UAVs (unpersoned aerial vehicles)

It’s hard to name a technology that’s advancing faster than drones. Reviewing pictures of my UAV’s (yes multiple editions so far!) from just a few years ago is like looking at model-T-era cars. I suppose rate-of-improvement for all technologies eventually begins to plateau-out, but it doesn’t feel like we’re there yet with unpersoned flight—and definitely not with the cameras and various remote sensors that drones are starting to carry.

In November, 2014, I bought my first quadcopter, something I’d been dreaming about for several years. Viewing hundreds of youtubes and vimeos of low-elevation flights over forests and beaches and mountains all over the world, I was impressed but also felt a little competitive. Those were awesome terrain perspectives, I thought, but almost all pretty tame. None would compare, I figured, to flying, say, up a wild Alaskan salmon stream, or circling a snow-clad 200-foot spruce.

Bob Armstrong shot of my (late-lamented) 3DR Solo, heading northeast up L’óox, silty water (Herbert River), Oct 2015. This is an expensive hobby!

It turns out there’s a kinda steep learning curve to this drone photography. For one thing, I was a complete newbie to film, period. For another, drones, um, crash.

But all that trial and error is forgotten when you get back from a successful flight, download the gopro, and watch the Southeast landscape glide below through Raven’s eyes. Below is a stitched-together sequence taken on the divide between Shgóonaa Héenak’u, schooner’s little creek (Lawson) and Bear Creek watersheds, behind Crow Hill, above Anax Yaa Andagan Yé where sun rays hit first

Especially with “first-person view” (when you can see what the camera sees in real-time, steering according to the view on a tablet attached to your controller), it’s tempting to get close to wildlife. As a fairly inexperienced and timid flier I haven’t had much chance to test the responses of critters to drones. In general, from what others are reporting, the overt (!) response has a lot to do with whether the bird or mammal has an instinctual reaction to aerial predators. Small critters often flee, while larger ones stand impassively or even approach with apparent curiosity.

However, with some species, fear may be hard to judge. Here’s a study suggesting black bears’ heart rate more than doubles, even when their behavior scarcely changed. Researchers also noted that some waders and shorebirds allowed drones within 12 feet. I know one Juneau flier who approached a bald eagle on its nest to about that same distance. When I asked what month, he couldn’t remember. He was lucky he didn’t try a stunt like that when chicks were aboard.

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