Drone Technology Was Hot At NAB

To say that UAVs have caught the attention of the video production community is an understatement. Not only did this year’s NAB conference showcase at least 24 different manufacturers, distributors, and service providers, but paper sessions and a dedicated Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion grabbed buyers’ attention throughout the show.

First, a brief summary of why there has been a sudden explosion of activity in this product development space.UAV technology – specifically, multi-rotor aircraft – is the direct result of a confluence of the following synergistic technologies:

  • Highly-efficient brushless electric motors
  • Lightweight high-capacity Li-Po batteries
  • Sophisticated electronic speed controls
  • Active stabilization
  • Advanced wireless control
  • Lightweight HD and UHD cameras

The details of these technologies form a topic for a separate article, as is the subject of the evolving FAA regulations concerning UAVs. Suffice to say that, at present, flying a UAV for a commercial purpose, without a flight waiver, is in violation of FAA Regulations, and can result in a stiff fine.

The UAV market can be broadly separated into three main categories: consumers (toys), hobbyists, and professional. Roughly speaking, each of these markets is dominated by small midsize and large aircraft, respectively. The capabilities and features of the UAVs tend to cross each of these categories (a “crossover” machine), but the higher-end machines are usually distinguished by the cost, reliability and support that is available. Most of these UAVs are “quad” platforms that consist of a main structural body held aloft by a motor-and-prop assembly at the end of each of four booms. Variants include 6, 8, and 12-boom models as well.

A number of companies have developed “smart” navigation features that allow even inexperienced pilots to achieve professional-quality results. Another interesting feature is the ability to fly from the aircraft POV (point-of-view, also called FPV or First Person View), a capability that can incorporate the technical and artistic abilities of the pilot.

Many of these companies are new entrants (many from China), essentially startups jumping on the opportunity bandwagon. Presented here is a roundup of the various UAV products seen at NAB, including various gimbals and video links.

3DR Solo

3DR Solo

The 3DR Solo is a crossover UAV with features like push-button flight commands and computer-assisted “smart shots.” Solo is powered by two 1 GHz computers – one each in the aircraft and pilot flight control – and includes several flight technologies and built-in safety and support features. Unique safety features like pause and “safety net” provide fail-safe recovery and flight.A “Follow Me” mode enables Solo to automatically track and film any moving object.

Technologies now under development by the company include LiDAR-stabilized indoor flight, a ballistic parachute system, and flight rewind. Future-proof accessory and gimbal bays provide flexible accessory mounting options. The 3DR Solo lists at $1,399.90 w/ gimbal, $995 w/o, and is slated to ship in late May.

The 3DR X8-M is a large quadcopter platform from for creating high-resolution aerial maps. The platform offers low-flying and high accuracy mapping, with a fully redundant propulsion system for increased reliability. List price is $5400

ACR Systems, ACR the Plus is a small-camera stabilizer system. By removing a top handholding module, the device becomes a gimbal/stabilizer which can be attached to a UAV. ACR The Beast is a large-camera stabilizer using active sensors and brushless motors.

AEE Technology recently introduced the AEE F50, a small drone with a built-in 16MP 1080p60 camera.Additional features include a telemetry “black box,” autopilot, 3D-camera, GPS and Wi-Fi.Flight ceiling is specified at up to 1500 meters (way past legal FAA space!), maximum airspeed of 80km/h (50mph), flight time of 40 min, and all-up weight of 2000g (4.4 lb).

AEE F50

AEE F50

The Aeronavics SkyJib-8 is a heavy lifter capable of flying cameras such as the RED Epic. With a flight time of up to 15 minutes, it has assisted in the making of many films, and has shipped worldwide. The aircraft has a frame diameter of 1160mm, suited for fitting up to 15″ propellers, and is also available in a version with retractable landing gear, the SJR; other units are available, too, including a 4-rotor version suitable for smaller cameras. The company also provides an extensive selection of multi-rotor airframes, parts and accessories for custom-build projects.

