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Attack of the drones

AAP logoAAP 23/10/2016 Michael Wayne

"The first rule of owning a drone is don't give it a name, because you'll get too attached," says our drone guru Steve.

I hug Daryl close to me and hope he didn't hear that.

I'm taking a drone-flying lesson as a part of Goulburn's Spyfest festival. The drones are meant to represent the James Bond gadget aspect of the spy experience.

But Daryl will be more than that. He'll be my eyes and ears in the air.

"These drones don't have microphones," Steve says. Well, just my eyes, then.

These drones are at the less expensive end of the spectrum, costing around $250. The higher-end models can approach $2,000.

My group has been hard at work screwing together our drones for the last ten minutes while Steve lists a bunch of rules we're likely to forget instantly.

Steve is from the Melbourne-based Drone Club, which is acting as Q Branch for Spyfest. There seems to be more teachers than students among us and alongside me are a bunch of guys in sideways caps.

It's overcast outside, the clouds threatening to douse us at any moment. We screw on, regardless. "These ones are pretty lightweight," says teacher Dom.

My fantasies of sending Daryl out to pick up pizza on a Friday night are almost instantly dashed. What exactly can I do with him?

"The problem with drones is that people buy them, think they're easy to fly, take them out to the park and mess around, get them stuck in a tree and walk away thinking it's too hard," Steve laments. "It's actually vital to learn the basics, and that's what we're doing here."

It kind of takes away from the romantic, Bondian view of drones. Did 007 have to take basic drone lessons? Did he even fly a drone?

These questions are swiftly forgotten as Daryl takes to the air for the first time. With the furious buzz of a whippersnapper, he lifts up, up, up. And UP.

"Throttle down, man," Dom shouts. In a panic, I drop the throttle to zero, and Daryl crashes to earth. "That's ok," Dom says. "The legs are flexible enough to absorb the impact."

Try telling that to Daryl. Will he ever forgive me?

But moments later he's back in the air and manoeuvring through the hoops the Drone Club have set up on the oval. We're attracting quite an audience, who ooh and aah over every deftly executed dip and yaw, and laugh at every crash.

They're currently in stitches.

Being that the drones are battery-powered, I'm curious as to how long the batteries last.

"About five minutes," I'm told.

Seriously?

As if on cue, the drone belonging to Mick, a fellow droner, drops out of the air, stone dead.

"Whenever you're going to pick it up," Steve had said, "throttle down completely and put the remote on the ground. That way you can't get the propellers spinning by accident."

Mick hasn't listened. The propellers start up the moment he reaches to pick up the drone, and he puts his hand right into the danger zone.

"Ow," he says as he proceeds to pick the thing up anyway.

Didn't that hurt? "Nah man, it didn't break the skin or nothing."

As the rest of us make the most of our five minutes of fame, the Drone Club gurus tell us the important things. There are height restrictions and noise restrictions, we learn. Also, we can't go near people, animals, neighbours' backyards, populated areas, roads or other drones.

So again, what can I do?

It's then that Steve and Dom appear wearing what look like virtual reality headsets. They each pull out tiny drones that look to have been custom-built, Frankensteined together from bigger units.

They place their drones down, nod at each other - god knows how - and proceed to race their drones around at extreme speeds. The flips, the turns, the high-velocity crashes all do a better job at making us noobs look worse than we did already.

Drones are primarily used to film in places people can't normally get, but the fanbase for drone racing is growing steadily. Dedicated racing drones can reach speeds of over 100km/h - and there's no live baiting required.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority recently changed the rules surrounding the use of drones, with a licence or training no longer required to fly drones weighing less than two kilograms.

CASA insists high safety standards are being maintained, but independent senator Nick Xenophon is attempting to reverse the change, which he says is "dangerous".

As I watch these two guys in VR goggles bashing their drones together at high speed in a park with kids nearby, I see his point.

But try as he might, Xenophon can't stop Daryl and I. We're a team.

Which is why I'm so offended when I take his weak battery into an RC Hobbies shop for a replacement. "Mate," the shopkeeper says between fits of laughter. "That's not a drone."

He pulls out a small black box that transforms into the sleekest, sexiest drone I've ever seen. As he lists the numerous features, my mind drifts to poor, grounded Daryl, sitting in the back of the car, without even a battery.

Two weeks later, we're at a reserve in Kogarah Bay in southern Sydney. The sun's out, the water is sparkling and I'm going to get some great footage. Daryl may not be sexy but dammit, he's mine.

Up, up, up...down, down down.

No, it's not the battery, ok? Daryl's just...intimidated by magpies.

On the plus side, my footage of the ground rushing towards me looks great.

* The writer travelled to Spyfest as a guest of Goulburn Australia.

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