#DroneDiaries Visiting Makoko

A couple of weeks ago, I made a promise to start a blog series, posting videos from my drone flights. It was a stupid promise. The last year has been the busiest in my life – our business has grown about 50% over the last year, and our team had doubled and is still growing. We’ve spun off business units, and are working on more projects, which are fast morphing into standalone units.

It’s not a year I thought I could afford a hobby (no, the drone flying isn’t a hobby, but I will explain that sometime later). But a promise is a promise, right? So I am going to try to keep that promise. Yesterday, I finally posted the first video from the #DroneDiaries. It’s a video from a recent flight over Makoko. But getting that video itself wasn’t straight forward.

I have always been been fascinated by Makoko. Every time I drove past the Third Mainland Bridge, I would just stare at the mass of houses in the distance and wonder what it felt like living there. I remember the first day I saw the ‘boat exodus’, the morning trip by the small sail boats, as the fishermen went out into the lagoon. It was an amazing sight. Over 20 little boats, with makeshift sails, going out to the open water at the same time, from under the bridge into the early morning sunshine. I had never seen a sight like that before.

A week after that, I drove out in the morning, and didn’t go straight to work. I went to the bridge at 7:45am, hoping to catch the boat exodus again. I did not. But I waited on the bridge and watched the fishermen go by one-by-one. I didn’t take any photos. I just stayed there and watched. Then we bought our first drone.

Makoko was the first place I wanted to fly over. It was not my first sortie. In fact I didn’t get to fly by Makoko for a couple of weeks. Then I did. I had a meeting on the Mainland, so I packed the box and loaded up in the car. The meeting was long, and slow, and I could not wait.

The meeting finally ended, and we raced to the bridge, my driver and I. Umana, my driver, is probably as big a drone enthusiast as me, and was really looking forward to this flight. We selected a spot for shoot from – beside the police post near the Yaba exit. We greeted the policemen, made them comfortable, then setup.

One of the first things you discover when you start flying any drones is how warped relativity of position could be. When an object is flying in the air, the relative position you see with the naked eye almost certainly is not where that object really is. When a drone takes off into the sky, everything seems great. But after moving around for a couple of minutes, it gets really hard to bring it over your head with exact certainty.

This is where the inbuilt map app comes in useful. You can use GPS to tell exactly where the drone is on the map. Except with the DJI Phantom (our first drone), data transmission could be impaired by distance and interfering objects or radio signals. When interference occurs, and your drone is far away, there is no way to know for certain if the building you see in front of you is right there right then, or the image was from a 30-seconds earlier, and you’re just about to crash into it.

This was the problem we had with that first flight. The distance from the bridge to Makoko is almost a kilometre, and there was a lot of interference. We just couldn’t seem to get close enough – power lines seemed to be everywhere, and the delayed imaging didn’t help much. By the time we recalled the drone, we had only seen the floating school of Makoko.  But we did take a really good retreat shot, which went into one of our ad projects.

The second time we tried to shoot, my driver had forgotten to pack the remote control. Imagine getting all excited, driving out to the bridge, parking and greeting our friends, the police, then discovering the RC wasn’t there.  We went back after a couple of weeks. This time, we took one of the new Inspire 1 aircrafts.

The Inspire is a big, big upgrade on the Phantom. It’s like getting into a Mercedes after a lifetime of driving a Kia Rio. The aircraft is larger, faster, stronger, more accurate, and the app is much smoother. This time, I also had a full time done researcher along with me. And Umana of course.

We couldn’t begin flying immediately, because we could not calibrate the drone successfully.

To complete flight check at every new location, the drone compass must be calibrated to ensure the drone connects properly with the ‘earth’. Without calibration, a drone could perform abnormally. Of course since calibration is a magnetic enterprise, it’s advised to calibrate away from magnetic fields, or large metallic objects. Our calibration on the Third Mainland failed because the bridge is one giant metallic object.

We eventually tricked the drone to calibrate. Then we flew away. It was the perfect flight. Everything was going accordning to plan. The lighting was right, the angles were right, and the winds were just perfect. When the drone returned to land 20 minutes later, we had covered pure joy in video. Except I had forgotten to push the record button!

(Hollywood sad song interlude).

We didn’t return to the bridge for another couple of weeks. When we finally did, we made sure we carried two RCs, 3 batteries and pushed the record button as soon as we took off. The only ting that could fail now…nothing could fail actually, just the shock we felt when we finally flew over Makoko’s literal ‘streets of water’.

We have since done more flights over Makoko, and we now know a few of her secrets. I am now ready to take a boat trip to see things from a human level.


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