To fly (un)like a bird with JSON and a drone

There’s one common desire among humans of all ages and cultures: to fly like a bird. Given our physical limitations, it has taken us a long time to be able to do so. In the last few weeks, I’ve been learning how to come as close as we’re able, at least in my lifetime: I’ve been flying a drone.

The drone which I got for Christmas is a Parrot ANAFI, in its Extended kit, 320 g and carried around in a custom shoulder bag. Coupled with an iPhone and its flight controller, it can fly its 4K HDR camera for up to 25 minutes. It’s an experience quite unlike anything I’ve had before, as I’ll explain.

ANAFI kits are really neat in every sense of the word. The drone itself folds down and is tucked away in a special protective compartment in the lid of the shoulder bag. The rest of the gear – its flight controller, two additional batteries (in its Extended kit), spare blades, and cables, all go snugly in the main body of the bag.

Since Christmas, our weather hasn’t made first flights easy. When there wasn’t much wind, it was either raining or foggy, or both, and on the clear, calm days it was almost invariably too cold to stand around faffing about with such new experiences. My shiny new ANAFI sat on the side, waiting for what seemed to be an impossible coincidence of weather and time.

Legislation on flying drones isn’t simple, and has changed again in the few months since I got mine. Shortly after Christmas, in anticipation of my flying it, I got the required licences from our Civil Aviation Authority. Those might sound daunting, but in reality required a little familiarisation with the laws which regulate these small drones and their use, and an online test to check that I understood them. We have two separate licences: the Flyer’s licence is required of every drone pilot, and is free of charge; the Operator’s licence qualifies you to keep one or more drones, gives them an operator ID, and costs a nominal £9 per year. Pass one online test and you qualify for both. Simple.

When the weather was about to oblige at last, I got my new drone out of its bag, and prepared it for its first flight. It’s good to see that it’s not just computers which need software updates straight after unboxing: in this case, no less than five separate software updates were needed, for the drone itself, its flight controller, and one for each of its three batteries.

Flying an ANAFI drone uses a combination of your iPhone wired to its flight controller, and the drone itself. Parrot’s FreeFlight6 app is, as the name suggests, free, and provides a live camera view and controls on your iPhone’s display. It has two significant drawbacks: its controls are tiny, far too small for my thick fingers to operate reliably, and it gives you another and distracting view to concentrate on.

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Parrot has announced a harness which enables you to connect a tablet like an iPad instead of a smartphone. Once it’s available, I’ll be trying that as a better platform for its many controls.

One essential requirement before flying your ANAFI drone is that you put your iPhone into Airplane mode. This is because the iPhone and flight controller are connected by a USB cable and not Wi-Fi, although the controller uses Wi-Fi to connect to the drone. You definitely can have too much Wi-Fi when trying to fly, and as I discovered when I forgot to do this for my second flight, leaving your iPhone’s Wi-Fi on flattens its battery significantly. Airplane mode is now at the top of my pre-flight checks.

The first flight needn’t be in the least bit nerve-wracking. FreeFlight6 provides automated take-off and landing, so all you’ve got to do is ensure that you don’t screw up what happens in between them. If you really want to, you can work out a pre-planned flight and let ANAFI’s software handle it all for you. I had none of that, and have quickly got the hang of using its flight controller. The most difficult task then proves to be keeping your eye on the ANAFI’s dull grey, low profile fuselage. If you’re easily distracted by the view from its camera, you could find yourself searching the sky to discover where your drone is.

The ANAFI has proved very well-behaved and straightforward to fly, at least in fair conditions. It does take a bit of getting used to: control at a distance can be much more confusing, but looking too much at the camera view will get your ANAFI into trouble. That’s what practice is about.

Video and still image quality are both superb, and there are a great many options, controls and features for both the drone and its camera. By default, from the moment that you power up your ANAFI drone until it lands, its 4K video camera is recording to a microSD card inside the drone. I selected a short section of around 45 seconds to show you, but at full resolution that was nearly 90 MB. I have therefore reduced its quality and resolution to make it more manageable.

Here are a couple of full-sized frames taken from that video, to give a better idea of its superb quality.

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When you get home after a flight, charging everything back up is fairly simple using a mains adaptor and USB-C cable. Video and still images are first downloaded to the iPhone, then AirDropped across to a Mac.

FreeFlight6 also gives access to a chart showing your flights over the ground, and a graph of altitude and airspeed.

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Even better, full flight details can be downloaded in JSON format, but this is where the drone experience disappoints. Armed with a megabyte of flight data and a complete video record, you would have thought that it would be straightforward to bring them together and replay the flight. A generation ago, at least one innovative independent developer would have come up with an app for around £25-£80 which would do that. Sadly, even gaining access to raw JSON data is caught in a cleft stick.

The Parrot ANAFI is proving extremely popular with the military, business and specialist drone operators. They’ll happily pay anything upwards of £10 per month for services which analyse flight records. If you’re looking for something more affordable, then as far as I can see you’re out of luck. Even converting its JSON data to anything more useful has gone down the App Store pan: there are many cheap apps which scratch the surface, but none which does anything to help deal with these large files. As with everywhere else, what’s free is junk, and what’s not free ties you into an expensive subscription.

Overall I’m delighted with my Parrot ANAFI drone, and flying it is becoming quite addictive. I haven’t looked seriously at its still and video features yet, which could fill several articles on their own. Flown within the law, drones are thoroughly Covid-safe, as you’re required to keep them 50 metres away from other people, buildings, and vehicles. They’re almost silent and leave no more footprint than your boots. Why sit at home on your flight simulator when you can be outdoors flying (un)like a bird?