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Making the Most of New UAV Capabilities in Video/Broadcast Production

Now is an ideal time for production crews to start learning about new drone options and to start incorporating them into production plans.

Once only available to those with military-sized budgets, UAVs, or drones, have now become widely available to almost anyone, including paparazzi, hobbyists and even wedding videographers. Drones in the USA are new, and have been a recent news focus because of the quickly-changing regulatory situation. As recently as May 13th, two senators introduced legislation to provide temporary regulations for companies to use drones commercially while awaiting finalized FAA rules. Some other countries have been using commercial drones longer, and for very practical purposes – crop-dusting UAVs have been used in Japan for over 20 years, and now tend more than 40% of their national rice crop.

Despite uncertain regulation, drone makers are moving briskly to deliver improved offerings, and it is now possible for videographers and broadcasters to capture movie- and broadcast-quality HD video shot from drones. Now is an ideal time for production crews to start learning about these new options and to start incorporating them into production plans. It’s an exciting time!

New Enabling Technologies
Three key technology improvement areas are enabling factors for broadcast video use. The first is the capability of drones to carry high-performance and compact HD video cameras. In this area, both sides of the equation are seeing improvements – drones are increasing their capacity with stronger, lighter batteries, motors, and airframes, and high-quality cameras have become smaller and lighter. Today, multi-rotor drones designed for maximizing the payload can carry small cinema-level cameras such as the RED Epic Dragon and Canon EOS C300 Cameras, among others.

The second enabling technology is the availability of light, capable camera gimbal mounts for vibration isolation and camera positioning and control. Today, products are available to mount a wide range of small cameras, ranging from inexpensive isolating mounts to sensitive motorized mounts, from providers including DJI, Tarot, Freefly and others. These are a critical advancement; without them, vibration negatively impacts the footage.

The third critical enabling technology is the wireless link to the camera. Wireless is used to control the drone itself, allowing the pilot to maneuver the drone as needed. But for high-quality video, the camera operator must be able to see exactly what the camera is capturing in real time. New products are available for this purpose, such as the recently introduced CONNEX from Amimon, which transmits full HD video with zero latency.

Before now, video transmitters used digital compression methods and various radio systems to transmit the compressed video stream to the ground. Compressing the video reduces the amount of data that needs to be transmitted, but at the expense of quality and resolution. The compression process itself also adds a tangible delay to the transmission. In contrast, the CONNEX transmitter does not compress the video, transmitting the full video signal with zero latency at distances up to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). CONNEX supports Full-HD 1080p 60 frame-per-second video resolutions across the entire operating range, thus meeting the visual requirements for such a link. Finally, the unit provides an encrypted link, which can be a requirement for professional use. With this real-time video link, videographers can control the camera to capture the intended shots.

Benefits of Latest Drone Technology
Together, these new technical capabilities deliver what you might expect from any emerging technology – cheaper, faster, and better. Quad-rotor drones capable of carrying 3 Kg payloads (almost 7 pounds) are available now for less than five thousand dollars, and eight-rotor models that can carry 6 Kg payloads (over 13 pounds) are available for about twice that price. A new six-rotor model from Freefly is coming soon with a 15 pound capacity at a retail price point of about $8,500. Thus, the purchase price of this equipment is not far from what a rental price of a traditional crane would be, and rentals of the drone and an experienced crew are far below previous budget levels.

Drones can be deployed in minutes – not hours or days – to capture unfolding events for news coverage, or trimming production schedules. As for the video footage, current drones equipped with gimbals provide very smooth stationary shots and tracking or crane shots in any direction – far better than typical hand-held shots except for the most skilled Steadicam operators. And as an added cost- and time-saving bonus, backward tracking shots do not leave footprints or rails in the shot that might have to be cleaned up later in post! So drone-based video truly can deliver faster, better, and cheaper for production use.

Even More Drone Benefits
Faster, better, and cheaper are music to the ears of video producers everywhere, and those benefits alone make a tangible impact. But for digital videographers, perhaps the most interesting benefits are those that now make previously impossible shots possible.

Combination moves: For professional-quality tracking shots, there has really never been any alternative better than using a dolly, supported by rails, for smooth motion. Aerial or crane shots present a similar situation – specialized equipment provided the best results. Traditionally, it has been essentially impossible to capture combinations of these two shot types – in fact, the Wikipedia entry for “Tracking Shot” clearly states that “Tracking shots … cannot include complex pivoting movements, aerial shots or crane shots.” By using a drone, a tracking shot can now make a smooth transition into a crane shot – an action that was not possible before. This is particularly true when used by a camera operator with real-time visibility of the video stream to be able to control the framing and focus of the camera. (If you are thinking, “wait, haven’t I seen that before?” what you saw was not a camera shot – instead, you saw a CG creation that took weeks of expensive post work, and perhaps multiple green screen shots and other efforts, to create.) Drones make this possible in real-time at far less expense.

Over water: In the past, the choice for over-water shots was between some physical support for the camera, such as a pier, boat, or floating platform, or a helicopter, which came with complications including high winds and the resulting movement of hair, water, and water spray in the shot. The relatively small size of modern drones reduces this effect considerably, and brings the additional benefit of combination moves described above. Over-water shots that were previously impossible can now be achieved cost-effectively.

Threading the Needle: Another impossible shot was smooth motion through tight openings, narrow passages, tree branches, and other similar settings. While short movements are achievable using narrow cranes, pole supports, or wires, longer distances or complex movement has not been possible with those techniques. The famous Endor forest scene in “Return of the Jedi” was shot with hand-held cameras in slow motion, then sped up to simulate the chase. Today, that scene could be shot quickly and effectively using a drone, while simultaneously allowing movements that were previously impossible. Having a zero-latency video link is critical for these shots, because any video latency while piloting a drone through narrow pathways or branches increases the chances of what we euphemistically call “an unscheduled landing”.

Looking Forward
As film scholars have noted, new tools themselves do not provide creativity, but they do provide new ways to capture and convey the film maker’s vision and messages. Given these new possibilities that UAVs provide, how will broadcasters and video producers use them to deliver more compelling content? We can all look forward to finding out!

Ram Ofir is CEO of Amimon.