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Dawn of the Drone: An Aerial Video and Photo Primer

This article will introduce you to many of the areas that you will need to be versed in to assure safe and proficient operation of your aerial camera platform. Learn what you need to know before you fly, and fly safe!

Trailer: All-Day Aerial Video Workshop with Scott Strimple on May 11 at Streaming Media East in NYC

As a teenager some 40-plus years ago, I went searching for my first radio-controlled (RC) aircraft. As it turned out, cost-of-entry was prohibitive, and I found it virtually impossible to purchase an RC airplane anywhere except at the “local” hobby store—which might be up to 200 miles away. You had to be quite passionate and interested in the hobby of flying model airplanes to cope with the inconveniences and lack of readily available help in that pre-internet age.

Most would-be model aviators who managed to acquire an RC aircraft would seek the tutelage of a local RC club sanctioned by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and spend a great deal of time learning the tricks and techniques of the hobby under the watchful eye of an experienced modeler. For almost 80 years, the AMA has served its membership (now 170,000 and growing) as the official national body for model aviation in the United States. The community standards and the educational network provided by the AMA have been essential to safe operations, helping to avoid interference with manned aviation and escape public scrutiny for decades.

Fast forward to 2015. As model aircraft pilots, we find ourselves at the center of a heated debate among lawmakers, regulators and public interest groups all seeking to control when, where, and how we’re able to fly our model aircraft within the National Airspace System (NAS). It isn’t uncommon to see model aviation in the news on a daily basis with stories revolving around a particular type of RC model known as a multi-rotor copter, affectionately called a “drone” by many in the media. These drones are not well understood, and as such are perceived as a threat to air safety and privacy. The reality is that these small unmanned aircraft (sUA) are, in most cases, the result of a normal progression of technology within the model aviation world.

The DJI Phantom 2, probably the most popular drone in today’s video/photo world

So why are we seeing such attention given to a hobby that has been around for decades and has otherwise flown below the radar? This scrutiny stems from two things: The first, of course, is the irresistible combination of cameras and RC aircraft. But the more fundamental issue is advances in microprocessor technology and Lithium-Polymer batteries that have made it possible to mass-produce model aircraft that novice users can nominally operate without acquiring the traditional skill set once required by a model aircraft pilot to operate safely.

Today, these multi-rotor copters are readily available just about everywhere we look. Hobby stores, online outlets, camera stores, department stores, and gadget kiosks at airports are just a sampling of locations where one might find a drone. One organization, the AUVSI (Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) has forecasted the sales of RC aircraft and related equipment in the U.S. at more than $80 billion through 2025. With retailers around the world claiming that drones were one of the most popular holiday gifts purchased in 2014, it isn’t difficult to comprehend the validity of such a forecast.

Today we’re witnessing the initial start sequence of a giant economic engine spooling up. Drone pilots are no longer a tight-knit community comprised of highly motivated model aircraft enthusiasts, but rather a massive group of inexperienced users entering the world of model aviation with an entirely different agenda. Today’s unbox-and-fly drone users lack their predecessors’ passion for mastering technology and theory, and rarely seek out mentors to ensure a safe and responsible operation; instead, they’re fueled by a desire to use the drone as a tool to take cool pictures and generate income.

Just because a drone owner wants to make money doesn’t mean they don’t care about safety. But the profit motive, in many cases, will easily overshadow the need for education and hands-on training to assure proficiency at a level commensurate with expectations in a commercial venture. The bad news: If you’re not serious about the flying portion of your craft, you’re destined to spend more money in the long run and subject yourself and your business to unnecessary risks.

There are few things cooler than strapping your camera to an aircraft and being able to move it unrestricted through three-dimensional space, and as I’m fond of saying, “There are no short cuts to coolness.” In this article, I’ll introduce you to many of the areas that you will need to be versed in to assure safe and proficient operation of your aerial camera platform.

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