Camera Drones

Are you ready to take to the sky with a fly­ing camera… a.k.a. a drone? This mar­ket has ex­panded very rapidly over the last few years, which has led to tech­nolo­gies that make fly­ing eas­ier (and safer) than ever, and to clearer, sim­pler reg­u­la­tions for recr

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If you’ve seen any video footage shot with a camera zone, you’ll agree it’s ex­cit­ing stuff and cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments are mak­ing these ma­chines even eas­ier to fly. New reg­u­la­tions in Aus­tralia are also eas­ier to un­der­stand… so now might be a good time to take your pho­tog­ra­phy to an­other level (sorry, we couldn’t re­sist it).

“A sig­nif­i­cant change in the Aus­tralian reg­u­la­tions is that the smaller re­cre­ational drones can now be used for com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties with­out cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

Aerial pho­tog­ra­phy has al­ways had a long-held at­trac­tion – view­ing the world from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive – but it’s been be­yond the scope of most am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers be­cause of the costs in­volved. Even a cheaper op­tion such as hir­ing a cher­ryp­icker is still ex­pen­sive and there are var­i­ous lo­gis­tics to con­sider. Fixed-wing air­craft are the more flex­i­ble plat­form, but the me­ter starts run­ning the mo­ment the prop is turned. He­li­copters? For­get it un­less you have a pay­ing client.

Con­se­quently, it’s not sur­pris­ing that camera drones have, lit­er­ally, taken off as a cost-ef­fec­tive means of shoot­ing ei­ther video or stills from the air. Un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles or UAVs have been around for quite a while, their ori­gins in the mil­i­tary and in sur­vey­ing – as in­deed have re­mote­ly­con­trolled model air­craft – but small and lightweight he­li­copter­type de­vices are a more re­cent phe­nom­e­non and grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity all the time.

Var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies have come to­gether to make it hap­pen, in­clud­ing of course, dig­i­tal imag­ing which now makes it pos­si­ble to build ex­tremely small camera mod­ules that can still de­liver high-qual­ity video footage and still pic­tures. Ad­vances in bat­tery de­sign (es­pe­cially weight ver­sus ca­pac­ity), data stor­age, WiFi with am­pli­fi­ca­tion, fast and pow­er­ful mi­cro­pro­ces­sors, com­pos­ite ma­te­ri­als and GPS re­ceivers have all also contributed to the rise and rise of the drone. Up And Away There are a va­ri­ety of types of drone (in­clud­ing rac­ing mod­els), but in this in­tro­duc­tion we’re con­cen­trat­ing on those specif­i­cally de­signed for tak­ing pic­tures. The term “drone” has slipped into gen­eral us­age – and is also used by the mil­i­tary for their UAVs – but tech­ni­cally speak­ing , the small low-cost de­vices you can buy off-the-shelf are multi-ro­tor he­li­copters; most com­monly quad­copters be­cause they have four ro­tors (i.e. ver­ti­cally-ori­en­tated pro­pel­lers) ar­ranged in op­pos­ing pairs. These are driven by elec­tric motors with two of the ro­tors turn­ing clock­wise, the other two anti-clock­wise to en­able a sta­tion­ary hover.

Un­like in a con­ven­tional he­li­copter where the main ro­tor blades are each ad­justable in pitch to cre­ate lift (while the tail ro­tor coun­ters the torque) and are all tilted at the hub to de­ter­mine di­rec­tion, a drone is flown by vary­ing the speed (i.e. thrust) of each ro­tor which is a much sim­pler mechanical ar­range­ment. An elec­tronic flight con­troller aboard the drone trans­lates the ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal di­rec­tional com­mands – in­put from the ground via a con­troller – into en­gine speed ad­just­ments.

A camera drone is gen­er­ally ac­cepted to have an in­te­grated camera which is mounted on a gim­bal ar­range­ment to keep it sta­bilised. In some mod­els the camera mount al­lows ad­just­ments for tilt and pan.

The camera unit it­self is gen­er­ally some­thing akin to a video ac­tion­cam so it is fairly sim­ple in terms of its ca­pa­bil­i­ties with a fixed-fo­cus lens, auto ex­po­sure con­trol and auto white bal­ance cor­rec­tion. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, the lens is usu­ally an ul­tra-wide or even a fish-eye.

The lat­est camera drones are ca­pa­ble of record­ing 4K res­o­lu­tion video (all can do Full HD) while still images are gen­er­ally cap­tured at res­o­lu­tions of be­tween ten and 14 megapixels. For many users this will be all the im­age qual­ity they need, but the next step up is a drone fit­ted with its own camera unit, but which al­lows for in­ter­chang­ing of lenses with the most com­monly-used fit­ting be­ing Mi­cro Four Thirds. An ex­am­ple here is DJI’s Inspire 1 Pro which has fea­tures such as a 360-de­gree pan­ning gim­bal – so the camera can be moved in­de­pen­dently – and a de­sign which po­si­tions the camera so the ro­tors are out of shot. How­ever, it’s a big­ger, heav­ier and more ex­pen­sive ma­chine, and weight is the de­cid­ing fac­tor in how a drone can be op­er­ated in Aus­tralia.

