Drone Wars

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One of the production industry’s latest infatuations is with the use of drones in production. No, the intention isn’t to take out an enemy. Using drones in production—unmanned aircraft controlled from the ground and carrying lightweight cameras—has developed into a must-have tool for productions that need aerial coverage and can’t afford or want to avoid the high cost of maintaining manned helicopters or other aircraft.

Freefly Systems’ CineStar 8 system can support cameras weighing in the two- to three-pound range, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III or the RED EPIC.

A number of major productions, including the recent Tom Cruise film, Oblivion, have used drones in aerial cinematography. But that doesn’t mean they’re getting their coverage on the cheap. While costs for using ground-controlled drones are considerably less than flying and maintaining a manned helicopter, you get what you pay for. While multirotor drones flying powerful small digital cameras from Canon, GoPro and others are capable of producing motion-picture-quality images, the platforms must be well equipped to remain stable in unpredictable weather and carry the necessary gear for full camera control, real-time live visuals and more.

A $1,000 drone and camera combination is attractive pricewise, and the onboard camera may deliver beautiful images, but the usable footage—stabilized, level horizons and other qualities we expect from airborne footage—is more likely to be hit-and-miss as opposed to platforms costing in the thousands of dollars. No one, however, is betting against those smaller, inexpensive packages having better control systems. Some options are on the verge of being introduced this year.

One issue needs immediate clarification: The word "drone" may be linguistically correct—these are, after all, unmanned aircraft—but "drone" in the production community is a dirty word. To the industry, as well as the general public, it’s associated with military jet-powered unmanned missiles used to combat terrorism. They bear no resemblance to the miniaturized helicopter or the multirotor helicopter-like flying platforms—hovering machines, if you like—that are used in production.

The FLYING-CAM 3.0 SARAH is the only aerial camera system capable of motion photography with a repeatable accuracy of less than two inches in each pass.

Understanding these microcopters may be divided into three areas: microcopter technology itself, the cameras best suited to use with them and the rigors of learning how to fly them. According to Adam Paugh, CFO and co-founder of Quadrocopter (www.quadrocopter.com), one of the industry’s largest multirotor aircraft distributors, size does matter when it comes to choosing one of these aerial platforms for production. "The larger the machine, the more it can hold its own," explains Paugh.

The high end of the market may be best exemplified by FLYING-CAM (www.flying-cam.com), whose unmanned mini-helicopter has been used in 85 motion pictures, including most of the James Bond and Harry Potter series, as well as Oblivion, according to U.S. representative Haik Gazarian. The unit has a six-foot rotor span and a three-axis camera mount installed on the front. Systems are rented, not purchased, and come with their own pilot and camera operator. (Companies supplying their own cameras are limited to the RED EPIC.) While shooting, the camera operator and pilot operate separate controls. According to Gazarian, the camera operator uses RF to manipulate the camera, and the unit comes with real-time video assist with latency of less than a second.

The company’s newest package, the FLYING-CAM 3.0 SARAH, can carry cameras the size and weight of a RED EPIC with batteries and prime lenses. This premium system carries a premium price, which has an estimated $18,000 to $20,000 day rate.

"It’s also the only camera system capable of aerial motion-control photography with a repeatable accuracy of less than two inches in each pass," reveals Gazarian. The system was even used in Saudi Arabia to transmit live aerial views of soccer games.