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Flight of the Drones

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Remote-operated camera drones are making aerial photography options more accessible to all Remote-operated camera drones are making aerial photography options more accessible to all Photomatz
26 Dec
Camera drones are changing the photography landscape, but despite the ease-of-use and stunning possibilities, their use does not come without some elements of risk

Aerial photography has come a long way since the French artist Felix Tournachon (better known as Nadar), made the first aerial photograph in 1858, from a tethered balloon around 80 metres above the village of Petit-Becetre in the Bièvre Valley. Nadar’s balloon was also the world’s first aerial darkroom as the wet plate process of the day required him to sensitise, expose and develop the plate within 20 minutes, all from the confines of a light-tight tent in the basket of his hydrogen-filled balloon.

Fast forward nearly 160 years, and today photographers and film makers are sending cameras into the air attached to unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, piloting them remotely from the ground and using a live view feed to a handheld monitor or smartphone.

Given how quickly the military has adopted drones for a deadly purpose, using the in-flight cameras to pinpoint a designated target for rocket and missile strikes, it should not surprise to learn that some of the earliest and most enthusiastic users of aerial photography in the 19th century were the military of Europe and America. During the American Civil War, the Union Army of President Lincoln used cameras in hot air balloons to make photographs of Confederate positions – these were the first attempts at aerial reconnaissance, which by the time of the First World War became a vital part of intelligence gathering on both sides of the Front.

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jungle perspective

Military involvement led to many innovative applications, such as the use of infrared film to spot enemy positions through heavy natural cover, and the development of ever-longer lenses and finer grained films to record greater detail from higher vantage points. These developments found more peaceful use in the fields of exploration and archaeology, and by the 1920s Cambridge University began using aerial photographs to analyse archaeological sites.

But probably the most inspiring and dramatic examples of aerial photography yet witnessed is the footage obtained by the BBC Natural History Unit for the broadcasting of its popular TV programmes. In the ten years between the screening of Planet Earth and the recently completed sequel Planet Earth II, the emergence of the camera drone has added a whole new perspective to the filming repertoire of cameramen. In particular, viewers who watched ‘Jungles’, the third episode of the six-part series, were treated to close-up footage of life at the top of the rainforest canopy.

Around 90 per cent of jungle animals live in the treetops, typically more than 100 feet above ground. In previous years, production teams had to construct scaffolds and hides – and cameramen deploy the climbing and abseiling skills of an experienced mountaineer – to get to shooting height. Even then, working from these fixed positions placed severe limitations on the scope of coverage attainable, particularly with subjects that were adept at moving fast and wide from branch to branch.

To fulfil Planet Earth’s stated aim of immersing audiences in the most spectacular habitats on the planet ‘and bring them eye-to-eye with the animals that live there’ the producers used camera drones to provide a new aerial perspective to wildlife film-making. In addition, the latest camera-stabilisation technology adapted for use on the drones meant cameras could be completely freed from any means of fixed support to follow animals on the move, without risk of lens or camera vibration.

However, piloting a drone remotely through the jungle is not an easy task – this is a wet, dense and tangled environment full of hazards to the expensive, cinema-quality cameras. The drones could easily have crashed if they were entangled by a vine or short-circuited by falling water drops. As a result, Planet Earth II used a special custom-made, water resistant camera drone and meticulously checked every flight path with binoculars to avoid stray twigs, vines, leaves and other possible obstructions. The drones were strong enough to carry the heavy cameras on top rather than beneath, thereby allowing the cameramen to get shots looking up to and round the top of the rainforest canopy, rather than down onto the jungle floor.

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New models

Of course, Planet Earth II is a highly specialised example of the use of camera drones and the time and budget expended for such remarkable footage is hard to repeat, but it does provide photographers and film-makers with further ideas and inspiration to push the boundaries of what is possible. Although still a fairly new technology, there already exists on the market a myriad of camera drones of all shapes and sizes, with new models launched regularly. Due for release in January is the DJI Mavic, which is already being hailed as a ‘game-changer’ by those in the know. Described as a professional and portable ‘aerial media system’, its compact dimensions hide a fairly high degree of complexity and sophistication, including a 12 megapixel camera, 4K video resolution, maximum flight time of 27 minutes and a brisk top flying speed of 65km per hour. This four-propeller drone also boasts obstacle avoidance, sensor redundancy and runs vision positioning paired with GPS and GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System).

