Build Your Own Drone

Made from scratch, a Kestrel takes flight.

The author flies his homebuilt UAV, the Kestrel-6. (Ed Darack)
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Step 6: Moment of truth

Test flying the UAV was the mostfrightening part of the project. As each part was one-of-a-kind, I thought a design error or crash would kill the vehicle—and the entire project. And crash it did, but not catastrophically—just enough to break some propellers.

Then it crashed again, from about 30 feet up. Remarkably, it sustained only minor damage, thanks to the bolted carbon fiber construction and the lack of exposed components.

I was never able to determine what exactly caused the crashes, but it could have been a power brownout. The crashes actually proved to be a good thing, as they demonstrated the Kestrel-6’s resilience.

To ensure that I had the craft configured properly, I took it to Bill Clary of Got Aerial, LLC, based in the Denver, Colorado area. Clary is an aerial videographer and photographer who shoots from a variety of unmanned multi-rotors. Clary fine-tuned the Kestrel-6 and gave me some vital piloting pointers, such as always having a detailed flight plan. (The Kestrel-6 runs out of battery power in about 12 minutes.)

From that point, I was able to fly the Kestrel-6 with continuous real-time video downlink from the GoPro, which I could position wherever I needed (and use to record high-definition video footage).

Although not done in a military setting, these tests—including up-close footage of a spinning wind turbine hundreds of feet high in 20-mph wind—proved the concept: Anyone can create a small, rugged, purpose-built UAV and put it to practical use.

Thanks to the GPS, I was able to “park” the craft and hold it at a chosen altitude, and even have it fly back to its launch point, all while seeing what it was seeing, and easily positioning it for other views—everything I wish I’d had during that terrifying moment just before entering the potential kill zone in Afghanistan.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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