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Old September 20th, 2011, 07:11 AM   #1
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Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I've been exploring the possibility of hiring a helicopter with a Wescam (or other similar stabilization system) to get some aerial footage of our campus. This is obviously expensive (I'd expect to pay $8,000-10,000 or more for a good day's worth of shooting.)

But lately I've been seeing more and more footage acquired with radio-controlled flying camera platforms. And the more amazing R/C aerial footage I see, the more I'm becoming convinced that this is the way to go. Why? Because it is vastly more flexible—you can do almost anything: near-to-the-ground shots, flying between buildings, hovering in place, slow crane-style moves, you name it.

For example, take a look at the products offered by this company...
KopterWorx

Their flying platform (I wouldn't exactly call it a helicopter) looks pretty amazing, and the footage I've seen from this system is jawdropping.

One of these ready-to-fly, complete systems costs around $20K. Yes, that's a lot of money...but not when you consider...

a) We've spent more than that on a single lens...
b) If we charter a (real) helicopter, we've already spent half of the cost of one of the KopterWorx systems for just a single day of shooting.

My point is that I'm starting to think that buying a KopterWorx system could well be a justifiable expense. Would we use it? Heck yes!!! I can absolutely guarantee you if I had the capability to get any aerial shot and aerial move I wanted, anytime I wanted, I'd use it constantly.

So I'm interested in hearing others' experiences (if any) with these radio-controlled camera platforms.

Thanks,
Scott
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Old September 20th, 2011, 08:41 AM   #2
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

One problem is that you need to learn how to fly the thing, which could take a bit of time, plus a few possible crashes along the way.

I worked on a documentary that hired in a R/C helicopter company and they could get various shots pretty quickly, but there's a lot of skill in doing it safely and consistently. I also know a well known DP who wouldn't go near that particular company for a number of operating reasons, although we were happy enough on our production.
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Old September 20th, 2011, 09:17 AM   #3
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

Good points Brian. No doubt skilled piloting is required. But as someone who has flown radio-controlled gliders for years, I can say that while it takes skill, it requires nowhere near the skill required to operate a Steadicam, for example. Anyone can learn to pilot one of these as long as they have good vision and good hand-eye coordination.

I just think the benefits of having the ability to acquire such amazing aerial shots anytime we like outweigh any inherent cost or operations issue.

I know nothing about KopterWorx (based in Slovenia)...and purely for support reasons, I'd like to find out if someone in the U.S. or Canada makes a similar platform.

From a flight perspective, I think the KopterWorx multi-rotor system is the right way to go---superior (in my opinion) to a traditional helicopter design (but that's not to say a traditional design couldn't work well too).

Scott
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Old September 20th, 2011, 09:33 AM   #4
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I think much of the decision making will be driven by what camera you're planning on flying.

I've had some experience as DP on aerial shoots where we were flying the 5D/7D, and then later the AF-100 and FS-100 on a TRex 700E aerial platform. That's a pretty full-sized heli, and if you plan on flying cameras that size, I wouldn't go with anything less.

If you're looking for the best price/performance ratio, I'd probably look at a smaller helicopter paired with something like the Sony NEX-5N. It's smaller, lighter, and if it crashes, you're only out about $600 on the camera side. Not to mention it shoots 1080/60p, which you'll likely want for greater ability to post-stabilize footage.

Regardless of the choice you make, keep in mind that operating an R/C aerial video rig for commercial use is, technically, illegal. As I understand it, the FAA is currently exploring ways to control/license the market, and given some of the things that I've heard can happen on these shoots, it's not necessarily a bad thing. We're talking about spinning blades on a fairly large beast. Have a safety plan in place, and make sure your insurance is up to date, if you're going to do this.
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Old September 20th, 2011, 03:29 PM   #5
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I agree that a DSLR isn't the ideal R/C Heli camcorder. The big win for DSLRs is the ability to control DOF. Their weaknesses are motion (rolling shutter) and when the background is in focus (aliasing). A small sensor cam will do, if it has low weight, a wide view, and a decent codec.
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Old September 21st, 2011, 09:48 AM   #6
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

Good comments on flying with an inexpensive camera versus a DSLR or larger camera. (Heck, we used a GoPro for two-thirds of the shots in our nationally-broadcast television spot---camera quality is, for the most part, irrelevant these days.)

