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Meteora, Greece – Research for our new drone holiday destination for 2019

Unlock the Real Greece on a Drone Adventure to Meteora, Greece with PhantomFlightSchool and George Blonsky

I spent last week in the company of a very special person, in a very special place.

George Blonsky is part-English, part-Greek, and has spent roughly half his life in each.  He is fluent in both.  He has been a photographer for 30 years, and in that time has photographed: celebrities on red carpets; rare pelicans, bears, wolves and other amazing wildlife in his native Greece; incredible landscapes around the world; and for the last 14 years, the work that gives him the most pleasure, the Paralympics, Winter and Summer.  An image of his of a Norwegian Paralympic Biathlete was chosen by Samsung as their billboard image for the Korean Winter Games earlier this year.  He has shot for Getty, for Nike, photographed Pele and Ralph Fiennes for the Sunday Times, and shot for dozens, if not hundreds, of other household names.  As well as all that, George is now a drone pilot, trained by PhantomFlightSchool.  Take a look at some of his amazing photographs at https://www.geopictorial.com/index

George and I met at The Photography Show in March 2018, and I was immediately arrested by his amazing photographs of Meteora – an extraordinary place in the very centre of Greece where there exist six monasteries, perched hundreds of metres high on top of extraordinary rock outcrops, which for centuries could only be reached by means of baskets and ropes, which, it is said, were only replaced when the Lord signaled they needed to be, by breaking them.  He suggested the monasteries would look even more incredible filmed from a drone.  We agreed to put that idea to the test, with a view to inviting PhantomFlightSchool clients to join us in 2019 if he were proved right.

Hence I came to be picked up by George from Thessaloniki Airport late last Saturday evening.  From there it was straight to a local taverna known to George, where we dined on delicious Pork Pyrgos, delicious fresh Tzatziki, and heavenly flatbread.  Everyone else in the place speaking Greek.  George insisted on paying, explaining that this is his Country, so it was his right to pay.  As George wished me goodnight in the hotel lobby, he said “welcome” in a way I had never heard it said before.  He really meant it.

Sunday we drove to Meteora.  Meteora is a long way from anywhere.  Four hours from Athens.  Three from Thessaloniki, where I had flown into.  But the journey flew by, because the scenery en-route was never less than spectacular.  First came the delta of the River Axios.  Some 60kms long, and more than 10kms wide, this is truly nature’s bread-basket.  A paradise of reed beds, and orchards that go on for kms, with apples, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, and walnuts and chestnuts for good measure.  It is said that here, you can put a dead stick in the ground, and in a year you will have a healthy tree.  This is where Alexander the Great was born, and died.  And this delta is the reason Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city.

Leaving the delta, we began to climb into the mountains.  Imperturbable behind his Oakleys, George turns to me and says “this is where Bears live”, moments before we pass a road sign explaining exactly that.  As we climb, the air becomes crystal clear, and the sky, a deep deep blue.  Arriving on a high plateau, we make rapid progress towards our destination on excellent roads.  Soon after, we are checking into a smart hotel where the staff greet us like long lost cousins, in the village of Kastragi .   The view from the bedrooms and their balconies, as well as the delightful garden where we took breakfast each morning, is breath-taking.  Huge rock outcrops.  Towering above us.  Hundreds of metres tall.  Vertical, or in some cases, overhanging the valley.  I glimpse what looks like a building on the top of one of them.  Really?

Despite having seen George’s photographs.  Despite having done my homework about Meteora online in advance, I was completely unprepared for the sight before my eyes when we left the hotel an hour before dusk, and drove a short way to the main viewing point for the Meteora Monasteries.  What the monks went through to build their “monasteries in the sky” (which is the translation for Meteora) beggars belief.  Today, people come here for the beauty of the place, the majesty of the rock monoliths, and the sense of spirituality that pervades the place.  When they were built, I expect it was only spirituality the monks had in mind.  Incredible.

