​UAVs: Production Advice Before You Fly

With the number of drone-related incidents rising in Europe and the U.S and with the U.S authorities set to tighten regulations by imposing a register for all UAV owners, the professional UAV filmmaking industry is alive to the concerns. Keen to help producers with advice on finding and working with a UAV partner, Eric Bergez, VP at Intuitive Aerial the Swedish manufacturer of the Aerigon drone has provided this core guidance.

BroadcastBridge: What key advice would you give to a producer looking for a UAV service?

Eric Bergez: I would tell producers to do their research and that they no longer need to settle for home-built hobby kits, aka Frankendrones. There is a system designed for cinema and broadcast productions, where the safety of the talent and crew are engineered into the aircraft and the stability of its gimbal delivers images they can use.

There are four things one needs to look at when considering an aerial camera platform. Can it lift the camera gear that they need to shoot with without compromise? That is, can it support full FIZ (focus, iris, zoom) control or at a minimum iris and focus? Can it fly the camera in position so they can get the shot they want? Can the aircraft deliver a shot they can use? Finally, can it safely return their expensive camera equipment home safely without damage?

Thus, the most important things to consider are performance, reliability, and safety. You want to know what experience the camera operator has. Do they provide a professional cinematographer? How much experience does the pilot have? What type of training does their pilot? What compromises is a producer making in safety or image quality when they decide to use a less expensive system or service provider?

Then you'll need to ask questions about the camera equipment you want to use. Can the UAV operate your equipment, considering its weight, and can it adjust settings remotely? How long do you need to be in the air at a time? This is a function of battery life. What is the productions cost in liability when using a Frankendrone vs a professional aircraft?

BroadcastBridge: What type of rigs are required?

EB: Let's exclude toys and hobby kits and only compare professional systems designed for cinema and broadcast. If all things are equal about performance between competing UAVs, I would say, it comes down to which one is the safest both for the cast and crew and for the equipment. The aircraft should be Type Certified and have built-in redundancy. The UAV should be engineered to avoid damaging the equipment during routine takeoffs and landings. I would suggest looking at the legs of the gimbal to ensure they are protecting expensive payloads from a crashes and asking the supplier about the history of their recorded incidents.

Modularity of the UAV is important too. Are the arms interchangeable? This is important because, if a rotor or an arm malfunctions during production, repairs can be quick and downtime is limited. How quickly can the aircraft be reconfigured and redeployed? Production can often be akin to combat - quick, fast, and precise is often the difference between getting the shot and crashing into the ground.

BroadcastBridge: Type of camera is required?

EB: That depends on the project. For feature film and broadcast, you can’t rely on a DSLR or a GoPro. It’s advantageous to choose a UAV that can safely fly high-end Hollywood production cameras: RED Epic, RED Dragon, Canon EOS, Alexa Mini, and even the Phantom Flex4K for really high frame rate footage. These cameras – and, just as importantly, the lenses that you choose to use with them – are heavy and expensive. You want to be sure the UAV that’s flying them can handle the weight, is reliable, and has a good safety track record.

Not only is it important to ensure that the camera and lens are protected, but time in the air is expensive and you want to make the most of it. This makes good communication between the ground and the UAV, its gimbal, and the camera equipment essential. You want a gimbal controller that allows your aerial cinematographer to manipulate FIZ (focus, iris, zoom) controls from the ground. Setting up a camera only moments before launching is a crapshoot; what if conditions change while it’s in the air? What if the sun is obscured by cloud cover partway through a shoot? You want to be able to change settings on the fly and give yourself options while in the air.

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