Flying a DJI Phantom 3 Quadcopter at the Great Wall of China

During my three week stay in China, I was planning on flying my DJI Phantom 3 Advanced quadcopter several times. I was hoping to get aerial photos and video from several different spots around Beijing, that I could edit together into a “China Drone Highlights” video and post on my Youtube channel. This ended up being more of a challenge than I had expected.

During the first week there, I packed up my quadcopter, remote, Ipad, and spare batteries into the backpack case that I use to transport everything. I convinced Cheryl and Kevin, my two siblings, to accompany me to Haidian Park, where I hoped to try my first flight. Upon arrival, we discovered that there is a “Geo-fence” around the city, that DJI uses to prevent people from flying in the area. I’m still not completely sure why the prohibited area exists across the entire city, but since DJI is a Chinese-owned company, it is safe to assume that the Chinese government or military authorities had some influence in creating it.

A week after the first attempt, however, I tried again. This time we made a quick trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, which is just beyond the 20mi perimeter of the prohibited areal. We arrived there with just under 60 minutes of daylight remaining, so I was eager to get flying right away. The first step to setting up was finding an open and flat location to launch from. I picked one of the towers that looked suitable, and proceeded to climb up from the side along one of the protruding brick ledges. Looking over the side of a 50ft tower that is sitting on top of a steep cliff is both exhilarating and terrifying.

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As soon as we were up, I proceeded to screw the four rotor blades and calibrate the compass and sensors in the drone. When the DJI Go App loaded on my Ipad, it was flashing a notification in red that the battery temperature was too cold to fly. I was surprised at this, since I had kept the batteries inside the insulated backpack, and it was 5 degrees Celsius, which for winter is relatively warm. At this point we only had about 30 minutes of daylight remaining, and I was getting anxious about flying as it got darker.

I removed the two batteries from the quadcopter, and tried to warm them up with body heat. I placed them in my inner jacket pocket and tried rubbing to help them warm faster. Eventually after restarting the drone several times, I managed to get the motors to start running, even though there were still warning notifications on the display. They had switched from the restrictive warnings (which actually override any control inputs) to the yellow advisory messages.

With the sun setting fast, I applied full power on the remote and got the Phantom 3 to shoot straight up. I was impressed with the fast response and precise control feel that I got from it. When flying it in the default GPS mode, the drone uses satellite signal for its position information. Anytime that I let go of the controls, the drone would smoothly transition into a stable hover. I had just enough time to get a few good pictures of the wall. I rotated the camera vertically for one of the shots, which allowed me to get a straight-down view of the tower we were standing on.

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Since this was only my first time ever flying the drone, I felt it turned out well in the end. I’m definitely going to keep practicing and looking for better, more creative pictures with it. For future cold weather flights I will need to find some other way to transport the batteries. I’m thinking about possibly using an old camera case with extra insulation and hand-warmer inserts to preheat my batteries before flying.

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