We Love Camera Drones!
It’s not the kind of love where we want to put a nighty on the skyjib, lock the door and spend the evening indulging in mechanical bliss. If you’re stirred by a series of ascending beeps coming from what could be a flying lawnmower in the wrong hands, this probably isn’t the blog post for you. The love we hold for these funny little flyers comes from the enormous savings we pass on to our clients and their wonderful versatility. If handled by a professional, camera drones bring the cost of aerial cinematography down to a level most clients can afford.
The team at New Sky have been flying a variety of camera drones for the past few years. We started by crashing small, $20 quads in our living rooms and have worked our way up to owning and successfully operating a platform capable of lifting cinema cameras. There is no question in our mind that these tools will be a critical arrow (ha) in the successful production companies quiver (ha). They are exciting, reasonably priced and produce footage no other aerial platform can touch. We would also prefer that other aerial camera platforms not touch our drones. It’s inappropriate…
All joking aside, drones are just another piece of gear when used safely. There is so much variety in camera drones these days that you have to approach each one as purpose built tool. As filmmakers, we use two main qualifiers to decide which system we will need to successfully capture the shot: what camera it can fly and whether or not the shot requires a dedicated camera operator. Some of the shots we are asked to do can easily be handled by a single operator, an action camera and an hours time. Others shots require days of careful planning, extra safety briefings and a crew of at least 3 people. Having different classes of camera drones allows us to better fill the needs of our clients.
Speaking of safety, we are certainly concerned about the concern over drones. It’s concerning. Safety is the number one priority when we fly. I’m just going to come out and say this: The safety of our crew, the people around us and their property is vastly more important than the shot. The shot is a sexy little shell we collect on the shores of safeties ocean. (sounds like someone want’s to go to the beach) If at any time we feel the conditions are even marginally unsafe, we’ll reschedule or pull the plug entirely. This applies to all production at New Sky as it is a core company belief.
Now onto the fun:
The Newest Addition to Our Fleet: DJI’s Inspire 1 Quadcopter
Throwing around terms like, the coolest, revolutionary, disruptive or any other grandiose exaggeration seems like perfectly qualified descriptions of DJI’s Inspire 1 aerial camera platform. Those are great for keyword generators (cough) but don’t effectively summarize the value and rough edges of our little buddy. Having an inspire 1 is kind of like owning a much less annoying version of Jinx from Space Camp. Instead of incessantly bleeping “Jiinx put Max in space” the Inspire 1 (now named Jinx) tells you all about it’s current condition with a sort of sexy, hot for teacher voice. She’s welcome to tell me when my landing gear is raised anytime…
The Inspire 1 looks like the drunken result of our buddy Jinx having his way with the gun from Portal. It’s a white shelled contraption with two solid carbon fiber booms supporting the motor arms. The build quality is surprisingly good. Anywhere you pick the inspire up feels rock solid. It make me think that this guy can take a beating.
4K Camera and Gimbal
We fly these systems to record media for New Sky so hammering down the importance of the camera seems a bit pointless. The inspire’s camera is build into a wonderful 3 axis gimbal that has yet to give us any trouble. You could pick up the inspire 1, scream “I just drank the world’s coffee!” and resulting footage would be buttery smooth. We don’t have to balance the camera, program the PIDs or wrestle with some arcane gimbal tech. If you have worked with brushless gimbals in the past you know how amazing it is to say…it just $%&ing works.
The camera itself is great considering its size. It records video in 24p at 4096×2160 and 30p at 3840×2160 with a 20mm equivalent rectilinear lens. It can also capture images at 12.4 megapixels. It’s build with Sony’s CMOS EXMOR 1/2.3in sensor and it records at 65mb/s in h.264. The claimed dynamic range when using DJI’s s-log profile is 12 stops. The footage looks great so far and we are excited to see how far it can be pushed. It’s a camera we would be happy to use in a variety of productions. Best of all, there are manual camera functions that can be controlled in flight!
Vision Positioning System
The frame has a built-in sensor package dubbed the “Vision Positioning System.” It consists of an optical flow sensor, sonar emitter and sonar receiver that measures the inspires distance from the ground. The sonar is useful for some of the systems automation (auto takeoff and landing, auto landing gear, auto something else..) but I found it very useful for low level altitude hold. It seemed to hold altitude far better than other DJI systems and gave me the ability to consistently repeat shots.
The optical flow component is a ground facing camera that continuously analyzes ground patterns and feeds the data into the flight controller. DJI claims that this aids in position hold when your GPS signal is weak. It seems to work well as long as the contrast of ground patterning is high. We have been in many situations where the vision system locked the inspire above a point without any movement.
One of my favorite aspects of the inspire 1 is that it has a high definition video link built in to the system. This make an enormous difference and allows us to actually see what the hell we’re filming. Gone are the days where a snowy line on the cam-ops monitor could be our subject or one of the dragons from Game of Thrones. There is also little to no latency in the signal when matched with an iPad Air 2 or newer iPhone. The remotes have an HDMI out so you can hook up a tv of any size to impress clients with the crystal clear video signal.