Fly­ing Times

As from the end of Septem­ber this year new reg­u­la­tions come into force lo­cally, re­gard­ing the op­er­a­tion and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of drones or, as they are now to be of­fi­cially termed, Re­motely Pi­loted Air­craft (RPA). Very small RPAs – specif­i­cally those that weigh un­der two kilo­grams – do not re­quire any cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, but there are con­di­tions re­gard­ing where and when they can be flown. What’s al­low­able is as fol­lows: • within vis­ual line of sigh; • be­low 400 feet AGL (above

ground level); • dur­ing day­light hours; and • more than 30 me­tres away from any­body who is not di­rectly as­so­ci­ated with the drone’s op­er­a­tion.

The height lim­i­ta­tion trans­lates into just un­der 122 me­tres – the avi­a­tion in­dus­try still uses feet to mea­sure al­ti­tude – and the 30 me­tres min­i­mum dis­tance from peo­ple also ap­plies to any­body be­ing filmed by the drone as they are also con­sid­ered not to be di­rectly as­so­ci­ated with its op­er­a­tion.

The main re­stric­tions cover­ing small drone op­er­a­tions are ob­vi­ously mostly re­lated to public safety and these mean no fly­ing in the fol­low­ing sit­u­a­tions or con­di­tions: • over a pop­u­lous area • with three nau­ti­cal miles of the move­ment area of a con­trolled aero­drome • in a pro­hib­ited area • in a re­stricted area that is clas­si­fied as RA3 • in a re­stricted area that is clas­si­fied as RA2 or RA1 oth­er­wise than in ac­cor­dance with reg­u­la­tion 101.065 • Over an area where a fire, po­lice or other public safety or emer­gency op­er­a­tion is be­ing con­ducted with­out the ap­proval of a per­son in charge of the op­er­a­tion A “pop­u­lous area” is con­sid­ered to be any lo­ca­tion where there’s a high risk that the crash of a drone could cause per­sonal in­jury or dam­age to prop­erty. This would ob­vi­ously in­clude any event were a large group of peo­ple are gath­ered. The var­i­ous ‘RA’ re­stricted des­ig­na­tions cov­ered types of airspace, in­clud­ing over radar sites and mil­i­tary fir­ing ranges. A “pro­hib­ited area” would, log­i­cally, in­clude some­where like a prison. Most of Aus­tralia’s ma­jor air­ports ac­tu­ally have con­trolled airspace ar­eas which ex­ceed the three nau­ti­cal mile limit stip­u­lated here (roughly 5.5 kilo­me­tres), but this far out very few air­craft are likely to be fly­ing at be­low 400 feet. The key here is un­doubt­edly to use com­mon sense which means steer­ing well clear of any other fly­ing ac­tiv­i­ties; in­clud­ing bal­loon­ing, hang-gliding and parachut­ing (un­less you’re in­volved and ev­ery­body knows what you’re do­ing), and avoid­ing op­er­at­ing in ar­eas where some­body could get hurt if some­thing goes wrong. It’s worth not­ing here that a quad­copter needs all four en­gines op­er­at­ing to stay aloft so, if one fails, it will crash. For this rea­son, the big­ger drones de­signed for com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions of­ten have ei­ther six or eight en­gines as they can con­tinue fly­ing if one fails (also im­por­tant if it’s ac­tu­ally car­ry­ing a very ex­pen­sive pro cinema camera). A sig­nif­i­cant change in the Aus­tralian reg­u­la­tions is that these smaller drones can now be used for com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties with­out cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­vided all the re­stric­tions im­posed on re­cre­ational users are ob­served. This means that you can now sell your drone footage or images with­out con­tra­ven­ing the flight reg­u­la­tions. How­ever, pri­vacy is­sues are ar­guably the most con­tentious in terms of camera drones over­fly­ing pri­vate prop­er­ties, so even when you’re op­er­at­ing in public spa­ces, you should still avoid be­ing too in­tru­sive. Again, use com­mon sense here.

Stay­ing Air­borne

If you in­tend to fly a big­ger (i.e. heav­ier) drone or want to op­er­ate out­side the sub-2.0-kilo­gram re­stric­tions then you will need to ob­tain a Re­mote Pi­lot Li­cence – Level 1 (RPL-1) which is is­sued by CASA (Civil Avi­a­tion Safety Author­ity) and re­quires that you demon­strate com­pe­tency as a con­troller – var­i­ous train­ing fa­cil­i­ties are now op­er­at­ing – and also un­der­stand ba­sic aero­nau­ti­cal knowl­edge such as me­te­o­rol­ogy and nav­i­ga­tion.

You will al­most cer­tainly ex­ceed the two-kilo­gram weight lim­ited for what CASA is now call­ing ‘ex­cluded air­craft’ in the RPA clas­si­fi­ca­tion if you opt for a drone which can carry a sep­a­rate camera such as a D-SLR or video

Drones are be­ing used for a va­ri­ety of com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing sports cov­er­age and anal­y­sis.

DJI’s Phantom 4 camera drone has a se­ries of built-in video cam­eras – two can be seen set into the front land­ing legs – which en­able col­li­sion avoid­ance and track­ing around ob­sta­cles.

The ba­sic flight con­trols for a drone com­prise a pair of joy­sticks. The Sky­con­troller unit for fly­ing Parrot’s Bebop drones al­lows for a smart­phone or tablet to be fit­ted to view First Per­son View (FPV) footage.

The lat­est tech­nolo­gies al­low for a drone to be pro­grammed to fol­low a pre­de­fined sub­ject… and avoid ob­sta­cles. This is an il­lus­tra­tion for DJI’s ‘In­tel­li­gent Flight Mode’ fea­ture.

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