Flying under the radar, over Martha’s Vineyard

This still shot of Gay Head Lighthouse was pulled from an aerial video John McElroy made using a DJI quadcopter outfitted with a GoPro camera. — Photo by John McElroy

There have been a couple of moments, as West Chop seasonal resident John McElroy flew his small video camera equipped drone “quadcopter” over Martha’s Vineyard, when his heart skipped a beat or two.

One moment came last summer when he flew the small, battery-powered aircraft behind a tree.

“It just didn’t come out the other side,” Mr. McElroy said in a recent phone interview with The Times from his home in the Chicago area. “At a quarter mile away, it’s pretty easy to get disoriented.”

Realizing he had only about three minutes of flight time left before the battery got low on power, and with the quadcopter still nowhere in sight, he went to his plan of last resort. He turned off the radio transmitter that controls the flight.

One of the safety features of the tiny aircraft involves the use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology. If the quadcopter loses communication with the remote flight controller, it is programed to climb to an altitude of about 60 feet, return to the point where it last lifted off, and land in the same spot.

It worked. The quadcopter lowered itself gently back to earth in front of Mr. McElroy with battery power to spare.

“It was sort of a Hail Mary,” he said.

Serious toy

An independent investment manager, Mr. McElroy calls the quadcopter an expensive toy, but recently he used the small aircraft to get aerial video for a very serious cause. Standing near the base of the Gay Head Lighthouse, he maneuvered the quadcopter straight up in a quick climb, and settled into a hover well above the top of the lighthouse. From there, he flew the quadcopter around the area, shooting video of the majestic cliffs, and the historic lighthouse.

It is quickly apparent, viewed from the perspective of the quadcopter, how perilous the situation is, with the lighthouse just yards from the quickly eroding coastal bank.

Seasonal Aquinnah resident Paula Eisenberg, a member of the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse committee, said the bird’s-eye view of the lighthouse quickly brings the problem into focus.

“Looking down on the building and the cliffs so nearby, we can see how very close to the edge the lighthouse is,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “People visit the website and describe the video as ‘breathtaking’ and ‘shocking,’ and they can see so clearly why we need to move the lighthouse away from the edge.”

The Lighthouse committee has mounted a multi-million dollar effort to save the iconic Martha’s Vineyard beacon.

The lighthouse currently sits 46 feet from the edge of the cliff at its closest point. Aquinnah town officials have been working with representatives of the General Services Administration, the Coast Guard, and the National Park Service to discuss the pending transfer of ownership of the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard to the town. The town’s formal application for the transfer is due on Feb. 5, 2014.

The total cost of moving the light is estimated to be around $3 million, which the committee expects to meet from a combination of private donations and public funds.

Affordable flight

The quadcopter that Mr. McElroy flies is a DJI Phantom, equipped with a GoPro video camera.

DJI headquarters is in Shenzhen, China, just north of Hong Kong. The company also has facilities in Japan, Germany, and in Los Angeles.

The basic model, which comes with a camera mount, but no camera, sells at many retail outlets for as low as $479. Models with more features, including an integrated video camera, cost as much at $1,200 or more.

Hobbyists soup up the basic model with carbon fiber propellers, propellor guards, lights for night flight, vibration dampers, and gimballed camera mounts, among other accessories.

The remote control aircraft is about 14 inches wide, 7.5 inches high, and weighs 1.4 pounds without a camera attached.

More advanced models can be integrated with GPS technology to fly very specific routes, and record locations as they fly. DJI produced a humorous commercial to illustrate how its quadcopter will return to its landing spot if it loses radio contact with the remote control device.

Climbing quickly

Uses for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), known more popularly as drones, are expanding beyond military weapons systems very quickly. Police departments, local governments, journalists, and hobbyists are finding new ways to use them every day.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued guidance for flying drones similar to those issued for model planes. The FAA advises the devices should not climb above 400 feet, and should not be flown over populated areas, though the agency does not define populated areas. Hobbyists are advised to notify local airports if they are flying within three miles of the runways. The FAA prohibits commercial use of drones, while it tries to create regulations for their use. The agency has been criticized for delays as it grapples with complex issues of privacy, air traffic, and security.

Unforeseen scene

Martha’s Vineyard provides some wonderful opportunities for breathtaking aerial video photography, but the unique and sometimes quirky nature of the Island and its residents also present some unexpected and unforeseen consequences.

Mr. McElroy says he caused a minor stir this past summer among his West Chop neighbors when he launched his quadcopter near the West Chop Lighthouse to capture aerial video of the iconic beacon. It seems his random flight path took the quadcopter over someone taking an outdoor shower. A careful examination of the video revealed no compromising shower scenes, however.