Send in the drones

DJI's Inspire 1

It looks like the United States Federal Aviation Administration latest proposed set of rules covering the operation of UAVs is about to make filming with drones more ubiquitous than ever… 

As they have both become more capable and less expensive, drones have made an astonishing impact on the industry in recent years. Indeed, for all manner of pre-recorded work they’re becoming nigh on ubiquitous, providing more height and length than a jimmy jib and being substantially cheaper and less intrusive than a helicopter.

Indeed, market data last year suggested that around three quarters of the operators involved in the nascent but rapidly growing UAV sector in the UK were capturing images for marketing or broadcast purposes (in the US, the FAA examined commercial drone operations in four categories: aerial photography, agriculture, law enforcement & search-and-rescue, and inspections of bridges).

To date, the CAA in the UK has been at the more liberal end of the legislative spectrum regarding drones (Spain’s State Agency for Aerial Security, for instance, banned them outright). All the same there are 110 pages of the CAA’s Cap 722 document (Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance) which gently explain that you can’t fly your drone:

  • at a height exceeding 400 feet above the surface
  • at a distance beyond the visual range of the Remote Pilot/RPA observer of the said aircraft, or a maximum range of 500 metres, whichever is less
  • over or within 150 metres of any congested area of a city, town or settlement
  • within 50 metres of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the Remote Pilot; during take-off or landing, however, the aircraft must not be flown within 30 metres of any person, unless that person is under the control of the Remote Pilot.

You also need a ‘Permission for Aerial Work’ from the organisation for any commercial operation.

One of the technologies that multi-rotor drones rely on is the PID Loop a closed-loop control system that tries to manipulate an actual result closer to the desired result by adjusting the inputs. Navigating the world’s legislative systems to keep drones in the sky has seemed to require the same sort of technology, but given the power and global influence of the FAA things might become a lot more liberal across the world. To date, the FAA has granted 29 licenses for commercial drone operators in the US (seven of them for filmmakers). It is now expecting to have over 7000 licensed operators within the next five years

Its guidelines are broadly similar to the CAA’s. Operators have to be over 17, commercial drones have to stay under a 500 feet ceiling, fly only during the hours of daylight, not exceed 100mph, and be operated by someone who has passed pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing centre. The key word there is ‘operator’. No pilot license and logging of flight time will be required, and once they get it they are pretty much free to fly (although the FAA is planning to insist on a refresher course every two years).

(As an aside, the likes of Amazon that wanted to experiment with drone deliveries got knocked back quite severely with the regulation that operation could be visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the operator or visual observer.)

So, it seems that the legislation is finally starting to catch up with the technology. But it’s important to note that that is in turn accelerating over the horizon like an out of control multi-rotor unit.

DJI considerably upped the drone ante with the launch of the Inspire 1 in December last year featuring a wholly new 1/2.3 inch CMOS sensor built-in camera and gimbal system that provides 4K at 24-30 fps, 1080p at up to an impressive 60fps, or 12 megapixel stills. It’s mounted on a 3-axis, 360⁰ rotating gimbal, provides a 94⁰ wide-angle FOV and, what’s more, is removable for future upgrades and can even act as a handheld.

Dual-operator control allows one person to pilot the flight path while the other aims the gimbal and camera, a vision positioning system simplifies indoor flying via a combination of dedicated camera and sonar, and a new Dynamic Home Point automatically refreshes the ‘return to land’ point, which is rather useful if the operators are travelling behind the drone in a car or boat and the 18 minute flight time is nearing an end.

Entry level pricepoint is $3k. And if you want a glimpse of the speed of progress in the field, in the two years between the release of the company’s prosumer Phantom I and Phantom II, flight times almost doubled from 15 to 25 minutes.

Expect much more of this sort of thing at NAB where a special Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion will be located in the South Upper Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Exhibitors currently participating include DJI, Canon, Amimon, DSLR Pros, XFly Systems, TeraLogics, Go Professional Cases, ArrowData, Sky High Media, ZM Interactive and Unmanned Vehicle University, while some of the topics to be covered include laws and regulations surrounding drones, the use of drones for news gathering, drones in space (a NASA project case study), capturing aerial video and employing range extenders.

“Unmanned aerial systems are increasingly being used to cover live events and breaking news, and in industries such as real estate, law enforcement, search and rescue, and more,” said Mannie Frances from Drone Media Group , the company organising the Pavilion.

They could even save lives. As part of the FAA’s detailed breakdown of the industry that underpinned its rule recommendations it noted that 17 manned aircraft performing aerial photography crashed in the US between 2005 and 2009, killing 19 people.