An Introduction To Camera Drones

an introduction to camera drones

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Are you ready to take to the sky with a flying camera... a.k.a. a drone? This market has expanded very rapidly over the last few years, which has led to technologies that make flying easier (and safer) than ever, and to clearer, simpler regulations for recreational users. It's time to take off!

Aerial photography has always had a long-held attraction - viewing the world from a completely different perspective - but it's been beyond the scope of most amateur photographers because of the costs involved.

Even a cheaper option such as hiring a cherry-picker is still expensive and there are various logistics to consider. Fixed-wing aircraft are the more flexible platform, but the meter starts running the moment the prop is turned. Helicopters?

Forget it unless you have a paying client. Consequently, it's not surprising that camera drones have, literally, taken off as a cost-effective means of shooting either video or stills from the air.

VR goggles add an immersive element to flying a camera drone and use video streaming from the camera (known as First Person View or FPV).

Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs have been around for quite a while, their origins in the military and in surveying - as indeed have remotely-controlled model aircraft - but small and lightweight helicopter-type devices are a more recent phenomenon and growing in popularity all the time.

Various technologies have come together to make it happen, including of course, digital imaging which now makes it possible to build extremely small camera modules that can still deliver high-quality video footage and still pictures.

Advances in battery design (especially weight versus capacity), data storage, WiFi with amplification, fast and powerful microprocessors, composite materials and GPS receivers have all also contributed to the rise and rise of the drone.

Up And Away

There are a variety of types of drone (including racing models), but in this introduction we're concentrating on those specifically designed for taking pictures.

The term "drone" has slipped into general usage - and is also used by the military for their UAVs - but technically speaking, the small low-cost devices you can buy off-the-shelf are multi-rotor helicopters; most commonly quadcopters because they have four rotors (i.e. vertically-orientated propellers) arranged in opposing pairs.

These are driven by electric motors with t wo of the rotors turning clockwise, the other two anti-clockwise to enable a stationary hover.

Parrot Bebop Skycontroller First Person View

Unlike in a conventional helicopter where the main rotor blades are each adjustable in pitch to create lift (while the tail rotor counters the torque) and are all tilted at the hub to determine direction, a drone is flown by varying the speed (i.e. thrust) of each rotor which is a much simpler mechanical arrangement.

An electronic flight controller aboard the drone translates the vertical and horizontal directional commands - input from the ground via a controller - into engine speed adjustments.

A camera drone is generally accepted to have an integrated camera which is mounted on a gimbal arrangement to keep it stabilised. In some models the camera mount allows adjustments for tilt and pan.

The camera unit itself is generally something akin to a video actioncam so it is fairly simple in terms of its capabilities with a fixed-focus lens, auto exposure control and auto white balance correction. For obvious reasons, the lens is usually an ultra-wide or even a fish-eye.

The latest camera drones are capable of recording 4K resolution video (all can do Full HD) while still images are generally captured at resolutions of between ten and 14 megapixels.

DJI's Phantom 4 camera drone has a series of built-in video cameras - two can be seen set into the front landing legs - which enable collision avoidance and tracking around obstacles.

For many users this will be all the image quality they need, but the next step up is a drone fitted with its own camera unit, but which allows for interchanging of lenses with the most commonly-used fitting being Micro Four Thirds.

An example here is DJI's Inspire 1 Pro which has features such as a 360-degree panning gimbal - so the camera can be moved independently - and a design which positions the camera so the rotors are out of shot.

However, it's a bigger, heavier and more expensive machine, and weight is the deciding factor in how a drone can be operated in your country.

Flying Times

As from the end of September this year new regulations come into force locally, regarding the operation and certification of drones or, as they are now to be officially termed, Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

Very small RPAs - specifically those that weigh under two kilograms - do not require any certification, but there are conditions regarding where and when they can be flown.

What's allowable is as follows:

  • within visual line of sigh;

  • below 400 feet AGL (above ground level);

  • during daylight hours; and

  • more than 30 metres away from anybody who is not directly associated with the drone's operation.

The height limitation translates into just under 122 metres - the aviation industry still uses feet to measure altitude - and the 30 metres minimum distance from people also applies to anybody being filmed by the drone as they are also considered not to be directly associated with its operation.

The main restrictions covering small drone operations are obviously mostly related to public safety and these mean no flying in the following situations or conditions:

  • over a populous area

  • with three nautical miles of the movement area of a controlled aerodrome

  • in a prohibited area

  • in a restricted area that is classified as RA3

  • in a restricted area that is classified as RA2 or RA1 otherwise than in accordance with regulation 101.065

  • Over an area where a fire, police or other public safety or emergency operation is being conducted without the approval of a person in charge of the operation.

A "populous area" is considered to be any location where there's a high risk that the crash of a drone could cause personal injury or damage to property.

This would obviously include any event were a large group of people are gathered. The various 'RA' restricted designations covered types of airspace, including over radar sites and military firing ranges.

Drones are being used for a variety of commercial applications, including sports coverage and analysis.

A "prohibited area" would, logically, include somewhere like a prison. Most western countries major airports actually have controlled airspace areas which exceed the three nautical mile limit stipulated here (roughly 5.5 kilometres), but this far out very few aircraft are likely to be flying at below 400 feet.

