As a teenager, Darwin Holcombe ’24 wanted to break into an industry that seemed inaccessible to outsiders. It required soldering skills, deep research, and hundreds of hours of flight practice. Undeterred, Holcombe set on a journey to design and build his own first-person view drone, to use for cinematic projects and personal leisure.
“I wanted to do something that felt like I was getting out of my own head and out of my own space,” says Holcombe, a media, culture, and the arts major. Now, he wants to use drones to build a career as an artist.
First-person view (FPV) drones are capable of flying up to 90 miles per hour and can perform acrobatic tricks like flips and turns to capture stunning cinematic shots. The drone utilizes a low-latency video signal that feeds into goggles worn by the pilot, who can see directly through a camera attached to the drone in real time. These cameras are often the same ones you might find utilized as a car’s backup camera.
When Holcombe first entered the world of FPV drones at 15 years old, information was hard to find, and the drones themselves were even harder to come by. Most were made from scratch, with little to no instructional content available online. Holcombe found a small community of drone builders who were repurposing stabilizing gyroscopes from Nintendo Wii controllers, computer boards, and miniaturized motors, all to design an aircraft from scratch.
Holcombe had to learn to source and solder compatible parts over three years before he built his first FPV drone at 18. The stakes are high when flying these high-speed drones. A typical rig runs from $300 to $1,000, plus the additional cost of a GoPro camera, which, when mounted on the drone, will capture stunning footage. Holcombe practiced flying in simulators for more than 100 hours before he flew a real FPV drone.
His drone controller is conspicuously missing a piece, damaged during an autumn afternoon flight near the performing arts building of his high school in Vermont.
“I had been flying for two or three minutes and forgot where I was standing because I was having so much fun. I flew around the corner and ran into myself, going so fast that I broke a switch on my controller,” Holcombe recalls with a laugh. Other than that small mishap, it was his first successful flight, and helped immerse him in the drone life. “That was the experience I was looking for. Just ‘Oh my god, I’m flying!’”
During the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, Holcombe found solace in the otherworldly experience of flying his FPV drone. The ability to fly freely and gracefully twist, flip, and turn excites him.
He recognizes that success at drone-flying is also based on trial-and-error.
“I was filming my friends while they were cliff jumping with the first drone I built, and the drone took a dive of its own into the water,” Holcombe says. “The GoPro was waterproof, but all the parts on the drone were fried.”
His second iteration of the drone fell out of the sky.
“I was flying on the Fourth of July and navigated probably 200 meters away from me and about 200 meters up to reach the fireworks. Because it was dark, I lost where I was. Flight time on these drones is about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how fast you’re flying, so if you can’t get the drone back to you by then, it just goes down,” he says. “That’s how tough FPV flying can be sometimes. With one little mistake, your flying investment is gone. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice.”
When working on drone films, Holcombe likes to shoot in beautiful natural areas, ranging from the beach to the mountains to the forest. For his personal projects, he takes a freeform approach, but when working with others, he will choreograph flight paths to capture cinematic moments.
“I can’t overthink while flying because it demands my full focus,” he says. “I concentrate on the flight and getting better at flying so that it can be more of an extension of me. I just absolutely love the freedom of flight — but also the freedom from myself.”
Holcombe’s father was his first inspiration in the arts, buying a camera when Darwin and his brother were children and used photography to connect with his sons. Holcombe started learning photography at 8 years old, and today much of his work focuses on landscapes and architecture, a passion of his father’s.
Because Holcombe’s father works in the tech industry and has worked on projects with artificial intelligence and drones, he has been able to give Darwin sound guidance on how to solder the parts for his own drone. Otherwise, he has allowed his son to figure out the rest of the process on his own.
When Holcombe isn’t exploring nature through a bird’s-eye view, he plays Apex Legends as a member of Clark’s esports team. He’s drawn to the game because its perspective is from the first-person, like his drones.