Chapter 10: Booms and thuds

Breaking ground and an unexpected adventure

Where we left off: After a bunch of hand-wringing about permits, we had approval from the town and could finally start building.

This post is written by Ben with editing from Mindy.

Measuring twice

With approval to build our home, we could finally start work at the site.

With one caveat: we needed to get it surveyed. Because the site of our future house was close to the edge of the property, the building perimeters had to be staked out by a licensed surveyor who would then inform the town that they did so.

This became a fire drill because we already had the blasters lined up and waiting for the go ahead to start exploding and removing bedrock. Unfortunately, most surveyors were booked out for weeks.

The guy who surveyed the property for the previous owners told me he could get to it “in a week or two, depending on the weather.” That was not encouraging, so I continued looking.

Eventually I found some people who were going to be in the area for another project and could swing by and survey, so I signed them up for the job.

The day before they were scheduled to do work, the original surveyor texted me saying “I’m heading up to the property now.” Clearly, something got lost in translation. I called off the other folks, and after a pretty penny paid, we had stakes in the ground stuck in very precise places.

Lights, camera, action!

With the building outlines marked, our excavating contractor used a large contraption to bookmark each corner with GPS so that after the ground was fully obliterated, we could still build things in the right location.

Meanwhile, I figured that we wouldn’t be allowed in the vicinity of live explosions. And yet, it’d be quite a sight to miss! How often in life does one get to witness live dynamite?

I hurriedly cobbled together a makeshift outdoor camera from an indoor Wyze camera, a MiFi, some zip ties (I didn’t have nails or appropriate screws), spare scraps of wood, and transparency film (originally intended for COVID face shields). I drove up to the property to install it.

This scrappy setup far exceeded my expectations. I could now watch the entire building process from my desk instead of driving 2 hours each way to check on progress. Even better, the camera footage enabled me to deliver you a mini-tutorial: how to blow up the land you paid a lot of money for.

First, drill the holes. In our case, the blaster used this monstrous machine to drill a couple meters down in a grid pattern.

The green squares are the camera’s built-in motion detection that I can’t turn off. There is nothing interesting about this man’s shoes.

I have no idea how old this machine is but the rat’s nest of pneumatic tubes and dirt was reminiscent of Star Wars, and I love it.

Next, take dynamite and a long stick and push it down the hole, connected by a long fuse:

Finally, back way up, blare a loud horn and hit go:

This particular explosion is on the smaller side because it’s only digging a trench to route electricity from our transformer. All in all, they did four or five separate blasts.

A fateful trip

Mindy and I drove up to the property on a Sunday afternoon to survey the post-explosion territory. I brought my drone so that I could capture a map of the full property in all its battered glory.

To review: my drone, a DJI Mavic 2 Pro, was a splurge purchase from when we first started evaluating land plots. I bought it to survey prospective land, so we could evaluate it without walking the entire (often unwalkable) terrain.

I picked this particular model because it had obstacle detection in multiple directions. It has six low res cameras, each of which compute the depth of nearby objects to prevent it from flying into them. This was important because I anticipated flying my drone on tree-filled parcels and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t get stuck in a tree. Without obstacle detection, I could’ve gone with a much cheaper drone.

In addition, I purchased a software suite called DroneDeploy, which automatically plans a flying route without my needing to control every movement and then constructs a 3D model from the resulting photos. All I needed to do was put the drone on a flat surface, hit “go,” and watch it ascend into the air. After traversing its predetermined path, it would find its original coordinates and descend to where it took off (in theory).

We ascended the wobbly gravel driveway at Butter Hill, and I sent the drone on its merry way via DroneDeploy while we took a few photos on the ground.

We then waited for the drone to finish and return home. Soon enough, it came back to the corner of the property where it started its journey and began to descend.

At a certain point, both Mindy and I realized that its spatial understanding had drifted during its airborne journey. Amidst its rapid descent, we saw that it was returning home… to a tall tree.

“Uh, you probably shouldn’t land it in the tree.”

Mindy says.

“I’m not trying to! It’s flying itself and it won’t let me take over!”

I reply, furiously pressing all the buttons on the controller, trying to convince it to turn back and avoid taking up residency with the birds. Nothing worked.

Now, if you remember from an earlier post, the very first time this drone automatically mapped the property, it came crashing down on our rental car.

