Game of Drones
BASC’s filmmaker Tom O’Carroll gives a head’s up display on the use of drone-copters…
Out of the thousands of calls that BASC receives every month there seems to be a new word being mentioned more and more: drones. Given the hot media coverage, not to mention the sales figures for these buzzing plastic birds, it is perhaps not surprising that members of BASC have new questions to ask.
Barely a week goes by without drones being mentioned in the news. Apparently, everyone owns one or is about to buy one. We are told they are a danger to our passenger jets, that they are spying at us through our windows whilst we watch X-Factor on a Saturday night and they can breach presidential or prison security with unthinkable consequences. The next minute we hear how they can revolutionise the work of the emergency services, that they save lives in disaster areas. They provide crop surveys to farmers and land surveys to housing developers. Conservationists count whales with them and deer stalkers count deer. They seem to be saving the world and being a menace in equal measure. As is often the case with reports in the press, the reality is more boring, but this rapidly emerging technology is certainly raising questions.
Just to be clear, the military drones also mentioned in news reports are something else entirely. They have 60ft wing spans and resemble an aeroplane in both shape and size. They need runways for take-off and they can fly for hundreds of miles before deploying their missiles. UK drones in Afghanistan were being controlled from an airbase in Lincolnshire. Military drones are completely different to the things you can buy from Maplin! The similarity is in name only.
Many of the drones bought for Christmas presents are just toys. They are not much bigger than your hand and safe to fly indoors. Some have cameras on board but they are more of a gimmick than useful. Any amount of wind makes them almost impossible to control and that helps to make them useless for any sort of serious camera work. If I can’t get out to fly the proper drone, I’ll exercise my flying skills with a micro-drone indoors. They can be good fun too! They pose little threat to human safety but they might freak your dogs out a bit.
Drones for filming
The credit for bringing drones to a wider market has to be given to a firm called DJI. Before DJI launched their famous “Phantom” quadcopter just two short years ago, a drone pilot would also have had to be an expert in model making and electronics. It was the domain of DIY construction. Parts and modules could be bought off the shelf in those days but a lot of knowledge was needed to make them all work well together. DJI made things easy. They made a genuinely useful drone that was ready to fly straight from the box (not necessarily out of the box!).
Film makers and photographers were some of the first to get excited. With a light-weight camera mounted on a special motorised gimbal for super smooth picture stability, you get an eye in the sky that can reach places that were previously impossible to reach by conventional methods. How about flying down a forest ride under the tree canopy – or even between the branches of a tree? Do that with a full size helicopter! It is truly a birds-eye view – you can go where the birds can go. Aerial photography is not just much more affordable a drone can take pictures that are impossible to record any other way.
As a video producer I found it enormously exciting to discover what a drone can do for filming. The BASC film “BASC – an introduction” took advantage of this new filming technique with great effect.
Realistically you’ll need to spend at least £1,000 on a drone for decent aerial video recording or stills photography. DJI undoubtedly dominates the market with their Phantom 3 but there are other makes emerging such as 3D Robotics’ Solo. The more serious user will end up spending more on accessories such as extra batteries (they don’t last long!).
The drones that you might see flying around the British countryside are most likely to be quadcopters (four rotors). These are by far the most popular. Hexacopters (six rotors) and octocopters (eight) are in use but these tend to be in the domain of the more specialist pilot.
Drones are remarkably easy to fly. Along with highly sophisticated motion sensors the speed of each individual rotor is computer controlled in order to maintain the drone’s aerial stability. It will automatically lean in to the wind in order to maintain course or a static hover. Just like a satnav, drones know where they are because they have built-in GPS. This not only helps with stability, but GPS also provides a safety net – the drone will just fly back and land on it’s take-off point should the pilot control link fail for some reason. The pilot can even pre-plan the flight path using a map on a tablet for the drone to fly auto-pilot style. This may sound like things can get complicated and indeed they can, but the basics are simple: push the right stick forward to go forward, the left to go up and if you let go of all controls the craft will stop and hover in place.
