An “Old-School” Hobbyist on Drones and Model Aviation

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What really separates Drones and Model Aviation? Understanding the history from one RC hobbyist’s perspective might shed some light on the differences.

Apr 1, 2016

The lines are often blurred in the modern media between what folks consider a  UAV or “drone” and what may actually be a hobby aircraft. I was fortunate enough to be born at the right time to see this technology mature and growing up along with unmanned aircraft has given me a unique perspective that I’m sure other model aircraft enthusiasts can relate to!

I was hooked.

My first memory of model aviation was at a young age while riding in the front seat of my father’s 1946 Piper Cub as we buzzed the local Radio-Controlled, or “RC” flying field situated in a farmer’s pasture east of town.  We’d spend a good part of Sunday mornings after early church service flying our little slice of paradise dodging white fluffy cumulus clouds in good ol’ Western Kansas.  After landing, we’d head back over to the RC field and watch the WWII vets fly scale models of what they flew during the war. I loved listening to them relive memories and talking about how they learned to fly in a Piper Cub (like the one my dad still flies!) after enlisting in the service.  My dad eventually purchased an RC plane and [thankfully] flew the real thing better than the model as he promptly wrecked on the maiden voyage!  Those days stuck with me and my fascination with RC never left.  As a teenager, I eventually purchased my own RC trainer and taught myself to fly.

RC Technology: a Brief History.

Because they’re sensitive to temperature and atmospheric pressure changes, a good portion of my time at the flying field was spent tuning the nitro-fueled engines.  After fiddling with the fuel mixture and getting a few flights under my belt, I’d spend another 15 minutes wiping the oily mess literally dripping from my plane as it spewed nitro exhaust. At the time, this was really the only way to fly as there were only a handful of battery-powered or “electric” planes.  Back then, Nickel-Cadmium or “NiCad” batteries were the only economical option; and nobody seemed to bother with them because their performance was so poor.  In the age of electric, it’s probably a bit ironic that part of what originally drew me to model aircraft was tinkering with the 2 and 4 cycle engines, but as a guy gets older and time becomes a precious commodity, there comes a time when you’d rather just fly.  Today, lithium polymer or “LiPo” batteries have made quick, easy, clean, and safer flight possible. Since I ignored them for so long, I had some catching up to do on electric flight components; and for that matter, how they intertwined into automated flight.

Autonomous Flight Changes Everything.

My first experience with “all-electric” flight wasn’t until seeing the AgEagle fly a mapping mission over our patch of sorghum, totally unassisted.  I was extremely nervous and jittery because I had never seen something that looked like a model aircraft maneuver through the air on its own – a totally unnatural situation for an RC guy.  It took me a while to gain the trust of an autopilot and realize that this was more than RC, it’s truly what separates drones and model aviation! With that said, manual RC flying is still an invaluable skill even when flying a UAV as there are moments where you may need to take control during “unforeseen circumstances”,  such as other low flying aircraft entering your airspace, or having to abort a landing at the last minute.  I’ll admit that flying a drone manually can bring back that old-school thrill, but with all the technology crammed into that airframe, it comes at a much higher cost if something goes wrong!
Anyone else still fly model aircraft as a hobby? we’d love to hear about those “war stories” in the comments or forums!

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