It appears that wasn’t a fluke; it was happening again. No matter what you do—if the drone wants to land, it’s going to land. Nothing worked. I couldn’t gain control.

We watched with suspenseful horror as this drone calmly detected the tree as the ground, landed softly against a branch, and powered down its motors.

Not all was lost. Perhaps I could make it take off again and fly it out. Unfortunately, the software is designed so that it will only take off on perfectly level ground, perhaps to avoid confusing the sensors. There was no persuading it otherwise.

So here we had a problem:

  • $1600 drone is stuck 60ft high in a tree

  • All of the surrounding land at the base of the tree has been blown up so no one can park a ladder truck under it to pull it out

  • The sun is setting in approximately 2 hours

  • The next morning (in 12 hours) heavy rain is expected

We didn’t have much time.

To Walmart!

Since the sun was setting and the nearest everything store, a.k.a. Walmart was only 40 minutes away, we decided to start driving and figure out what to buy on the way.

We asked my family for guidance:

Candidate tools brainstormed: A ball, a rock, a nerf gun, a lasso, a tall ladder, a talented cat, a gutter cleaning pole, and a fly fishing rod.

We searched the Internet. Apparently, many people get their drones out of trees by casting fishing line into a tree, pulling it back down and shaking the branch.

Now, I’m not much of a fisherman, but casting a line 60ft high seems like a stretch for a non-Olympian. Nevertheless, the fishing line seemed like a good idea.

I got to Walmart and quickly scoured the store looking for tools. I found the fishing line quickly. I picked up a tarp and some bungee cords so we could catch the falling drone before it smacked into the ground, and next I made my way to the hunting department.

A (real) gun seemed a bit much for my tastes, but I figured a bow and arrow could work if I tied the fishing line to the end of it. The problem: the only bow they had in stock was a $25 neon green child’s bow.

With no alternative, I picked it off the shelf and went to check out. We drove back to the property as the skies began to darken.

It was past 5:00pm and nearing sunset. I channeled my inner Robin Hood (I can’t really think of any other good archers) and shot with my little green bow into the tree. Once, twice, ten times, twenty times. I could successfully shoot it over the lower branches, but the drone was stuck all the way at the top. No matter how hard I tried, I could only shoot up to about 10 feet below where I needed.

As the sun set, I lost my ability to see where the drone was. Not even the car headlights could provide me with enough visibility. We set out for the two hour ride home.

The sacrificial lamb

As I drove home defeated, my mind raced through other possible tools I saw at Walmart. Of note in the toy aisle was a series of cheap toy drones. Some helicopters, some quadcopters, but none had cameras and they were all under $50.

Could I perhaps tie fishing line onto a cheap drone and fly it over the branch that I needed to pull to rescue my Mavic Pro?

Mindy’s commentary: As we ate dinner and comforted each other over the defeat, I could see Ben’s mind spinning. If your partner is an engineer, you’re likely familiar with the look in their eyes when analyzing a complex problem and plotting the solution. It was 9:00pm, and I was ready to sleep. But Ben certainly wasn’t.

After dinner, I looked up the nearest Walmart that purported to have the drone in stock. I left at 9:30pm and picked it up (from Jersey, for about $20) a few minutes before the store closed at 10pm.

I had the tools I needed. Now, I had to get to the property as soon as the sun came up—before heavy rains hit at 8:00am. The drone had no chance of survival under a heavy downpour.

I set an alarm for 4:00am. Groggy and slightly caffeinated, I jumped into the car, heading to the property in the dark. I arrived just as I could see without headlights and got to work.

I tied the fishing line to the belly of the sacrificial Walmart drone and did a test fly.

Let me tell you: there’s nothing that makes you appreciate the fancy engineering of a high-end drone more than flying a $20 toy. I could get it to take off fairly easily, but it would almost immediately dive back into the ground.

Maybe the fishing line was throwing off the handling, I thought. I removed it and tried to fly without it. It was a bit easier, so I tried to see if it could fly high enough to suit my needs.

As it zoomed up into the air, I thought “wow, not bad!” Then I realized that it was sailing away from me in the gusty wind at a rate the drone’s tiny propellers could not possibly overcome. As it flew farther and farther out of our property, I panicked and sent it careening toward the ground in an effort to avoid losing it in the forest.

