The Drone and the Sequoia – A Story of Failure and Persistence (Part I)

I have had drones stuck in trees before. Most of the times I brought them down by hurling available objects up high until I got lucky. A couple of times I had to climb. Once I even had to use a rope and a harness for safety. On February 8th 2017 I finally found my match. This is how it started:

It was a rainy afternoon, and I was driving to one of the usual coffee shops to sit down and try to look busy on my laptop. As I often do, I decided to stop at the park for a quick flight. No warm-up or anything, I went straight into the tall trees to start with a powerloop. Eighteen short seconds later, my waterproofed Garuda was firmly lodged in a branch about 80 feet off the deck. My first impulse was to try to fight my way out of the tree with quick throttle bursts. Quick tip: if you fly Betaflight, set small_angle=180  is mandatory as it lets you arm at any angle (or mid air even).

That did not work. After a few minutes of trying (nothing to lose, really), the battery gave up on me and I resorted to plan B (spoiler: good thing the alphabet has 26 letters).

Plan B: Sticks and stones

Unfortunately there was not much throwable stuff in the park. A few branches and pine cones, that I could not get anywhere close. I drove back home and picked up the first things that I deemed useful: a tennis racket and a few balls, a nerf bow and a few arrows. I suck at tennis, but I still managed to get the balls close enough to the drone in terms of height. I realized that it was useless anyway, because it was relatively deep inside the tree. I could not score a direct hit on it with a tennis ball from the ground, I’d always hit other branches first. The nerf arrows were a no-go. To make it more annoying, the park was muddy and a storm was brewing. I decided to give up for the day, and let my beloved Garuda spend its first night alone. We had a really intense storm that evening. I went back to the park the next morning to see if the wind had done me a solid and blown the drone out. No dice.

Day 2: The compressed air cannon

I posted the situation to the #drone_rescue channel of our regional drone slack. One of our members (grandpoobah) offered me to borrow his “drone retrieval unit”, a compressed air cannon that shoots a 12-ounce weight (supposedly) 100 feet up into the air. On a very rainy Thursday afternoon, I drove to his house in San Francisco to pick it up. He explained the basics to me: pump at least 110 psi into it with a bike pump, stick the weight in there, fire at will. Try to get the weight over the branch where the quad sits, wiggle the line so that it comes down on the other side, shake the branch. Profit. Sounded simple.

It was simple indeed, but not easy. When I got back to the park it was drizzling, and I got to fire a few shots before it got dark. Pumping the cannon with a foot pump was exhausting. The ground was soaking wet, and after a few tries so was I. 110 psi was nowhere near enough; I could get the weight perhaps 60 feet up into the air, not much higher than by slinging it manually. That was still significantly below the drone. Another battle lost, I headed to the nearest Starbucks for a White Chocolate Mocha. As I waited for my drink I went to the bathroom to clean up a bit. In the mirror, I saw my face splattered with dry mud. It reminded me of Derek Zoolander after a day at the coal mine, except for the ridiculously good looking part.

[To be continued]

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