High-resolution drones like this are designed for pro-standard aerial stills and video photography and typically cost more than £1,000. But, as with digital SLR cameras, there are smaller, lower resolution models, such as the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 and UDI 818A, both designed for beginners and costing less than £100. The UDI 818A boasts altitude-hold and a first-person-view screen, so the user can see exactly what the drone’s HD camera sees in real time. Battery life only allows for a maximum flight time of ten minutes, the camera resolution is just two megapixels and video resolution is 720p HD, but these low-cost, low-resolution drones are the ‘trainer jets’ of the drone world, and are an ideal choice for those beginner pilots seeking to chalk up flying hours before investing in a more sophisticated model.

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A very-near miss

Camera drone usage has grown rapidly over the past couple of years, but their increased popularity has also led to a rise in incidences of improper and even dangerous use. For example, in July 2016, an A320 passenger plane flying at an altitude of 4,900 feet over London on its approach to Heathrow, had what was officially described as ‘a very-near miss’ with a drone. The subsequent report by the UK Airprox Board described the drone as black and about 50cm wide.

This event highlights the risks associated with operating drones in built-up areas, but even the Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA) has admitted that the rules and regulations surrounding drone use are evolving. Many people have scant knowledge of where they stand with the law when piloting their drone for a seemingly innocuous afternoon of curiosity and fun. Two years ago, while compiling a feature about camera drones, a journalist for the Observer recalled flying his drone over the heads of a crowd cordoned off by police in order to get a better view of a beached sperm whale. Innocent enough you might think. No, said the CAA, that was illegal. The CAA stipulates that no UAVs (drones) can be flown within 50 metres of any person, vehicle or building – unless those are ‘under your control’. Furthermore, no flight is allowed within 150 metres of any congested area, which rules out much of Hyde Park as well as the approach to Heathrow Airport.

Drones also have to be kept within line of sight of the operator at all times, despite the fact that most models give real-time views from the drone’s camera or even your smart phone. This rule also overrides the fact that many professional model drones can be controlled via GPS, which makes long flights out of sight a simple and straightforward task.

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Bigger kit bags

Clearly, the law is not keeping pace with human practice or technological innovation, but as it currently stands breaking these rules remains a criminal offence. That said, there have been only a handful of convictions in the UK so far, including a TV shop owner in Barrow-in-Furness who was fined £800 in 2014 for flying a drone within 50 metres of a road bridge and near a nuclear submarine site.

Drones are clearly here to stay and following the extraordinary footage aired by Planet Earth II, we can expect to see even more photographers and videographers add a camera drone to their kit alongside their Nikon or Canon cameras and bevy of lenses.

• Plan your flight path in advance and use binoculars to check for possible obstructions such as power lines and overhead cables.
• Check the weather forecast. Stormy days, high winds and heavy rain often ground helicopters, so don’t think your camera drone will fare any better!
• Maintain line of sight between you and the drone. Even if you have a live view monitor, your peripheral vision is greater and more likely to spot any possible dangers coming into range.

• Steer your drone within 50 metres of any person, vehicle or building. Furthermore, no flight is allowed within 150 metres of a congested area.
• Buy a drone that’s beyond the capabilities of your experience. It is better and cheaper to train and practice with a low-cost, low-resolution camera drone, before getting one with a pro-quality image resolution.
• Fly longer than the battery life of the drone. Flying time is rarely more than 20 minutes on most models, so keep track of time and land the drone with a couple of minutes to spare in order to avoid it cutting out and falling like a stone from the sky.

Recommended reading
Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones by Eric Cheng; Peachpit Press, £20.99 (softback)
The Drone Pilot’s Handbook by Adam Juniper; Ilex Press; £9.99 (softback)
The Drone Camera Handbook by Ivo Marloh and Michael Sanderson; Aurum; £9.99 (softback)

Equipment selections
Low-cost option: UDI 818A
The UDI 818A is a highly regarded training drone for aerial photography and videography. Features include altitude-hold and a first-person-view screen. With a 2MP camera resolution and 720p HD video, this is not for cinema-quality footage, but at £80 including an extra battery, VR headset and Micro SD memory card, it’s an ideal starter kit.

Value option: Yuneec Breeze
Just released and marketed as a ‘selfie’ drone, the easy handling Yuneec Breeze (£440) has five flight modes and is able to share images to social media channels while airborne. The Breeze is Yuneec’s smallest model, yet packed with sophisticated flight software, a 13 megapixel camera and 4K video resolution at 30fps.

Pro option: DJI Mavic
The DJI Mavic (£1,300) is one of the most sophisticated camera drones ever seen, with obstacle avoidance, sensor redundancy, and vision positioning paired with GPS and GLONASS to ensure precise positioning during indoor and outdoor flights. It’s built with a 12MP camera and 4K video resolution, while the battery delivers 27 minutes of flight time.

This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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