Drone allows disabled Columbus man to take soaring photos, video

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 23, 2014 

During his youth, a diving accident left him partially paralyzed below his neck and a shotgun accident took off parts of four fingers on his right hand. Jim Gates, however, still takes amazing photographs.

His perseverance and ingenuity allowed him to adapt a camera and overcome his disability. Two months ago, he expanded his photographic horizons even more when he and a friend, Bill Edwards, split the cost of buying a drone.

It's a Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter, manufactured by DJI Innovations of China, and it's a joy of a toy.

He can control the camera for video and stills from his smartphone, which also acts as a monitor and allows him to see what the drone sees, as long as Wi-Fi is available. The downloadable app is free with the purchase of the drone.

The controller guides the drone through GPS.

"It knows where it takes off from," said Gates, 73, retired from the construction industry and living with his wife, Sally, in Spring Harbor. "If you take your hands off the controller, it will hover until you move it again."

The drone also automatically returns to the controller when it goes beyond its estimated range of 1,500 feet.

"It says, 'Coming home,'" Gates said with a smile. "That's not to say that occasionally it won't fly away from you, if you get behind a building or something."

Such as a bridge.


He flew the drone from the Phenix City Amphitheater to the Chattahoochee River Club. On the way back, as the drone flew around the Dillingham Street Bridge, Gates lost his Wi-Fi signal.

"The drone just took off, and it went behind the bridge on the Georgia side," he said. "It just disappeared. We didn't know what had happened. We were praying it didn't go in the water."

They found it in a tree - unscathed.

"You have a 'Where is My Drone?' button, and it will bring up a map," he said, adding that the GPS supposedly is accurate within 6 feet.

The drone was stuck 17-18 feet high in the tree. After buying a limb trimmer, they rescued the drone.

"The drone was fine," he said. "The tree was small, and it had some vines, so it just sort of cradled it."

Even better, he has a video of the crash because the drone was in that mode at the time.

The drone is a battery-powered quadcopter. Four rotors are atop the fuselage, which contains the camera. Two of the rotors spin in one direction, the others in the opposite direction, to stabilize the camera. With a fisheye lens, the camera always is in focus.

"We've never had a problem with the focus or the exposure," Gates said.

After watching hours of video tutorials and reading the manual, Gates took his drone on its first flight Dec. 6 around Spring Harbor. Since then, Gates has flown his drone around the Columbus Museum, Columbus High School, Lakebottom, Linwood Cemetery, Flournoy Development Company (his former employer) and various sites in downtown Columbus, including the Springer Opera House and Chattahoochee River.

Edwards marvels at Gates' ability to not be defined by his disability.

"He's my guru," Edwards said. "He's just very willing to help people with anything he has knowledge or expertise about. … He's just done his best, and I think he has achieved excellent results."

Love of photography

Gates' love of photography goes back to his boyhood, when he developed and printed black-and-white photos from his Brownie Hawkeye camera in the darkroom at his midtown Columbus home.

Hanging in his apartment is the photo he took of John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign stop at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga. That was the vacation home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Gates' diving accident came two years earlier, when the Class of 1958 from Columbus High celebrated graduation with a picnic at the Liberty Bell Pool on Pine Mountain - in the park named after Roosevelt, who showed the world how to soar above paralysis. Two years later, Gates was rehabilitating at the institute named after Roosevelt when Kennedy visited.

Now, the drone takes Gates to places and perspectives he could only dream of capturing.

"I just love to document things," he said.

He also has a mischievous streak. As a college student, he "appropriated" his brother's hamster and placed the pet in the nose cone of a four-stage model rocket. Although the rocket had a parachute, the fourth stage didn't ignite, and the rocket carried the hamster so far into the woods, his brother's pet never was found.

"I had to buy him another hamster," Gates said.

Good news: This drone can't carry a hamster.


As long as you aren't flying a drone for commercial purposes, few rules apply, but there are restrictions.

Jim Gates summed up his understanding of the restrictions this way: Personal drones must fly under 400 feet and are banned from flying around airports, military bases and crowds.

"We need regulation," Gates said, "and the Georgia Legislature is taking up a bill right now to restrict flights below 100 feet over private property unless you have a warrant or permission."

He also can't sell any photographs or videos he takes with his drone.

"They do not allow commercial use of drone flights unless it's law enforcement or people who have a license from the FAA," Gates said. "It's silly to not allow people to do it commercially."


A statistical look at Jim Gates' Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter:

• 8,000, estimated number of photos that can be stored on camera

• 1,500 feet, estimated maximum distance it can fly from the controller.

• 1,000 feet, estimated maximum altitude. "But the FAA prohibits drone flights above 400 feet," Gates said.

• 650 feet, estimated distance it can fly from the smartphone. "But there are people who buy these Wi-Fi boosters," Gates said, "and they can fly it a mile."

• 40 mph, estimated maximum safe speed. Gates chuckled and said, "I think it'll go a little faster."

• 32 gigs, amount of memory in drone's camera.

• 27 inches, width of drone.

• 25 minutes, estimated flight time on fully charged battery. Gates has three batteries.

• 7½ pounds, estimated weight of drone.

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