What a place to fly a drone.  From the moment I took off from a quiet spot away from the few tourists that were stopping at the main viewing points, the images I was seeing on my screen took  my breath away.  So much vertical space.  Such an incredible backdrop provided by the craggy peaks and the fluffy white cloud studded sky.  Light of such limpid beauty.  And the monasteries themselves.  Providing focal points for my filming like nothing I have ever seen.

The monks don’t like to be interrupted in their reveries on God, so we were careful to fly a good distance away, and never to overfly the monasteries.  We didn’t need to.  The scenery was captivating in every direction.  Wow.  I was literally shaking with excitement as my drone touched down safely after the first flight.

The next day we were back before dawn.  This time, the only people around.  Perfect conditions for flying.  We completed a perfect Hyperlapse – the old fashioned way using timed photos every two seconds, and tap-fly set at 2m / second.  150 images, which will turn into 5 seconds of film, takes five minutes during which the drone covers a distance of 600m.  So keen eyes are required to keep it in line of sight.  We also got some great reveals, some stunning shots of the valley, and much else besides.  Over the next 24 hours we flew and flew and flew at Meteora.  Some of the most beautiful flights, and certainly some of the most technically challenging, of my drone life.

By Monday night, I knew with absolute certainty that this is a place we must bring PhantomFlightSchool clients to in 2019.  It is a magical, spiritual, special place.  Over the last five hundred years, I guess it has seen most things.  It felt to me that it welcomed our drones as just one more curiosity from the strange modern world the monks turn their backs on when they climb the hundreds of steps (still, steps beat baskets and ropes I’d say) and retreat to their monasteries to meditate for the rest of their lives.

A trip to this part of Greece is so different from visiting the Greece of Athens and the Parthenon, or the lovely Greek islands.  We adore Corfu too – which is why we are going back in April 2019 for a week on a 48ft yacht with drones, thanks to our great friends at No Stress Yachting.  But this is the real Greece.  And with George Blonsky as our guide, we can unlock it.  Every day feels like an adventure.  Unexpected scenes of astonishing beauty at every turn.  Amazing generosity and kindness from everyone we meet.  Stray Anatolian sheepdogs asleep in the middle of the road – the roads around here don’t see much traffic.  Delicious, authentic, locally sourced food in the restaurants.  With great options for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.  On Tuesday we visited the stunning, unique, deserted, post-Byzantine Church “Church of the Holy Cross” high in the mountains North of Meteora.  More amazing drone flights.  More amazing drone footage.

On Wednesday, our last day, we check out of our hotel, and take our bags to the car.  Then head back to reception for hand-shakes and hugs with the hotel staff.  It really is that kind of place.  I am sad to be leaving, but ecstatic to have experienced this special place.  We take a detour on the way back to the airport, to visit Metsovo, a wonderful mountain-top village with narrow cobbled streets, well kept micro-gardens, and a bustling town square.  Our destination is not the village itself, but the spectacular lake beyond it.  The Autumn colours in the forests around the lake are jaw-droppingly spectacular.  The scenery achingly beautiful.

On this trip, for reasons of portability, I took just my Mavic Air drone.  It is fair to say I had my fair share of adventures in the sky.  I love the Pano function.  I love the portability.  And I was chuffed to figure out how to do a Hyperlapse without a Mavic 2.  But trying to fly long-distances, I regularly lost contact with the Air completely.  Which is a little nerve-wracking.  Flight time is short.  Generally fifteen minutes or less.  It was not always happy with the amount of wind we encountered.  Although in size it is unobtrusive, boy is it a noisy drone.  The non-existent ground clearance meant I had to choose take off and landing spots with care.  And the lack of options to adjust camera settings, because of the fixed aperture, and the difficulty with adjusting EV on the fly, was frustrating from time to time.  All the same, she behaved heroically throughout, and has returned home with me in mint condition.

