Going all electric

Since passing my driving test I’ve always driven combustion engine vehicles, whether they be company vans or cars, and as I generally lived a distance from my base office didn’t think twice about filling them up. For me the vehicle was a means to an end – I needed it for work and it was just a necessary expense.

Of course, up until recently there wasn’t really any other choice, with fossil fuel vehicles continuing to outperform in terms of practicality and cost, despite the government trying to de-incentivise their use by penalising both petrol and diesel drivers heavily through fuel and personal taxation. But in recent years, manufacturers have woken up to the fact that oil-based fuels won’t be around forever so have started to move towards producing electricity-powered vehicles, which also come with tax incentives.

Firstly we started to see hybrid versions. The advantage of hybrids was that they didn’t need charging but instead used regenerative breaking to supplement the fossil fuel engine and thus improve performance and extend range. This meant that the existing fuel station infrastructure remained a neccessity as cars still had to fill up, albeit less often.

I did consider switching to a hybrid at one point, mainly to reduce my monthly fuel outgoings but the cars were still quite expensive and I couldn’t justify the extra cost for the moderate return in fuel savings. But certainly the fact that the cars could go almost third further on a tank of fuel was enticing, especially as I hated the chore of having to fill up at petrol stations.

Of course the perfect solution would have been to switch to an all-electric car but the choice was limited, and with my commute of over a hundred miles a day, the cars on the market were either not practical or prohibitively expensive.

But the idea was always in the back of my mind.

And then Covid-19 came along and way we work was completely transformed. Gone was the daily drive to an office but instead the ask was stay at home, working remotely wherever possible. And for me that suited me just down to the ground as the regular commute was now just to move from the bedroom to the study, where I could be just as effective as working from an office.

But at the same time, my existing car, a 2012 Hyundai i35 started to show its age, even though it was spending most days sitting on the driveway wondering why its owner has stopped racking up the miles.

Now I’m not one for regularly switching cars; the i35 was bought 6 months from new and for me it is was just a vehicle for taking me to and from work and shelling out a fortune on a new model every couple of years was not a good investment, especially as I was adding +25,000 miles each year.

But lockdown got me thinking.

With the likelihood that driving to work each day was going to be less of a requirement I started to look at my options. Should I go diesel, hybrid or even electric and should I buy or lease?

Fortunately the choice became clearer when a colleague suggested I investigate the company car leasing salary sacrifice scheme, also mentioning that the deals on electric vehicles were really competitive. And with the benefits in kind tax on electric vehicles at zero percent leasing was viable option.

And they also had Tesla’s on their list.

Now I’d been watching how the Tesla company had been progressing in car manufacturing when I saw one for real at the Birmingham Gadget Show in 2016. At the show they had demo versions of the Model S and I was smitten by how modern they looked, and the silence from the car was mesmerising. And the battery range was improving, 200 miles on one charge. One day I thought.

Fast forward four years and with a promotion secured, my ‘spending’ power had increased significantly. By then Tesla had brought out their Model 3, a lower priced, saloon version with significantly improved range. I completed the online form to get my estimate of monthly costs, not quite believing my dream of getting an EV was becoming a reality. The salary sacrifice scheme really is a great way to be able to get a car that would be way out of my league to purchase at £50,000 as the lease costs are taken before tax, making the bill affordable.

In July I took the plunge and completed the order and was given an estimate of 8 weeks delivery, taking me up to September. That would give me time to sell my existing car, sort out a charging point at home and look at power company charging scheme options. I also hit YouTube for every video I could find on Tesla Model 3’s, eager to learn as much as I could before delivery. I also downloaded the online manual and read it cover to cover multiple times, to the dismay of Tina, who couldn’t understand my obsession with ‘a new car’.

In early August I received a text from Tesla, confirming a delivery date at the start of September and the VIN number of the car. This information enabled me to track the delivery of the car across the Atlantic through The Tesla Motors Club forum on the shipping movements page, helping to build up the excitement.

