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Motorhome Travels - July 2013

04/07/2013

Happy anniversary Hobohome - this month marks ten years since we boarded Hobohome in Sydney leaving behind sensible careers etc. It has been quite a ride ... and its not over yet!

After stopping on the western end of the Plenty Highway for a couple of days while Tracey did some fossicking, we arrived in Alice Springs. Despite some fairly rough patches, the road was generally not bad and we suffered no damage at all. Our fist stop was to visit our motorhome friends (and acting postal agents) Dave and Shirley. Three of our expected five postal items have arrived. The most important of these - the new toy was among them.

The quadcopter

Our Phantom Quadcopter with camera onboard - [Click for a Larger Image]
Our Phantom Quadcopter with camera
onboard

The new toy is a DJI-Phantom quadcopter - this is basically a remote controlled flying camera platform. It is very stable and able to hover at heights up to and beyond 300m. One major advantage, and the main reason for selecting this model, is the inbuilt intelligence (given my past experience with remote controlled helicopters - there clearly needs to be some added intelligence somewhere). The phantom has a large number of sensors including a GPS, barometric altimeter, magnetic compass and accelerometers. When these work together, the craft is able to compensate for wind and hover nearly motionless with almost no input from the operator. It also has a built-in fail-safe mode - if anything goes wrong (or if the operator activates it - for example if the craft has just flown out of sight), the copter will return to the exact place where it took off from and land nicely.

All of this smart technology makes the learning curve to fly the device quite short and allows the operator to concentrate on positioning the camera and getting the shot without spending too much time worrying about flying the quadcopter.

ANZAC Hill, Alice Springs - [Click for a Larger Image]
ANZAC Hill, Alice Springs

We charged the copters batteries and found a nice large oval to try flying for the first time (without the camera onboard of course). I was very pleasantly surprised with just how well it performed and how easy it was to control. All of that time I have previously spent flying RC helicopter simulators clearly helped. After two flights it was time to attach the camera and see how it performed with the added weight (and responsibility). All went well so I took it up quite high and got some nice video and still shots of Alice Springs.

The tiny Gopro camera was purchased for capturing some free diving and spearfishing action (the housing is rated to a depth of 60m). The quadcopter comes with a mount for the Gopro. The camera is set (prior to take off) to capture video and a still photo every 5 seconds. It is then just a case of flying the Phantom to where you want it and pointing the camera where you want it to take video/photos.

Rainbow Valley at sunset - [Click for a Larger Image]
Rainbow Valley at sunset

There are two issues (that can be resolved with the application of another chunk of money) - 1) The camera is fixed to the craft and tilts up and down, left and right as the copter flies - this can be resolved with a self-leveling electronic gimbal. 2) You can not see what the camera is seeing/recording - This can be dealt with by adding a POV (point of view) system. This transmits the live feed back to the operator who wears a set of video goggles while flying the craft. The finance department (Tracey) is considering both of these (but not very seriously).

I have done very little video work, so it has been a bit of a learning exercise, both with shooting footage and editing it together.  The video below is our very first attempt and features footage from Alice Springs and from Rainbow Valley (south of Alice).

Enough about flying cameras around ...

Alice Springs was a very noisy place to be - it was "Territory Day" on Monday and we had the pleasure of hearing many thousands of dollars worth of fireworks exploding all night. By Tuesday we were all stocked and fueled and ready to head south. We will be heading out via Uluru (Ayres Rock) and The Olgas (should make for some interesting photography opportunities), then onto the Great Central Road.

In anticipation of arriving on the West Coast, we have started our breath-hold training for free diving again - its been quite a while and it might take some time before we are able to get that skill back to where it was.

Tracey's sunset shot at Rainbow Valley - [Click for a Larger Image]
Tracey's sunset shot at Rainbow
Valley

Just to prove that we still love ground based still photography, here is one final shot taken (by Tracey) on sunset at Rainbow Valley. BTW - the road to Rainbow Valley is shocking and easily the worst road we have been on this year.

14/07/2013

Permits are required for the Great Central Road (one for the NT side and another for the WA side) - both are easily obtained online (so long as you meet the criteria for an automated issue of the permits). The nice part about the permit thing is that showing it at the entry into the Uluru (Ayers Rock) park avoids the $25 per person entry fee. You do however get a lecture about the purpose of the permit - that it is for transit only and you can not stop, take photos or even look at the rock (I can tell you it was quite a job driving all the way round the thing without looking at it!).

