Drone technology has revolutionised everything from TV and film cinematography to home delivery, but with new innovation in the field all the time, many people don’t yet really know what drone technology is.
There are actually a few different ways for an aircraft to qualify as a ‘drone’, including if the pilot is on the ground operating it via line of sight, piloting it remotely via a live video link, or even if the aircraft is fully automated with a pre-programmed flight path.
For most civilian purposes, an operator is on the ground and keeps the drone in direct sight at all times, operating it via a handheld remote control.
Because there is never a human pilot on board, you will often see drones referred to as UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, while in America the acronym SUAS, for small unmanned aerial system, is also commonplace.
Drone technology differs slightly between different aircraft, and especially different sizes of craft, but in general drones all contain certain elements.
These include a method of lifting the aircraft off the ground – often a ‘quadcopter’ design with four small sets of helicopter blades – and a way to power them, such as a battery or motor.
An operator on the ground uses a remote control to manoeuvre the drone into the desired position, taking into account any nearby people, trees and buildings, proximity to airports and flight paths, and the altitude of the drone.
Drones are used for a variety of different purposes, but for drone camera shooting, the vehicle is used as a platform for a remote filming rig.
Modern drone technology allows for a wide range of professional HD camera equipment to be mounted on to the vehicle, and this is often operated by a second person on the ground – one to fly the drone, the other to film the footage.
Nimble gimbals allow the camera to rotate along multiple axes, making it much easier to follow along a tracking shot, or for example to tilt the camera to follow the slope of a hillside, while the drone itself continues to fly perfectly upright.
The benefits of drone cinematography deserve their own full article, but briefly, they include relative ease and cost savings compared with hiring a helicopter and pilot, and getting the correct permissions to fly over the area you want to film.
Access is also much easier compared with a crane-mounted tracking shot, as there’s no need for large crane vehicles to reach the location on the ground.
Stability and agility are significant factors too; compared with suspending a camera from a balloon, for example, you have much greater control over both the vehicle and the position of the camera itself.
It’s hard to predict the future of such a rapidly evolving technology, which has only been authorised for filming in Hollywood for the past year or so, and is in its infancy elsewhere in the world as well.
That’s not to say that the basic technology isn’t mature – the spectacular footage seen in cinemas and on television screens is testament to that – but future developments are likely to refine it even further.
We may see improved capabilities for live streaming of HD drone camera footage, for instance, or gesture interfaces rather than the traditional knobs and buttons of a remote control.
Ultimately, drones like other vehicles are moving towards greater autonomy, and this could mean anything from making minor flight adjustments to smooth tracking shots and maintain stability, to completely pre-programmed routes that can be flown again and again with high levels of precision.
If you want high-quality drone camera footage, there are clear benefits to hiring a professional drone film crew to pilot the vehicle and control the camera too.
The finished footage will be more stable, framed correctly with a horizontal horizon, and generally make the most of the capabilities of the technology in terms of manoeuvrability, agility and accessibility.
Remember too that a professional drone film crew will be much more capable in maintaining the safety of everyone on the ground, with a better awareness of how high the drone is flying, and whether it is close to any residential areas, trees, pylons or flight paths.