May 15, 2018

When is a drone not a drone?!

There are those who would say a drone is always a drone, but in my opinion, if it isn’t flying then it's not doing what a drone should do.

DJI has developed and built an amazing array of aerial technologies for cinematographers to fly while at the same time they have developed spectacular cameras for these drones to carry. It seems rather shortsighted not to use these incredible cameras simply because the drone is not being flown.

drone flying over woodland, mountains in background

Recently we took the propellers off a DJI Phantom 4 pro, stuck it through the window of a car, secured the Phantom rig with safety tethers, held the rig by hand, and managed to get some fantastic, high-quality footage from its camera as we drove around the City of Dundee. Shots that, legally, may never have been flown.

Another occasion was a marketing company's request for high-quality stills showing the views of Edinburgh Castle from one of their city centre properties on George Street.  Sounds like a job for a drone but the challenges of the shoot lay in the fact that the location property was in the centre of Edinburgh. Interior work going on meant no access to the building's windows to shoot through and the client wanted high quality, printable views of Edinburgh Castle as seen from the varying heights of the six floors of the building involved.

A simple job that almost any drone could execute quickly and effectively. The drone would provide the remote camera control, stabilized pictures, and wireless viewing on the ground of the pictures being taken and most importantly a drone could be flown quickly and accurately to the various floor heights from which we wanted to take our pictures.

However, following an on-site visit, it was clearly evident that the location of the building meant that it would have been totally illegal and unsafe to fly a drone. So, we just had to come up with another feasible way of doing things while still taking advantage of everything else the drone and its camera proposition offered.

We decide to use our Inspire1 with its X5R camera as it provided solutions to most of the challenges we were facing. But in order to use the drone, but not as a drone, we had to come up with a way of getting the Inspire 1 up and down the exterior of the building safely, without flying it and taking our shots as we went along. The following is a brief step-by-step for what we came up with:

1. Take the props off the Inspire 1

2. Create a hanging harness to carry the Inspire 1

3. Put a secured jib arm on top of the building involved

4. Purchase lots of mountaineering ropes and belays

5. Feed this rope from the top of the building to the ground via a pulley system mounted on the head of the Jib

6. Connect the Inspire 1 hanging harness to the rope with more belays

7. From the top of the building, using the rope - pull the Inspire 1 up to the heights required

8. Take your picture when at the correct height

9. Repeat at the next height and so on until all shots have been acquired

10. Lower the Inspire 1 hanging harness back to the ground

11. Deliver shots to the client


This is a brief summary of our solution and I will not bore you with the in-depth details of our particular solution as there were many. Things I have assumed that any reader of this article should understand would require attention before executing this particular solution - hazard assessments, weight loading of ropes, breaking strains of belay fittings, communications at a distance, personnel involved, traffic control, anchoring points, overall health and safety…it is an unfinished and lengthy list.

The point I am trying to make is that when you look at a drone you should think of it as two parts: one - a flying platform, the other - simply a camera. Once the propellers are off the flying rig it can be held, mounted, or placed almost anywhere you would a traditional video camera. These cameras and lenses are expensive, so come on guys and gals let's make the most of them!


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