Piloting and camera operating a radio controlled helicopter video/photo platform are new, lucrative niche jobs in an expanding market. With many types of imaging services experiencing lower profits, here’s one that is gaining serious momentum. Aerial filming. Sure, traditional film and even stills from the air was a really cushy job, hard to break into. Real helicopters, real small planes and old school film cameras at insane hourly rates to rent, with serious technical requirements.
Enter the robo, radio remote controlled helicopter mounted with one of the new small video cameras or a Canon hybrid still/video. A fully controllable, low-flying image-gathering platform that will do about 85% of all aerial photographic needs. Short of a NASA satellite.
Suddenly doing aerial work for commercial or editorial applications in both video and photo media has become very affordable to the client and a very real business model for an independent photographer. And very much in demand.
Radio controlled model aircraft is a hobby thing, potentially turned job security. Most kids have tried out flying model helicopters that cost less than $100. Recently on the Amazing Race TV show, contestants were required to fly and land one of these. Now sophisticated rigs are called UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system).
Like every tech product, robo helicopters for photography come in various sizes, complexities and cost. $1,000 super cheap investment up to $30,000. Depending on your job requirements for high bit rate cameras or high rez stills and available control channels. New Sony video models are helping bring down costs and weight considerations, but more powerful, hand built platforms are the name of the game. Beware that crashes are probably going to be costly – though generally not life threatening! Just keep pets and small children out of the way!
OK so what qualifications are there for being a pilot? Good eye-hand coordination, good depth perception, maybe even video gaming skill. Practice by joining a local RC flying club. Do your crashing at this stage, before you add the camera, and then practice some more with the full rig. Wind, obstacles and direction take some getting used to. Lots of getting used to! Your eventual photo/video helicopter may not look like a real helicopter in miniature. Read on about units I’ve seen that are manufactured to suit out of parts. Which is hard, but not that hard… Experience, field trials, tinkering and inventive entrepreneurship.
What’s a RC robo photo helicopter good for?
Not just typical landscape aerials. This is the next step between jibs and cranes and full size aircraft at much higher altitudes.
- Sweeping outdoor shots of nature, ranch or town sites are what we think of first
- Amusement parks, industrial installations, big equipment at work, traffic and interchanges, car dealers, refineries, docks, events and races etc. etc. etc.
- Interior atriums, shopping malls, stadiums
- Disaster site forensics
- Limited access areas, and low flying where a full size aircraft (and the noise and disturbance) would be dangerous or prohibited
- Wow shots at very low cost for almost any kind of production, making this feature available for almost any commercial application
Hints for getting into and controlling RC photo helicopters
- Many pilots preset video camera adjustments, and then press record right before takeoff
- A custom servo trigger snap shots at will or an intervalometer or interval timer can be used for stills in series, second by second.
- How high? Typically near ground level or about 150-200′ high. Less for interiors or along a stream bed for instance. Higher possible.
- Electric motors with batteries that last 15-30 minutes have the advantages of low noise, no emissions and low vibrations
- Generally no flying in rain or wind over 20 knots (similar to small planes)
- Balance with specific camera and lens an obvious must; rebalance when lens is changed.
- Camera weight is always a factor; the heavier the camera, the bigger, more powerful the helicopter needed
- What lenses to use? Canon’s 10-22mm, 16-35mm, fixed focal length 24mm- 28mm -35mm or even 50mm (Hint: there are 24 and 28mm stabilized lenses coming soon) Generally moderately wide angle works best for a variety of situations; some people swear by fisheye.
- GPS packages can aid in pinpointing location and holding location
- Big CF or SxS card capacity
- Remote feed can solve capture card capacity problems
- Video feed to a monitor on the ground makes sure you’re getting exactly what you need, but you won’t both fly and watch the monitor at the same time; you’ll need a DP
- Control of tilt angle and panning goes to the next level and may require an additional person to control
People need to do their research as to what the FAA regulations are AND what your insurance carrier will underwrite. It’s a bit of a grey area and rules and regs have a way of changing. An unknowledgeable amateur can cause serious damage that may have legal ramifications, cause financial, property/physical harm as well as affect business credibility.
What are people charging?
My survey says aerial video with RC robo helicopters starts at $250-$500 per hour. 1/2 day can be as little as $1,500 or full day $2,500. Lots of factors go in here, such as risk, accessibility, travel to location, multiple angle requirements, control sophistication, crew size etc. etc. Stills only, such as for a simple real estate overview can be under $200 for the 6-10 images typically required for a brochure. AIP’s newest rig will lift a Red Epic, which service goes for $4,000 a day.
One business’ story:
Co-owners Jeff Buerger and Matthew Dunn of Aerial Imaging Productions have developed a very unusual flying camera platform with lots of controls. They custom build most of their equipment to produce the exact results they need.
Their 4 year old business model was based on photographing mountain real estate for sale in Colorado’s exquisite natural settings. Buerger had an in as partner at Hall and Hall, a ranch brokerage firm. There simply isn’t a better way to present a ranch property than from the air. Clients say that the “…unique approach helps a prospective buyer understand more about any ranch property.”
AIP video portfolio to see some of AIP’s video work.
Production companies subcontract to AIP, because the cost and technical expertise is far greater than the potential expenditure to bring the service in house. AIP can give each project that seemingly unobtainable and stunning perspective, unique each time out.
AIP’s RC helicopters are not just the usual model you’d expect. They use multi rotor flying platforms that are small (about 3 feet in diameter), quiet and run on battery power. This allows for less complex and obtrusive type of aerial filming. Flying virtually is the unique twist that is even more unique, inside of this already rare business. What does that mean? The pilot, Bill Clary, is the secret weapon, read that tech brain, behind the custom gear. He is not looking at the helicopter when it’s in the air. He’s looking at a wireless video signal, through video goggles, from the onboard camera. POV or cock pit view is a term they like to use. This allows a more accurate and true bird’s eye perspective and longer range than the more traditional “line of sight” type of flying.
Dunn, who is the camera operator and the editor, describes a shoot for the History channel: “…filming combines that are harvesting wheat fields where the workers were about 300-400 yards away from us. That shoot would’ve been a lot more complicated had we been flying by sight.” He operates a video feed from a second camera that is the filming camera. This feed can also be seen by the client on a monitor to ensure that they are getting what they want and can provide instant feedback during the flight. With AIP I’ve really found a niche. We love what we do and are very excited to give that special lift to Colorado productions.”