Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have been increasing in popularity among photographers and videographers for the past few years. In 2015, we’re poised for a dramatic upswing because two things are happening. First, there are more manufacturers with high-quality imaging solutions coming online and, second, the drones are becoming much easier to use.
When photographers and filmmakers think of drones, we’re primarily thinking of multirotor radio-controlled aircraft. A few years ago, if you were looking to get a camera onto a drone like this, your first stop would be a model radio-control shop and you’d be spending many hours with Google finding out how to build, program and fly. When the DJI Phantom quadcopter arrived, everything changed.
Myth: Pros Can’t Use Drones
At the time the Phantom came out, professional filmmaking crews had been using multirotor drones in commercials, features and other productions. These tended to be powerful, custom-built models, but some were being offered in kit form. These drones were specialized to carry the heavy payload of a large-ish camera, and they definitely needed to be handled by an experienced pilot. Looked at one way, any drone is a flying lawn mower, and without proper attention to safety, things can go very wrong in a hurry.
DJI didn’t invent the quadcopter, they simply created a reasonably priced quad that was pretty much ready to fly right out of the box. The Phantom came with a radio and all of the key components installed, connected and prepped for flight—just charge the batteries and take off. Prior to the Phantom, if you wanted to be a drone flyer, you were pretty much going to be a drone builder and tools like soldering irons and multi-meters would see heavy use.
The other great advancement that DJI brought to the Phantom was a brushless gimbal system that could carry a GoPro camera. R/C-ers had been flying quads with cameras, but they were mostly lower-res and primarily for first-person-viewer (FPV) systems. With the Zenmuse gimbal, DJI had a sophisticated tool that allowed you to use the higher image quality of a GoPro and the camera would remain steady even as the copter tilted this way and that in the wind. GoPros have their limitations; mounting one on a drone and getting steady images was a huge advancement.
In 2014, there were a few drone manufacturers on the show floor at CES. In 2015, there was an entire section of the show floor dedicated to drones, with a caged-in flight area. DJI had their latest drone, the Inspire 1, which has a new, integrated 4K-capable camera and a new gimbal to keep the images steady. At the 2015 NAB show, we expect to see even more multicopters that can carry larger and more sophisticated cameras and gimbals.
Amidst this explosive growth, there also has been a lot of confusion about using cameras on a drone. The FAA is scheduled to clear things up in late 2015, but until then, things are a little murky. Some maintain that a camera-mounted drone can’t be used for any commercial purpose. Does making a short film that you’re going to post to Vimeo or YouTube qualify as commercial? Can you shoot something for a paying client with a drone? These are pretty open questions and, at the moment, the answers are fuzzy. In the future, some kind of a licensing system could be put into practice, along with regulations, permits and insurance requirements. For now, a few resources to keep in touch are the dronelaw.net blog and the www.knowbeforeyoufly.org website.
Above all, the single most important thing you can do is don’t be stupid. For example, flying a drone over a populated area is pretty dumb. Many flight controllers are preprogrammed to prevent you from being really stupid and trying to fly near an airport or various government buildings, but no programming substitutes for your own common sense. Become a good pilot before you try to become a good aerial photographer.