Aeronavics SkyJib-8, carrying RED camera and SkyJib-4 in background

Aeronavics SkyJib-8, carrying RED camera and SkyJib-4 in background

Airborne Innovations is a supplier of subminiature HD video, command and control, multi-camera links, multi-megapixel imaging, metadata acquisition and transmission, vehicle/payload computer systems, satcomm imaging systems, and UAV meteorological/icing conditions warning sensors. They are also a provider of custom unmanned vehicle software/payload services, advanced custom imaging solutions, custom applications and flight controls & simulation. UAV products include the RaptorEye and NanoUXV.

ArrowData is an aerospace and data services company that specializes in persistent HD video collection, transmission, analytics, and distribution services, providing live coverage of evolving events. The ArrowData AeroJournalism team is comprised of pilots, technicians, engineers and journalists who have decades of experience operating aerial platforms for data and news content dissemination. 

Blade Camera Drones by Horizon Hobby are small UAVs that incorporate an electronic stability system geared towards beginner and novice pilots.Advanced SAFE (Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope) technology built into the Blade 350 QX3 offers the pilot flight modes that feature self-leveling, by using GPS and altitude sensors to precisely hold position in a hover. SAFE technology will even land the aircraft upon activating a “Return Home” function.

Blade 350QX3 w/ GoPro and 16MP Blade cameras

Blade 350QX3 w/ GoPro and 16MP Blade cameras

By using a “Smart Mode,” the UAV will always fly, with respect to the ground, in whatever direction the control stick is pushed, independent of the aircraft’s orientation with respect to the pilot.There is also a SAFE Circle geo-exclusion feature that prevents the aircraft from flying too close to the pilot. For more experienced pilots, the 350 QX3 can respond to control inputs like a conventional RC aircraft, where the controls steer the aircraft with respect to the vehicle, not with respect to the ground. This gives the pilot more control authority by allowing steeper bank and pitch angles, and by turning off the SAFE Circle.

The 350 QX3 also provides the option of accessing an alternate set of stability and agility flight modes. These flight modes are programmed for experienced pilots who have mastered the basics and are ready for more aggressive response and aerobatic flight. 

Connex / AmiMon Wireless HD Link is a transmission solution that allows professional users to outfit almost any size and shape UAV with long-range full-HD video transmission capabilities at zero latency. Based on a wireless HDMI interface originally developed for the consumer electronics industry, the link provides uncompressed 1080p60 video over a 5GHz digital link at a range of up to 3300’ (1km).

DJI develops high-performance and “easy-to-use” aerial camera systems for recreational and commercial use. DJI technologies that enable high-quality aerial photography and videography include advanced flight stabilization and control, 2-axis and 3-axis camera control using the ZenMuse Z15 gimbal, and video transmission. All-in-one consumer quadcopter solutions like the Phantom 3 can fly and take aerial videos and still images right out of the box, and for hobbyists, ready-to-build kits come with parts and flight controllers. 

DJI Inspire 1

DJI Inspire 1

The Inspire 1 is a crossover unit that uses advanced technologies to support professional aerial photography and videography. When flying, the position of the Inspire 1 is constantly updated and recorded using a high-performance, intelligent GLONASS + GPS system. This dual positioning system is said to enable higher precision and quicker satellite acquisition, allowing pilots to see where the aircraft is on a live map and giving it a point to hover at when releasing the controls. GLONASS offers a higher level of precision by using more satellites.

Custom camera and gimbal on DJI Inspire 1

Custom camera and gimbal on DJI Inspire 1

The Inspire 1 also remembers its takeoff point and dynamically tracks the pilot’s position, returning the Inspire 1 back to the pilot at the press of a button. The DJI flight controller features a caddy that can hold a smartphone or similar FPV display. For industrial and professional applications, a larger Spreading Wings S900 multi-copter the can carry up to a 5kg (11lb) camera.

