it would have ended up plowed under the corn this summer.

Here's a video showing the Hubsan quad (with the 808 camera attached) and some in-flight video:

HD VIDEO: Hubsan quadcopter flights

I intend to try some storm chasing with this setup in the coming months, but since I can only safely fly this in light winds, the opportunities will be few.

In addition to the quadcopter flights, I had the opportunity to fly in a 'real' helicopter to capture some nighttime photos and video of St. Louis. Here is some video from the flight:

HD VIDEO: Flying around downtown St. Louis at night

One of the still images captured during the flight:

I have a lot of work to do on editing the rest of these images, so I'll have another post in the works when that's finished.

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