Drones in the Boardroom

From Stu Sweetow’s book, Corporate Video Production, Second Edition, Focal Press

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is an 80 year old group of 170,000 model aircraft enthusiasts. Flying a UAV can be an exhilarating but dangerous activity. Your company will appreciate the training and safety-concern you take before takeoff.

Small UAVs frequently are designed around GoPro or Sony ActionCam cameras. The light weight and low cost of these cameras pair well with flying objects. However, if your production requires a heavier camera, such as a DSLR or a Red camera, you can rent or hire a service with a larger UAV. Look for UAVs with such features as altitude-sensing barometers, direction-sensing accelerometers and stabilizing gyros to mount the camera. UAVs have several propellers, so make sure each one has a motor with electronic speed control. If you are mounting a heavier camera, make sure your UAV has a three-axis, brushless gimbal for stabilization, and carefully balance the camera on the mount. Lastly, a flight control system that incorporates GPS and an electronic compass will help the UAV resist winds that want to blow it off course.

This level of automation helps steer the UAV correctly, and it can enable the less-experienced “pilot” to operate the drone and get breathtaking images. However, any one of these automatic functions could fail–mid-flight. That is why it is prudent to get training, seek mentoring with an experienced UAV pilot or consider subcontracting the piloting to a pro. As of this writing, the FAA is still writing the rules and has not issued a “pilot’s license” to fly UAVs. Their Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) currently includes keeping the drone below 400 feet and not within five miles of an airport, keeping the UAV within line of sight, and using aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. Furthermore, to protect privacy, the proposed rules include no operations over persons not directly involved in the operation. As a member of a corporation, you may have further restrictions, based on additional considerations. You also be required to hire a union camera operator.

Some systems allow for a second operator. You could let the pro be the pilot and you could be the co-pilot. Each of you has your own remote transmitter. The pilot could control the gimbal, adjusting the camera over the three axes, and you, as co-pilot, could perform panning, tilting and with the right camera–zooming. This team needs to jointly develop their flight plan and establish a method of communicating to avoid any conflicting maneuvers. For example, if you want to pan right, but the camera is aimed to the rear of the UAV, your partner may misinterpret your command. 

Your system will use either FM radio transmission or WiFi to monitor the image. Some latency could occur between the transmitter and receiver. The transmitted signal is analog, so when considering purchase or rental, look for a low-latency HD-to-analog converter. Since you will be having so much fun flying your camera, you’ll probably spend more time outside than you planned. Bring plenty of batteries, or take along a small portable generator. A production assistant can keep batteries charged, and also keep an eye on possible hazards as onlookers getting too close.

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