DJI Spreading Wings S900 Octocopter

DJI Spreading Wings S900 Octocopter

DJI flight controller w/ FPV display caddy

DJI flight controller w/ FPV display caddy

DJI has also announced the new Ronin-M, a professional camera stabilization gimbal. At about half the weight, and in a more compact size, compared with the original Ronin, the Ronin-M puts professional stabilization technology within reach of more users. DJI was founded in 2006, and currently has business, R&D and innovation centers in the United States, Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and Mainland China, with a total workforce of over 1500.

DSLRPros and Tayzu Robotics featured an advanced heavy lift drone, the X8 Titan, which can fly for over 20 minutes at a combined weight of up to 42 pounds. This heavy lifter is able to support large stabilization systems like the DJI Ronin, and film cameras like the RED EPIC. The Titan has a weight of less than 13 pounds, and is said to be “easy to use.” The Titan X8 lists at $9875, with delivery not yet announced.

Titan X8 w/ RED camera

Titan X8 w/ RED camera

RED 6k Dragon camera on DJI gimbal on Titan X8

RED 6k Dragon camera on DJI gimbal on Titan X8

The Tayzu Quadra “waterproof” quad was also shown, as well as a tiltrotor hybrid helicopter/plane that takes off vertically and can then transition into high-speed forward flight. No word on availability of the tiltrotor.

Tayzu Quadra w/ weather-resistant body

Tayzu Quadra w/ weather-resistant body

DSLRpros Tiltrotor Aircraft

DSLRpros Tiltrotor Aircraft

Dynamic Perspective’s DP Copter UAV helicopter systems are small-scale conventional helicopters powered by jet turbines, optimized for precision applications through fully-autonomous, computer assisted or manual flight controls. The systems are able to reach continuous flying times of up to 60 minutes, and are available on a service-booking basis. (These helicopters, with a standard main-rotor/tail-rotor configuration, cannot be flown without extensive experience that surpasses even that required to fly a full-size aircraft.) For Film/TV productions, the system is equipped with a Sony HDC camera and an 18x zoom lens.  An optional HDTV Downlink provides live wireless streaming.  Also available, for purchase, is the Dyna X5 lightweight 5-axis gyro-stabilized camera gimbal.

FlyingPOV showed their xFold RTF-Pro-AP Heavy Lift UAV that can support Red Epic 3D rig, Arri Alexa, and other cameras. Three chassis sizes are available in configurations from Quad X8 (two prop/motors per boom) to Hexa X12.

xFold RTF- Pro AP- Heavy Lift UAV

xFold RTF- Pro AP- Heavy Lift UAV

A 3 axis CF quick-release brushless gimbal with Alexmos 32-bit gimbal controller unit is included, as well as dual 14-ch radios, and a dual FPV setup that provides SD video to the pilot and HD video to the gimbal operator.Flight training is available from the manufacturer. Other units include the Xfold Pro Level Stampede, xFold- Mapper X8, Cinema X8/X12, and Dragon X8/X12.

The Gremsy StabiH14 is one of a series of motor-assisted camera stabilization rigs, suitable for handheld or UAV use.The company is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Fotokite Pro is a tethered flying camera system, designed by a Swiss startup company, that offers reliable and safe flight with a quick setup time. A tether provides a safe, direct way to fly; the visible, load-bearing physical link allows direct visual pilot accountability for bystanders and property owners.Because the tether supplies power from the ground, the Fotokite Pro can fly for several hours. Company personnel believe that, because of the safety afforded by the tether, operation may not require full UAV operator licensing.

The Fotokite requires no active pilot control – it flies like a kite, always with a line attached – but is remotely oriented using a smartphone or tablet.It has no GPS and no RF communications dependency; a live low-latency 1080p60 uncompressed video downlink enables framing and live broadcast over both HDMI and USB 3.0.

Operation is limited to 65ft (20m) in height, so it cannot fly into controlled airspace; the weight and length of the cable is the limitation. At 1.3 lbs (600 g), it has several safety features including emergency landing, tether-cut detection, and propeller-impact detection. Flight is sustained as long as power is provided from the ground: a small backup battery guarantees safe landing under all circumstances.