As the flight input data is transmitted over the lightbridge signal as well, you can easily fly the inspire over a mile away. We fly line of sight at New Sky but the more daring (or foolish) could have fun (or do something boneheaded) with this. There seems to be a software altitude limitation built in that will max the inspire out at 1500m. That’s still pretty freakin’ high.
The motors on this bad boy seem to be great. They are the DJI 3510’s and have a Kv of 350. At 6s they have a max thrust of 1600g. That’s about 14 lbs of max thrust. Impressive for an off the shelf quad. Matched with DJI’s 1345 z blade props, the inspire can blow toupees off old white men at just under 50 mph! Time to break out the double strength tape boys.
Like other off the shelf DJI systems, the Inspire 1 is GPS integrated allowing for a host of great safety features. We geek out on safety so we love having the ability to know where the drone is at all times. Once the GPS signal is locked, the home point, distance, horizontal speed, vertical speed altitude and direction are sent through the remote controller and displayed on your connected phone or tablet.
The landing mechanism is a bit of a mixed bag. The inspire will raise and lower the motor arms so that the gear is out of the shot. It does this using a worm gear built into the central body. Raising and lowering the arms is fun but brings on some odd inclinations… Every damn time I raise the gear it appears as if it’s raising its dumb little arms. I get the odd notion that our little buddy is saying, “Get over here and give me a big ‘ole hug.” As a hugger I do all I can to resist the temptation.
This transformation has a serious downside. It makes unpacking and packing away the drone a pain in the ass. It’s a “WTF” kind of pain in the ass. Let me explain: It’s more the fault of the case design but when you unpack the inspire you have to take it out, set it on a flat surface, insert the battery, power it on, grab the controller and flick the landing switch 4 times so that the body of the craft raises further off the ground. You then have enough ground clearance to attach the gimbal. The whole procedure is reversed when you want to pack it away as it only fits in the case in a flat conformation. The time this takes compared to setting up a skyjib is next to nothing. I don’t have a problem with how long this takes. I do have a problem with needing to constantly find a smooth, flat patch of ground to do this on. The feet slide along the ground when transforming. Finding this magical spot of ground in the production world isn’t always possible. Even some forms of asphalt or concrete are too rough. All of this usually results in us leaving the gimbal on and transporting it out of the case. Investing in a 3rd party “Landing Mode” case is really the only workaround to this.
Remote / Pilot App
Our system came with 2 remotes that allow for a dedicated camera operator and pilot. More on that below. The Inspire remotes are extremely well built and have a solid heft. What I find interesting about the remotes other than their Lightbridge HD downlink is that each has a built in GPS antenna. This allows us to attach the aircraft’s come home point to the location of the controller, opposed to the location where it initially took off. This is great for shots where the pilot is operating from a moving vehicle as it gives us an added safety feature. If something goes wrong the inspire will seek out the controllers location and land near by.
You attach a mobile device to the inspire 1’s controller via usb. The phone/tablet becomes you monitor and displays a host of flight details. You are also able to change the inspire 1’s flight settings and camera functions using the app. There is so much going on in the app that I’ll have to save that for another post. Know that It works very well, allows you to track the inspire 1 via a mapping function, includes a flight simulator and gives you a large amount of flight data.
One of the selling points of the Inspire 1 is that it allows users to fly a two man system. One person pilots the drone and the other operates the camera gimbal. There are shots that you just can’t do unless you are flying a dual operator setup. Can the inspire really do this? Sort of…
Fully professional dual operator systems require two cameras to function properly. One camera is operated by the filmmaker and the other is used by the pilot for reference. The pilot camera is fixed to the frame of the drone so that it moves with the craft. It also displays a host of telemetry that the pilot uses for reference. The Inspire 1 does not have this camera.
A work around for the lack of a pilot cam on the inspire is for the pilot to fly line of sight while the cam-op uses the monitor. This can work reasonably well when the pilot is close to the drone but falls apart at a modest distance. DJI envisioned the pilot would have a map overview on his/her monitor while the cam-op used the video feed. I can tell you that this is not very useful as a pilot. I consider the inspire 1 a single operator plus system.
This is not going to be a long section even though it’s one of the most important. The Inspire 1 is the best flying drone I’ve gotten my hands on. It’s absolute perfection in it’s control. With a little expo on the control surfaces, flying it is like watching a 3 year old playing with an iPad. You just instinctively know how to use it. You know what it’s supposed to feel like and where it’s going. I wish our Skyjib felt like this.
The only thing you need to watch out for is it’s speed. When the GPS isn’t being used to control the flight characteristics this baby can get close to 50 mph. It would be wise of you not to open her up around objects with a higher density like bridges, buildings, windmills… Let’s not do that around fleshy lower density objects as well.
Overall the Inspire 1 is a great multirotor. It can pull off some pretty neat/keen/rad/super-duper tricks allowing you to make fantastic media. The camera can record professional quality footage, it flys like a dream, it can be deployed in under 5 minutes and is portable.
- A dream to fly.
- Good battery life.
- Quality photo and video recording.
- Manual camera control.
- Excellent remote with GPS integration.
- The iOS pilot app give you a huge amount of information.
- Lightbridge HD video link.
- Lot’s of safety features.
- Dual operator function is limited by having one camera.
- Packing and unpacking is a pain in the ass.
- The case is garbage.