Sophomore Robert Bordeaux usually has a birds-eye view on the action, witnessed through the screen of his iPad. His drones have captured a variety of events, including Priory’s Field Day last year and off-campus happenings. Most recently, he spent time in Forest Park, filming the Flags of Valor installation on Art Hill for America’s Heartland Remembers. We caught up with Robert before class started one morning, and learned that Robert does way more than just fly drones.
Robert really likes to build. “When I was little, my uncle gave me a toy car that was bare bones. It didn’t have a battery or a remote. I went online and looked up different components to complete it, and thought, ‘I’d like to build one of these from scratch.’” Little did his parents, Trish and Dean, know that this was only the beginning. They have since given up a corner of their basement for Robert’s workshop, where he likes to tinker almost every day. Robert described his work area: “My basement has a ton of stuff everywhere. It’s full of screws, wires, solder, half-built things, rotors…I like to keep things so they’re right there, ready to grab.” He talked about how one of his most important tools is shrink wrap. “You have to cover all your bullet connectors. They’re completely metal, and you have to cover all contact points in plastic so if it touches the metal of your frame it doesn’t fry your electronics.” He smiled wryly, “Which I learned the hard way. There’s a lot of little things you learn from experience when you’re building.”
Since that first car, he’s gained a lot of experience. He has built more cars and a remote-control airplane from scratch (including cutting Styrofoam for the wings), constructed a helicopter, and cobbled together parts from broken RC toys to make complete, functioning units. Last summer, he and a friend built a computer from scratch. “It was fun, seeing it boot up for the first time,” he said. “I can do school work on it, and play games.”
He had so much fun with his remote control airplanes, that it seemed natural to move into drones. Not content to purchase a kit online, Robert carefully researched every component for his first drone. “It took six months, because all my parts came from China. It would take me two to three months to learn that someone was lost in shipping, then I’d have to re-order. The time it took to wait for parts was the main drawback.” His drone was entirely custom built and programmed, based off hours of research and then good, old-fashioned fiddling around. “I taught myself how to program it, and then just pressed buttons until it worked.” He has built three drones, including a tiny, hand-held drone. For professional aerial photography, he flies a DJI Phantom 3, which he highly recommends due to the gimbal-mounted, high-quality camera, which isn’t affected by the drone’s vibrations.
He flies his airplanes at Buder Park, but the drones are more versatile. “I like flying for fun, and can do that in my backyard with a drone. I can even take off from the carrying case if it’s muddy or grassy. I just make sure I’m not in a no-fly zone.” He’s also built drone flying into a personal business, offering aerial photography through robsdrones.com.
He’s a registered pilot, and his registration number is on the inside of every drone, “so in case you crash, you can be identified.” He mentioned that new laws are going into effect that state drone pilots who sell footage must be licensed commercial pilots who have completed a course. He is, of course, studying for that test now.
His parents have been completely supportive of his efforts. In addition to the workshop set-up, they told all their friends about Robert’s aerial photography business. Trish’s cousin is involved with Flags of Valor, and he reached out to the organizer. Robert met with him to discuss shot possibilities and a production schedule. He then worked in conjunction with the event organizers and documentary filmmakers from Red Line Productions to capture the installation at sunrise and sunset, with visitors and without, through aerial still shots and videos. He donated his time, and the use of his equipment, to help tell the story of the incredible display of thousands of flags representing the brave men and women who have died while fighting the War on Terror. He’s looking forward to the release of the documentary in a few months, in which his footage will be featured along with credit for his work.
Other interesting places he’s filmed include his family’s lake house in Wisconsin, where he had fun flying right off the water but had to land after a couple of moments due to high winds coming off the lake. He’s filmed kids inner tubing behind a jet ski at his grandparent’s lake house in St. Clare. Last year’s footage from Field Day is currently in use by Mrs. Raley’s video production class. “It’s cool to see things from the drone’s perspective,” he said.
He offers great advice for anyone looking to get into building and flying drones. First: do your research. His experience has proven that inexpensive parts from China don’t always work the best. Make sure you have all your parts when you begin, and that you know exactly how to program it and that you have everything you need to program. “There are converters and cables that no one tells you to buy. I had to figure out, ‘How do I plug these things together?’ So I ended up soldering parts together rather than waiting three to four months for the component I needed to ship.” There are a wide variety of drones available, so think about how you’ll use it before you purchase. Are you carrying a big, heavy payload like a camera, or do you want a micro-drone for tricks around the house? You can pick up a drone to do tricks in your backyard for a hundred dollars, but if you want quality photos and video you’ll spend more to get a solid drone with a gimbal. Always check return policies, in case the drone you ordered isn’t exactly what you expected.
Robert is always busy. School takes up a lot of his time, and he aims to get his homework done each evening by 10:30 or 11 so he can spend an hour or so in his workshop. His favorite class is web application development. “I love the business aspect of things, and hope I can learn to launch my own company. I’d like to be more self-reliant than what I’m doing right now with aerial photography. I want to launch a product that sells itself, which people will come to me to buy, versus having to go out to film.” He is running cross country during this fall term, and is already looking forward to getting involved with volunteer opportunities next summer. He’s thinking about working at Children’s Hospital or with Aim High here on campus. And of course, he’d like to go in to technology as a career. “I love to break something down to the point where I can build it again, or turn it in to something else. I like understanding how parts work so they can be used in other applications. I once hijacked the board from my brother’s broken quadcopter – the motor didn’t work – and put it on my broken helicopter. I was able to fly the helicopter again, with the remote from a different toy.”
He gives credit for his success to his parents. “They’re really supportive. They help me and they leave a lot up to me to figure out on my own, which I like. And they’re not constantly yelling at me to hurry up and get out of the basement!” He also recognizes the role his teachers have played. “They all bring something different, so it’s hard to pick just one. Mr. Niemann has always been nice, teaching me web application development and showing me how to grow my company, sharing resources when I was trying to build my website, things like that.”
And with that, the bell rang and Robert was off to another class.