Above photo: Sky Bandit Pictures octocopter during a test flight. Photo by Toshi Imai
By Dan Coplan, SOC
I got into flying drones roughly three years ago when the technology got good enough and the prices came down enough to justify getting into the business of flying cameras. Prior to that I had been, and still am to this day, making my career as a Steadicam and camera operator for movies, TV, commercials—you name it. While I was always intrigued by remote control vehicles, my motivation to fly cameras originated as an opportunity to expand on what I already had to offer clients.
I started small and inexpensively, breaking new ground with a coaxial helicopter I could fly around my living room and pretty much crash into anything without leaving a mark. At that time the debate between flying cameras on helicopters versus multi-rotors was just heating up and the jury was still out, but the 4-channel control (throttle, elevator, pitch, aileron) was identical between the two and mini UAV’s, similar in size and price, hadn’t yet made it to market. I graduated little by little to bigger and more complex aircraft until I had to make the decision to invest in traditional helicopters or newfangled multi-rotors as my camera platform. I spoke to a number of people on both sides of the fence; each very passionate as to why their technology was better. Anticipating the future, I gambled on multi-rotors.
My first drone was a DJI F450 quadcopter kit that contained the basics: frame, motors, ESC’s, flight controller, and props. I had to add the batteries and charger, radio and receiver, GoPro camera gimbal, and wireless video system. I was amazed at how easily and controlled this setup flew, but the servo-driven 2-axis gimbal, cutting edge at the time, was a nightmarish joke. Technology and my setup have come a long way since then.
Today the main ship we fly at Sky Bandit Pictures is a Freefly Cinestar 8 Octocopter. Everything about it is a vast improvement over my initial entry into aerial cinematography. The eight booms provide greater lift, stability, and redundancy in defense of total failure. The brushless motors camera gimbal allows for both a variety of cameras and footage that is solid right off the chip without the need for post stabilization. Additionally, it functions independently of the aircraft allowing for more complex shots executed by my camera operator. Improved wireless video systems and antenna choices provide stronger signals over greater distances. As technology has improved, we’ve kept up with the changes in the interest of greater reliability and providing a better experience and product for our clients. And then DJI released the Inspire 1 which opened our eyes to what a professional aerial cinematography rig could and should be.
The Inspire is a prosumer rig that falls short of the demands of many of our higher-end clients. At the same time, it’s an incredibly well thought out package that works beautifully for our mid-range clients and offers a wish list of features I would love to see incorporated into a professional package. I won’t go through the entire list of specs and attributes because you can look that up online, but a short list that would make our lives a lot easier and our shoots more fulfilling includes the following:
The flight controller automatically switches to attitude mode (i.e. manual mode with the assistance of sensors that don’t rely on satellites) when the GPS signal is lost and switches back when it’s regained. A voice from the app alerts you to this change. While GPS is a useful function it can also be the culprit for problems such as flyaways and we avoid it unless absolutely necessary like position hold in strong winds. But the Inspire’s smart switching, dare I say, ‘inspires’ confidence that we won’t be the victim of lost GPS signals causing unpredictable results.
Monitoring is lighter and simpler. It’s not that the monitors we use are so cumbersome, but our setup involves a small field monitor, a receiver and antenna, a battery to power the components, a ground station case to contain everything, and a tripod to support it all. With the Inspire, the monitor comes in the form of an iPhone or tablet: thin, lightweight, self-powered, and mounts to a bracket on the radio. One cable connects this monitor to the radio that contains the electronics to receive and pass on the video. Additionally, there is a slew of data provided that is relevant to both the pilot and operator and both team members can have their own monitors.
On-the-fly settings are controlled through an app on the monitor. Currently, if we’re doing a shoot that requires taking stills and video, we have to land to change this function. Likewise, if we discover mishaps like forgetting to hit the record button or misjudging exposure, we have to land. With the Inspire, these settings can be changed remotely while remaining in flight.
Our Octocopter is a 2-man operation: one to pilot and one to control the camera gimbal. This is a preferred way of working anyway, but the Inspire allows for a single pilot/operator whereby a switch on the radio toggles between pan and tilt, controlled by a spring-loaded dial. Besides having to walk and chew gum by flying and operating camera concurrently, you’re limited by not being able to pan and tilt at the same time, but this is still a very liberating feature.
Honestly, my favorite feature of all might be that the entire package including copter, two controllers, camera and gimbal, batteries, and charger all store neatly in a single suitcase-sized case. With our professional rig we travel with six cases plus the Octo itself. And none of it is compact and light.
There are of course limitations. Briefly, the Inspire currently offers one camera with one focal length and no way to adjust the aperture (exposure is adjusted by ISO, shutter, and physical ND filters). It’s a quadcopter so there is no redundancy if a motor were to fail, guaranteeing a plummet straight down to earth. The operating frequency is 2.4 GHz. While this is standard, it’s also within a band that can suffer interference from sources like microwave (believe me, I know…) which is why we’ve switched over to UHF.
The multi-rotor industry is growing up fast. It’s exciting to see how quickly the technology is coming along and companies like DJI are developing advancements and improvements at a rapid pace, providing promising innovations in thoughtful turnkey packages that allow aerial cinematographers such as our team at Sky Bandit Pictures to worry less about the technology so we can focus more on providing quality content. I can only imagine it won’t be long until our dream drone will be a reality.
Dan Coplan, SOC
Dan Coplan, SOC has been working in film and TV with his eye behind the camera on the ground, underwater, and up in the air for the past 17 years. He’s been a member of the SOC Board of Governors for much of that time. When he’s not busy shooting he’s losing sleep over anticipating the next great project to work on and thanks technology for the multitude of creative ways we can tell stories with moving pictures.