My new car arrived, as scheduled, on the 2nd September and was immediately named ‘Trevor’ which seems to be a tradition bestowed by Tesla owners on their new vehicle.

In a future post I’ll give a run down of being an EV driver.

Drone #3

It just had to be done.

As soon as I saw the DJI promotional video showing off their latest offering I knew it would be the one for me. The compact design, the convenience of size and the apparent ease of flying was just too tempting to ignore.

But I’ve already got a drone I hear you say!

Well yes, the upgrade from my first drone to the DJI Phantom 3 Standard was a fantastic step up and sparked an interest in aerial photography and also revitalised me back into video creation. But I soon realised the entry-level drone was exactly that…aimed at beginners and I was getting frustrated with its limitations. As the cheapest model DJI made, it lacked features and I often found that it would lose connection and instigate the ‘return to home’ function even if the drone was close by.

So I had been considering upgrading anyhow, probably to the P3P (professional) which had a better camera, improved WiFi connectivity and more advanced flying features. It also meant I could keep the existing spare battery I bought for the P3S, saving a few quid too.

But there was always the disadvantage with the Phantom series…their size. In order to safely carry the drone around it needed a backpack, and a large one at that. Walking along the street got me some strange looks, with one guy even asking whether I was training to go into the army! I would have loved to have taken the quadcopter on our holiday to Turkey but the size of the bag was just too big and would have certainly raised interest from the security guys.

mavic-proSo when DJI announced the release of the Mavic Pro, I knew it was just what I was looking for. It is such a clever design, the size was small enough fit into a coat pocket and the features were so advanced for something so compact.

The only thing was the price; almost three times the amount I paid for the PS3.

So I hesitated…for a day!

And then bit the bullet and preordered, paying the full price up front.

DJI gave an expected shipping date of mid-October but it was soon apparent they had wildly miscalculated the popularity of their latest offering and soon social media was muttering that there was going to be delays. To be fair to DJI they did state early on that orders would be on a first-come-first-served basis but I really didn’t expect it would have a dramatic impact on delivery times. Of course, mid-October turned into November and with no news on the impending shipping I was resigned to the fact that I would have to stick with the Phantom for the foreseeable future. I had been tracking other customers deliveries on a socially-shared spreadsheet but the shipments were erratic and difficult to judge when mine would be ready to send out.

And then on Saturday I received the mail I had been waiting for; notice that the Mavic had been shipped. Yeah!

I was given tracking information and an expected delivery date of Wednesday and so logged on to the DHL website and followed the parcel from China, through Hong Kong and Belgium, arriving into the UK via East Midlands airport on Sunday night before being shipped to Birmingham, ready for delivery. And on Monday morning I got a ‘parcel out for delivery’ notice, less than 48 hours from leaving Shenzhen. Incredible.

And so last night I savoured the unboxing and managed maiden flight, albeit in the living room for just a minute. And I am so impressed!

Unfortunately the rotten weather and shortness of the daylight hours meant no chance of flying properly today but hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to get out and do some flying on Friday as I have the day off. And then next weekend we’re off to Jersey for a few days to see Abby and I’m definitely including my little drone in my carry on bag.

Getting braver but it could’ve all ended in disaster!

So with a month of flying under my belt I thought it was about time I expanded my flying repertoire by trying to get some cinematic shots, following some techniques I’d seen on YouTube (the best place to learn for free of course!).

Armed with my drone, the dog and a can of Jungle Formula I headed off to the local gravel pit adjacent the River Nene for some early morning quadcoptering (I know it’s not a proper word but ‘droning’ isn’t much better 🙂 )

Anyhow, I had pre-planned my shots for two locations; one from the side of the Thrapston gravel pit and the second from the river bank and fortunately neither had any fishing men nearby (both locations are popular with piscatorial folk). Both flights required flying over water, which I’d only done once before and so it was with nervousness that I sent the Phantom up for the first time.