The Olgas from the start of the GCR - [Click for a Larger Image]
The Olgas from the start of the GCR

The lecture did not mention anything about flying a quadcopter - so we figured that this would be ok. As it turned out we were wrong about this. While flying the copter we got a visit from a (very friendly) park ranger. His main concern was where we had stopped the bus (apparently yellow lines mean no stopping in national parks as well). He also pointed out that flying anything within the park without the appropriate permits (@ $5000 per day) was a hanging offence. Not wishing to give him cause to start building gallows, we very quickly recovered the copter and left the area with just a tip of the hat and a compliant smile.

The western boundary of the park is quite close to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas - an awesome mass of rock at least as impressive as Uluru). We took off from outside the park and while we may have accidently strayed into park airspace, we did not seem to trigger any automated ground missile defense systems and managed to get some nice photos from high above the giant red rocks.

The road west of the Olgas is well known to be the worst part of the GCR. Most of it was in better condition that we expected but the last hundred kilometers before the NT/WA boarder was very badly corrugated. We arrived at Docker River on the Friday intending to fill up with diesel,  the NT public holiday "Territory Day" would delay that until at least Monday - still, the nearby free camp was a nice place to spend a few days.

The free camp at Docker River - [Click for a Larger Image]
The free camp at Docker River

On the way out of Docker River I felt the bus pull a little to the left and slow slightly. Thinking that this was nothing more than some soft road material, I just gave her more accelerator. Just as I was thinking "that's strange", I heard an enormous bang and the back of the bus leapt into the air. I immediately looked into the rear vision mirror expecting to see the diff or perhaps the Moke bouncing along the road behind us. It took me a few seconds to realize that what I was seeing was our drinking water tank (that we had just filled up). The tank was destroyed (hardly surprising  - 12 ton bus vs plastic tank). On the way out it had caught the exhaust and an air line - damaging both. We tied things up and got off the road enough to examine the damage.

Camels looking at the Quadcopter and thinking WTF? - [Click for a Larger Image]
Camels looking at the Quadcopter and
thinking WTF?

The issue had been caused by a broken steel strap and while the loss of a $500 tank was a pain, it could have been a lot worse. Within about two hours we had fixed the broken air fittings and the exhaust (so glad we carry so many spare bits) and were ready to get back on the road. Fortunately we have (had) two water tanks so going the remainder of the way with just 300lts is no real drama. The biggest issue is that the remaining tank (not normally used for drinking water) is galvanized and it makes the coffee taste really bad. As it turned out nature had a solution for this problem too.

Our wet camp for a few days. - [Click for a Larger Image]
Our wet camp for a few days.

Just as we arrived at a great camping spot that we discovered back in 2010, it started to rain. Great - we can catch some water and fix the coffee issue - but now the road is going to be closed. Oh well - we have plenty of food - enough beer for a few weeks and now decent coffee in the morning. The rain continued for two days and the normally rock hard ground became way too soft to even consider moving the bus. We are going to be here for a few days.

I have ordered another tank (from Atlas Tanks who are excellent btw) - this will be on the coast waiting for us when we get there.

I am in the process of editing together another video and will post this when it is done (I am just waiting for a little cooperation from the desert wildlife). This time I have access to a decent editor and have been really enjoying learning to use it. We have also decided to add a gimbal to the copter but it won't arrive in time for this video.

 

19/07/2013

We had a nice time camping in the wilderness and waiting for things to dry out enough to safely move the bus. For three days we did not see another vehicle or person.

Our next stop was Tjukayirla Roadhouse (one of the three roadhouses on the Great Central Road). We manage the website for the roadhouse and were keen to meet the managers and perhaps take some new photos. The roadhouse really is an oasis - it has great food (their beef burger is one of the best I have had ANYWHERE), very nice camping areas and clean, well maintained facilities.

Tjukayirla Roadhouse - [Click for a Larger Image]
Tjukayirla Roadhouse

After stopping the night, we headed west around 9am. About 50km from Tjukayirla Tracey spotted a herd of camels 20m off the left side of the road. We stopped and I quickly setup the quadcopter and camera and sent it off to photograph the camels. The camels looked at the strange craft for a minute or two, the bull then bellowed at it, snorted in disgust  and drove his girls away from the road at a rapid trot. I of course followed them with the copter (not so easy due to the strong cross winds). As the camels got further away I was about to bring the copter back when it disappeared behind a small tree. I had turned the copters GPS off to allow it to drift with the wind - this creates steadier video as it is not trying to maintain position against the wind. I waited a few seconds for the craft to appear out the other side of the tree - a tiny twinge of panic crept in when it did not. To cut a long (and painful) story short, I then tried a few things to get it to come back before settling into a full blown panic attack. Tracey (who had been watching me from the bus) immediately knew something was wrong (it may have been my impression of a headless chicken that first tipped her off) and arrived on the scene with two hand-held radios, a GPS unit and one of those looks on her face.

