Over the last 3 years aerial photography and video has really ‘taken off’! Pardon the pun… and last week I decided to join the band wagon!
Now, I haven’t really done any aerial filming before, although have worked on a few projects and programmes that have made use of ‘drones’ to capture some wonderful footage, so I decided it was time to ‘have a go’! So with much debate I decided to join the club and purchase a small drone, namely the DJI Phantom 3 Professional from Heliguy.
In this blog I am going to take you through everything I found from my own online research, along with my first impressions of flight and the Phantom 3 Professional!
So what is a drone?
A drone is an unmanned arial vehicle (UAV) or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) which can take the form of a quadcopter, hexacopter or octocotper depending on the number of propellers it has. The most common small drones on the market are DJI’s Phantom range, which are quadcopter (as they have 4 propellers) followed by DJI’s Inspire and Mavic drones, which are also quadcopters. The larger the drone the heavier the payload it can take and therefore the bigger the camera, with some of the largest drones being able to carry cameras such as the Arri Alexa Mini and Red Weapon, ideal for drama productions!
Who can fly a drone?
Now, to fly a drone commercially you need a permission for the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) namely a PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operation). To obtain this you need to complete a course at one of the CAAs NEQs (National Qualified Entity) and then produce an Operations Manual, obtain relevant insurance, and submit it to the CAA for approval. It’s a rather long process but one which many colleagues and friends have completed. I am looking at obtaining my PfCO in the coming months so I can provide both a ‘land’ and ‘air’ based shooting package!
If you would like to just fly your drone for fun then you don’t need a PfCO but do need to follow a few rules to do it legally. The CAA (in conjunction with NATS) have recently published a document called the ‘Drone Code’ which can be found on the drone safe website along with some information about their App ‘Drone Assist‘. I have found the code and the App both invaluable when flying my drone. The code offers a quick reference guide to where you are allowed to fly your drone in reference to people, buildings and built up areas. And the App allows you to look at the airspace and make a decision on whether it is safe to fly or not.
So, before my drone arrived in the post I searched high and low to find out how to use my new piece of equipment! Looking at information about how to setup the drone and how to fly it! I referenced the user manual, online forums and not forgetting YouTube – which contained an invaluable amount of information, with many tutorials specific to the Phantom 3 Professional!
When the drone arrived I thought great, I’m ready to go! How wrong I was, it’s a nerve wracking experience trying to remember all the checks and balances I needed to do before take-off!
To help, I produced a small fact sheet made up of the information I found online and in the user manual. So here was my check list, it’s not exhaustive but I found it a good starting point before taking off.
Visual Inspection *Both in a controlled environment and on site*
- Check the UAV is in good physical condition for flight (in particular the propellers and landing gear)
DJI Go App Settings and Configurations
P-GPRS – *To be carried out in a controlled environment*
- Advanced Setting
- Sensors — IMU Calibration
GPS – *On site*
- Compass Calibration
- Rotate 360 Degrees Horizontally
- Rotate 360 Degrees Vertically
- *Lights Go Green When Calibrated*
Camera – *On site*
- Gimbal Calibration
- Format SD Card
- Confirm Video Format and Settings
Home Point – *On site*
- Before take off ensure there is a Green H in the map view and that is in the correct place.
The batteries in the Phantom 3 Professional last around 20-25 minutes. You may think this isn’t a very long flight time but boy, when your control the drone in the air, it is pure concentration and it feels like hours. I am sure with time, like driving a car, it becomes a little more natural and subconscious, allowing you to really focus on getting the shots, not controlling the aircraft.
Now I have flown a Phantom 2 before (with zen-muse gimbal and GoPro camera) with relative success, but the Phantom 3 is in a different league. Much quicker and more responsive. A known issue with the Phantom 2 at the time was if your vertical decent was too quick the aircraft got caught in various air currents and came crashing to the ground! They seem to have fixed this in the Phantom 3 Pro which is great and allows me to fly with a little more confidence!
The DJI Go App for the Phantom 3 range of quadcopters is very good. I’m running it from my iPhone 5c. From your phone you can control pretty much everything to do with the aircraft. From setting safely parameters to camera settings, along with the automated take off and landing functions too! It was the fact you could control the aircraft from a mobile phone or tablet that really sold the idea to me, no longer did you need extra wireless links and monitors as per the Phantom 2 days! That said, the screen on the iPhone 5c is a little small for viewing all the onscreen data and video link so a larger iPhone or even better still an iPad would be a valuable upgrade.
Onboard the Phantom 3 Professional is a 4K camera with 94 Degree field of view at f2.8. The camera can shoot 4K, UHD, 2.7K and HD in the H.264 codec at various frame rates, from 24p to 50p. It has a DLog mode, allowing you to get the most dynamic range as possible out of the camera. The footage is recorded to a Micro SD card mounted on the drone.
The fact the camera is integrated into the aircraft and controllable from the DJI GO App is amazing, allowing you to adjust settings while the aircraft is flying! Equally, with the Phantom 3 Professional remote controller there are physical buttons and switches for REC Stop/Start and ISO/Shutter Speed.
The footage so far seems very good – as the camera is a fixed aperture of f2.8 you either need some ND (Neutral Density) filters or to crank up the shutter speed to compensative for the bright sunshine! Increasing the shutter up past 1/100 or so can result in the footage looking stuttery so I’ve opted for some ND filters to help compensate.
I am finding after every flight I am at least having to clean off dead bugs from the aircraft/proppelers with a wet wipe! It might be a small thing but keeping your drone in good condition not only looks good but also gives you a good chance to see if there is any damage to the aircraft after flight. So far I have gone through a couple of propellers due to ‘landing malfunctions’ of which the damage was spotted while cleaning the aircraft.
Why not the Mavic?
There are two reasons I went with the older Phantom 3 Professional over the newer DJI Mavic quadcopter. Firstly, I wanted a drone which was a little larger as ultimately I’d like to be flying an DJI Inspire 1/2 or larger drone once I’ve got my permissions. Because of this I thought it was a good idea to get practicing on a ‘larger’ drone to start with without the financial outlay of the more advanced drone. Secondly, and also talking financially, as the Phantom 3 Professional is one of DJIs older drones I managed to get a great deal on an ‘Approved Used’ model. Despite being an older model it still offers great 4K recording, both GPS and Vision Positioning Systems for flight and all operational through the DJI Go App!
Being able to capture footage from even 3 meters higher than usual gives you an amazingly new viewpoint, not to mention going 30-50 meters high! The added movement too adds another layer to the footage and really could add some production value to your next film.
That said, a lot of the skill comes down to the pilot being able to get the aircraft in the right spot at the right time. Equally, planning your shots in advance of flight is a must as once the aircraft is up you can’t be dithering!
I am looking at getting plenty of practice in before getting my PfCO from the CAA and becoming a commercial drone operator. Sadly, until then, you can’t book me for your next drone shoot as you can’t operate commercially without it! That said I am keen to hear from you if this is something you would love to have in addition to the usual ‘land’ based shooting package.
Here is a little taste of what I have managed so far on my practice shoots! Shot at 2.7K in Dlog mode and graded with Impulz LUTs