Here is the first flight (edited on the DJI app so click here to view). The quality isn’t brilliant but I think that’s due to the app not the drone.

Mission one accomplished we moved on to location two, a short distance to the river bank. Here I wanted a slightly different shot and the plan was to do a flyover up the river but the shot didn’t quite come off so I tried another selfie with Rio.

Here’s the second film, this time posted on YouTube.

I was quite pleased with that one 🙂

And so on to last night and with the evening brightening up, I took the opportunity to get out for an hour and go explore. I headed for a local footpath I’d never been to before as it looked a quiet location and would be idea for flying.

I also took my handheld video camera this time as one of the YouTube channels suggested using footage taken from the ground to enhance the filming. It was a challenge at first to control the drone and the camera but I will agree it does add something extra to the overall quality of the film.

And so to the near disaster…

I spend some time flying around and practicing some flyovers and other filming techniques before heading back to the first field for more of the same before the second battery went flat. Just before I finished for the evening I decided on one last flyover and it nearly ended up…. well rather than give the game away take a look at the longer edited version of the film I made…

My heart nearly sank as my pride and joy nearly came a cropper but thankfully all turned out well in the end. A lesson learned to be a bit more careful in future!

I also made a shortened version which I posted on Facebook which gives the near-fail a bit more of a dramatic edge.

I am continually researching new places to go and fly; the Peak District is one of my possible destinations but it might have to wait until the kids go back to school as there’s bound to be too many people there time this time of the year.

Windmills of Your Mind

Ever since the nearby wind farm was built a few years ago I have been fascinated by the technology and the turbines ability to be able to work so efficiently despite their enormous size. They look so big from a distance and rarely are they ever still, even with the lightest of breezes, very clever technology.

The original ten turbines at Burton Wold Wind Farm near Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire were so successful in their electricity generation that they recently added a further nine, and now the site is able to generate almost 50% of the power requirements for the Kettering district.

But getting close to them to have a better look is not so easy; I think the owners are not keen for the public to get near for fear of them suffering damage or for public safety reasons. From the main roads that surround the farm there are signs that say ‘KEEP OUT’ and ‘No Entry Private Property’ and so it was with a bit of trepidation that I ventured out with my drone to see if I could get a closer look.

I had already done some homework and surveyed the local ordinance survey map and found that a public footpath went close to an abandoned stone quarry, which also just happened be be adjacent then wind farm too. Two birds etc…

So on Sunday evening I headed out for some quadcopter flying exploration.

Getting to the edge of the quarry/wind farm wasn’t too bad; clearly the footpath wasn’t a well trodden route and a bit overgrown but I soon found a clearing where I could launch from. After takeoff, initially I surveyed the old quarry but it was overgrown and pretty uninteresting so instead turned the camera towards the wind turbines to record some great shots looking across the site from the high vantage point. I was of course careful not to encroach the fields, keeping the drone directly above my head all the time in flight.

After a few minutes I brought the aircraft back down and moved further around the footpath so I could get some shots facing south towards the original turbines. Again, I managed to get some good footage before bringing it back down. It was at that point I stopped and listened to the turbine slowly rotating and it was only then I could appreciate the calmness of the electricity generation, the near silent whoosh as the blades rotated.

I recorded a few filler shots from my iPhone before heading back home, eager to check out the footage I’d shot and wasn’t disappointed by the results.

Here’s the final video.

Flights #4, #5 & #6

Last week I had to drive to Teesside, which is quite close to the Yorkshire Moors, an ideal place to get in some drone flying. After my meeting, I headed off towards the park but was thwarted by heavy rain so abandoned the idea.

So with the weekend weather improving, it was time to try to get some flying in so off I and Rio headed to a field nearby. On arriving I found that the farmer had even cut down the long grass for me, what a result.

