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
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.
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.
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.