In my opinion, smooth, professional aerial shots (along with professional Steadicam use) is the "final frontier" in video production. By that, I mean this is the one technical capability (as opposed to creative skill) that sets a production apart and above the competition more than any other.

And for obvious reasons, SUAS platforms (Small Unmanned Aerial System) will be the way to go. Far more cost-effective than renting helicopter time.

Some might argue, "How often do you really need footage like that?" If you're talking about helicopter footage, my response would be "rarely."

But an SUAS platform gives a lot more versatility: you can do the equivalent of traditional crane/jib shots with one of these (but extended beyond what a crane or jib can do)...not to mention more dramatic aerial shots. So if you have an SUAS platform, you'll use it a lot more than you think.

The FCC issues are concerning though. I tried to do some research on this last night and it was a rat's nest of debates, arguments, reports that say one thing, reports that say another...my head was spinning after a half-hour of trying to get to the bottom of it (which is partly---I think---because the FAA hasn't actually finalized any regulation yet).

The only thing (again, I think) I found out is that universities are exempt from much of the proposed regulation, which primarily affects (I think) commercial operation. We're a university, so I think we'd be okay to do this.

Scott

PS - By the way, this is the kind of footage I'm talking about:
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Old September 21st, 2011, 10:02 AM   #7
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

You might want to research potential legal issues pertaining to commercial use, e.g. FAA Looks Into News Corp's Daily Drone, Raising Questions About Who Gets To Fly Drones in The U.S. - Forbes
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Old September 21st, 2011, 12:11 PM   #8
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I'm still researching...but from what I've seen, all the FAA red tape only applies if you want to operate one of these over 400 feet. If true, then no sweat---all the shots I'd love to get are easily under 400 feet (including all the shots in that video clip above).

Scott
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Old September 21st, 2011, 12:39 PM   #9
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I'm looking at this option seriously as well. I'm experimenting with a small T-Rex 450 and a GoPro. I'm going to mount a ContourRoam in it as the image quality is a lot less harsh-looking than a GoPro, at least from the comparisons I've seen posted.

For larger payloads, take a look at this:
Welcome to Bergen R/C - /Observer

And for gimbals, here's a good one:
PhotoShip One - Aerial Photography - Aerial Video Products - Mikrokopter - Law Enforecement Drones - SUAS - Gimbal - RC Camera Mount

Both Bergen and Photoshop One have joined forces in building a camera platform for someone here in Maui.

There's a lot of discussion (to put it nicely) about RC flying with cameras. I'm hoping the vast majority are responsible and won't do things that make people paranoid about it.
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Old September 21st, 2011, 12:53 PM   #10
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

Another thought: The multi-rotor helicopters use smaller fixed-pitch props to provide lift and maneuverability. They're steadily getting bigger and capable of lifting larger payloads.

If these props can be shrouded, that provides a great safety factor. Someone could walk right into one without getting lacerated. Of course long hair would get caught up in it. But scissors can fix that...

The one thing about multi-rotor helicopters is that ALL of the motors have to be running perfectly. If one fails, the whole thing comes tumbling down. In a conventional helicopter, if the motor goes out, you can do an emergency "autorotation" landing. Hopefully onto dry land and away from anyone.
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Old September 21st, 2011, 12:57 PM   #11
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I'd be careful about using high end R/C companies as examples, because these guys specialise in the work they'll have equipment and operating experience that lower budget less experienced operators won't have. It's like filming with a full size helicopter, what you get depends on how good the pilot is.

Also. those close passes to people need planning and skill, those blades go round at a hell of a lick.
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Old September 21st, 2011, 01:21 PM   #12
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

I'm very concerned about the number of people who are of the mindset that it's an easy thing to fly a heli or multirotor. I've been flying fixed wing and rotary wing RC for over 20 years and with the rotory craft, there is nothing easy about it. Especially when you start mounting camera gear which changes the flight characteristics completely.
Sure all of us who have experience had to start somewhere but as a kid I had time to devote several hours a day to learning to fly a heli. And even as good as I am now, I still don't put the heli in dangerous situations. The biggest thing that gets overlooked is these RC aircraft require diligent maintainence and especially when putting the extra weight of a camera on it. Many of the linkages and gears are plastic and wear out. It's not pretty when a mechanical failure happens. The regimen I used to teach heli students included this maintainece check and also how to deal with in-flight failures. And even that doesnt prevent some potentially serious damage from being done.
To gain the correct skill set for flying a camera at a competent level is gonna take years if you only spend a couple of hours a week at it.
There's a LOT beyond simply flying the craft around to make the footage look good and maintain the necessary level of safety.
Please... everyone that is considering getting into this...keep safety at the top of your list.
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Old September 21st, 2011, 01:49 PM   #13
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

FAA Looks Into News Corp's Daily Drone, Raising Questions About Who Gets To Fly Drones in The U.S. - Forbes

"Using drones for news-gathering seems like a pretty cool idea, though itís easy to imagine the robot paparazzi future that Ryan Calo fears."

