Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Posted on January 20, 2016

I have just completed my first project with my new quadcopter and happily managed to return with everything intact… just about. Although these things are fairly easy to operate I had managed to get just 10 hours practice in before dragging it into the depths of the Cambodian jungle to film in a swamp forest. In particular to shoot an unusually large palm tree that grows in the swamp and towers over the canopy.

Aerial footage is essential to this film, which is to raise awareness of the importance of Prey Long forest in central Cambodia, an area I have had the pleasure of working in on a regular basis since 2008. This was a fairly ambitious expedition, largely due to the issue of power. I have been charging batteries for my various cameras using a solar panel to charge a small car battery for many years, but this piece of equipment takes the problem to a whole new level. The batteries for these quadcopters only last a maximum of 25 minutes and even with 4 of them you don’t get much time in the air. Each battery is as powerful as a small laptop, so charging them is not so simple when you’re traveling to such a remote area. With no time to test my new system thoroughly I picked up a hefty 60amp battery and a new larger 25watt panel. I figured this should give me at least 12 recharges over the course of the filming, possible 16. In a quick test it charged one without problem.


Spong is a tiny and remote community of largely ethnic Kouy people. The village was effectively cut off from the outside world for months at a time during the rainy season, but development and massive deforestation have made the village a far easier proposition to visit. My previous journeys to Spong have not been the most pleasant of experiences. In the wet season of 2008 it took 3 days to get there through a combination of minibus, walking, moto’s, an ox cart and more walking. The last 2 visits were with botanists traveling in a local truck. These are horrendously slow and have next to no suspension making the 10-12 hour journey from Stung Treng a truly exhausting experience. Today it can be done in a day from Phnom Penh, with an early start.

After traveling to Stung Treng by minibus with equipment and supplies for the 9-10 day trip, myself and Sokhan my assistant met up with our porters/moto drivers, three local villagers. I brought my own moto too (a Honda Dream) as I prefer to drive myself so I can carry the more delicate equipment, like my shinny new toy. The road is fairly good for half the distance and we made it to Spong by 5pm, just 11 hours after leaving Phnom Penh. A little dusty but none the worse for wear.

After sleeping at Mr Vat’s home, our local guide, we started early and began filming the forest around Spong. I wanted to get as much aerial footage as I could before we arrived at the swamp, as I was very concerned I would end up wrecking the copter in such a confined space. It’s not recommended to do what I was proposing, even for experienced pilots, so I knew I was taking a risk. As it turned out, these things are surprisingly robust. After using up 3 batteries I brought it into land on a bare bit of dirt in a rice field. I had practiced for exactly this situation time and again and just done it three times without any problems. But this time one side came down fractionally before the other and it instantly flipped over. My heart sank as it disappeared with a grinding sound in a cloud of dust. Was my aerial filming over almost before it had started? I quickly put the remote down and picked it up not realising the engines were still on. As I turned it back over the rotors sliced my forearm as it tried to right itself. I just clung on as I shouted to Sokhan to shut it off. Oh, and they’re bloody noisy too. After a quick dust off it was good to go, much to my relief. I decided to give it a rest for the day and not push my luck. Now to charge the batteries, do a bit of filming around the village and prepare to travel the first part of the way to the swamp the next morning.

This is where things started to get complicated. Having charged just one and a half batteries the inverter started screaming its’ warning that it didn’t have sufficient power. Not impressed. Either my battery was a dud or the damned shop didn’t charge it properly. Mild panic set in. This is Spong, previously you had trouble finding anything other than some ancient cigarettes or salt for sale.

“Can we charge the battery?” “Yes”. Good start. Two options, some guy with a solar panel or a slightly inebriated farmer with a mechanical mule he uses as a generator in the evenings. We visited the solar guy and discovered a full-blown Cambodian style general store. It turned out he had a fairly decent solar system charging a nice big 100amp battery and a 500w inverter to plug appliances into. He let me charge up the 3 batteries but couldn’t help with the car battery. By the way, yes I did have a panel, but it’s just 25 watts so it would take 4 days to charge a battery that size. We tried the farmer but he wasn’t home and wouldn’t arrive until the evening. Things were looking up but I was still worried. A further chat with the solar guy turned up a second battery that we could rent. I then did something really stupid and decided to do a bit of tinkering with my small but trusty inverter of 15 years. The faint but clearly audible ‘phut’ upon plugging it in, turned out to be fatal.

Continued in part 2.

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