The key here is undoubtedly to use common sense which means steering well clear of any other flying activities; including ballooning, hang-gliding and parachuting (unless you're involved and everybody knows what you're doing), and avoiding operating in areas where somebody could get hurt if something goes wrong. It's worth noting here that a quadcopter needs all four engines operating to stay aloft so, if one fails, it will crash.

The latest technologies allow for a drone to be programmed to follow a pre-defined subject... and avoid obstacles.This is an illustration for DJI's 'Intelligent Flight Mode' feature.

For this reason, the bigger drones designed for commercial operations often have either six or eight engines as they can continue flying if one fails (also important if it's actually carrying a very expensive pro cinema camera).

A significant change in some countries regulations is that these smaller drones can now be used for commercial activities without certification provided all the restrictions imposed on recreational users are observed. This means that you can now sell your drone footage or images without contravening the flight regulations.

However, privacy issues are arguably the most contentious in terms of camera drones overflying private properties, so even when you're operating in public spaces, you should still avoid being too intrusive. Again, use common sense here.

Staying Airborne

If you intend to fly a bigger (i.e. heavier) drone or want to operate outside the sub-2.0-kilogram restrictions then you will need to obtain a Remote Pilot Licence - Level 1 (RPL1) which is issued by CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) - (USA - FAA Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations - Part 107) and requires that you demonstrate competency as a controller - various training facilities are now operating - and also understand basic aeronautical knowledge such as meteorology and navigation.

The Skycontroller unit for flying Parrot's Bebop drones allows for a smartphone or tablet to be fitted to view First Person View (FPV) footage.

You will almost certainly exceed the two-kilogram weight limited for what CASA is now calling 'excluded aircraft' in the RPA classification if you opt for a drone which can carry a separate camera such as a D-SLR or video camcorder.

However, you're moving into serious territory here and all the associated costs (including certification) increase so most of these machines are being operated commercially for applications such as survey work (power lines, for example), surveillance, sports coverage and film-making.

That said, some smaller drones do allow for small and lightweight actioncams - such as a GoPro - to be fitted instead of the supplied camera.

Not surprisingly, the latest camera drones are packed with clever technology such as sense-and-avoid (SAA) which employs vision sensors - essentially tiny fixed cameras looking in various directions - designed to avoid collisions. DJI's latest Phantom 4 model is a notable example here.

The basic flight controls for a drone comprise a pair of joysticks.

SAA can be set so the drone will simply stop when it encounters an obstacle in its path, or it can be programmed so it will fly around them and keep going.

It's also possible to use this technology for the automatic tracking of a subject so, for example, you could program your drone to follow you as you skied down a snowy slope or mountain-biked along a track... while also avoiding obstacles.

DJI Phantom 4 camera drone built in video camera

It's still early days for these vision systems in recreational drones and they're not totally fool-proof, but most importantly, they'll help avoid silly collisions which could damage or even destroy your drone.

The better-equipped drones have an emergency return-to-home facility which you can activate for recovery if it is accidently flown out of sight and obviously here, obstacle avoidance is very useful.

Some drones have built-in GPS so you can program a flight plan from one location to another (but remember the requirement that a recreational drone should always be kept in sight).

Flying Lessons

Clearly, accurate piloting of your drone is the key to getting the imaging results that you want while also avoiding accidents.

Some models are sold with dedicated transmitter-controllers while others can be operated via a mobile device such as a smartphone or a tablet (many offer both options).

Controller units have the advantage of allowing longer-range operations - via amplified WiFi or dedicated radio frequencies (RF) - and may also include a screen for showing a FPV - First Person View - which is delivered via video streaming from the drone's camera so you can see exactly what it's seeing.

DJI drone intelligent flight mode follow me

The latest development is to use VR (virtual reality) goggles to view the FPV feed which creates a totally immersive experience of flying.

Using a smartphone or tablet means using shorter-range WiFi for communications - so the limit will be around 600 metres versus up to 2000 metres - but the control app will likely also allow for FPV.

Parrot's Bebop 2 has a 14 MP camera - with three-axis stabilisation - set into its nose so the vision is clear of the front rotors. It weighs just 500 grams, has a 25-minute flying time and a top speed of 18 metres-per-second.

Some set-ups combine a controller unit with a smart device so you have physical controls rather than just a touchscreen.

Another recent development is a control app which enables turning or tilting a mobile device to be translated into flight commands.

If you're good at playing joystick-based video games, you probably find flying a drone via a dedicated controller reasonably straightforward as the basic controls comprise a pair of joysticks which are used for adjusting power and changing direction.

The four main control operations are the throttle (i.e. speed), roll (either left or right), pitch (which tilts the drone for either forwards or backwards movement) and yaw (which rotates the drone either clockwise or anti-clockwise to determine direction).

Parrot Bebop 2 14mp camera three axis stabilization

On every controller, the throttle and yaw controls are assigned to the left-hand joystick, the pitch and roll commands to the right joystick.

All clear? Well, there is, not surprisingly, a bit more to it than this, but the good news is now that drones are so popular, flying lessons are available and this might be a good idea if you don't want to crash your shiny new camera drone on its first outing.

Time For Take Off?

Drone photography is clearly an exciting new world of image-making, either stills or video. If you've always been interested in aerial photography, but could never afford the flying hardware, then the camera drone is made for you, but let's not underestimate the fun factor either.

There's now just so much you can do with a camera drone and, what's more, the ever-evolving technologies are making it easier by the minute.

Apply simple common sense to where and how you fly your camera drone and, pun very much intended, the sky is the limit.