Having said that, anyone who has operated a drone would soon agree that there is more to flying these things than just keeping basic control. Things get trickier when you begin to work the aircraft critically and need to place the camera it is carrying in a particular spot. Your perception of space becomes very inaccurate beyond just a short distance. It can be very difficult to decide if your drone, not much bigger than a football, is in line with a tree fifty yards away – or has in fact flown past it! The video picture returned by the camera is your only way to check and that is a 2D image with no sense of depth. Keeping the drone within line of sight is essential if you want to prevent a crash. Indeed following the guidelines specified by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for drone users is absolutely essential if you want to preserve the wellbeing of your machine, and the safety of anyone or anything around you (not to mention preserving your pride and wallet too!). The CAA guidelines (or “drone code” as the CAA has called them recently) are excellent because they are common sense – but you can be prosecuted if you are found in breach of them.
Keep the drone within line of sight at all times.
Fly no higher than 400 feet from the ground and no further than 500 meters. (Blame the world of aviation for mixing up distance units so badly!)
Be no closer than 50m to any person, vehicle building or structure that is not under the full control of the pilot.
Remain 150m from any congested area or large gathering of people (such as a concert or sports event)
Many people wrongly believe there are no regulations in place for drone pilots. The truth is, it is remarkably easy to get into trouble for flying recklessly. If you are deemed to have endangered the safety of others you will be prosecuted and fined. ‘Recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight’ is a criminal offence for example, which can lead to a custodial sentence.
It is for this reason that if a drone is bothering you there will always be something you can do about it. The first port of call would be to politely approach the drone pilot and have a word. Most pilots will be embarrassed to learn they are causing anyone stress and move on. If you believe there to be wrong doing happening then call the police. The CAA may be interested to learn about the incident too. It is worth bearing in mind that no-one owns airspace though, so the pilot is not breaking any rules because he is flying over private land for example, but if he is standing on private land or landing the drone without permission then he is trespassing. Normal laws apply – there is nothing special about a drone pilot.
There has been some concerns expressed by some shooters that drones might be used by “antis” to film or disrupt a shoot. For those with such concerns here is some food for thought:
1) If the drone comes closer than 50m to any person then the pilot is breaking the “drone code” and should be reported to the police.
2) The cameras on these drones have very wide angle lenses and this makes everything smaller in the camera’s view. The drone would need to be much closer than 50m in order to reliably identify anyone in shot. A drone in the distance should cause you no concern of being “spied upon” or identified. Drones up high are filming landscapes – not faces or small details.
3) The best way to film or photograph people covertly, is to stick to the tried and tested methods of using a long lens camera from the ground! To be clear, even the larger drones cannot carry a camera with a decent telephoto lens. You’ll need a full size helicopter with very specialist camera gear to film in this way.
4) If the drone suddenly swoops in close to apparently film or photograph you (and it would need to be within 10m or so) the film itself would incriminate the pilot, demonstrate the drone code was breached and enable prosecution. At least two UK drone pilots have been prosecuted as a result of them publishing their flights on YouTube.
5) As a shooter, never shoot a drone! No matter how tempted you might be, just don’t. If you shoot a drone you will be facing a charge of criminal damage and you will most certainly lose your shotgun certificate! “I thought it was a bird officer. I didn’t mean it.” will not work. It’s just not worth it. It has been suggested that it could be justified if the drone was believed to be a danger or a threat – perhaps it was out of control heading for livestock – but no, don’t shoot them. Would you like to be defending your actions in court – that you did have time to check for a backstop and that shooting over farm animals was a good decision?
6) A pilot cannot be hired or earn money for his flight time unless he has received official permission from the CAA to carry out “aerial work*” and for that he will have had to have gained one of the two qualifications recognised by the CAA: an RPQ-s or a BNUC-s. Further to this, “if you are looking to employ or hire a company to conduct Aerial Work on your behalf, you must ensure they are appropriately certified by the CAA and have the right insurance in place. Failure to do so could lead to prosecution by the CAA.” This latter fact might be relevant to shoots who are considering hiring a drone and pilot for a day. I have completed the course for my RPQ-s and I can assure you it’s as thorough – if not more so – as any UK driving test.
7) * “Aerial work” is where you are employed specifically to do this work. A roofer could use a drone to check his roofing repairs without CAA authorisation, but if he employed a drone pilot to do it, the pilot would need CAA permission.
For an example of the fantastic camera work possible from a drone copter, check out BASC – An introduction below: