Flight of the navigator
There is a blizzard of drone filming options but not all are up to production standard
The aerial filming industry is going through a bonanza as low cost drones become the latest must-have item. “It’s a modern-day gold rush,” warns Arland Whitfield, founder of The SkyWorks Project. “Companies are scrambling to put incomplete products to market.”
Producers looking for a unique piece of footage, that may previously have only been obtainable from helicopter, will consider three broad sectors of the market. These divide budget hobbyist models from more professionals production-ready units from commissioning a specialist aerial filming company.
“While some manufacturers promise systems that can carry huge amounts of weight, they often only stay in the air for up to ten minutes,” says Whitfield. He suggests that the difference between a ‘hobbyist’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and a ‘commercial’ drone, lies in payload, battery-life and safety. “Because the industry is relatively new, drone technology is not developed to the point where it is bulletproof. Failures do happen when systems are in the air, and to prevent catastrophic results, commercial drones need effective fail-safes.” Professional outfits such as Skyworks use drones of their own design (i.e. Carboncore Cortex) which come with a number of fail-safes: redundant motor systems to prevent the drone from falling out of the sky even if a motor fails, and return-to-home modes ensure that the equipment returns safely in the event of a lost radio signal. Pro models are designed to be flown by two people: one pilot and one camera operator, under licence.
“Cheaper and lighter weight drones have lowered the barriers to entry and thus enabled experimentation, which can only be a good thing,” says Sandeep Kamal, managing partner, UNIT9 Mumbai. “However, there’s always a trade-off when adopting a particular technical approach. Smaller and lighter drones are naturally limited in the payload they are able to carry and are restricted not only in the type of camera rig they can mount but also the time/range they can achieve when airborne. They are, however, very useful when covering live events where intrusion of public space may be a concern.”
For the Autumn/Winter Fendi fashion show in Milan (February 2014), UNIT9 flew a lightweight drone indoors above the catwalk transmitting footage live via Wi-Fi to a web camera feed.
In traditional rigs there is a restriction of movement in at least one axis but with a drone the range is extended in all axes – even up to a few kilometres in spaces with an unrestricted line of sight. The movement of the camera can be controlled manually or automated to the extent that it can then be repeated, such as in a motion control system.
“Using waypoint navigation, relative coordinate systems and GPS it is possible to plot paths for the camera to follow with good accuracy,” says Kamal. “This eliminates the need for an experienced pilot and helicam or other helicopter-based camera systems for certain types of shot.”
According to Robert Campbell, founder of commercials production agency Outsider, “It’s pointless having a brilliant drone carrying a Kodak Brownie. It’s all about the camera, the lenses and the operator. A helicopter operator earns their money because they know exactly what they’re doing. If you want something hovering in the air, then maybe a drone will work, but if you need to follow the action, then get a cameraman who has worked in the business. I wouldn’t go near a DIY drone outfit.”
Dean Wynton, who runs UK specialist Aerosight, agrees. “There are a lot of cowboys with a GoPro and a drone who undercut the market and give aerial filmmaking a bad name.” He advises producers to check for insurance and a licence. “If a showreel shows shots of fields, trees and churches you can expect little experience of flying to order.”
For anyone surveying the blizzard of ‘fly your own’ options, there are a number of factors to consider. Size will generally dictate the camera payload. Quadcopters (a craft with four motors and propellers) are generally more efficient than an octocopter (a craft with eight). The added motors mean more energy sucked out of already limited battery lives, and the larger footprint makes it harder to transport and fly.
“Crucially, however, they can lift more weight than quadcopters,” says Whitfield. “More motors means more thrust, and more thrust means the craft can carry more weight. This allows you to fly bigger cameras and lenses.”
Live streaming is essential to be able to see what you’re filming. Audio always needs recording separately since these beasts are remarkably noisy. Professional production models will most likely have at least a
The market leader, which regularly tops polls for usability, is DJI (DJI.com). Its £1,000 flagship Phantom 2 Vision+ comes equipped with a 1080p/30 720p/60 camera, a three-plane gimbal for image stabilisation, and a Wi-Fi extender for control up to 2,000 feet away. It recently launched the £1,600 Inspire, a version which includes a 4K/30fps (1080p/60fps) camera and will upturn its wings on lift-off to avoid line of sight with the lens. Its gimbal will swivel 360-degrees and tilt 125-degrees while camera sensors allow for indoors flying or where the GPS signal is low.
Lumenier (Lumenier.com) offers no-frills airframes with a reputation for judder-free and agile flying. ItsQAV400,
for example, costs between £800 and £1,500 and targets GoPro Hero carriage.
The £450 Aries Blackbird X-10 (from Adorama) has a 16MP camera, and can shoot 1080p video at 30fps. It doesn’t have a gimbal, but the company says it uses a combination of a six-axis gyro and GPS to maintain stability. The Blackbird can be controlled with the remote or an iPhone or Android app.
Steadidrone’s (steadidrone.com) product ranges from the £6,000 (minus batteries and other accessories) Steadidrone X boasting 60 minute flight times and a payload capacity over 8kg, to the £2,500 Mavrik which will fly 18 minutes carrying a Sony NEX7 (or similar DSLR) and lens. The Flare is a budget version of the Mavrik, suitable for GoPros and there are basic carbon fibre airframes too such as the $125 Dash for self-assembly.
Cinedrones’ Action XL+ Hex is a six-motor UAV from £1,600 with streaming video capability but without camera and again more suited for GoPros. It uses a DJI Naza V2 Flight GPS Controller. With payloads of 6lb and cameras such as Canon 5D, C300, or Nikon D800, Cinedrones (cinedrones.net) offers the DSLR Octo while the Cinema X8 Heavy Lifter can carry a Red Epic 6K plus lens up to 17lb. It features an HD video streaming option and a gimbal that can be converted from aerial to handheld work.
At the fun-sized end of the market, Parrot (parrot.com) sports a number of colourful designs with durable styrofoam frames. Most are steered by apps on your mobile device, to which live images can also be sent.
The Bebop’s in-built 14MP camera has a fisheye lens and records videos in a 180-degree field. It comes with sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, ultrasound sensor, pressure sensor) and takes a still picture vertically every 16 milliseconds to track speed.
For anyone wanting a good trainer before gravitating to larger machines, the Blade Nano QX is a £50 palm-sized quadcopter and is deemed one of the best. The technology is reducing in size, and increasing in sensors.
Due this year is a drone on a leash, Fotokite, which circumnavigates civil aviation laws since it qualifies as a kite; the Nixie which can be worn on your wrist; and another tiny consumer drone, Zano, from Wales’ Tourqing Group.