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How to Shoot Aerial Video Using Drones and Quadcopters
Ready to get a bird's-eye view with an airborne camera? Here is a list of drone dos and don'ts from an experienced aerial videographer.

Do you know why drones and low-cost quadcopters have become so common in the past couple of years? A clue: it has nothing to do with video, but just about everything to do with the internet.

Give up?

It has everything to do with smartphone innovation: single-chip accelerometers and GPS systems have decreased in price and increased in number. It is the accelerometer that allows quadcopters to self-level, while GPS makes them programmable and controllable. Now even a blind granny with no sense of direction can guide a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) along a path that previously only a Top Gun pilot could hope to track.

I have been flying remote control gliders and blimps for some years as a hobby, and am fully caught up in the quadcopter buzz—so much so that I am producing www.miniatureairshow.com and leading Team Brighton for www.internationaldroneday.com. While I do own a few small devices, I am reluctant to suggest that aerial video is a good commercial space to venture into. There are many aspects to safe and responsible flying that are easy to forget until you have an accident or wind up in trouble.

There are also many facets to the technology that are worth thinking about, but are often only addressed after the equipment has been purchased. Here is a short list of some key things to think about, research, and ask others about before you simply grab a drone and think you can start streaming.

Do: Understand your local air law.

Each country has a different approach, and regulations are playing catch-up with the explosive trend. The regulations in the U.K., for instance, are relatively straightforward, with a few key parameters:

Don’t fly recklessly (i.e., without insurance). Avoid controlled airspace. Stay more than 50 meters away from people and buildings and 150 meters away from crowds.

Maintain unaided visual contact (a friend can do this if you wear FPV goggles).

Beyond that it all boils down to the insurance and whether you are a hobbyist or a professional flyer:

  • If you fly for money—you need professional insurance. An insurer will require CAA permission to fly, and will accept a BNUC-s certification from Euro USC as proof of pilot competence.
  • If you fly for fun—you still need insurance to avoid “flying recklessly,” so you typically need to join an association such as the British Model Flyer Association or FPVUK.org. Membership in these organizations provides, over and above their networks of aficionado-communities, a significant insurance cover.

The organizations that have any input on regulating the drone market are all broadly supportive of innovation in the space. While it sometimes seems that the negative one-off stories could lead to further deep regulation, at least in the U.K., reckless flyers are seen as uncontrollable fools, and in fact education is generally prioritized as the best approach.

Federal Aviation Association regulations cover flying in the U.S.

Here’s a shot taken from a Fusion glider/sailplane flying outside Brighton, England. 

Don’t: Fly uninsured.

Insurance requirements are at the heart of what most folks talk about when they think they are talking about “regulation.” Most of the time, and contrary to the general impression of the public, each country’s rules typically come down to common sense. The real limitations come when you fly without insurance. Just as if you want to hurl down the highway at high speeds in a heavy four-wheeled vehicle, if you want to fly something with mass and moving parts, you should think about what happens if you have an accident. Unless you can predict that mistake will only involve a broken propeller and not a kid’s eye or a jet liner intake, you face huge payouts, and without insurance that becomes recklessness. More to the point, insurance can be had for a trivial payment and it gives me the confidence to enjoy flying wherever I am. I know the limits of my coverage, which in turn defines where I fly. And I find that more than adequate to absorb me in the hobby.

Do: Decide if you’re a hobbyist or a professional.

Which leads me on neatly to the importance of deciding early on if this is actually a stimulating hobby that excites you, and your work in the streaming media world affords you the capacity to play with these cool machines, or if you actually have real commercial propositions that could best be serviced by using a drone or quadcopter.

Don’t: Go professional unintentionally.

Whatever you do, don’t take a few quid from someone for a few shots of their house unless you have taken out professional insurance. In the U.K., model flyer insurance (for hobbyists) won’t pay out if you were receiving some form of remuneration for the flight at the point of takeoff; in the U.S., regulations are even stricter than they are in the U.K.