Drones 101: The Lowdown on Aerial Photography

Slum aerial shots taken via drone, courtesy of RSVP Film Studios

What is a drone?

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). They’re relatively small aircrafts that are autonomously piloted or controlled by computers onboard or on the ground. Their use in military and special operations has been widely reported on, but there is also a commercial market for drones for consumer use, especially in aerial photography.

Also known as multirotors, quadcopters, or octocopters (depending on the number of propellers it has), drones are available along a wide spectrum of types, from those used for amateur hobby to professional Hollywood film crews.  Either way, they are able to create images and videos of places that were once impossible for humans to see from–from the site of an Icelandic volcano eruption to hundreds of meters above your backyard family reunion.

Taal Lake aerial shots taken via drone, courtesy of RSVP Film Studios


What can drones do?

Beginners usually use their drones for various types of aerial exhibitions or performing tricks to showing off their skills in maneuvering their drones.  Hobbyists have the drones go through different kinds of obstacles like going under tables, chairs or over beams and rafters indoors simply for fun. Those who have built up enough skill and have become enthusiasts with their acquired hobby would surely go for trying their capabilities in video and/or photography.

High-end drones are now being used in a number of professional sectors.  Real estate companies use drones for aerial photos of properties, giving potential home-buyers a bird’s-eye view of property currently on the market.  The police, military, and border control agencies use drones as tools for law enforcement to improve situational awareness and public safety. For businesses that cater to customers who order online, they utilize drones to deliver orders to their clients, a major convenience for business owners as well as customers. Both can monitor items in transit.

Sports photography has taken advantage of the perspective drones can provide – for example, a “follow me” feature that allows a skier or mountain biker to be their own film crew. In live sports broadcasting, a drone can send previously impossible dynamic views to the stadium JumboTron and the TV audience around the world.

Certain uses of drones in the production of major motion pictures have recently been approved in the United States.  Capturing images previously unattainable, or attainable only by spending thousands of dollars as well as high safety risk, is just the start of what drones can do for the film industry.  A number of films, including Sam Mendes’ James Bond Flick Skyfall, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets took advantage of drones’ capabilities to shoot aerial and action scenes that would have been previously impossible or extremely expensive to achieve.

What are the different kinds of drones?

Some drones can carry compact cameras to high-end DSLRs, and are usually rechargeable with built-in batteries which provide various flight times per charge, depending on the model and payload. Commercially available drones are ready to fly out of the box, like Trick Drones, while others require more at-home engineering, such as Prosumers and Heavy Payload Drones.

Trick Drones are ideal for kids or those who are starting with their drone interest. They provide around eight to ten minutes of flight time, are relatively safe with their small size, and are not too costly. The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 is controlled by iOS apps on iPhones and iPads.

Prosumer Drones, on the other hand, are for enthusiasts situated between consumer to professional levels. Prosumers can operate for a good 25 minutes and are capable of carrying payload like cameras, which most people tend to do. Prices may be high but can still be considered affordable.

Lastly, we have Heavy Payload Drones. As the name implies, they are capable in carrying heavy payloads from cakes or pizzas getting delivered, to heavy cameras for shooting cinema quality videos. These drones are much pricier.

Most airborne multi-rotors “know” their location by communicating with six or more GPS satellites. They have propellers and motors which produce minimal vibration for steady video capture. Other drone types are operated by sophisticated radio-control (RC) consoles that control altitude, direction, and speed.

What are some tips on using drones responsibly?

Make sure you know the laws of your country’s national aviation authority (NAA) before you start using your drone.  Drones are a classed as a type of aircraft, not a toy.  Drones weighing less than 20kg have few restrictions, but flying for commercial use requires the permission of the NAA.  For the most part, anyone filming with a drone has restrictions on the distance it can fly within congested areas; people, vessels, vehicles, or structures not controlled by the pilot; and the drones must typically be flown within sight of the pilot.  The specifics of such restrictions vary from country to country.

Always consider your surroundings and be considerate to others.  Maintain distance as to keep people’s privacy, and if you will be using your drone in a crowded area full of strangers, let them know before you start recording.  Keep yourself and your drone in view so that others know that you are the person controlling the machine.

Be sure that you know your drone thoroughly before you start flying.  Understand its capabilities, quality of images, and controls.  Make sure you know its battery life and plan out your flight before your drone goes in the air.

Always consider who will be viewing your images, and be careful if posting to social media.  Avoid sharing images that could potentially have unfair or harmful consequences, and ultimately, just use common sense.  It’s no different than having tact when you are uploading to the internet images or video recorded from your digital camera or smartphone.

Fly safe, ya’ll.

Bernadette Patino

Bernadette Patino is a Manila-based writer. She is fascinated by and critical of the technologies and politics of visual cultures. Her photographic ruminations on the Philippines can be found here and here.

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