It landed, but I didn’t see it fall and I couldn’t hear it. The 6-inch drone was now laying somewhere in the woods. I feared that I had lost my only chance at rescuing the original drone, and that if I found it, it was likely smashed to bits.

After 10 minutes or so in the forest, I saw its blinking lights in the distance and found it, intact, in a pile of leaves. Hooray! To my surprise, the cheap drone remained fully functional. It weighed so little that the force of literally falling out of the sky was less damaging than I had feared.

Let’s go fly a kite

With the cheap drone back in hand, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I to steer this thing into the tree at the right place. I would have to find the direction of the wind, stand upwind from the tree in question, and fly the drone tethered like a kite in the right direction until it passed over the right branch.

I tied the fishing line back around it and tested out my kite concept, holding the line taut in one hand and flying the drone with the other. It worked decently well, but I wasn’t getting the height I needed. Since I had been flying it for a while, I figured it needed a bit more power, so I took a break and charged it for a few minutes.

When that was done, I set it back out on its launchpad and took off. But I wasn’t totally settled and lost my grip on the fishing line. As I stumbled forward to try to catch it, I unintentionally I ramped up the throttle and the drone soared blindly off into the tree.

It was a bullseye.

With no intentional steering on my part, the drone had serendipitously flown over the correct branch, gotten caught in the tree, and fallen down the other side of the branch. It was now hanging from the tree like a monstrous spider.

I jiggled the fishing line until the drone slid fully out of the tree and I could have my hands on both ends of a loop. It wasn’t quite as high on the branch as I wanted, but I could get the branch to sort of wiggle.

Then I started to feel a light drizzle. The rain was coming.

I pulled and I pulled and I pulled, but I couldn’t get enough force to move the branch enough to matter. The fishing line was rated at 50lbs, but trying to put50 lbs of force on such a thin plastic thread makes you anxious that you’re about to slice right through your hands.

Eventually, I remembered that we had some PVC pipe laying around from when the previous owners installed the conduit. I found an elbow connector and wrapped the line around it. It felt sturdy. I thought to myself: I wonder if I can use this to pull more than 50lbs of force.

So I took the existing line and tied it into a loop and turned it into a pulley for another end of the line. I tied a new strand to the knot and circulated the loop until I was left with a doubled up loop that could ostensibly support 100lbs of force.

I began pulling, and after a while found an angle where I could get significant movement in the branch where the Mavic Pro slept.

At this point, I should’ve stopped to get my tarp and place it under the drone. But I was nearly 5 hours into standing under this stupid tree and losing my sanity. I kept pulling desperately.

The Mavic Pro jostled, flipped, and then came careening down (from 60ft up) completely unrestrained.

Thud.

Humpty Dumpty had arrived.

The drone hit the ground, ejected the battery, and bounced onto his back. I’ve never been so happy to witness the potential destruction of a multi-thousand dollar gadget, but at least I knew it wouldn’t drown under heavy rain in a tree.

I picked it up, put the battery back in (which required some pushing since the frame was bent), and drove home to see if it would power up once charged. Immediately after I left, the predicted downpour began. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Humpty Dumpty lives

I’m happy to report that the drone survived, more or less untarnished. The casing got a little skewed, but it still flies as well as it always did. All in all, it’s an impressively engineered piece of machinery.

Reflecting on this story, I’m reminded of a phase I went through as a child where I tore through tape and string to make mechanical contraptions in my bedroom.

I was inspired by Rube Goldberg machines. Pull a string over here and the light switch toggles; pull another string and a drawer opens. Except this time, I pull some fishing line and a drone falls out of a tree.

While this adventure had higher stakes than I prefer, it reminds me of just how much fun it is to play in the real world. Having lived in city apartments for so many years, my arena of play had shrunk to pixels I could manipulate on screen.

In many ways, the appeal of building a home in the woods is just having a place to truly play in, no landlord (or adults) to worry about. As adults, it’s easy to lose what that sense of play feels like.

So in a weird way, I’m thankful for this drone mishap. Maybe the neon green kids bow chose me that day.

P.S. I discovered later that a deer tick had burrowed into my thigh from this adventure. I’ll spare you photos. Thanks to Oscar Health’s Virtual Urgent Care for advising me on this malady (Mindy works at Oscar).

Up next: With the bedrock broken apart and the land surveyed, we dig it all out and start to lay the foundation.