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Retired Judge Gil Jones takes to the skies — sort of — with quadcopter hobby

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — One could describe retired District Judge Gil Jones has a hoverer. It’s not because he still hovers around the courtroom but because of his new hobby.

“It pretty much combines everything I like to do: being outdoors, photography, flying and the technical stuff,” he said while sitting at Main Street Coffee. On the table in front of him sat a spider-like contraption bearing four appendages instead of eight. At the end of each appendage is a small motor. At the center of the creature is the “brain” and battery.

Its “eye” is a GoPro camera.

“I’m still learning, especially when flying in manual, but it’s a lot of fun,” Jones said.

Jones has entered the growing hobby of flying quadcopters, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or multi-rotor aircraft. Along with four motors such as Jones’ craft, you can also find them with six or even eight motors.

Jones takes the quadcopter to the coffee shop’s front yard, where he places it on the ground. With a transmitter in his hands, Jones lifts the quad off the lawn and hovers it for a few moments a few feet above the ground. A stiff breeze pushes it a bit, but Jones adjusts the aircraft, and it once again settles into its hover.

Then, Jones flies the craft around the small yard, careful not to get too high but just enough to demonstrate the quad’s ability. Unlike conventional remote-controlled helicopters, Jones said the quad is a bit more forgiving and a whole lot less expensive to repair if damaged. As fragile as the small quad looks, it’s also remarkably tough and can handle a rough landing now and then.

Jones, who admits to being somewhat of a techie, didn’t set out to explore the world of quads and UAV. He once flew traditional R/C airplanes but set those aside due to work commitments. He ended up giving away his gear. But, the flying bug recently bit him again.

“I first looked into helicopters,” Jones said. But after stopping at Hobby Town in Austin, the staff there kind of dissuaded him from those. “They said (helicopters) were very twitchy to fly and very expensive to repair.”

So, Jones tucked the idea to the side. After all, it’s not like he’s suffering from a lack of hobbies. Even while Jones served as the 33rd Judicial District judge, he pursued several activities including HAM radio, kayaking, photography and even some bicycling. Since retiring (he still does some mediation and can serve as a visiting judge), Jones has continued several of those hobbies, especially his HAM radio activities.

It was actually a trip into Austin to pick up some radio parts that took him once again by Hobby Town. This time, he turned his attention to the quadcopters. His first foray into the hobby was with a much smaller craft, but once he got the hang of flying that one, Jones decided to upgrade.

Soon, he was building his current quadcopter.

“Anybody who’s skilled in the hobby craft can put it together,” Jones said. “There is a bit of soldering skill that you do need.”

Along with building the quad, he programmed the brain a bit. But about the day after purchasing the kit, Jones was out flying it.

The craft maneuvers by adjusting the speed of each engine.

“They are quite maneuverable,” Jones said. “There are some guys out there who do incredible aerobatics with these.”

Jones, however, is still exploring the basics and beyond with his quadcopter. Though he brings both previous R/C and private pilot experience to the hobby, the techniques are a bit different. But Jones doesn’t mind, he enjoys learning something new.

While the quad can climb well above the ground, Jones said Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit flying it above 400 feet. This is a safety factor so the craft avoids flying into full-sized aircraft air space. The FAA also has policies that “frown” on using these smaller UAVs for commercial use, Jones said.

“They really don’t know what to do with them right now,” he said.

Recently, the Texas Legislature adopted rules regulating how the craft are used for photography. Basically, Jones said, you can’t take photos over private property without the permission of the owner or the resident. It’s a privacy concern.

“And you shouldn’t do that anyway,” Jones said.

Beyond that, the sky is wide open.

Though he’s one of the more recent converts to the hobby, Jones sees himself building another one in the future, possibly a hex (six-motor) version. Also, as his flight skills improve, he would like to experiment with first-person view flying. This a method of flying with a camera on the copter streaming video to a tablet, smartphone or other device so you can maneuver the craft based on what you’re seeing.

And if the quad flies out of sight or the transmitter dies, what happens then? Do you just stand there and hope it comes down safely and somebody returns it? Well, Jones pointed out his quad has a “return to home” feature.

When the computer in the quad detects a loss of signal after a few moments, it automatically returns to the location it took off from (by GPS).

The hobby of quadcopters and UAVs is definitely growing as more people discover how fun they are and how useful they can be. Jones said he expects it to continue to pick up more enthusiasts. One of the aspects beyond building and flying the craft is the community support of the hobby.

“If you go on one of the forums and ask a question, within an hour, you probably have 10 answers,” he said. “It’s a very giving and supportive community.”

For Jones and others like him, flying quads and UAVs brings together several passions into one hobby.

“I enjoy photography. I enjoy flying. I enjoy the technological aspect,” he said. “It’s something I don’t know a lot about right now. And that’s one of the the things I really enjoy, learning about new things.”

daniel@thepicayune.com