DJI M600 First Flight this weekend at our Maidstone Flying Site

After careful consideration this client chose PhantomFlightSchool to supply their shiny new DJI M600 drone.  They chose PFS because of the full package we offer when we sell a drone like this one: support with the build; full training; and a half-day of practical flying included in the price.

The “big beast” of the DJI line-up weights well over 7kgs, and is capable of lifting a 3kg payload.  This drone was chosen by the client because it has rotor / motor / propeller redundancy, as well as battery redundancy, which was considered essential for a long-term project filming and recording development on a tall skyscraper construction site in a congested area.

Here is  brief clip of the M600’s maiden flight, at our Maidstone, Kent, Flying Location this weekend.

M600 launch

5 Drone Survival Tips for Winter 2018

Flying drones in winter can be challenging, low temperatures seriously affect the stability of a drone and unpredictable weather add to the dangers, so how can you have a safe flight and capture great shots during the winter months?

Here are some safety and camera settings tips to keep you flying this winter.

Battery

Cold Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries means less chemical activity, which means a less stable drone. Reports have shown cold weather has been responsible for drones literally dropping out of the sky. The most important tip you are likely to hear this winter? Keep your batteries warm. Follow these tips below to ensure a safe flight:

  • Only use fully charged batteries.
  • Pre-heat your battery to 20°C (68°F) or more. You can check the battery temperature in DJI GO. Use a Battery Heater if one is available for your product.
  • Hover for about a minute to allow the battery to warm up.
  • Only push the control sticks gently to prevent any battery voltage drops.
  • Batteries drain faster in cold temperatures. Always check your drone’s battery status during flight.

Environment

Reduced visibility and moisture can be the hidden dangers behind shooting spectacular winter scenery. It’s essential to take the right precautions:

  • Avoid contact with snow. Moisture can damage the motors. It’s recommended to use a landing pad for taking off and landing your drone.
  • Before flying your drone, check the weather conditions. Avoid strong wind, rain, and snow.
  • Do not fly in temperatures below 0°C (32°F).
  • Ensure that the GPS signal is strong.

Stay Warm

Wear gloves! Operating with numb hands is dangerous. Keep all devices warm, cold temperatures will shorten the LiPo batteries life, so if you fly with cold batteries (and that includes mobiles and tablets) don’t be surprised if any one of your devices unexpectedly shuts down from the cold.

Camera Settings – Exposure and White Balance

If you are flying when snows on the ground, you will need to manually set camera exposure and white balance, otherwise expect an SD card full of dark images. This is because the camera’s exposure can sometimes underexpose snow, tricked by its brightness. By adding additional stops, you will slightly overexpose your photos but get the right compensation for snow shots. Similarly, you need to adjust the white balance accordingly to get the right colour balance of the snowy landscape. Otherwise, the snow may look grey.

Storage

If you’re thinking of putting your drone into storage over winter, or even for a few weeks or more, its performance might be affected. Storing it properly is key to a safe flight. Make sure to:

  • Fully charge and discharge the battery once every three months to maintain battery health.
  • Remove the propellers and attach the gimbal clamp when storing your drone.
  • Store your drone in a dry, non-magnetic place at around 25°C (77°F).

Ready to capture a winter wonderland with your drone? Have fun with your winter flying.

P4Pro Obsidian – Another reason we love DJI!

When the P4Pro was launched I very quickly saw that I needed to upgrade from my P4 and haven’t regretted doing so for a moment… until now.

I’ve seen all of the photos and videos of the Obsidian and thought to myself “It’s just a fancy paint job… What’s the point? Who needs it?”

The trouble is that today I have seen one in the flesh and handled it… And now I have a problem!

OK so it’s just cosmetics with no material improvement in terms of performance, but that’s not the point.

The Obsidian is overwhelmingly, gut-wrenchingly, irresistibly GORGEOUS! And yes, I want one!