I soon had the drone up in the air, surveying the surrounding countryside, including the River Nene and the local lakes. I then spotted a worrying view at the far end of the field from the on board camera; a gathering of travellers and the vehicles was growing! I hastily moved back into the corner, not wanting to trigger a gypsy aircraft attack and carried flying until the battery alarm signalled it was time to bring it back down.

With my normal dog walking route to the nature reserve needing to go past the visitors; I packed up my bag and headed off towards them but found that instead I’d stumbled on a metal detectorists gathering (ah that was why the farmer had cut down the grass!). I stopped and had a chat with the marshall before continuing the dog walk.

Interestingly I’d never come across a treasure hunter meet before and assumed it would be organised so that every blade of grass was covered. Not a chance! They fanned out as they arrived in their cars, every saddo to themselves, digging holes as they went.

If you look carefully you can see the cars starting to line up along the edge of the field.

Anyhow here is the footage for flight #4.

My next flight was Sunday evening when I went out with the family and did some flyovers, making good use of the foreground interest they afforded as well as the low sunset glows. Rather than use Final Cut Pro I created a video using the DJI software. I will edit the full footage but was quite please with this short effort.

https://www.skypixel.com/share/video/family-flyover

[update: And the longer Final Cut Pro version is now below]

My latest flight was last night, again making use the great sunlight and was rather pleased with the outcome. Check out the start of the big reveal from 1:30, a great cinematic shot.

I have also been looking up local spots to fly from, using Ordinance Survey maps to find footpaths; I have a few marked so hopefully I’ll be able to get some different countryside shots over coming weeks.

Flight #2

Another glorious day and ideal flying weather meant only one thing; Rio was in for an early morning walk again and it was also drone time (I really need to stop calling it a drone, it’s technically a quad-copter!).

We set off towards the river and found an ideal spot for launching the aircraft; a quiet car park right next to a field. After carrying out the pre-flight checks I soon had it in the air; the distinctive red propeller guards I’d bought yesterday helping me to see which round the copter was facing.

I did some fly-by’s of the adjacent lake and some shots of Rio and me walking before the battery warning message showed it was time to bring it back down. The twenty minutes flight time really does go quickly when your having fun.

I’m trying to keep the videos fairly short so they don’t bore the pants of the viewers!

Phantom 3 Standard Quad-copter (or drone if you prefer)

Well, after losing my first drone last weekend (Matt’s father’s day present to me had a mind of its own and flew into a lake on its first flight) I decided to upgrade to DJI Phantom 3 Standard and give flying another go.

After watching lots of YouTube videos and practicing on the DJI app, Rio and I got up early this morning and headed for the Northants countryside to test out my new toy.

Within minutes I had the quad-copter flying and filming some of the surrounding landscape; controlling the drone was simple and easy to get some great shots.

Unfortunately the battery didn’t last long and my fun ended prematurely but I had gotten the bug and was eager to get it recharged and get out flying again. Unfortunately the weather for the rest of the day was not so good, with high winds and showers so no more flying but I did manage to cobble together this video…

Fingers crossed for some good weather in the morning!

First iPhone App – What’s My Weather?

Wow, my last post was in November, where has the time gone?

weather-appFor most of the winter my evenings have been spent learning how to code, and in particular how to build iPhone apps using Xcode and the newish programming language Swift. I purchased a number of online training courses through Udemy and have been diligently working through the lessons. I will admit that it has been a struggle; my brain finds it hard to retain the information nowadays, but my understanding of the coding has improved and am able to follow many of the lessons.

One of the courses, iOS 9 and Swift 2: From Beginner to Paid Professional, teaches through a bootcamp style and whilst it is geared for people who want to make programming a career, it also is effective for people who just want to try to learn to code and create apps for fun (which is why I am learning!).

Anyhow, one of the techniques it covers is extracting JSON data from the internet and presenting it in an app. The example app is a basic weather app and the course encourages students to hone their newly learned skills and build on the basic version to create a more functional version.

And so I did.

And I managed to build an app and release it in the Apple app store.