The idea of face-recognizing flying robots isn't out of the question, but at the present time it's an outlandish concern.

The big and immediate concern is the potential for reckless use. Having seen the occasional "crush" of news photographers up close, and having been a pilot as well, I can imagine collisions of these things, with the equivalent of flying lawnmowers coming down on people's heads.

"While FAA regulations may currently prohibit such a use, the agency is planning to revisit ó and possibly relax ó those regulations this year, potentially making it easier for private companies to fly the friendly skies with drones."

I'm all for the ability to use RC aircraft to provide a unique perspective.

But that has to be tempered by the need to maintain a reasonable level of safety, too. Perhaps a consideration can be given to the risks posed by RC aircraft of different sizes and designs. Some are less risky than others. One with shrouded props, for example, could be operated in relatively close proximity to people with less fear of injury in case of incidental contact, although it's still a hazard should one fall from 100 feet with a 3-pound camera attached.

Hopefully some good guidelines and rules emerge from thoughtful discussion involving all parties.
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Old September 21st, 2011, 02:01 PM   #14
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

Robert, I agree with all you said about putting safety first...except I find it hard to believe it would take years (at a couple hours a week) to become competent at flying one of these craft.

I admit I haven't flown RC helicopters (I have flown RC gliders for years)...but I've seen plenty of people go from never having flown one to literally "mowing the grass" with an upside-down, gyro-stabilized chopper in a matter of months. My impression is that a lot depends on the dexterity, sensitivity, and hand-eye coordination of the operator. (Some people pick up juggling right away...others practice for years and don't get it.) I think operating any RC vehicle requires a certain ability to think abstractly (in terms of spatial orientation) that some people have and some don't.

I also get the sense (from what I've read) that the technology in this area is leaping forward----improvements in engine reliability and power, stability, gyroscopes, accelerometers, etc. all seem to be making flying these things less difficult (but I didn't say "easy!").

I think operating one is very analogous to operating a Steadicam---those, too, require a lot of focused time and practice to master. But in my opinion, that time would be well worth it!

Scott
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Old September 21st, 2011, 02:46 PM   #15
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Re: Any experience with R/C aerial shooting?

Agreed that some people progress faster than others but it is one thing to do the 3D flying (which I am quite good at) and trying to develop the control to keep things smooth. One of the best pilots I used to fly with said that 3D flying was easy as long as you were willing to accept that it is not a matter of IF, it is WHEN you are going to crash. Keeping a heli or rotor craft in a perfect hover requires the same dexterity as balancing a pen on the tip of your finger.

Much like using a Steadicam, anyone can strap one on and use it with a bit of practice. But to get the really good results requires a good chunk of time learning the nuances and lots and lots of practice.
And while all my students used simulators to supplement their practice, nothing beats doing it for real. And once again, adding a camera changes everything.

All I'm saying is when you start adding actors or people into the equation, you'd better be a damn good pilot with plenty of experience in dealing with issues that can occur faster than you can blink an eye.

I've saved helis after a linkage broke in flight. I've also had to purposely ditch aircraft with technical issues to avoid hitting people or objects. It's not easy but it does happen. And as mentioned, if you're carrying a 3-4lb camera, the total flying weight is likely to be in the 15-20lb range. That's a lot of mass if it hits something.

Up side to all this is it's a heck of a lot of fun when it goes right which is most of the time.
Not to beat a dead horse but just be safe and use common sense. And find out who the "hotshoe" pilot is in your area and get some instruction and advice. It'll be worth it!
The biggest improvement I've seen is in the radio reliability. The new 2.4ghz system uses digital binding of the transmitter and receiver so no other system can interfere.
Our biggest fear before those systems were available was getting radio interference and losing a very expensive flying machine.
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