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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!

Things to Know About Your LiPo

Before we move on, let’s revisit the LiPo battery and acknowledge some very important facts. These batteries are very susceptible to heat and improper charging and discharging. It’s important to never charge or discharge your battery without being physically present. I know that can be inconvenient at times, but the alternative is potentially devastating. Use only the manufacture-recommended charger and cables, and follow the directions precisely. If you’re using a generic LiPo charger, make certain it is set for the correct voltage and amperage. Avoid charging over 4.2 V per cell or discharging less than 3 V per cell.

When traveling by air with your LiPos, be certain that they have been discharged (either through flying or a charger) to about a 50% charge level. When traveling, never want to check your batteries in with your baggage; always carry them on-board with you. The TSA has set guidelines on its website for traveling with batteries.

Drone-Mounted Camera Basics

Now that you have your drone flying and you’ve honed your basic flight skills to the point where you are comfortable flying with and without the advanced flight control features, you can start thinking about strapping your camera to the drone. But first it’s important to understand that you will see an entirely new world through the lens of your airborne camera, a world that often may persuade you to throw caution to the winds. Not only are you sharing the skies with thousands of aircraft carrying people, but you’ll also be operating near persons and property on the ground.

There are many factors to consider when launching a flying machine into the sky. For instance, you need to know and follow the established guidelines for drone operation. For example, the FAA and AMA agree that model aircraft should remain less than 400 feet above the ground, which is roughly the height of a 40-story building. While the temptation is great to fly your new drone and camera out as far as you can to peek over the horizon, you should fly your drone no further away from you than you can see it with your unaided eyesight (or through your corrective lenses).

Model aircraft should fly no higher than 400 feet above the ground, and no further away than you can see them with your eyes.

If you’re planning to fly within 5 miles of an airport, notify the relevant authorities that you will be operating a model airplane so that they can issue notices to manned aircraft navigating the area. The sky is divided into many different pieces that we refer to as classes, each with its own set of operating requirements and protocol. Class B airspace is that airspace surrounding the largest and busiest airports, while class C and D encompass the smaller airports. Class G airspace is designated as uncontrolled airspace and is pretty much where you should be flying unless you have special permission. It’s incumbent upon the drone pilot to be familiar with the boundaries of these airspace types and avoid those in which sUA operations are not permitted.

A detailed explanation of airspace is beyond the scope of this article, but is discussed in my workshops and by others who are providing education to aspiring pilots of small unmanned aircraft. As I did some four decades ago, I urge you to join the AMA and find an experienced local club member to mentor with until you are intimately familiar with the safe operating practices of your drone. The AMA will provide you with necessary information about the locations of flight-restricted zones and temporary flight-restriction areas (FRZ and TFR) so that you don’t stray into areas (such as the White House lawn) where it’s a federal or local offense to fly. Armed with your pilot skills, best practices for flight, and knowledge of the airspace you’re going to operate within, you’re ready to get that camera airborne.

Mounting, Balancing, and Stabilizing Your Camera

Earlier, I mentioned that the weight of the drone (including the camera and gimbal) directly affects the flying time you have available and the performance of your aircraft. There are all sorts of consumer-type drones on the market that come with a built-in HD camera. Professional video producers understand that these cameras are probably not going to meet their requirements.

The GoPro Hero became a popular choice among aerial videographers due to its relatively high-quality image and light weight. Depending on the useful load (the weight your drone can carry as specified by the manufacturer) of your aircraft, you may find that you’re able to carry a much larger-format camera such as a DSLR and even a RED Epic.

Whatever the weight of your camera, you’ll need to have some sort of camera-mounting device with stabilization features to ensure that your camera captures butter-smooth footage while the copter is being thrashed around in the wind. The 3-axis brushless gimbal has become the standard device for stabilizing cameras in flight. It incorporates much of the same technology found in the flight controller. Tiny electronic sensors pass signals to a controller that then passes signals to brushless motors to make an instantaneous adjustment in the gimbal’s pan, tilt, or roll axes in order to keep the camera stable. Much like earth-bound camera stabilizers, the secret to effective stabilization is balancing the camera properly on the gimbal.

Single- and Dual-Operator Flight

There are typically two configurations for operating the camera. The first configuration involves only the pilot, who doubles as camera operator. In this configuration, it’s not uncommon for pilots to use the GPS/compass features of the drone to hold it in position so that they can divert attention to framing the shot or evaluating the upcoming run. The single pilot can usually control the tilt of the camera by a dial or knob on the radio transmitter. The panning of the camera is accomplished by yawing the drone left or right as desired. Some of the latest camera gimbal technology will allow you to pan the camera from the transmitter, but unless you’re an octopus, you’ll find it difficult to smoothly coordinate compound gimbal movements simultaneously while flying the drone.

The second configuration involves a second operator with an additional radio transmitter that talks only to the gimbal. This “gimbal pilot” will initiate compound movements of the camera over multiple axes at the same time, while the drone pilot concentrates solely on flying. Clearly, this 2-person operation has lots of advantages over single-pilot operation when it comes to capturing complex movements. With a 2-person crew, both the pilot and the camera operator need to know the planned flight path for a particular shot. They need a common language of commands, as at times when the drone is flying forward and the camera is pointed off in a different direction, the command to go left from the camera operator may not yield the desired movement from the pilot.

The new DJI Quad, currently the hottest drone in the video world, with dual-operator capability and a small camera

Dual-operator teams can be expensive and may not be in the budget. Additionally, if you’re shooting on a set where only union camera operators are allowed, you may run into an issue where your teammate can’t join you and your only choice is to use a union camera operator who’s not familiar with your operation. If this is the case, you need to devote extra time to preflight planning to make sure that you and your new camera operator have consensus and similar expectations.

Video Downlink

On the ground, we’re able to see what our drone-mounted cameras see through the magic of FM radio transmissions and digital WiFi. The video downlink is delivered via one of these two technologies, and it may or may not require an FCC license, depending on the frequency and power output of your video transmitter. Several manufacturers are producing digital video systems that have very low-latency HD picture quality, providing you and your clients with clarity unmatched by analog systems.

The DJI LightBridge, which uses digital WiFi for HD video downlink

There are many combinations of HD-to-analog converters, analog video transmitters, onscreen displays, receivers, and antennas in use, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Some of these combinations are borderline plug-and-play, while others are quite involved and may require basic-to-intermediate operational skills and knowledge of electronics.

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