So those of you who have an Apple device can download What’s My Weather for free.

I have a few ideas for different apps which I would like to charge a fee to download but need to do some more lessons and lots more coding before I have confidence to release them.

PS I’ve just supported the developer of some of the online courses through a Kickstarter campaign. Worth checking out if you are interested in learning how to code.

Billy the Ball

With winter now upon us and the subsequent shorter days I’ve had more time to get back into doing some gadgety stuff, both practical and programming.
I’ve just finished an online starter course on JavaScript and I’m revisiting HTML basics and of course still trying to get to grips with Python to aid in writing stuff for my Raspberry Pi. In fact I managed to get the robot arm working with a Nintendo Wii controller via Bluetooth which was a bit cool, albeit I got the instructions and program from the net. Still it worked OK and helped me understand what the different movements of the controller could be made to do.

I also did some electronics building when just before our holiday I made a small circuit board to aid the security of the house whilst we were away. It would be rather daft to say what it did but suffice to say it was still working when we got back a month later and we were not burgled!

And so to Christmas and my main present from Tina.

The festive celebration wouldn’t be the same without getting a gadget and this year was no different, although some would argue the present is actually a toy. Whilst listening to one of my technology podcasts earlier in the month I heard about a robotic device called the ‘Sphero‘ that could be controlled and programmed with your phone and once I looked it up I had to have one.

And this week, when Santa called, I finally got to play with my gadget…sort of.

spheroThe plastic covered ball is really controllable and the technology to get it to move around like it does is pretty amazing. Sphero comes with a couple of ramps, loads of free apps and some challenges to help you get to grips with its flexible maneuverability and to aid steering. As you get better with its control you can level up which enhances the play experience and gives access to more tricks and functions.

Of course what I did forget is that it also would attract some unwanted attention by our four legged friend, namely Rio who now thinks he’s got a flashing, moving toy ball to play with.
Still it is funny seeing him carry it around in his mouth, pleased he’s managed to catch the lively and glowing ball.

My next challenge is to try to control it through the Raspberry Pi, programming it using Python, although I think my skills may need to be improved a bit before I can get it whizzing around the room.

About turn

This time last year when renewing my phone, I defected from Apple to Samsung after the disappointing release of the iPhone 5S, which although having the cool fingerprint reader, just didn’t appeal due to the model retaining a smallish screen. My replacement was the Samsung S4, which at the time, was one of the larger screened mobiles available. I was also keen to try out the Android operating system, which I’d heard positive things about and soon found it to my liking, especially with the vast choice of apps that were available.

I will admit there were times when I felt I’d made a mistake in switching, especially when I started getting latency issues (I’d press a button or icon and the screen wouldn’t react immediately which was really annoying). Thankfully the updated OS (Kit Kat) resolved this and I was quite satisfied with my lot; the camera was particularly pleasing, with photos on my blog evidence of the quality.

Then it all changed last month.

There had been leaked reports of new iPhone’s being launched in the Autumn with two new models with larger screens and better cameras, but with a year to go on my existing contract, the new models would have to be something special to make me switch.

Then I visited the Apple store at Milton Keynes!

And I had a Sharesave windfall!

At the same time 🙂

I took one look at the iPhone 6 Plus and had a ‘I want one’ moment, to the dismay but inevitable acceptance of Tina. Disappointingly though they didn’t have the size I wanted in stock and the online delivery time was 3-4 weeks, too long to get it before our holiday so instead I embarked in an online vigil of shop stock on the Apple website. Finally I managed to reserve a Gold 128GB iPhone 6 Plus at 4am in the morning and duly picked it up from the Leicester Apple Store later that day.

And wow, what a phone. It is so impressive and the larger screen is bloody lovely. The finger print reader is really accurate and the camera is superb, with the ability to record video at 240fps, just sublime. I’ve not really used the camera in anger yet but did shoot a small video which really is impressive (It’s worth watching full screen). See what you think…