Early units for the Fotokite Pro will be selling at $10,000 per system, including camera, tablet, and everything needed to fly. Orders taken now will be delivered this summer

Fotokite Pro

Fotokite Pro

The Freefly ALTA is an “easy-to-fly” UAV optimized for up to fifteen-pound payloads. It unpacks and is ready to fly in under five minutes, and can carry RED, ARRI and other professional cameras, guided by a state-of-the-art Synapse Flight Controller. The MōVI M10 is a custom-designed/built brushless-motor stabilization unit that can be handheld or UAV-mounted. FreeFly ALTA retails for $8,495, and is expected to ship June 2015.

Freefly ALTA w/ MoVI camera gimbal

Freefly ALTA w/ MoVI camera gimbal

The Freefly CineStar 8 is an aerial platform that features large payloads and long flight times, and has the ability to go from handheld filming to aerial capture in just a few minutes. The “open architecture” of the CineStar allows for cameras such as the Canon C500 and RED Epic to be flown on the same frame that carries a Canon 5D. 

GDU Aerial Technology is a company that has accumulated years of experience in flight control systems, image stabilization and infrared image technology. The company is focusing on the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, including research & development, manufacturing and the international sales. GDU products are used in aerial photography, mapping, exploration, search and rescue, aerial data processing.

GDU Prototype

GDU Prototype

The Hubsan X4Pro features GPS, automatic return, compass sensor, 40-minute flight time, 3-axis gimbal, built-in 1080p camera, 1000m FPV, ability to traverse a pre-programmed course with waypoints, removable propeller guards, and parachute fail-safe system.

Unique among competitors, the Hubsan X4pro is equipped with a parachute fail-safe system.<br />	<br />

Unique among competitors, the Hubsan X4pro is equipped with a parachute fail-safe system.

iUAS Inc. is the Intelligent Unmanned Aircraft Systems (iUAS) division of Walkera, a Chinese company with R&D and sales offices in Seattle, Washington. The company has been designing and manufacturing components and model aircraft since 1994. They also provide custom re-branding of UAS models for dealers, corporations and government agencies in the North American market.

The company’s latest UAV products include the Voyager 3, QR X350 Premium, Tali H500 Pro USA Edition, and Scout X4 USA Edition, featuring the G-3S Sony Gimbal and Devo F12E FPV 12 channel radio transmitter.

iUAS Inc poduces several models of UAVs,  The eight-motor Tali H500, and the four-blade Tali Voager 3 shown below.

iUAS Inc poduces several models of UAVs, The eight-motor Tali H500, and the four-blade Tali Voager 3 shown below.

Tali Voyager 3<br /><br />

Tali Voyager 3

The Mo-Sys DroneBar is a remote control pan-bar with adjustable fluid feel, giving professional cameramen operating RC UAV camera gimbals a familiar controlling mechanism. The unit connects to most RC camera gimbals, and has an integrated transmitter, so no external transmitter is required. It features a built-in bracket for a monitor and an integrated v-lock battery holder.

Sky High Media is a film company, located in the Bahamas, that uses a line of custom built “Monster” UAVs and handheld Chovi gimbals to provide aerial photos and video. They offer a variety of aerial platforms capable of flying payloads in excess of 75lbs.

Sky High UAV platform  is capable of payloads of more than 75 lbs.<br /><br />

Sky High UAV platform is capable of payloads of more than 75 lbs.

Turbo Ace is a developer and manufacturer of multi-copters and camera stabilization gimbals. Started in 2008 by a team of engineers, mult-icopter pilots and production specialists, the company says it can take products from concept to reality in less than half the time of traditional product development. Products include the Matrix, the company’s flagship unit launched in 2012, and the recently released Infinity-6 hexacopter and Infinity-9 octocopter.

Turbo Ace support also includes wholesale name-brand transmitters, flight controllers and peripherals that are integrated for targeting specific industries including aerial video marketing, long range surveillance, power zoom inspections, military applications, preprogrammed geographic surveys and thermal imaging in agriculture. The company’s 32,000 sq. ft. Orange, California warehouse offers an inventory of parts, components and upgrades.