Look at it and it’s beautiful, but touch it and it just gets better. Its beauty might be only skin-deep, but what a skin!

The matte finish exudes quality to the eye and to the touch so it’s just as well there is an anti-fingerprint coating, because I defy anybody to resist touching the polished magnesium gimbal and camera. I admit it… I actually stroked it!

For anybody about to purchase their first P4Pro I’d say don’t look at the Obsidian unless you’re prepared to fall under its spell… You will struggle to resist.

 

The Definitive Survey of UK Drone Users – by PhantomFlightSchool and DRONE Magazine, September 2017

We are excited to confirm that with 1,126 completed surveys received, this is by far the largest survey of UK Drone Users ever conducted.

Thank you to all of you who took part.  Thank you for taking the time to do so, and thank you for the honesty with which you answered our questions.

 Click HERE to see the Full Article about the Survey in DRONE Magazine

Click HERE to see the detailed answers to every question we asked on Survey Monkey

Survey Highlights

We ran the Survey in partnership with DRONE Magazine, and an eight page article on the results is the main feature in their October edition (out now). You can see the full results of our Survey HERE

Stand outs from the survey for us include that, unsurprisingly, alongside wanting to take photos and video, the main reason people buy a drone is to have fun. More worrying is that nearly half of you have had a crash or a near miss, and that the main reason people crash (50%!) is human error.

Having the most fun with your drone

We exist to make sure you have the most fun possible with your drone, as well as helping you to capture the best photographs and video you can, whilst making sure the number of landings equals the number of take-offs, every time.

We all know that to get good at tennis, you need tennis lessons. To learn French, you need French lessons.  Whatever standard your flying is now, we guarantee that a drone flying lesson will ensure you have more fun with your drone, take better pictures and video with your drone, and minimise the risk of crashing your drone.

The most exciting flying requires more skills. Skills we can help you to learn, quickly and safely.

Click HERE to use Voucher Code “survey10” to get 10% off a one, two or three hour lesson.  Order must be placed by 15 October 2017, lesson to be taken before end 2017.

 

What the Government Announcement of Mandatory Registration for Drones means in practice

Drone Registration – a big step in the right direction

The good news is that on Saturday 22 July the UK Government announced that in due course, for any drone weighing more than 250gms, registration of the drone, and safety awareness training and testing for the pilot, will become mandatory.

These announcements were contained in a 65 page report snappily titled “Unlocking the UKs high tech economy consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK”.  Alongside this the government also published their “Drones Mid-Air Collision Study”.

We have now read both of these reports several times, and here are our thoughts.

What is Happening, and When?

Q: What is going to happen?

A: The detail is still being worked out. But it appears that the CAA or perhaps the DVLA will be given the task of running the registration process.  Ie. this will not be done at the point of sale, but will rather be an online process.   This follows the scheme that was running until recently in the USA.  The expectation is that education about safety, and a safety awareness test, will be part of the registration process.

Q: When will it happen?

A: The Government says registration will be introduced “in the near future”.

Q: Will it affect me?

A: Most probably yes. The system the Government favours is one where registration is mandatory, and there will be penalties for not registering (how they will spot offenders is anyone’s guess).  The Government also favours this being an operator-centric, rather than a drone-centric registration process.  So it is likely to affect anyone who flies a drone, not just new purchasers of drones.

Q: How hard will it be to pass?

A: We have no information about exactly what will be in the test. But it is likely to be very straightforward indeed. After all, it will need to be pitched at a level where just about anyone can pass it.  And the Report states that it will be focused on safety (rules about where you can fly), security (rules about where you must not fly) and privacy (rules about what you can film).

Q: What will it cost?

A: The Government wants the registration scheme to be as cheap as possible, and to be non-profit making. The scheme previously operating in the USA cost $5, and the scheme operating in Ireland costs 5Euros.  £5 anyone?

Q: Does having a flying lesson with PhantomFlightSchool mean I won’t have to pass the Safety Awareness Test?

