Back in November, I was in Kinokuniya Books in Amu Plaza, next to the main train station, and I figured I’d visit the science kits section to see what they still had for the Gakken Adult Science line. A pair of non-Gakken boxes caught my eye. They were from a company I’d never heard of before – San-ei, and were for their compact drone series. The first was the normal drone, at about $50 USD. The second had a built-in video camera. After a couple weeks, I decided to get the more expensive one for 7,400 yen (about $72 USD), while I was waiting for the Gakken drone kit to come out.
It’s a tiny drone, fully pre-built, at about 2″ square and maybe 1.5″ tall, without the lander legs. Everything fits into the RC case, with the drone going into the well in the front, and the blade protector piece and recharger cable in a second well in the back. The kit first came out in 2014, and the rechargeable battery still had a near-full charge out of the box. The camera records to a micro-SD card that fits into a slot in the drone. You pop the card out and put it into the supplied USB reader that you plug into your PC to download the image or video files.
So far, I haven’t been able to play with it much. The RC unit has about a 30-40 foot range, and the drone is really hard to get to hover at a fixed distance, so it’s not suited for playing with in an apartment when you’re just starting out. I’ve tried using it outside, and I really have to be in a park over grass to keep from damaging the blades when it hits the ground. As it is, one propeller did pop off and I lost it in the grass. Fortunately, the kit comes with 4 spare blades, so that’s good. But, I’m having difficulty figuring out all of the operating modes, and I can only play with the drone on days when there’s no rain and no wind, and when I don’t have to work. So far, I’ve only been able to play with it for 10 minutes, total.
The controller has two joysticks and 8 operating mode buttons. If you hold the controller the way the designers intended, you put it in your left hand and move the prop speed stick with your left thumb. First, turn on the power to the drone, then turn on the power switch on the bottom of the controller. You move the speed stick to full speed, then zero, twice. This causes the controller to sync up with the drone, and when it beeps, you’re ready to fly. The right stick supposedly controls forward/back/left/right movement, but I can never get the drone to just hover, so by the time it starts turning in a different direction, it’s reaching a height of 20-30 feet and when I try to bring it back down to earth, it tumbles and hits the ground. The right side buttons are forward-only, backward-only, right-only and left-only. The left side buttons are “go out”, “come back”, take a photo, and record video. Photos and video are a waste of time now, because I’d only get sky, or a crazy tumble into the grass. Pushing the left controller down and then tilting it left or right is supposed to make the drone do a loop, but I’m not at the stage for trying that yet.
What I really need to do is just sit down in the park for a while and practice take-offs, hovering and landings. When the battery runs out, then it can be recharged by pulling out the battery cable to the drone and connecting it to the cable in the bottom of the controller. The controller runs on 4 AA batteries.
It’s a fun kit, and $70 isn’t that bad a price for an entry-level drone that small that you can play with in the parks without attracting undue attention. And now’s a good time to do this, because the Japanese government is in the process of developing legislation to require all drone operators to be licensed to reduce the number of people that can fly drones in the future.