With the pandemic wreaking havoc amongst the creative industries, we wanted to show our support by promoting some of our friends and partners in this series of interviews. Enjoy!
(All images © the person/organisation featured in the article.)
Using Drone footage in Videos
Aerial footage within videos has become a common type of shot included in lots of different types of video project, from advertising content to nature documentaries. But why did it recently become popular?
For years the only method of capturing aerial footage was to send a camera up on a plane or helicopter, held by the operator, so the footage was generally a bit unstable and was extremely costly to produce. The practicalities of its production meant it was good for a long sweeping shot at the beginning of a film to set the location or show off the surroundings, but it wasn’t a great format for close-up shots of presenters or items as the downwash of the helicopter blades would blow the set everywhere, or the speed of a passing plane meant you had a small window to get it right.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been around in a military context for decades, the first being a camera sent up on a kite to capture enemy positions during the Spanish-American war in 1898. They became weaponised during WW2 in the form of the V1 and V2 bombs created by the Nazis, and throughout the following conflicts they were improved upon until we have the current UAV’s being flown remotely from 1000’s of miles away in all modern warzones. Now in the US Military there are more UAV pilots being trained than all other types of aircraft combined.
As with all new military technology, it begins to transfer into the civilian consumer market. The very first drones were kit built and hard to get airborne, residing firmly in the realm of the enthusiast. That was until 2010 when Parrot released the first “ready to fly” drone which could literally be bought, taken home, and flown without having to build or program anything. The reason for this jump happening then was the leap forward in battery technology that had been driven by the mobile device market.
Lithium Polymer, or LiPo, batteries are designed to supply a constant level of current for at least 90% of their discharge time, compared to the old style of Alkaline batteries that had been available previously which would start initially at 100% but would reduce the level of current steadily during their discharge. Consider a torch with a new set of Alkaline batteries, very bright to begin with but steadily gets more and more dull throughout the use until the batteries are changed. A torch with LiPo batteries keeps its initial level of brightness until a dramatic reduction in the last few % of the battery charge.
This technological leap enabled drone manufactures to have a solid, reliable, power source to allow a constant current, meaning that they could predict the flight time of a drone. Where Parrot were the first to market, it was a Chinese company called DJI that really took the drone market to the next level with the Phantom first sold in 2014. The drones they produce have become the benchmark of the industry, feature the very latest technology, and they continue to release new products as the industry matures.
Their flagship product for the video and TV industry was the Inspire 2 which was released in 2016, a quadcopter with interchangeable cameras and lenses, all mounted on a gimbal meaning very smooth footage captured by cinema quality sensors. For the vast majority of aerial footage seen in the last 4 years, it’s highly likely it was captured by this drone.
Weighing just under 3.5kg, able to fly for 27 minutes on one set of batteries, and a top speed of 53mph, it really was a game-changer and is still the most requested drone by production companies! Able to carry different cameras it can produce up to 6K footage at 60fps, using the equivalent of a Super 35 sensor. Not only does it boast very high quality specifications, it was also designed to look sleek and stylish, not like the quadcopters that had preceded it which looked more industrial and bulky. Having a swept, streamlined body, and transforming arms that lift once airborne, the Inspire 2 looks great, produces fantastic footage, and is the first choice for most production companies.
There have since been more models produced that have all of the same capabilities of the Inspire 2, but in a smaller, lighter, body. The latest Mavic drone, the Mavic 2 Pro, is quickly becoming a favourite amongst pilots, offering close to the same level of footage quality in a smaller and cheaper drone. DJI are constantly releasing new and more powerful aircraft, and designing them for specific purposes. The very latest drone from them, the M300, is built with industrial inspection in mind, and excels at capturing and analysing pylons, bridges, and similar structures. The pilot is able to conduct one inspection on one pylon, then the onboard AI will shadow what they did and repeat on the rest of the items to be checked automatically, ensuring safety with obstacle avoidance, airspace monitoring, and automatic landing in case of emergency.
Of course as new technology is created and released to the public, there follows legislation to ensure they are used responsibly and safely. The Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA) included drones into the Air Navigation Order, the legislation that governs all aircraft in UK airspace, in 2016. And since then the regulations have changed very regularly as the technology advances and events occur. Where drones had been a relatively unknown entity in the UK, that changed in December 2018 where a drone was used nefariously around Gatwick airport, causing the entire airport to grind to a halt.
The incident affected over 140,000 passengers on around a 1000 flights at one of the busiest times of year for the travel industry, with an estimated overall cost of £50m. The culprits are still not caught and there is still a £50,000 reward for information leading to their arrest. Changes were made immediately after the incident to mitigate against drone disruption around UK airports, with a reported £20m spent on drone defence technology, and an implementation of 5km restriction zones around any airport in the country.
It was clear to the police who investigated the incident that whoever was responsible was doing it intentionally. It was not a case of hobby pilot in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was a coordinated attack by some well-informed people intending to cause as much disruption as possible. However, it did show that any drone pilot could become entangled in the middle of a national crisis if a drone is used irresponsibly or ignorantly, and with the police becoming very aware of the legalities around drone use, it’s more important than ever to ensure that any drone flight is carried out by a responsible person who will make sure it is flown safely and within the allowed limits.
Since November 2019 anyone flying a drone in the UK must pass a basic knowledge test online. This gives you a flyer ID and is aimed at the hobby pilot who flies in large open spaces away from the public. The footage and photos gained from this type of user can be used for personal uses. As soon as you go above that level, for example recording footage to be included in a paid video project, you need to gain a permission to operate from the CAA to carry out drone operations. You gain permission by attending a course from a recognised training provider, which entails ground school, which covers the basics of aviation, passing a flight assessment, and producing a set of documentation which states how you will plan your flights and operate your drone. Like most industries it is lead with safety at the forefront, and is heavily based in risk assessment and pre-planning. As the flight becomes more complex, such as flying in a city centre location, close to areas where people will be, then the level of planning and risk assessment rises.
Of course the more straight forward way to gain footage for your video project is to employ an approved drone pilot. There is a section on the CAA website which lists companies and pilots who can provide this service, and using one of the operators from that list ensures they are approved and allowed to fly, have experience in carrying out flights, and are insured in case something does go wrong. There is an increasing amount of property videos appearing on estate agent websites to promote their properties for sale, and curiously not many estate agents appear on the CAA list!
By using an approved pilot you get the footage you want, without the worries of the potential legal or operational pitfalls. There are plenty of hobby pilots who offer their services on social media, I’ve even seen one of them state “rules are made to be broken”! You probably wouldn’t employ a gas engineer to change your boiler who didn’t have their CORGI accreditation, so why use a drone pilot who is not approved?
To make sure you are working safely, legally, and hassle free, use an approved pilot to attain your aerial shots!
Check out some of Quinton's work linked below:
Edited by Esme Johnson.