A: Sadly no. Because the Safety Awareness Test will be bound up with the Registration process, anyone registering their drone will have to do the Test.  But from the indications in the Report, the things to be covered in the test are exactly the things we cover in the “legislation” section of every lesson we give.

What Impact will this all have?

We welcome what we see as a sensible, well balanced report from the Government, which follows a sensible, well-run, and balanced public consultation. Our assessment is that:

  1. Anything which contributes to the safe flying of drones, and reduces the risk of an accident leading to injury or even loss of life is to be welcomed. Introducing new rules before anything bad has happened has got to be better than a knee-jerk reaction afterwards.
  2. As well as enhancing drone safety, the introduction of registration and safety awareness testing should reassure members of the public that we drone pilots are responsible people who know what we are doing. Once again, a good thing.
  3. We think the proposals do a good job of protecting the future of the drone sector in the UK. Not by stopping the “crazies” who will simply ignore the registration process. But by enhancing the respectability and law-abiding nature of the other 99% of drone pilots.
  4. The key conclusion of the Mid-Air Collision Report is very good news. That a drone the size and weight of a Phantom would most likely “bounce off” a commercial airliner. So the risk of mass casualties from a mid-air collision appears remote.
  5. Another conclusion of the Report is that a Phantom / helicopter collision could be very serious, and could lead to the helicopter crashing. Whilst this would be a terrible thing, and is a key part of the reason why safety awareness training will be mandatory, I don’t believe it would lead to a switch away from the drone-friendly policies being promoted currently by the Government. After all, the Shoreham Airshow crash was a terrible thing. But it did not lead to Airshows being banned.
  6. In practice, one has to wonder how much of an impact the new rules will have on anyone intent on flying dangerously. The Government acknowledges in the Report that electronic tagging of drones, whilst a big goal for the future, remains some years away. So anyone can buy a drone, fail to register it, and then fly it in a dangerous manner / in places they shouldn’t (Old Trafford etc.) from 2 – 3 miles away, safe in the knowledge that they are more or less uncatchable.
  7. Will registration dampen demand for drones? I suspect it may dampen demand, especially for cheap, heavy drones. Does anyone spending £75 on a drone weighing more than 250gms want the hassle of registering it and completing a safety awareness test? I dare say that many people in this category will simply fail to register it. But all the same, the impact is bound to be negative. But because registration will not take place at the point of sale, I think it is unlikely to dampen demand for drones very much. At the price point at which DJI drones are sold, I doubt it will have a noticeable impact.
  8. Unfortunately, the announcement made by the Government may lead to negative sentiment towards drone pilots from some quarters. I think the kind of person that felt negative about drones previously will find ammunition for their negativity here, along the lines of “you see, I knew they were dangerous”.
  9. Many people are averse to change, no matter how well intentioned or well executed the change. The model aircraft community, as represented by the BMFA, appear to have objected to every aspect of the new rules. But in the drone sector, change is happening all the time. Consider how big the gap is in performance on every level between the Phantom 4 Pro, and the class-leading Phantom 3 Pro of just 18 months ago. So I welcome these changes, and expect there to be more to come.

Hamburg's Flagship New Concert Hall about to open. Yes but what has that got to do with drones…..?

Here’s how The Economist covered the news that Hamburg’s new Concert Hall is about to open:

After a six year delay and massive cost overruns, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, or Elbphilharmonie, will finally open its doors on Wednesday.  The stunning building was designed by the Swiss Architects, Herzog and de Meuron, and has become Hamburg’s most talked about landmark.

It has already passes a big test: musicians from its orchestra-in-residence were moved to tears by the acoustics after their first rehearsal.

Hamburg’s latest architectural gem seems poised to become one of the world’s most celebrated classical music venues.

Yes but what has this got to with drones?  Watch the movie to see how a Concert Hall looks from the eyes of a Racing Drone!