Meeting the demand for larger DSLR cameras, Turbo Ace dedicated special resources in 2013 to expand their coverage into larger handheld 3-axis brushless gimbals. The handheld gimbals will be integrated on Turbo Ace's Infinity 6 Hexacopter and the Infinity 9 Octocopter for aerial video applications.

According to company materials, the AllSteady-7 was developed in six months, and will be launched the first week of July 2014. Preorders for the first two shipments are sold out, and additional shipments are due mid-July. Designed to compete with UAVs that sell for more than $15,000, the AllSteady-7 is priced from $4,000. To accommodate common DSLR camera users, a smaller AllSteady-5 is also slated to hit the market this summer at about $1,600. 

The Walkera QR X400 is a consumer unit that uses a 6-axis gyro common to larger, professional units. It carries up to 400g loads, and allows use of an optional telemetry control box that indicates the battery level on compatible transmitter display.

The Walkera QR X400 relies on a 6-axis gyro, which is common to larger helicopters.

The Walkera QR X400 relies on a 6-axis gyro, which is common to larger helicopters.

The Walkera Voyager 3 is a unit that evolved from a sport model, and features a dual-navigation system using both GPS and GLONASS for fail-safe operation. A detachable and unrestricted 360° gimbal carries a built-in HD camera or GoPro, and a modular design allows different components to be used. Pilot and camera operator can separately operate the aircraft, using two Walkera F12e radio transmitters or one transmitter and a tablet. An on screen display (OSD) or heads-up display (HUD) can provide telemetry data such as voltages, home direction, compass, altitude, and speed.

The Walkera Voyager 3 is $1999 and is available from Amazon.com.  <br />

The Walkera Voyager 3 is $1999 and is available from Amazon.com.

The from Yuneec Electric Aviation is a complete aerial photography and videography system. The Q500 System includes the aircraft, a 1080P HD camera, a CGO2-GB 3 axis gimbal, the ST10 personal ground station, 2 batteries, a charger and an 8GB micro SD card. The Typhoon Q500+, features a larger 5.5’’ Android transmitter touchscreen and a 3-axis gimbal camera, able to take 16 megapixel still photos and 1920p60 video. The ProAction SteadyGrip extends the use of the gimbal camera from the sky to the ground and, with the CGO APP, whatever is shot can be viewed on a mobile device that can also control the video, start/stop and still photo taking. The Typhoon Q500 has a flight time of up to 25 minutes and retails for $1,299.

Yuneec ST24 Flight Controller

Yuneec ST24 Flight Controller

The Yuneec Tornado H920 is a large multi-rotor that can loft a DSLR camera using a GB603 gimbal. Flight time is specified to be 24min.

Yuneec Tornado H920

Yuneec Tornado H920

Founded in 1999, with over 1800 employees in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Hamburg, Yuneec manufactures over 1 million consumer and professional units per year, sold under the Blade, Parkzone, E-Flite, Firebird, Firebird XL and Q500 brands. The company introduced the hobby industry’s first “Ready to Fly” radio-controlled electric-powered airplane, and designs and manufactures the popular Blade radio-controlled helicopters and micro-copters. The company is also the developer of type-certified one- and two-seat manned electric-powered airplanes.

Zero UAV featured various UAVs, controllers and camera gimbals. The HighOne quad UAV includes a Gemini dual-redundant autopilot with emergency fail-safe operation, manual/automatic safety parachute, and 3rd-generation E1100-V3 brushless gimbal that can support a DSLR. Other features include one-key 360° panorama function, waypoint navigation, tool-free folding arms,retractable landing gear, and a durable travel case.

The NAB conference showed that there are many serious entrants offering industrial-level UAV products. Nonetheless, it’s clear that there are also many competitive units that are essentially expensive toys from the consumer market, with manufacturers and distributors feeling their way into a new market.

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