The ProAm USA Autopilot is a compact, lightweight camera stabilizer designed to eliminate unwanted camera movement with a minimum of mechanical intervention. It provides free-floating camera movement that rivals the performance of more complicated and expensive camera stabilizing devices.
The Autopilot is manufactured to demanding specifications to achieve effective handheld camera stabilization with a minimal number of moving parts, making it lightweight, compact and easy to operate. It consists of a handgrip and a two-part telescoping pole made of sturdy, lightweight aluminum. Its main column extends from 14.5 inches to 22.5 inches. The unit weighs 4.6 pounds, maximum payload is 8 pounds, and it can fit easily into a backpack or utility case.
The source of Autopilot’s power lies in the three virtually frictionless socket bearings that connect the unit’s handle to its pole. When the Autopilot rig is calibrated to the weight of the camera, the bearings work with the shock-absorbing properties of the human arm to mitigate vertical and horizontal shock. The resulting effect is footage shot by a camera that appears to float through space. The device also effectively steadies still shots. The Autopilot is designed for cameras weighing up to 8 pounds, so DSLRs and small- to medium-sized camcorders are ideal candidates for the Autopilot.
The camera is mounted on the top plate with a standard camera threaded bolt. There are four bolts beneath the plate that can be turned by hand, allowing the camera plate to be repositioned for optimum balance.
The key to getting good results from the Autopilot is to balance the camera to the counterweights on the bottom of the column. The Autopilot comes with eight metal plates that mount on the bottom of the pole. Each plate weighs 0.25 pounds, providing up to 2 pounds of total counterweight. Adjusting the length of the pole and setting the bottom counterweights enables you to achieve the right balance for different cameras.
There’s a standard series of steps to balance a camera with precision. ProAm USA provides a video on their web site that demonstrates the procedure.
Once the camera has been mounted and the Autopilot balanced, operating the unit is very easy. You simply hold the handle in one hand and use your other hand to gently guide the camera. The counterweights and the three-axis gimbal bearing take care of the rest.
I tested the Autopilot with two cameras: JVC’s compact handheld GY-HM150U camcorder and Canon’s EOS Rebel T2i DSLR. The JVC unit, designed for ENG work, weighs 3.1 pounds with battery, microphone and memory cards. Canon’s DSLR, popular for documentary shoots and independent productions, weighs about 1.2 pounds with battery and memory card, more with lens.
There is a two-step procedure to balance the camera, detailed in the tutorial video online. First, the camera has to be centered so that it remains level on front-back and left-right planes. The second step is to determine whether there is enough counterweight, which is accomplished by placing the Autopilot column in a horizontal position (raising the counterweight platform) and measuring the time it takes to return to its natural vertical position underneath the camera. The goal is to change the length of the column until this action takes about two seconds.
It may take you some time to get it right when executing this process for the first time. The trickiest part is moving the camera plate precisely (left-right, front-back) so that the camera is perfectly level when you hold the Autopilot by the handgrip. I found the balance so sensitive that just flipping out the camera’s LCD screen would destabilize the rig.
I was frustrated in my attempt until I discovered a shortcut in the instructions. By slightly loosening and changing the angle of the counterweight plates on the bottom of the column, you can fine-tune the camera balance quickly and easily.
The second part of the balancing process went faster, as adjusting the length of the telescoping column is quite easy.
Once I’d balanced the JVC camera on the stabilizer, using it was simple. I held the Autopilot by the handgrip in my right hand, and used my left thumb and forefinger to gently point the camera in the desired direction. The Autopilot adds very little weight to the camera, so I found it easy to hold the rig for long periods of time without strain.
Balancing the Canon T2i DSLR was just about as easy as mounting the small camcorder. I used the T2i with two different lenses: a 50mm prime and a 20mm wide-angle prime. Even with these relatively heavy lenses, the total weight remained less than 2.5 pounds, which is well below the Autopilot’s 8-pound maximum capacity.
I balanced the Canon with the 50mm lens first, which took me about 10 minutes. While configuring the camera rig was easy, shooting with a 50mm while walking down a hallway was not. A 50mm lens is not really appropriate for this type of camera work: the magnification is too high, resulting in exaggerated motion, and the depth of field is far too shallow, making it impossible to keep a range of objects in focus while moving. It could work for a very specific shot that is well rehearsed but not for spontaneous action.
The 20mm lens was a better choice, and rebalancing for the new lens was not a challenge. I shot some footage while walking down a stairway, down a long hallway and around several corners. When I reviewed the footage, it was remarkably smooth. There was no sign of the shock generated by walking the stairs or through the hallway. I had successfully achieved the vaunted “floating camera” effect. It’s actually difficult to believe that a device with such a simple design could yield such stunning results.
The ProAm Autopilot is a simple, yet finely engineered device that enables smooth camera motion for handheld shots. It’s ideal for DSLR cameras and small- to medium-sized camcorders, and its minimal size and weight make it particularly useful for mobile production.
Product:ProAm USA Autopilot
Pros: Small, lightweight, effective and inexpensive.
Cons: Limited to small to mid-sized camcorders. Not designed for stabilizing highly turbulent motion.
Bottom Line: This is a very inexpensive solution to camera stabilization, and its compact size makes it ideal for documentary, news and small-scale dramatic productions.