At 11:03am the search began.

The landscape was a mixture of spinafix, low salt bushes and a few taller trees - not the easiest terrain to find anything. Of course the first place to look was the last place I had seen the craft - that in itself was not an easy exercise. Following the tracks the camels had made as they retreated from the camera made things a little easier. After an hour of searching in the "logical place" Tracey suggested a grid search. We also stopped and applied some logic to the situation. The copter is designed to return to its take-off point if it ever strays too far away from the controller - the manufacturer specifies a range of 300m, but I have read of tests that showed an actual range in excess of 800m. Some possibilities were therefore concocted:

The Phantom Search GPS track - 38.5km - [Click for a Larger Image]
The Phantom Search GPS track -
38.5km

Using the hand-held GPS, we plotted out a 600m circle and began a grid search. The grid consisted of 10m wide strips and we walked 10m apart, this meant that each strip was viewed from two different angles allowing for the possibility that the copter was lodged deep in small bush or tree. By dark we had walked just over 24km up and down and still had not found the lost craft. After dinner, we returned to the search area and tried to activate the copter with the remote control in the hope that we might spot one of its lights in the dark or perhaps even hear it (the wind had dropped and it was now completely calm and silent). Alas no lights were seen and no sound heard.

Day two and I was up at first light. After searching (fairly randomly) for an hour and a half I got a call on the UHF radio to return to the bus for breakfast. The (more logical) two person search pattern resumed after breakfast. By lunch time we were getting quite tired and took a rest for an hour. The search radius was widened and we continued for another hour before finding the copter resting comfortably against a small bush. A quick inspection revealed very little damage - one of the landing legs was bent and all four blades had suffered minor damage - the Gopro camera looked ok with just some minor cosmetic damage. Very tired but quite pleased with ourselves, we returned to the bus to look at the video from the camera to try and understand what had happened.

After reviewing the footage I first concluded that the quadcopter had malfunctioned - it flew wildly for a minute or two, went up, then the rotors stopped and it tumbled towards the ground before attempting to recover, then it hit the dirt (quite hard). After thinking about the modes of flight, what I did when I lost sight of it and what the wind was doing, I finally concluded that the fault was with the operator and not the machine (a familiar scenario for those of us from the computer industry). When I lost sight of it, I waited a second or two then engaged a mode called "homelock". In this mode pulling back on the stick will fly the craft towards the takeoff point, regardless of its orientation. What I failed to realize was that the GPS was turned off (as I was drifting with the wind to get smoother footage) and when this is the case, "homelock mode" does not function - thus I had flown it backwards at high speed, with the wind and rapidly far away. At this point I was in full blown panic mode and tried a few (not so helpful) things (including instructing it to go up ... way up) - and then (apparently) triggered a motor shutdown. The crash footage is quite spectacular (and slightly painful to watch) and will be included in an upcoming video production.

Giles Breakaway - COLD and WINDY - [Click for a Larger Image]
Giles Breakaway - COLD and WINDY

So what have I learnt? Well firstly don't operate the copter far away and at low altitude in "attitude" (non-GPS) mode. Secondly in the words of Douglas Adams "Don't Panic" - switch to GPS mode and stop for a little think before doing anything else - and finally walking 38km in two days can make ones legs quite sore! Still - its all part of lifes little lessons.

We are currently parked up on the cliff at the spectacular Giles Breakaway. The copter has been up for a short flight but the freezing wind makes it too shaky for good photos and video. We will just have to park here until the wind drops.

22/07/2013

This is just a very quick update - mainly to publish our latest video - Hobohome on the Great Central Road (Pt 1). This is the first of two videos that show some of what we did and saw on the crossing of the Great Victorian and Gibson deserts.

Giles Breakaway - [Click for a Larger Image]
Giles Breakaway

I am still working on the second part of this video and will post it once it is finished. The second part includes the footage of the Phantom crash and some great views from around Giles Breakaway.

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